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February 2009 · Bimonthly

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Contest Fiddling: 
What Gets Rewarded

by Carolyn Osborne

In my experience, the mind set of classical music is different from that of fiddle.  Having been trained classically, I know that mind set pretty well.  It is based on a melodic, scale-based approach to music—of being aware of the scale degree which one is playing in relation to the harmony.  The advantage of this approach is that it assures great accuracy in playing music written by other people.  And, this is a major goal in classical music; the Tschaikovsky Violin Concerto is supposed to be played note for note if a person is going to claim mastery of that piece of music.  So, the focus is melody and scale-based, and it is also on accuracy in playing something that someone else wrote.

By contrast, in fiddling, I have observed that traditional fiddlers who have no formal music (e.g., classical) training tend to think of music in relation to chords.  My husband is a traditional Appalachian fiddler and I notice that he plays fiddle tunes differently each time he plays them.  This is in part because if he plays the third or fifth of a chord, that is pretty much the same to him.  Because he is my husband, I have had the privilege of being able to ask him about his concepts of music.  For example, I have asked him to play scales and he doesn’t know what I am talking about.  But when I ask him to play the notes on the fiddle that go with a D chord, he plays an arpeggio. I believe in his mind those notes are grouped together as more or less interchangeable, rather than three different notes (D, F#, A) that I think about when I am playing. 

If classical playing is focused on accuracy, the theme of fiddling is “necessity is the mother of invention.”  Fiddle players invent their versions of the tunes.  They have heard other people play the tunes and rather than imitating someone else note for note, they play the chord progression and what I would have to say are really obvious patterns somewhat note for note, but transitions between those obvious patterns differently.  For example, Soldier’s Joy begins, often, with a D arpeggio, but I have also heard traditional players use a scale from A to D for that part.  We can hear all these variations as “Soldier’s Joy” because what makes a tune is not just a group of specific notes but rather some patterns within a chord progression.  In fact, as I think of variations on Soldier’s Joy that I have heard, I would say that the chord progression is more important than which notes of the scale are being played at any given time. 

What does this have to do with contest fiddling? 

Along with making up their own approaches to tunes, such that you can really hear a stylistic difference between Clark Kessinger, Paul Warren, and Kenny Baker, fiddle players made up their own technique in part because they didn’t have access to teachers who corrected their bow grip or put straws in their f-holes so they would play with a straight bow.  On the surface, then, traditional players sound “rougher” than classically trained musicians who have focused on making a beautiful tone.

But what is beneath the surface is more important, and that is the fundamental relationship a person has with the music he or she is playing.  When our contest judges choose winners based on tone quality and technique, they are rewarding an approach to playing that is truly antithetical to what fiddling is all about, as a form of music making. 

What is the solution to this?

If fiddling is going to be something besides just a different repertoire of music to be learned note for note, then fiddle contests need to reward invention.  And those of us who are classically trained need to work on wrapping our brains around fiddle concepts rather than just using our classical mentality in playing these tunes. 

Many of the fiddle players who taught themselves are getting old, so now is the time for us to listen to them and to find out how they think about music.  All of us are capable of learning to think outside the classical box—but we have to make an effort to do so.  And fiddle contest judges can help in this area by rewarding fiddlistic approaches rather than violinistic thinking.

About the Author

Until recently, Carolyn Osborne was the co-director of the Gahanna-Lincoln High School fiddlers, Gahanna, Ohio.  She teaches in the Dept. of Education at Capital University.

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