California Report: Violinist/Fiddler Alisa Rose

These days, it’s not uncommon for fiddlers to have both a classical and bluegrass background, but perhaps nobody does it better than San Francisco-based Alisa Rose. Undoubtedly, that is due to the fact she has been playing both styles (at a very high level, I might add) since she was five years old. Her duo, Scroggins & Rose, with mandolinist Tristan Scroggins, is a perfect modern mix of these two styles. You can view her extensive bio, including a Grammy nomination, playing with Bob Weir, winning at RockyGrass, and teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music one her website.

Hi Alisa, thanks for your time. I’ve read that you studied both violin and fiddle as a child. Tell us how that came about.

Thanks for thinking of me for this! My parents started me on violin when at age three, I would sit on their feet and scream in delight when my older sisters practiced. I’m very grateful for all the hours my mom practiced with me as a child. I think my first time playing fiddle music was going to Scandinavian Fiddle Fest in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin near where I grew up. I entered the fiddle contest at age five. I thought it was a good time; I got to perform on stage with a guitarist and a bass player, and we sat under the big oak trees picnicking and listening to great music. 

Growing up, I mostly studied classical violin, but I loved playing fiddle tunes when I had the opportunity to. In middle school, I joined the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Southern Wisconsin Old Time Fiddlers Association, which was mostly retired men, and then twelve-year-old me. We played fiddle tunes in libraries and senior homes, and at picnics, which I thought was great fun. I learned a lot of polkas, schottisches, and waltzes, most of which are not played in California.

Were both of your parents musical? What were you exposed to? 

Yes, my parents loved music. My dad really loved classical music, I remember him blasting operas when we traveled in the car, and my mom loves folk music and beautiful melodies of any kind, so it’s no surprise that I love both classical and folk music. I feel lucky that I learned music by ear with the Suzuki method, as I think it made it easier for me to study bluegrass fiddle and other aural traditions. 

Can Suzuki also be used to learn bluegrass or is there something similar?

I believe that the fundamentals of the Suzuki Method can be used to teach any kind of music. The core concept is that very young children can learn music the same way they learn a language – through a lot of listening, and patient practicing with their parents. All kids will learn their parents’ language, so likewise if they are deeply immersed in music of any style, they can learn it with a deep understanding. 

Tell us about your work with Tristan Scroggins.

Tristan and I met ten years ago when we were both teaching at NimbleFingers, which is a wonderful camp for adults who want to learn bluegrass. (He’s actually teaching there again this summer!) Late one night, while improvising on fiddle tunes, we discovered a musical connection – we seemed to have a surprisingly similar approach to rhythm and melody. It felt like a good musical match, despite us being in different phases of life, living in different cities, and having different musical backgrounds. At that point, Tristan was touring full-time, so whenever he came through the Bay Area, we would compose, perform, and improvise together, and that led to the formation of Scroggins & Rose. Our first album, Grana, was very improvisatory, and our second album is called Curios, because each tune is a carefully crafted little curiosity. 

More recently, thanks to a grant from InterMusic, in San Francisco, we recorded a new EP which we’ll be releasing as singles over the next 6 months! In these recordings, you’ll find a chronological emotional journey that takes you from the strange uneasiness of the earliest days of the pandemic, through the long path of our collective emergence. These tunes are a combination of improvisations and compositions; several of the tunes came from ideas that I wrote during the pandemic, and then we finished together as a duo when we were able to finally be in the same city again.  

Alisa and Tristan at a Portland House Concert

How do you describe your sound with Tristan?

Our sound is a hybrid of all the kinds of music we love. It incorporates the driving rhythm and earthiness of fiddle music, as well as the detailed nuance and emotional specificity of classical music. Over the years, we’ve gotten better at writing music together that suits us. At this point, it feels hard to separate out the elements of what’s what genre, it has just evolved into our sound. 

You’ve been nominated for a Grammy. Tell us about that project.

