Hillary’s YouTube videos are inspiring to kids learning the violin, showing an interesting approach that is often very different from the playing learned in their lessons. We find that can be an inspirational alternative which can be motivating, keeping the violin real and down to earth.
Hillary also expands the possibilities of the violin with a variety of alternative tunings which she showcases on her self-titled album, bringing a distinct sound over the traditional pieces students typically play when learning the violin.
Matt Denman How old were you when you started playing violin?
Hillary Klug I started late at 13. It was kind of an accident. I didn’t grow up wanting to play violin and it wasn’t a dream of mine. It just kind of happened when my best friend started taking a violin group class and she asked me to take it with her. I didn’t think it was possible because my family didn’t have a lot of money for a violin and classes. I mentioned it to my parents and my mom thought it was a good idea so she helped me buy a violin. The deal was that I had to pay for half of it, and she paid the other half. If I ever quit lessons, I’d have to pay her back so I never quit.
The group lesson didn’t really work well for me. It used the Suzuki method. I was a really proactive child and went ahead in the book, quickly learning the first 3 songs and started reading music. The rest of the class wasn’t really trying very hard and just kind of played along with twinkle-twinkle little star with the different rhythms. I was on the side saying “hey look, I figured out these three songs reading music with the tape and listening to it on my own”. The teacher sort of got upset and said you shouldn’t be playing those songs yet. It just wasn’t the right fit for me.
I have an older sister with a few hippy friends and they liked to go square dancing. I was the little sister that got dragged along with them where I met some fiddle players. Well, it’s the same instrument and they just happened to teach too. We hit it off and I started taking lessons from them where I learned to play fiddle.
MD That’s an interesting story. How old were you when you started dancing like you do?
HK Well, I’ve been dancing my whole life. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t dance and when I was a little kid I did a few dance classes. One of my hobbies was to do this silly thing of taking my cd player into my parent’s bedroom where they had two huge mirrors and practice dancing. I would choreograph dances in their room, hit play on the cd player, do a little bit of the dance, back and forth all day long. I wasn’t planning to dance on stage, but I was just making up dances and dancing.
When I was about 9 years old a friend did a clogging routine at the school talent show. I thought it was so cool and started to learn clogging with her. I did clogging for about 5 years, but when I started learning the fiddle I stopped. Later as I started going to fiddle competitions, I noticed they also had a clogging category and eventually started competing with both fiddle and clogging separately.
When I was hanging out with the old-time fiddle players, they would sometimes do buck dancing with the old-time songs. Buck dancing isn’t choreographed; it’s more like being another musician with the dance. You’re the percussion section, so you’re going to play the tune with your feet. One of my mentors encouraged me to develop my buck dancing and I eventually won the national buck dancing championship in 2013.
MD So when did you start combining your fiddle playing with the buck dancing?
HK There’s two parts to that story. I first started combining fiddle and dance while teaching dance class in college. I was teaching a group class and needed the music to play slower but didn’t have a way to do that. So I brought my fiddle and just played the songs slowly myself. I wound up needing to demonstrate the dance while playing at the same time. As the class got better, I’d play the songs faster and wound up improving my skills along the way.
I never really started to perform fiddling and dancing seriously until a few years later when I was in Nashville to compete in the grand master’s fiddle contest. I had parked in a parking garage and after getting the ticket I realized it was going to cost me 20 dollars to get out. I was a poor starving college kid and didn’t have that kind of money with me. After getting 4th place in the competition, I thought about the street performers and decided to give that a try to help get the money for my car.
I went over to the famous Broadway street with all the honky-tonks. I had my fiddle and was wearing my cowboy boots and started playing the fiddle on the street. At first it was embarrassing and I was getting frustrated because I was playing songs people knew but they just walked by. After a while I started tapping my feet and moving my cowboy boots the way I learned to buck dance. People started to stop and watch me do my little dance while playing the fiddle. I got more encouraged to keep going and people were taking pictures and videos and dropping money for me. Someone gave me a $20 tip so I had more than enough to get my car out of the parking garage.
I went back out, bringing a dance board and amplifier for the fiddle and so that’s how it all started. I think I’ve developed my dance and fiddle style based on street performing. My fiddle style has gotten really shuffly and I play a lot of double stops because I have to try to be loud, full and as impactful for people as they walked by. I’ve only got a few seconds to make that impression and I have to be as impressive as possible at all times. As a result, I have a big dynamic to my show.
My dance style has developed based on the foot wear I’m using. Normal dancers wear tap shoes or loafers, but I wear cowboy boots because that’s the look people expect for a country-ish cowgirl look in Nashville. I wear the cowboy boots for the look, but dancing in them has definitely altered my dance style as they force me to dance more on my heels.
MD Is music a family affair?
HK Nobody in my family is a musician or dances like I do. However, I still feel like my family helped me get to where I am because they are so artistic. Both my parents are self-employed and I know how to deal with the ordeals that go along with that. My dad is a carpenter designing custom cabinets and does amazing tile work for people’s kitchens and bathrooms. It’s really neat and I think I get artistry from him. My mom loves to sew and does lots of intricate stuff with that as well as knitting, so I get the artistry from them even though it’s not musical in nature.
MD I saw on your website that you mention being home schooled. How do you think that helped shape your career?
HK I think it absolutely helped shape my career. I had more time to devote to music and lots of my friends were home schoolers and we had a huge home school community that played old-time music. There was a community involved with square dancing. So, having more time for music and dancing was a big factor in my development.
MD I also read about your plans to travel to Vienna this month to do some performances. What is your schedule looking like?
HK I don’t have a strong itinerary laid out. We’re going to be really busy with rehearsals and I also have a Thomastik endorsement so we’re going to their headquarters to get some strings. That will be fun.
I have some performances scheduled with Aleksey Igudesman and we’ll be performing in Winterthur Switzerland and some places close to Vienna. I’m also scheduled to perform with Die Wandervögel, a traditional Austrian music group made of guys about my age. I’m going to perform with them at a few of their gigs and maybe make a video.
MD My 10 year old son is learning to play violin and he really has enjoyed watching your YouTube videos. It seems like the way you combine dancing, singing and fiddle playing brings more liveliness and fun to the instrument and has increased his interest in playing more. When you taught violin lessons did you even teach your students that type of combination?
HK At the point when I was teaching, I wasn’t really playing and dancing at the same time yet. I was mostly teaching fiddle playing and that dovetailed into my dancing and playing as a street performer later. When I started doing the street performing, I wasn’t teaching students anymore.
I’d recommend to students that sometimes practice can be boring, mundane and repetitive making it easy to get discouraged and bored. Make it more fun by adding a little dance step and practice in front of a mirror. Try stepping in time with the music like a metronome. Whenever the metronome clicks, step on the beat with it. Walk around in a little circle and add another step or two as you improve. Creativity is the key to having fun with it. Be inventive and creative. Don’t play yourself into a box of always having to go by the rules. Break the rules and have some fun with the instrument.