Modern Folk in a Classical Music Environment

Feb 14, 2014

Last May when violinist Karla Dietmeyer and cellist Olivia Hahn graduated from Luther College’s music program, they had already formed the modern folk duo The OK Factor.  But to move their musical goals forward, they decided to move to Minneapolis where they developed their songs and made recordings at a friend’s studio.  Some of their concerts dates brought them back to Olivia’s home town Cedar Falls as well as the Iowa State Fair.  By the autumn, Olivia moved to Memphis where she took a day job in an office and Karla to the Atlanta area living with her parents and teaching music lessons.

By the end of 2013 they packaged their summer recordings for their first full length album “Water Street”, named after the main street of their beloved college town Decorah. As they prepared to release the album, they were invited to return to their old college in February for the 43rd annual Dorian Orchestra Festival, a two-day series of workshops for advanced high school students.  While there, they performed as The OK Factor on the same stage that less than a year ago they were seniors in the college’s symphony orchestra

Less than a year ago Karla Dietmeyer and Olivia Hahn performed on this stage as seniors in Luther College’s symphony orchestra. They’ve returned as the modern folk duo The OK Factor during the 43rd Dorian Orchestra Festival.
Credit Photo by John Pemble

The core of Luther’s music education is rooted in classical music, but Olivia says this isn’t what they came back to Luther’s Dorian Orchestra Festival to talk about. “Classical music is just the way that string players are taught to play and it’s a good foundation and it’s something that we needed in order to do what we do now.  But I think it’s important and I think the reason we wanna share what we’re doing is to just show that there are other avenues that you can take.”

Their new album “Water Street” opens with an adaptation of the folk tune “Wayfaring Stranger”, which began as an assignment for a twentieth century music history class.  Karla says they were asked to demonstrate how composer Bela Bartok implemented folk music in his symphonic works. “We did an example of each different way. And those ways were just the tune by itself. Unaltered. The second way was adding an accompaniment to it, and the third way was adding fragment of that.”

For most of their songs, Carla and Olivia alter a music fragment to sound like, country, folk, or rock.  While they praise their formal training, both say music teachers should also include non-classical techniques in the classroom.  To fill this void, they conduct workshops like the one they did during the Dorian Orchestra Festival.

In the workshop, they demonstrate various rhythm techniques for high school string players.  Then this orchestra, which was assembled thirty minutes prior, site reads music by The OK Factor with instructions to change rhythm accents to their personal liking.  It’s like jazz improvisation, but with more structure.  Karla says the purpose is to give the student ideas they may not have previously considered. “Being able to go and talk to students and say there is more out there than what you’re doing in this room right now, and the more you practice, the more you become comfortable with yourself and comfortable with your instrument, the more you can do.”  Olivia says they never know how students will react to these workshops… but, “If one student goes home and says this is possible or they’re inspired or influenced to try something new with their instrument with music in general then we’ve done something right, I think.”

Olivia and Karla plan to keep busy in 2014 as The OK Factor with more workshops in high schools and colleges, summer festival performances, and if all goes well they will move back to the Midwest by the end of the year.