I was nominated for a GRAMMY for an album called QSF Plays Brubeckwhich I made with Quartet San Francisco. It is an album of Brubeck arrangements for a string quartet, and it was a delight to record it at Skywalker Studios!

Many may not be aware your band won the RockyGrass Band competition. That must have been fun. Do you still attend RockyGrass?

It was super exciting to win the Band competition and get to play at RockyGrass with 49 Special! I haven’t gone in a while, but RockyGrass will always have a special place in my heart. It’s gorgeous in Lyons, and there’s always an amazing lineup of music. My favorite thing about the festival though is picking all night with many wonderful musicians from all around the country!

What is your approach to composition?

As a fiddle player, I tend to think melodically when I compose. I usually start with a melody and then try to see where that melody wants to travel and follow it. The melody is like the character who determines the path of the rest of the piece.

Alisa’s original composition, Fiddle Caprice

Tell us about your Peghead Nation Improvising for Fiddlers and Violinists course.

My approach to improvising has been very ear based and experiential. I find that improvisation is often taught with a more cerebral approach, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what’s worked for me. I designed this course to be a more intuitive, experiential method of learning to improvise. For example, instead of thinking of scale degrees, we practice playing over a held chord to feel which notes have more or less tension with that chord. To get variety within a tune, we explored all the different rhythms you can play within the tune. I would encourage any fiddler or violinist who wants to try that sort of approach to check it out!

You also do private instruction. How many active students do you have, and are they mostly in-person or online?

I really enjoy teaching privately! It’s exciting to figure out how to best work with each individual to help them develop the technique to communicate with the violin. I love working with dedicated young students over many years and seeing them grow as musicians and people. 

What is the most common and relatively easy thing for students to fix?

The most common thing students need to work on is playing with less tension. Any physical tension interferes with tone and rhythm, as well as any expression that you want to achieve. I wouldn’t say that it’s easy to get rid of tension, but I believe it is the thing that often yields the biggest results. I would recommend figuring out where there’s extra tension in your body, and retraining your body to play without it, by playing extremely slowly and focusing on that muscle or motion. 

I love what little I’ve heard of your playing with Evie Ladin. Tell us about that duo and how people can hear it.

Evie and I first performed old-time songs and fiddle tunes a couple of years ago and it was great fun, so we’ve been trying to do more of it! We’re currently looking for a regular venue in the Bay Area to play once a month; an informal, background gig where we can play music and invite friends sometimes to join us. If anyone knows of the perfect venue, please let us know. We’ll be playing March 11, from 2:00-4:00 at Cato’s in Oakland if you’d like to come listen. 

Your fiddle sound is as authentic to bluegrass/old-time as any I’ve heard. Some who originally played classical are not able to get that feeling. What advice would you share to help?

Thanks so much! In classical music, there’s a lot of emphasis on producing a beautiful ringing sound with the bow all the time. To play with an authentic bluegrass/old-time sound I feel it’s important to instead focus on the rhythmic aspect of the bow, and also to explore the slides, grit, and inflections that give fiddle music its character. I recommend listening obsessively, learning solos and tunes off recordings with as much attention to the details of sound, pitch, and bowing as possible, and spending thousands of hours playing with other folks! 

Do you play any instruments other than violin/fiddle?

No. There are endless things to learn on the fiddle—different styles and endless repertoire and tunes. There’s a lifetime of joyful study built in! 

Do you have any upcoming performances or recordings on your calendar?

Keep your ear out for the new Scroggins & Rose EP, which is about our experience of experiencing and emerging from the pandemic. We’ll be releasing the tracks as singles over the next six months. 

I’ll be playing with banjo player Evie Ladin at Cato’s in Oakland on March 11, with cellist Michael Graham at Noontime Concerts at St. Marys on April 4, with pianist Monica Chew at the Berkeley Piano Club April 30, and with the Clubfoot Orchestra playing Pandora’s Box at the Paramount Theater May 6! Check out my website for more details! 

Scoggins & Rose Bridge 218 video from their album Curios

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at