Fiddle player Brittany Johnson was astonished last summer when she was announced as the winner of the talent show at the Champaign County Fair. After all, the competition was tough: assorted singers, a guitar player who performed a medley of songs by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a contortionist who squeezed her body through a tennis racket and swallowed glass. However, the audience had gone for her and guitar player accompanist Greg McGintys’ rendition of a traditional bluegrass song.
She recalls, “When we were at the fair, we had gotten to the fast part of “Back Up and Push” and people were clapping and having a good time. And that always pushes me to perform better.”
This summer, Johnson, 20, is on vacation from her studies as a music education major at ISU. She explains that ISU has an immersion approach to training music teachers, and that even as she enters her Junior year next fall she’s already worked with a variety of students. Notably, she’s taught drumming to children who are deaf. These students are able to perform by feeling the vibrations of the drum with their hands and tracking the beat through watching the conductor’s hands. She also instructs third and fourth graders on the violin.
An Urbana native, Brittany was a fourth grader herself at Prairie Elementary School when she took up the violin. She began the instrument for purely artistic reasons: it got her out of math class.
Finding that she actually enjoyed it, she stayed with the instrument, which, by the time she was 12, had replaced ballet as her main enthusiasm. She played for years with The Bow-Dacious String Band, a local year-round band of young musicians. Brittany cites band director Robin Kearton, who also was Brittany’s private violin teacher, as an enormous positive influence.
When Brittany was younger, playing live in the community with the Bow-Dacious String Band satisfied her lifelong love of performance. These days, she sees teaching as an outlet for this love.
“I’m not necessarily playing when I teach, but I still kind of have to perform. When you’re in front of a classroom, it’s your job to engage the students. So even when I don’t have my instrument, I have to use my voice to teach them.”
Brittany has played at a variety of venues over the years – The Virginia Theater, The Urbana Free Library, at Strawberry Fields and in public parks. She’s played classical with symphonies and bluegrass with friends. Recently, she’s been performing most often with UI computer science student Jake McGinty, who backs her up on the guitar. At school in Bloomington Normal, she’s into more of a formal musical scene, in C-U, more of a folk one.
“At ISU I mostly do classical stuff. I’m at the university and that’s what they want. Here, I know the town more than the University, but at ISU it’s the other way around.”
Despite her classical chops, outside of class Brittany finds herself singing along on the car radio to the All American Rejects, playing old Michael Jackson songs in her spare time, and going even farther back in pop music history for enjoyment.
“I really like Queen; I’m trying to figure out Bohemian Rhapsody.”
So, a young female bluegrass prodigy from Champaign County with a bright future ahead of her — why does this sound familiar?
Brittany was 14 and competing at a fiddling contest in Arcola when she first heard the name Alison Krauss. Someone mentioned that, years before, Krauss had won the same competition when she was a teenager herself. Brittany learned more about her and was inspired. Although she’s never met Krauss, she’d like to and welcomes the comparisons.
“I would love to play with her,” she says. “That would be like the ultimate dream. I think I would lose it.”
As far as following Krauss to fame, Grammy awards and presidential performances, Johnson is all for it.
“I would be willing to put teaching on the back burner, if the performance thing became an opportunity. I would finish school, obviously, but if it turned out the performance thing was happening now, I’d take it, because the performance opportunity is going to be erased more quickly.”
However, if this doesn’t happen, she’s got plenty of ambition for a future as an educator — a desire to give to others what she feels the C-U music scene and Urbana School District gave to her.
“Ultimately, what I would really like to do is bring a program to a school that doesn’t currently have a string program. Because if I had not grown up in this community, and if I had not started in fourth grade, there’s no way that I’d be doing what I’m doing right now. It was given to me as an opportunity. We’re very fortunate with the U of I and that there are good music programs in the schools. There are communities that don’t have those things. “
She feels that her own public performing helps her teaching.
“Some people just teach, and they don’t perform, and they forget how nervous you feel. There are different types of nervous. Some people get nervous just because they’re terrified to be in front of people. I still get nervous, but it’s because I’m excited to perform; it’s a different kind of nervous.”
Brittany can speak cheerfully and authoritatively on just about any fiddle-related question. For instance, when asked about Charlie Daniel’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” she has plenty to say.
“It’s pretty hard to play, mainly because the solo parts are all improvised. You have to make that up on your own. He plays it different every time – mainly for the Devil’s part; not so much for Johnny’s. I originally did it in High School. I had an electric violin and an effects pedal.”
Brittany won’t be playing again this year at the Champaign County Fair talent show — as a previous winner she’s not allowed to and she says she’d like to give someone else a chance anyway. However, you can check out the other acts. This year’s talent show is scheduled for 7 p.m. July 27 at the fair’s grandstand.
Brittany will be playing violin at the Virginia Theater August 6-9 as part of Champaign Urbana Theater Company’s production of Annie Get Your Gun . She will also be performing on August 15th at 6:30 as part of Downtown Festival of the Arts .