Professors of Bluegrass to bring lessons to Slosberg

Band of Yale professors plays Saturday with guests Big Chimney

The Professors of Bluegrass

In search of that high lonesome sound, The Professors of Bluegrass sometimes trade chalkboards and laser pointers for fiddles and banjos.

A disparate group of Yale University professors, administrators, students and friends, The Professors, as they refer to themselves, collect and release members as they float in and out of New Haven. Through 20 years of changing faces and gigs, music remains the constant.

"We really like to keep the attitude that we're doing it for fun," says banjo player Oscar Hills, a psychiatrist and clinical faculty member who joined the band around 2004. "But we like music and don't want to make bad music."

They rehearse in co-founder and Yale Provost Peter Salovey's basement, usually on Sunday mornings when "almost no one has an excuse," Hills says, and their shared passion for pioneers like Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs helps bridge the gaps in their respective musical educations and life experiences.

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Yale’s Professors of Bluegrass with Big Chimney

Saturday, Feb. 12, at 8 p.m. at the Slosberg Music Center

Order tickets online or visit the concert page for more information.

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"There's something about playing music together that really levels everybody," Hills says.

Salovey adds: "It breaks down barriers of status and the roles we play in our usual professional life. Part of why people enjoy seeing us play is for that reason."

The band's roots trace back to about 1990, when Salovey, then an untenured psychology professor looking to blow off steam, and colleague Kelly Brownell discovered they shared an interest in bluegrass. Since then, a dozen Professors have come and gone, all with different but equally ambitious professional paths.

Salovey had taught himself to play the banjo in college, but an early bandmate convinced him to switch to bass, which he began learning on the spot. Meanwhile, mandolin player Craig Harwood has a Ph.D. in music theory; he joined the band as graduate student, and has since become a residential dean. Fiddler Katie Scharf was a student when she first joined the professors; she's since gone to law school, is finishing a dissertation in history and works on foreign energy policy in Washington, D.C. Guitarist Sten Isaac runs his own fine customer woodworking business in the Boston area.

"Everyone in the band now has a major, time-consuming responsibility," Salovey says. "Because I'm not trained, because I have an all-consuming job, that requires me to concentrate, think about only what I'm playing or I'm going to make mistakes." That's part of the appeal, he says. 

Summer is The Professors' busiest season, when they play events like The New Haven Folk Festival or The River of Music Party in Owensboro, Ky. During the year, they play fundraisers and Yale events, as well as at clubs around New Haven, like Toad's Place, which has hosted the likes of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

Mostly, they play the old-time standards. Both Salovey and Hills assume their bandmates write music, but none has stepped up to write new tunes for The Professors, instead opting to pay tribute to traditional music.

"It remains a hobby for everyone who has ever played with us," Salovey says, despite their successes. "Only one went on to fame and fortune, making a living in bluegrass."

He's referring to Greg Liszt, who joined the band as an undergraduate banjo player. Since graduating, Liszt has received a doctorate in molecular biology from MIT, played on Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions tour and live album and now plays with the nu-folk, bluegrass band Crooked Still.

For Salovey, graduation is a double-edged sword. When talking about former band members, he catches phrases like "unfortunately, he graduated..." as they tumble out of his mouth and corrects himself. "Fortunately, he graduated. Unfortunate for the band."

"We have all watched each other age," Salovey says. "You might think that's not pretty, but we all really enjoy each other's company. It's fun to watch people continue to improve and develop and experiment."

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