Musician teaches Moon Area students to make their fiddles 'talk funny'

Musician Ryan Joseph Ogrodny admits to talking kind of funny. His not-quite-southern accent stems from being a Pittsburgh transplant living in Nashville, where he initially took a job operating elevators at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In just six years, the former McKeesport resident went from “pressing an elevator button to playing with Alan Jackson.”

Prior to his current gig touring with music legend Mr. Jackson as a harmony vocalist and fiddle and mandolin player, he performed on TV and awards shows and with dozens of country and bluegrass performers, including Billy Ray Cyrus and Vince Gill.

“It all seems so larger than life,” he said. “It just amazes me that I’ve had the opportunity to do what I have.”

He grew up learning to play fiddle from his grandfather, first picking up the bow at age 2½. By age 11, he was appearing on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee," singing and playing several instruments including fiddle, sax, guitar, bass and piano.

In 2004, he and members of his family’s polka band, Henny and the Versa J’s, were nominated for a Grammy.

Known on the Nashville scene by his first and middle name, Ryan Joseph was at Moon Area schools this week teaching orchestra students how to make their stringed instruments "talk funny," too. 

In his world, violins and violas are referred to as fiddles, and cellos are known as the big fiddles.

In preparation for the annual all-district music concert performed by band, orchestra and choral musicians in grades 4-12, Mr. Joseph taught orchestra students improvisational styles, including how to play by ear, the shuffle bow stroke, a chopping technique for use as a percussion replacement, and how to read the Nashville Number System, an informal number system used to transcribe music. The system was invented in the 1950s for The Jordanaires, who sang vocal background for Elvis Presley.

Mr. Joseph, 28, spent two days with the orchestra students practicing “Cotton Eye Joe,” an American folk song that the students performed with him Tuesday during a concert titled "Americana: Celebrating the Impact and Influence of American Music and Composers." 

“We learned a lot of different ways to use the bow, different techniques and styles,” said Tyler Farr, 14, a  cello player who said he found Mr. Joseph’s story inspirational.

Mr. Joseph told the students of his own inspirational moment when he was 10 years old and saw fiddle player and classical violinist Mark O’Connor perform Ervin T. Rouse’s 1938 piece “Orange Blossom Special” while tooling around the stage on a skateboard. At that moment, he said, he knew what he wanted to do with his life, although being “kind of a klutz” he decided to forgo the skateboard.

Mr. Joseph demonstrated the fiddle tune, often called simply “The Special,”  which emulates the sounds of the wheels and whistles of a traveling train created through breakneck playing by the fiddler. The students, who were holding their instruments, applauded his performance by stamping their feet.

“No matter what you want to do in life, it’s possible,” he told the students.

A Duquesne University graduate and former classmate of Amanda Neville, who teaches orchestra at Moon Area Middle School, Mr. Joseph came to the Moon Area district during Music in Our Schools Month to help the students broaden their musical horizons.

“Not just Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi,” said Mrs. Neville, who said her students try many different genres, including rock, jazz and bluegrass.

Mr. Joseph moved to Nashville in 2007 to pursue his country music passion after the death of his father. His mother, Diane “Dee-Dee” Ogrodny, accompanied him there and continues to work at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Sonja Reis, freelance writer: [email protected].