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December 2008 · Bimonthly

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It’s time for a rant from your editor.  This one has been roiling in my kishkes for a while. The contest scene. There, I’ve said it.  First, I want to make it clear that I have no brief against them.  They are a great place to meet like-minded fiddlers and an excuse to practice. They inspire kids to learn about fiddling and they place fiddling in the public spotlight (exceedingly dim though it may be).  I’ve gone to many of them and had fun talking shop with other fiddlers.  Even competed and occasionally finished in the money.

Long live contests!  But not many of the contests we have now, even the prestigious, high paying ones.

Most of my experience has been with contests in the Northeast, but I’ve been to Weiser, Idaho and heard many recordings of them from the West and Midwest. I reckon that the same problems arise in other sections of the USA.  In this environment, the characteristics that make tradition-based fiddling different than other kinds of violin playing are slowly being eroded, smoothed out and even ignored.  The more fiddle-y the rendition, the lower the score!  Okay judges, I’m talking to you!

There is not enough stress on the fiddle-ness; those hard to define qualities, eccentricities and individuality; the very soul and dance-ability of the renditions.  The wildness and beautiful weirdness have been wrung out of these tunes. I wouldn’t recommend neutral third or seven notes in any rendition. Or a crooked tune? Heavens to Betsy, you’re liable to be carted off stage. Contests are slowly but inexorably morphing into Suzuki recitals.  Well, let’s hope, not inexorably.

There is too much stress on a certain type of legit tone, especially on waltzes.  When was it decided that art music-based tone and vibrato was the paradigm on waltzes?  Forget that stuff.  That’s enervated.  I call for a moratorium on waltzes in contests, at least as a required piece.  These babies are the obvious worst offenders.

And what’s with the tune of choice category?  In the Northeast it’s a tune of choice, but only if the choice is a jig. That’s like voting in China!  Next time I compete I’m going to try a slow hornpipe and see what that gets me.  And in the West I wouldn’t recommend playing a jig for tune of choice (though I have seen it done, unsuccessfully).  In fact, I defy someone to come up with a coherent definition of tune of choice at Western contests.

I’m calling out you judges.  I think that contests could be a much healthier place for fiddlers than they are now.  The entire onus should not be put on judges, but they are in a position to make immediate changes.

And let’s not have recourse to “But that’s the style that’s native to our area of the world.”  It doesn’t take much research into old recordings and written descriptions of fiddling to put that canard to rest.

Sure, there are other changes I’d like to see.  Make the contest venues jam-friendly. That is not so easy, especially with the real local variety, designed to raise funds, let’s say, for the volunteer fire department.  But some creative thinking can always find a way.  And I think that the audience digs informal sessions - not arranged, stilted kind usually heard on stage.  Give the fiddlers a chance to trade tunes and check out the fiddle community.

Okay, I feel a little better now, time for some hot tea and a cold compress.

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