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A reason that Fiddle Players and Classical Players have a hard time connecting with each other.

Posted by fiddlerdi on Thursday, February 23, 2012

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I have spent a good part of my life trying to help others understand that what we play it is a product of our education and environments. I was trained classically, I have a violin performance degree, I played a lot of classical music while growing up along with a fair amount of show tunes. That's what was played on violins in my environment, that's what was available to participate in and I was educated and trained to excel in that direction.  There was no "live" folk music in my life or my families circles. Around age 12 I discovered folk music with Peter, Paul & Mary, John Denver, and the turning point group was The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, where I heard the fiddle being used in music that reached into my heart. When talking to my classical musician friends, it was clear that they didn't really understand much about fiddling but had a picture in their minds of uneducated, impoverished mountain hillbillies, playing compromised violins, while drinking moonshine, and having little or no structure in their playing. No surprise there that they weren't impressed with my new found passion. 
When I was finally able to move into the actual environment of Folk Musicians, local people that played old-time and Bluegrass the exact opposite of the description above occurred. They didn't understand that I was there to understand and learn about their styles of playing which I held in high regard. They were intimidated by my presence as a violinist, not a fiddle player. They felt as though I was judging their technical abilities and was there to "show-off". Nothing could have been farther from the truth. I was so impressed with their abilities to play an incredible number of tunes from memory, improvise the tune, take breaks as well as play back-up for others which was impossible for me to do at that time. To those folks what they played was natural, it was what they heard growing up, it was what they played on violins in their environment.  So again it was no surprise that they weren't impressed with my violin playing because what came to their mind was very educated, rich people, from well to do families, playing expensive instruments, while drinking coffee from china teacups with their pinkies raised and reading dots in order to play. 
So for my first 20 years as a fiddler I felt I had to try as hard as I could to hide the fact that I had a Violin Performance degree. If there was any hint of the violin thing to those players that I really liked around here,they would put their fiddles away and not feel comfortable. I held my fiddle different and took away any hint of vibrato tried my best to imitate their sound. The good thing was I had a really old wonderful instrument that would lure them in with it's beautiful sound. 
Slowly, and I mean years later, most of this attitude has started to disappear. Nothing lifts my heart more than to hear the local school districts incorporating arrangements of fiddle tunes in their string concerts. This is something that I felt was so important 30 years ago but it wasn't time for it yet.  Now I feel completely comfortable teaching my students of all ages all styles of music.  In my humble opinion it's what keeps my students motivated and makes them better players.  They can fit into any environment and share their passion and love of music without feeling judged or profiled for the styles that they embrace and are called to play. We all have the same goal to enjoy our music.  I really don't thing you need to decide if Mark O'Conner is better that Ishak Pearlman. They are both inspiring. They are both musicians. 

15 comments on “A reason that Fiddle Players and Classical Players have a hard time connecting with each other.”

bj Says:
Thursday, February 23, 2012 @9:21:14 AM

Re the attitude . . . Well, there's still a ways to go . . . as I'm reminded every time I walk into my local string shop and get a dose of nose in the air when I say something that tips them off that I'm a fiddler. But I've also had folks start a conversation with me while I was busking, asking me how I could get the fiddle to sound like that. Turned out that they were classically trained and had never heard the very special soulful sound of a crosstuned fiddle, and recognized it's uniqueness. Those were some very open minds.

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Thursday, February 23, 2012 @2:04:06 PM

Haven't noticed the "schism" out west here. We've got Classical fiddlers hanging out with OT guys amongst BG gals, etc. in my pub (Sacramento, CA). Could this sort of stand-offishness or snobbery (on whoever's part) be more of an midwest, southern, eastern US thing? Yet I did have to fire an instructor who told me to hold my bow differently. He actually insisted I hold it in the proper Classical manner (until I defenestrated him).

Now with bj I'm guessing the noses in the air have to do more with the fact that she's so tall; folks have to look up to talk to her.

John Gent Says:
Thursday, February 23, 2012 @3:07:20 PM

I'm with Curt on this. Here in Oregon, at least what I've seen, we mix it up all the time. Now, it's true we lose more violinists to fiddling than the other way around, but we all still hang out together peacefully.

