Tristan Scroggins’ #QuarantuneChallenge

One of the many projects that cropped up during this period of downtime was started by mandolinist Tristan Scroggins with major assistance from FiddleStar Megan Lynch. The #QuarantuneChallenge calls for pickers to write a new tune every day for thirty days. Each day has a different theme such as Texas, Irish, Minor, Bluegrass, Dance, etc., so the tunes represent a huge cross-section of roots music styles and interpretations. You can find a lot of them by searching #QuarantuneChallenge on Facebook or Instagram. Here are some of their stories.

Hi Tristan, tell us about the Write a New Tune Every Day #quarantunechallenge?

Hey Dave! Musicians caught wind of the lockdown really quickly as all of our gigs suddenly vanished. I had a West Coast tour planned for late March, and was getting emails every day about canceled gigs. A lot of them were with Scroggins & Rose which is my Bay Area-based instrumental duo with violinist Alisa Rose. San Francisco was really out in front of this whole thing, so she knew about the lockdown pretty quickly and we were coming up with ways that we could still rehearse from a distance. 

We tossed around the idea of writing tunes over a long distance by giving each other prompts, and the idea just came to me to expand that so that other folks could participate. I was visiting Megan Lynch at that time during her and Adam Chowning’s Nashville Flatpick Camp, and asked her to help with the idea. She came up with the name “quarantune” and we came up with a bunch of prompts. So each day people would write a new tune using those prompts. The idea is based on inktober which is a daily drawing challenge that was created by an artist named Jake Parker. For that you’re supposed to do a pen and ink drawing every day of October based on a one word prompt. So I took that format and combined it with the humor of George Jackson’s popular #dorrigochallenge to create the #quarantunechallenge.

How long does it last? And how did you come up with the daily tune categories?

It is supposed to be a month long, so there are only thirty prompts, but it isn’t based on a specific month or anything. Some people have jumped in on whichever day I was on, some started at the beginning and are working their way through, some folks take days off in between prompts, and some just jump in whenever they feel moved to. 

A lot of the inktober prompts are pretty vague one-word ideas, so I tried to come up with some like that such as “cabin,” “waves,” or “death.” Others were more direct things that dictated certain things about the music such as “major,” “minor,” “waltz,” etc. Megan helped come up with some great ones like “alternate tuning,” and “shout chorus.” Once I had thirty of them I put them into a randomizer and generated lists until the “Irish” prompt fell on what would be St. Patrick’s Day from when I started, haha!

How many people are participating?

I’ve lost count. It spun out of my control very quickly. I started out trying to share all of the posts but that quickly became too much work. The hashtag currently has about 1000 posts in it and I know that some people have mistakenly used other hashtags (like #quarantunes or #quarantuneschallenge), so there’s no real way of knowing. I still will share all of the stories that people tag me in, though, and there are about a dozen folks who tag me daily.

Who are some of the stars?

Well, I think anyone who joins in is a star. It’s a really scary thing to write a tune, much less put it up on the internet. A lot of these folks had never written a tune before and now they’ve written thirty, and that’s just truly amazing. But I’m extremely proud of even the folks who just wrote one tune. There are a lot of folks who do post every day like Megan Lynch (@fiddlestar), Brandon Godman (@mrfiddler1), Alex Lacquement  (@alexlacquement) and Natalie Padilla (@natalieraedilla) along with many, many others. I couldn’t possibly list them all, plus a lot of them might not want their information just out on the internet! haha.

What is the best way for people to participate or find the tunes?

If you go to Instagram and search for #quarantunechallenge you can see everyone’s videos and it’s really great. There are so many great players and so many great tunes. If someone wants to start writing tunes using the prompts they can use that hashtag as well in their posts, and they’ll show up there. You can probably find a lot of the videos on Facebook as well through the same method, but most of the action has been on Instagram. You can find the prompts list and all of my tunes on my page (@tristanscroggins), as well as all of the tunes people have posted in their stories, by clicking on my #quarantunechallenge highlights.

Is it too late for someone to start submitting tunes?

Absolutely not! As I said, it’s not time-specific. It’s just a way to pass the time. The only “rules” I’d encourage people to follow would be to write an instrumental tune (tunes don’t have words, songs have words), because then you have to actively think about melody and what makes a melody work. Also, try to do one prompt a day. Having a deadline or finishing a tune makes it a lot easier to say “this is done” which is a huge part of tune writing in general. It’s really easy to fuss over a melody and change little things, but that’s a dangerous rabbit hole to fall into. At some point, you have to just be ok with it being done, even if it’s not great because, believe me, they can’t all be great. There will be many struggles and failures, haha. On Day 2, I accidentally ripped off a melody from Julian Pinelli and on Day 4, I accidentally ripped off Bach. I wrote a lot of pretty bad tunes throughout this process but ended up with about a dozen I liked. The point of this challenge is to force people out of their comfort zones and get them through the stage of “I can’t write a tune because I don’t know how/I never have before/it would be bad/whatever.”

