The ToneWay® Project: helping people play music

More peeking inside our music class...

…this time, with a pen.

Elizabeth Englund, a reporter for UCSC's newspaper, recently interviewed us and watched one of our guided slow jams unfold…

In the third and final class of the Mountain Music Workshop, 10 students file into Harvey West Club Room and begin tuning their banjos, fiddles and guitars. This is no average music class — the students have learned all that they know not by rote, but by simply listening and playing together.

“Some of them are brand new to their instruments!” Leslie Abbott said excitedly.

The Mountain Music Workshop is taught twice a year by the Abbott family, and tonight Leslie Abbott and her son Luke lead the lesson. Luke is confident that his protegés are ready to lead the jam while he sits back and facilitates.

“Who wants to lead the first song?” Luke asks.

Some of the students are clearly uneasy at this prospect, and his question is met by nervous laughter and glances around the room.

“The worst thing that will happen is that it will all fall apart, and that will be fun,” Luke assures them. “Don’t be shy, play nice and loud!”

One brave woman with her guitar steps up and<!–more–> suggests playing “Handsome Molly” in the key of G. In bluegrass, breaks between the singing give the instrumentalists a chance to showcase their talent and style. The first break in “Handsome Molly” is quiet and timid, but by the second round, the melody shines through. The voices get louder as the musicians gain confidence, and after a few more verses and breaks, the leader kicks out her foot to signal the end of the song.

The Abbott family is clearly onto something. In only three 90-minute sessions, the students — most of them brand-new to their instruments — are now able to play multiple songs while singing. It’s no easy feat for bluegrass veterans, let alone newcomers.

Luke Abbott is only in his 20s, and when asked how many instruments he plays, he shrugs and smiles.

“Oh, I don’t know. Guitar, banjo, piano, fiddle and mandolin regularly.”

Remarkably, Luke has never taken any formal lessons. Instead he is self-taught, learning by ear and intuition.

After attending the Good Old-Fashioned Bluegrass Festival in 1997, the Abbotts, a local Santa Cruz family, fell in love with mountain music and never went back. Over the years, they recognized the benefits of learning music by ear collectively, and developed a method to share their discovery and teach others to play. They call it the “Toneway Project.”

Luke explained the Toneway method.

“When a child learns to walk, when a child learns to talk, they don’t understand what they’re doing,” he said. “As adults, we think that we need to understand it before we can do it. … Our goal is to get it so that you can hear a song, and then you can play it. We are helping your brain to make the connections between the sound and what your fingers do.”

Luke added that those who are convinced they have no musical ability can still benefit using the Toneway method.

“It’s kind of crazy how many people think that they don’t have it,” he said. “Half of the people in the workshops think that they can’t sing, that they can’t carry a tune, that they don’t have a voice. Most people severely underestimate their abilities.”

The Mountain Music Workshop is proof that the Toneway method works. In the course of only three classes, the Abbotts have given their students the tools they need not only to play music, but to jam with others.

Nice article, eh? Seeing the process of discovery that she described is like magic to me. But let me stress: the magic isn't coming from us, it's coming from the approach. And our approach is one that can be taken anywhere. You don't need an Abbott-led class to have the same experience as the students in the article.

(The full article also describes the music and some of the Santa Cruz jam scene.)


I am convinced that this is a unique way to learn to play and have a lot of fun doing it. I am trying to convince myself that there is still time to learn to play the fiddle? Hmmmmm… I am 56… is there still time?

It seems like it is a very hard instrument to learn but I have wanted to play one ever since I was a little girl. Even if I would have had someone to teach me I doubt my parents could have afforded one.

Do people my age ever pick up the fiddle and actually learn to play it…at least in a fashion that is bearable to listen to?


Sorry, LaDawn, for the very tardy response.

The answer is YES. Based on the hundreds of students I’ve taught, I’ve concluded that age is not a factor for success. Well, kids have a definite advantage. And not everyone succeeds as quickly as everyone else; but that’s due to a variety of factors, not merely one’s years on earth.

I myself was surprised at first at how quickly the fiddle players would learn to play melodies. Turns out, it’s the easiest instrument for that!

My advice to you: get/rent/borrow yourself a fiddle (in good playing condition, of course) and follow along with our Get Started lesson series on the web site. Make sure to put tape on your fiddle when instructed to do so! If you still have doubts at the end of the course, please write me!


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