As the spring 2021 semester begins to come to a close, Finn Woodruff ’21 is polishing and completing his senior music performance project—a collection of original fiddle songs influenced by his experience playing bluegrass, jazz and folk music.
While Woodruff has been studying music more formally at the College as a music performance and environmental studies coordinate major, he has considered himself a fiddler for well over a decade.
“I started playing the fiddle when I was seven,” Woodruff said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “My mom had just gotten a fiddle, and she was just learning how to play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ but I thought that was the coolest thing.”
Since then, Woodruff has attended fiddle camp, taken private lessons and acquainted himself with the music scene in Maine. During his time away from Bowdoin’s campus, he has had the opportunity to perform in and alongside local bluegrass bands.
“I guess I kind of act as a freelance fiddle player,” Woodruff said. “I have gone more down a jazz route at Bowdoin, just because that’s what’s been available on campus, but then off campus, I play a lot of bluegrass gigs.”
Woodruff also has experience playing the mandolin, guitar and bass, but he decided to focus his senior project on his oldest and most involved musical passion. He has spent the entire spring semester writing and recording tunes for the fiddle.
“I am really interested in instrumental stuff, so my project kind of started that way,” Woodruff said. “I’ve just looked at friends and composers I really admire and respect and tried to write songs in those veins and get outside of the sounds that I would normally hear.”
During a semester clouded by the COVID-19 pandemic, Woodruff believes that having a more regimented practicing schedule was more important than ever.
“I’ve been trying to really structure and write music consistently and see what I can put out,” Woodruff said. “It’s always tricky trying to find a good balance between when I’m feeling creative and when I need to put out work.”
While he knew that he would be practicing each day, Woodruff allowed himself freedom to explore a variety of songwriting techniques to broaden his own creative process as he began drafting his tunes.
“Early on, I set a goal for myself that was that I was going to write a tune once a week, and so I would sit down once a day while I was practicing and try to devote at least 30 to 45 minutes to just writing,” Woodruff said. “For me, writing usually starts as improvising—I’ll set parameters for myself if I’m feeling organized; if I’m not, I’ll just pull out my fiddle and start playing and see where my mood takes me.”
During the spring semester, Woodruff has been meeting frequently with his project advisor, Lecturer in Music Jeffrey Christmas. While Christmas met with Woodruff for traditional advisor meetings, he has also been enthusiastic to help Woodruff explore the potential of his songs’ chords.
“It’s a little harder to play out full chords on a fiddle,” Woodruff said. “Sometimes, when I’m trying to write harmony chords underneath the melody, I’ll send a written chord chart of what I think would sound good underneath to [Christmas], and then he can send me back guitar or piano and really spell out all the chords.”
“If he’s trying to have harmony underneath with fewer strings, it’s a lot harder to play all of them at once,” added Christmas in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I think that’s helped stretch him in all these excellent directions he’s going.”
Christmas says he has especially admired Woodruff’s ambition and independence throughout his senior project.
“[Woodruff] is motivated and he’s curious—my role is to be there, but also to sometimes get out of the way,” Christmas said. “Some students need a lot of hand-holding, but [Woodruff] is not one. He’s doing almost all of it himself.”
Woodruff has enjoyed the opportunity not only to write his own music, but also to explore and refine his own sound as a solo fiddle player.
“I love jazz, and I love folk and I love bluegrass, and I think I’m just trying to land somewhere in the middle,” Woodruff said. “I think I do fall into that trap of being some conglomerate of all the things that I play and listen to, and I just want to make sure that’s intentional, and that I can also go back and play a really true bluegrass sound or a really true jazz sound.”
“[Woodruff] is doing this really lovely job in between song and composition,” Christmas added. “[The songs] are really thoughtful, and they’re interesting. Harmonically, they are often pretty complicated and adventurous, while the melody and the tune are really elegant and clear.”
While Woodruff is considering recording and releasing his songs in the future, he is grateful for his current opportunity to solidify his long-existing passion for fiddle performance and create original work.
“Every day, I’m kind of a rainbow of emotions, and I have found a lot of joy [in] being able to put that emotion into something,” Woodruff said. “Before this, I hadn’t really written a lot of music, and it’s been really rewarding and exciting to create new music. To be able to enjoy listening to your own music, I think, is really hard, so that’s something I’ve been trying to figure out how to do.”