Rene Says:
Thursday, February 23, 2012 @4:38:25 PM

And here in the ozarks the violinist don't stand a chance amongst all the fiddlers.

fiddlerdi Says:
Thursday, February 23, 2012 @5:44:52 PM

Yeah well even with a few replies you can see where there is prejudice. Which is an interesting work isn't it ? Which means according to Dictionary .com unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
2.any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable

So without knowledge, thought or reason some judge our fellow fiddlers and violinists. When the whole reason for playing is based on the same thing. Love of music. Interesting.

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Thursday, February 23, 2012 @6:45:16 PM

Many things are said in jest, as an attempt at humour, Diane. Life's a bit boring if we can't claim to have defenestrated a Classical stylist or two, methinks.

Diane G Says:
Thursday, February 23, 2012 @9:37:33 PM

San Diego has more tolerance too between the classical players and the fiddlers. My classical teacher from Juilliard and NE Conservatory of Music plays Swedish folk tunes with me and would love to go to a fiddle camp with me sometime. I do both...classical and fiddle. I'm also a kids teacher and all my students get classical stuff and they know fiddle tunes as well...most of them can shuffle. Several of the teen kids go to jams with me...I want them to be able to do both and pick and choose. 2 of my other students fiddle but are in a chamber orchestra with, all you teachers out there...get those kids doing both so they will have a well-rounded music education...I tell my student be glad you didn't take up the piano...imagine hauling one of those to a jam!!!! (No offense to the piano teachers)!
Diane in SoCal

mudbug Says:
Friday, February 24, 2012 @3:37:26 AM

Heck, in my neck of the woods, this instrument is so rare, I'm gonna glean onto anyone who plays, to try and learn something. I have no prejudice, except I don't like snotty people. I've encountered snotty folks working at string shops and snotty folks playing contra. I didn't care for either.

nfritzjr Says:
Friday, February 24, 2012 @12:26:13 PM

Hey fiddlerdi,
I'm new to the intolerance thing since I'm new to fiddlin/violin playing, almost a year now. That said I have two classically trained string player daughters, one loved fiddle music right off the bat actually taught herself Irish style after a trip to Ireland.
The other, well she learned to like it as she realized classical isn't all that there is, plus she need a different form of music in her portfolio for her finial grad, and available at home to learn.
I think that it's peoples reason for playing a type of music that make them chose and "defend" that style!
I find that where I'm at here at the Wisconsin / illinois boarder there is more ummm shall we say ridicule towards Irish music, especially the Traditional Irish. Music that has been around for longer than most all other styles. Also my music of choice to listen to and eventualy perform. . . . And defend
I believe here on FH everyone is excepting of everyone else. . .or at least should be
But they still don't have a Bodhran Hangout :-/
Have a great day and keep fiddlin!

S_Heriger Says:
Friday, February 24, 2012 @1:20:10 PM

I still recall a wonderful moment some time ago when I was waiting for my lesson, and had arrived early. My instructor was in a nearby practice room with a student who was struggling through a difficult classical piece, and I could tell by her sighs and frustrated comments that she wasn't having fun. She was working hard at it and seem to enjoy the moments when it all fell together, but it was a battle. Finally, with 10 minutes left, I heard my teacher tell the student, "Okay, time for some fiddling!"

For the next ten minutes I heard nothing but joy coming out of that room. This young girl spun through three or four classics with ease and was laughing and having a blast in between. For her, the classical stuff she had to learn may have been the main course, but fiddling was clearly the dessert she'd earned.

OTJunky Says:
Friday, February 24, 2012 @5:28:41 PM

Probably the divide is greater on the East Coast and in the Ozarks.

There's probably more of a musical divide between Appalachian or Ozark dance fiddling and Missouri Contest fiddling than there is between Missouri Contest fiddling and Classical violin playing. It's the same with Texas style Context fiddling.

To succeed in the modern contest fiddling arena you need a level of dedication and practice approaching that needed to be a passable classical player though the classical player will work more on site reading and technique especially in the upper positions while the contest fiddler will work more on variation, improvisation and ear training.

