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Vol. LVIII, No. 6
March 24, 2006

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NIGMS Scientist Dabbles in Musical Chemistry

When Dr. John Schwab talks about Hoover Uprights, chances are he's not referring to vacuum cleaners. Schwab, a chemist in the NIGMS Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry, is a founding member of an old-time country music band named — for reasons even he can't explain — after the appliance.

Schwab says his love of folk music inspired him to take up the acoustic guitar, which he has played since age 13. But he insists that he is not a solo artist. He prefers playing with his fellow band mates — a fiddler, a banjo player and a ukulele player who doubles as a bassist. Occasionally, the Uprights are joined by a harmonica player, whom Schwab jokingly refers to as the group's "blower attachment."

  Dr. John Schwab (l) and band mates (from l) Bill Schmidt, Kevin Enoch and Dr. Kate Brett, play old-time country music in their free time.

"We have a terrific time playing, both for the music as well as the camaraderie," he said. "After a dozen years, we are still very close friends, and 'band politics' have never been an issue for us," he added.

The style of music the Uprights perform is commonly played at square dances. The genre, which originated in the southeastern region of the United States, is the root of bluegrass music. But unlike bluegrass, which is performance- oriented and features instrumental solo breaks, old-time music is a more social form of music that is played as an ensemble.

The Uprights play for contra and square dances at local venues such as Glen Echo Park and Cherry Hill Park, as well as at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Baltimore. They also showcase their skills at fiddlers conventions. A few years after taking home the top prize at the Deer Creek Fiddlers Convention in Westminster, Md., the group won first place in the traditional band contest in 2001 at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, W.Va. They repeated as first-place winners in 2003.

Schwab says their 2001 performance at Clifftop was his most memorable moment playing with the Uprights. "It was a huge honor, since many of the very best old-time musicians have bands that enter the contest, and they tend to take it really seriously and play their very best," he explained. In a typical year, 50-70 bands enter the traditional band contest.

The group's list of accomplishments includes a performance on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage in 2004. The Uprights' first CD, which will include tunes from the Appalachian Mountains and the Midwest, is in the works and will be completed soon.

According to Schwab, his role as an old-time music backup guitar player is similar to his role at NIH.

"Here in NIGMS, there is no such thing as a 'superstar' program director — we all work for a common goal, which is to facilitate scientific research and to help identify and support the very best science," he said. "Playing old-time music is comparable. We all play together, and each of us tries to complement what the other musicians are playing."

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