What have you learned from this experience?

I don’t know if I would say I’ve learned anything from this experience but I’ve certainly enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed seeing people write tunes and become more confident in their writing day after day. I’ve enjoyed knowing that I inspired some people to write some tunes that I really like. And I’ve enjoyed having a little community to share music with during these tough times.

Have you given any thought to what you will do with these tunes in the future?

I had thought about a few different things I can do with the tunes I’ve written. I write tunes a lot anyway so the ones I like will just go into that folder and will be things I share with various projects such as Scroggins & Rose. I thought about trying to figure out a way to get different folks to record their favorite tune to put on a compilation record, but as someone who is currently producing a multi-artist compilation record, the idea of trying to coordinate that many people made me dizzy. haha! I did already use one of the tunes I wrote (day 24) for a project I’m on, currently unannounced. But depending on how long this quarantine lasts I might end up recording nicer versions of a few of my favorites and releasing them on my Bandcamp page (tristanscroggins.bandcamp.com). We’ll see 🙂

After hearing from Tristan, I reached out to Megan Lynch. 

Hi Megan. Tell us how you got involved with the quarantune challenge.

Tristan Scroggins, who is a dear friend and frequent assistant at my Nashville Acoustic Camps, was at my house during Nashville Flatpick Camp back in early March, which turned out to be the last camp we’d have for some time. He and I were hanging out in the kitchen working on some fun cake treats for the campers and he told me about this idea he had to encourage people to write a tune a day and post it on social media, as it was starting to look as if we’d all be sheltering in place for a few weeks and we’d need some things to keep us inspired and motivated. He told me how much he wanted people to start exploring tunesmithing as a valid pursuit, as it is rather different than songwriting and so important to the preservation of traditional music. We threw around some ideas for what to name it and I ended up suggesting the “quarantune” idea and it took off from there. 

Talk about the process of picking the themes.

Tristan already had a bunch of ideas written down and I think we needed twelve more. We just threw out one-word terms back and forth – things that felt evocative of a certain mood, like “waves,” and more technical things, like “not in 4/4.” As two traditional music performers and teachers, it went pretty fast.

What’s the biggest surprise or most inspiring tune you’ve heard?

I think one of the biggest surprises has been the vast range of experience levels of the people who have committed to the challenge. I’ve seen tunes from people who have been playing for a year or less, trying tune writing for the very first time, all the way across to professional musicians, many of whom have written dozens of tunes already. As for inspiring, I think the thing that has been the most inspiring to me personally, has been reading the captions that accompany the posts. Many of the tune writers have shared incredibly insightful and thoughtful things about writing the tunes, and people have also been so forthcoming about their fears and struggles with this whole crisis. I feel closer than ever to people I’ve known for years, and everyone has been so supportive to one another through it all. The tunes have brought people together in a time where we’re so physically far apart, and I am grateful for them.

Thanks for your time and take care, Megan. 

My pleasure – let me know if you need anything else!

Andy Lentz is a friend and great Bay Area fiddler whom I’ve enjoyed seeing contribute every day. He had this to say:

The Quarantune Challenge pushed me to my highest level of creative output to date. I’m grateful to Tristan for this opportunity to connect and share with the other participating musicians. It’s been fun to hear the variety of tunes written for each prompt. I’m inspired to arrange and record these tunes for an album once I’m able to get into the studio.

Another familiar Bay Area fiddler, Brandon Godman dutifully submitted wonderful tunes that often recalled his Kentucky upbringing. 

Hi Brandon, what’s the experience been for you?

This has been a great exercise for the art of tune writing. I’ve written several tunes, but they generally just come to me or start from a melodic idea that I find myself humming or playing. I’ve never sat down with the sole goal of creating a tune, so I’ve had to learn and develop some techniques and methods for the process.

What has surprised you about it?

I was surprised at what prompts were easy for me, and which ones were difficult. Sometimes tunes seemed like they were just begging to be written, yet other times, I found myself playing through different ideas until one finally became palatable enough. I leaned heavily on Tristan’s instructions that the tunes don’t have to be good, or even something that I would ever play again, but overall I was pretty happy with the melodies I came up with.  

Do you have any plans for the tunes?

I’ve been wanting to record an album of original material. I had many already written, and I think these will supplement that effort. One hope is that I get to play them, in real-time, with actual humans at some point!  

Anything else?

I want to comment on the community this has created.  I have found a lot of joy in seeing what other musicians have written. I’ve enjoyed collaborating virtually with friends on some of the tunes. I’ve discovered a lot of talented musicians that I didn’t know about before. I’ve also received messages and comments from people who have listened to each and every tune. If one person has had a brighter day because of a tune I wrote, then the whole thing is worth every ounce of energy I put into it.

Thanks Brandon for sharing the tunes and story.

Hope this helps.  


Copy Editing by Deborah Benrubi

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.