>> Alyssa Rodriguez is a multi-instrumentalist originally from Connecticut who has lived in Rochester since 2014. In her years here, she has shared her love of traditional folk music with the community by teaching fiddle lessons at the Kanack School, playing gigs around town, and exposing new audiences to the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle from Sweden.
Tell me about your musical background.
I started in school orchestra in fourth grade. The reason I chose the violin is because I thought it was the viola! I became a violinist for no other reason than an accident. I was not digging classical music, but I discovered film music, like Lord of the Rings, in sixth or seventh grade, which stopped me from quitting. In high school, I got really into writing and transcribing music. I did not do fiddle until I was 20, at Ithaca College, where I was a composition major. I wanted to be a film composer at the time.
How did you land in Rochester?
I did Americorps [in Rochester] because of a friend who told me they needed a music teacher at Nativity Prep. This was in 2014. I kept doing the fiddle thing, mostly self-taught, but taking some lessons and going to workshops, listening to a lot of recordings, jamming with people. Eventually, I got hired at Kanack [School of Musical Artistry] in 2016 because no one else knew Swedish fiddle music! I started with one student and one class, and now I have a lot more than that.
What musical projects are you involved in?
I’ve gone solo! Playing solo nyckelharpa has been nice because it’s kind of like an education session. People look at this instrument and go, “what is that?” It’s a keyed fiddle with 16 strings. I describe it as a small cello I strap to my chest and try not to stab myself with (laughs). It’s the range of a viola. It has a unique, echo-y, harp-y sound.
I’m part of the Gregory Street Vagabonds. They’re a swing dance band that takes repertoire from the big band era of the ’30s and ’40s. Alex Burr directs that band. We play for swing dances, and it’s very good dance music. I love all the tunes that we’re whipping out. I love the gang-style singing that we do, kind of speak-sing. They’re thinking of recording this year.
I play with the Sisters of Murphy around St. Patrick’s Day, which is a seasonal punk rock band. I jump up and down and play the electric fiddle.
I am creating a fiddle archive for the Kanack School for all the tunes that have been played at the school. I want [the students] to have those tunes passed down. I’ve been making recordings for an auditory library for their website.
Who or what are your major sources of inspiration right now?
I am experimenting with songwriting. That is inspiring. In school, I only wrote classical because that was what was expected of me. It had to be heady, intellectual, and academic. Now I’m trying to use that [background] to write my own songs. Simple is fine; I just want it to speak to me. I’m getting back into painting. When I create art, I don’t think, I just do. I’m present and respond to whatever vision I have. That’s great to bring into something like writing music.
What is challenging about being a musician in Rochester?
There are a lot of musicians in Rochester for the size of Rochester. If you’re a classical musician, it is competitive. If you did not go to Eastman, you have much less of a chance of getting gigs. Everyone recognizes that name and hires you as a musician. [Eastman] has a really good reputation. Luckily, I’m in this niche called folk music, which is a little less populated. Especially when you narrow it down to nyckelharpa, there are no others (laughs).
What is rewarding about being a musician in Rochester?
People appreciate the arts in Rochester, which is great! People like folk music. I get to influence a lot of young kids who would not be exposed to this normally.
What would you love to see from the local music scene over the next few years?
I wish there were more [accessible] learning sessions, in all styles. Right now, you have to just be in the know. I’d like a more vibrant sharing of tunes. That’s what the folk tradition is. It’s a social thing. You get together and play tunes, and that’s how the tunes stay alive.
Alyssa has two upcoming solo nyckelharpa gigs at the Spirit Room: on October 4th and on Halloween. You can see her play fiddle with the Gregory Street Vagabonds on October 24th at Iron Smoke Distillery. <<