Deb Carstensen has been teaching around the Denver area since 2000 and has taught privately and at Swallow Hill Music school.
Deb began taking violin lessons in fifth grade and continued through high school. “I had a great teacher, Buddy Huthmaker. He was a tremendous conductor as well and took our orchestra to different places in Georgia and Alabama. I really appreciated him.” But when she couldn’t find anyone to play classical music with during college, she put the violin away for about 15 years without touching it.
Then one day, while living in Denver, she decided to learn to play by ear and improvise. “My goal was to be able to sit in my living room and play. I tried to find a teacher who taught by ear, but it was hard to find in the Yellow Pages. Then I found Ron Jones at Swallow Hill. He said he could help me learn and he taught classical students who wanted to learn how to play in fiddle styles.” Like any good music teacher, Jones gently nudged her forward musically. “He would say ‘Okay, now you want to learn how to do blah blah blah, because when you play with other people and perform…’ and I thought, I never play with other people and I’m not going to perform. But he kept pushing me along.”
Cut to eight years later and he and Deb were in a band together with other musicians. “He’s a great fiddler and he knows so many different styles. I owe him a lot and I try to make sure he understands that.”
Eventually Swallow Hill came calling and asked Deb to teach with them “so I started teaching there for several years. Then Harry Tuft asked me to teach at the Folklore Center. Since I was a full-time nurse as well, I could only do one, so I went with the Folklore Center.”
Celtic music has been Deb’s go-to for some years. “I got in with a group called the Scottish Fiddlers of Colorado and the woman, Loretta Thompson, who ran that group encouraged us if we wanted to go to Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle Camp in California. So, I went there for five years. I had already been studying Irish music, so I studied Scottish music and both are favorites. I tend to play and teach those, as well as New England and some old-timey style, but they’re not my expertise.”
Deb enjoys listening to musicians that blend styles, like swing and Celtic or rock and Celtic. And she favors musicians like Tony DeMarco – “Ron started me off with a Tony DeMarco cassette” - and Alasdair Fraser, along with other Scottish and Irish musicians like Martin Hayes and Kevin Burke.
Teaching the basics is important to Deb. “It was ingrained in me early on from Alasdair Fraser that you can play any style you want, but make sure you understand your idiom - what the style is supposed to sound like to be authentic. I like to teach what the different styles bring to music.
She teaches by both music and ear, because “both are super helpful for anyone who wants to play and even jam. I do some work with scales but then I tend to teach from tunes (music without words), because I feel everyone can learn what they need to by playing those. If they’re playing music they love they are much more likely to stay with it.”
Deb teaches fiddle to almost all ages (seven and up) and mostly in person one-on-one. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, helping people find the joy in the music. And I’ll occasionally have a student jam so they learn how to play with other musicians. People get inspired.”
She believes it’s a good idea for folks to take lessons “because when you get started off with a good technique you can go anywhere. When people start on their own, they get habits ingrained so deeply that it’s hard for them to break. It’s difficult to move on to what you want to do using bad habits.”
Learning fiddle from Deb sounds like a lot of fun! “I’m not a hard-ass teacher, I don’t demand a practice schedule. I find most people get into music to do something they love, something artistic, something they always wanted to do.”
Her teaching style is classic technique mixed with a sense of humor. “When you start making learning hard, something they have to do, then students lose sight of their goal, of what they wanted to do. So, I’m strong on technique, because if they learn that they can go anywhere they want to, they can play all the different styles.”
Deb believes you’re never too old to start playing music. “It’s not a problem. I’ll take them through it. It can be intimidating for adults because they’re learning from a peer. And adults automatically want to know how to do A B and C, but it takes time. They have to learn more patience. When you’re a kid you’re all about the same level in a class so it’s easier.”
Here’s an idea of what you can expect if you take lessons with Deb. “Once I get people started playing, I like to teach them tunes. I often start teaching by ear with “Amazing Grace” and then “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” so they can find the basics and not have to look at notes. Then I’ll go up to some old-timey basic tunes, then to Irish “Kesh Jig” or “Swallowtail Jig” and some simple polkas. Then I often to go “Timour the Tartar” which is a fun tune because it covers so many different techniques that they need, and it sounds impossibly hard, but it’s not - it’s fun to play. And then I tell them to explore basic learning books and find tunes they like.”
You can see Deb play live at contra dances (a folk dance made up of long lines of couples) - “they use pretty much the same calls as square dancing but it’s a lot wilder and fun and you dance with a lot more people”. See her on November 5th in Boulder at the Colorado Friends of Old Time Music and Dance. They currently have dances every other Friday night and if you don’t know how to dance they offer lessons to teach you. Deb is also available for gigs – “I play for different people – if they want bagpipes or piano or hammered dulcimer, I put the musicians and gigs together for whatever people want to hear.”
Are you ready to learn fiddle with Deb? You can text or call 303.408.3010 and check her out on Facebook HERE.