Fiddling: The New String Curriculum

by Jan Farrar-Royce

It's just ten years, now, since the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) created the National Standards of Music Education, requiring the inclusion of improvisation, American folk music and dance into every public school music course. And, it's been five years since the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) devoted its National Conference to showing string teachers how American fiddling could best accomplish those directives. It took the next couple of years for the mostly conservatory-trained string teachers to understand and enjoy the differences between playing the violin and fiddle but today this writer stands joyfully amazed of the genuine enthusiasm with which many string teachers have embraced this "new-to-them" genre.

Now every state, regional and national music education conference includes what is presently called an "Alternate Styles" strand of workshops. Recording artists like Jay Ungar, Mark O'Connor, Bruce Molsky and Eileen Ivers have become highly publicized headliners at these events. The attendees at their workshops and concerts spill out into the hallways. Articles about their fiddling genres and careers are highlighted in music education magazines, and these articles are hung on the walls of orchestra rehearsal rooms. Many school systems have paid local fiddlers to become artists-in-residence to teach both the string students and the teachers about fiddling. After-school fiddle clubs are being created at such an astonishing rate that they are becoming common place. Summer music camps now offer daily fiddling lessons and bands side-by-side with orchestra rehearsals and chamber ensemble coaching. College courses have been created around fiddling and the number of universities now soliciting these programs is expanding, as well. Some universities even have fiddle instructors and just this summer the well-known Crane School of Music (Potsdam University, SUNY) created a graduate course in Music Education for string teachers who attended Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camp's Northern Week. More universities are scheduled to offer this same "Total Immersion" program by the Summer of 2005.

For the first time ever, school string programs are not only sending their students out to join jams and sit-in at dances, but they are inviting the community of folk musicians into their school fiddling events, as well. Family and community members are becoming revered resources for those instruments not yet included in the public school offerings, like guitar, banjo, mandolin and bodhran. A middle school fiddling class can include students from the age of 12 to 80 as children and adults connect musically and emotionally. Some teen-agers (and their teachers and families) are even rediscovering the joy of folk dancing!

Most heartening of all is the sincerity and reverence with which school and studio string teachers are embracing this new dimension to their programs. Great joy in real fiddling is being nurtured among the students, their friends, their families and the new generations of string teachers. In America the concept of what string instrumental music includes has forever changed. Fiddling is here to stay. Many string teachers are already looking at jazz, rock and world string music as the "new" major chapters in the study of string music! And I am not the only string teacher that dreams of the day - perhaps soon to come - when no one refers to any genre of playing as an "Alternate Style."

Updated Author blurb: Jan Farrar-Royce teaches strings at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, CT. She is the Alternate Styles reviewer for ASTA Magazine and teaches college courses and workshops to promote fiddling in schools. Her recently published fiddling books coordinate the tunes from White Mountain Reel: Dances and Calls (written by New Hampshire fiddler Dudley Laufman) for teaching in the heterogeneous string class.

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