Normal, Illinois fiddler and music teacher Brittany Johnson has loved performing for as long as she can remember. “I’d watch the Disney movies and sing and dance around.” As a child, she always wanted to be “a teacher, a lawyer and a ballerina – in that order.” Eventually the law and ballet goals receded, but she loves teaching and performing music.
Brittany was born in Hawaii while her father was in the Navy at Pearl Harbor, but she was raised in Urbana, Illinois since she was six months old. She clearly remembers her fourth grade introduction to the violin when a group of older students came to her classroom to perform. “I didn’t even know what a violin was, but they were playing and it sounded good.” The deal was sealed when she found out that she’d get out of math class to attend music class. “I’d get to do something that looks like fun, and I’d get out of class. It’s like the best day ever!”
For the next couple years Brittany was “never one of the prodigy kids, just average. I played the violin and I liked it.” That changed in sixth grade when she started touring to other schools to perform. “That was a really cool turning point when I realized that not everyone had music in their lives.” She improved rapidly when she started taking private lessons from Robin Kearton.
Her path in music was firmly set in place when Kearton introduced her to alternative styles like Latin, bluegrass, blues and rock. “It completely opened up this whole new box. Had I not learned to play fiddle music and all different styles, I probably wouldn’t be playing now.”
Improvisation became a regular part of Brittany’s music. Kearton discovered that Brittany had a “really good ear” and began teaching her how to read chords and improvise. She played using a mix of ear and sheet music. “I’d never get nervous before a fiddle competition because I knew that if I made a mistake, I could improvise my way out of it.” Today, she can go to a jam session and pick up the chords and be playing along in a matter of minutes.
Brittany graduated from Illinois State University with degrees in both French and music. “It just never occurred to me to do anything else but music, because it was so fun!” she said. “I just couldn’t fathom it not being in my life anymore.” she said. While at ISU, she taught in the Illinois State University String Project and the Community School for the Arts teaching group. At times, it was her students who kept her going. “I could have the worst day ever in school, then teach a private lesson and see someone being so excited about their instrument,” she said.
After starting with a major in music education, she grew concerned that it would take too much of her focus away from performing. Her college experience also reinforced her love for the freedom of fiddle music. “The best part was performing. I didn’t like rehearsals, and in college, sometimes it felt like all you did was rehearse,” she said. “I didn’t care about playing a Brandenburg Concerto; I just wanted to go play “Tom and Jerry” or “Blackberry Blossom.”
She’s found a lot of crossover between classical violin and fiddle. “Fiddle and violin support each other,” she explained. “You may need a certain classical violin technique to play a fiddle song, or you may need the freeness of the fiddle for a violin piece. I also learned that by fixing a technique problem, it would improve your sound. Looking back, I can see how much I’ve improved.”
Today, Brittany combines her two passions by performing in small groups and teaching at The Music Shop in Normal and at La Petite Academy. She enjoys teaching all styles of violin, but her heart is in fiddle music and improvisation. She tells her students, “I’m not trying to teach you to play like me, or to sound like me. I’m giving you a whole big toolbox to use.”
She frequently uses improvisation as one of her tools. “Music is all about patterns,” she explained. “If there’s one pattern you can’t play, it’s amazing that if you improvise off that pattern you’ll know it like the back of your hand.”
Some days she enjoys playing just for the sheer joy, but her heart is in performance. “I love to perform,” she said, “but I can’t give up my students.”
Learn more about Brittany, her music and her many local and state fiddle competition awards at bjohnsonviolin.com.