One essential difference seems to be the extent to which a player prides themselves on technique - tone, intonation, etc. Typically "folk fiddlers" with a day job just want to be able to play a lot of tunes rhythmically out of first position with maybe one or two "show" tunes. So, they just need the technique to play tunes in first position, then they work on learning a lot of them. I've personally seen as many contest players snub amateur folk fiddlers - and visa versa - as I've seen classical players do it.

But it's really hard to have a discussion about just "fiddling" given the vast differences between the regional styles.


OTJunky Says:
Friday, February 24, 2012 @5:31:04 PM

Oh, I'd be interested to know if you're teaching your students any Tommy Jarrell tunes and, if you are, whether or not they sound anything like him... ;-)


fiddlerdi Says:
Friday, February 24, 2012 @7:53:39 PM

OT, - I haven't taught any Tommy Jarrell tunes because I have very little experience with the old-time styles. I also haven't had requests for it although I have made some of my students aware of his work. I also am a friend of his niece who lives here in Topeka. At some point in my fiddle journeys I would like to spend more time with his style and his tunes. Our traditional Kansas fiddling is more like Missouri fiddling with a fair amount of Bluegrass mixed in.

OTJunky Says:
Saturday, February 25, 2012 @7:03:43 AM

Well, I know this issue of differences between classical violin playing and fiddling is important to you and I know that you're much interested in string teachers being able to provide some guidance to beginning fiddlers. If you really want to understand the challenges involved, here's what you need to do.

There's a YouTube video of Tommy Jarrell playing "Let Me Fall". I think it's linked to in the forum videos. It's a relatively straightforward tune in AEAE that's typical of his style.

Find it and learn to play it - and try to capture his sound. You'll find that his concept of tone production is quite different than that found anywhere inc classical violin training - or in contest fiddling. Appalachian fiddlers want a thinner tone to blend with the banjo and they want to use less bow pressure to avoid tiring the right arm when playing long dance sets. Tommy will use bow rocking more extensively than it's used in contest fiddling - again because this kind of cross string vamping is what's needed in banjo playing where the nature of the instrument requires that you play mostly rhythm occasionally hitting just enough melody notes so that the tune's identifiable. You'll hear quite a bit of syncopation - but it'll be done by slurring across strings rather than within a linear melody. Basically an Appalachian fiddler will approach most tunes "vertically" rather than "linearly".

It's very possible for you to do this. Both Rayna Gellert and Betse Ellis (who you probably know) are classically trained violinists who've been able to cross the divide into Appalachian and Ozark fiddling. Ozark fiddling is similar in many respects to Appalachian fiddling except that the ancestors of the Ozark fiddlers migrated West before the introduction of clawhammer banjo playing into the Appalachian regions. So you'll find less syncopation in Ozark fiddling and, often, you'll find faster tempos. Betse Ellis's version ot "Train 45" in AEAE is very well played.

One of the remarkable things about folk music is that, over a generation or three, communities of folk musicians can develop a larger audience of people who treasure the sounds they make - even though these sounds seem completely foreign, sometimes even offensive, to people outside the community.

That said, I've nothing bad to say about a decision to focus on the Midwestern fiddling traditions - or specifically on contest fiddling. Pete McMah0n, Cyril Stinnett, Terry Morris and Benny Thomasson are among my fiddling idols. There's plenty there to keep you busy.

It's just that it's a safe bet that if Cyril Stinnett had entered a contest in Mountain View, AR in 1970, he'd have been disqualified for "violining" and that to understand why you need to have some familiarity with other fiddling traditions.


fiddlerdi Says:
Saturday, February 25, 2012 @8:01:36 AM

Thanks OT. That is really helpful information. I know that I really enjoyed the time with Dan Levenson when he came here to do workshops a couple of years ago. I couldn't even come close to getting the rhythms in the 3 days he was here but I gained a lot of education on the style. He told me I was playing like a Bluegrass Fiddler, obviously no surprise. I have watched a lot of Cyril Stinnett video and I also am really familiar with a fiddler by the name of Amos Chase that was from this area. I do know Betsy, and another fiddler who is very good, Tricia Spencer. They both live in this area. I probably could benefit from some lessons with either one of them. I would want to be able to play that style before I tried to teach it. I appreciate your input and find it very helpful. That's why I like having a place for discussions. Now I am going to pull up that video on do some studying on it. Thank you!

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