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Adventures in Fiddleland

I’ve always admired fiddlers. In jams at banjo camp and at old time festivals, I’ve been in awe at the ability of fiddle players. Humans can’t do this, I decided. These people must be our overlords from another planet. Along the way I’ve learned to play some button accordion and some clawhammer banjo, but I’ve avoided fiddle, thinking the only way a human has any chance at all at learning this instrument is by starting as a child. Starting at the tail end of my 50s had to be crazy.

When my brother announced he was going to rid himself of the fiddle Grandpa gave him as a kid, I thought, what the Hell, I know it’s not possible but I’ll give it a go. It was ugly. Every time I touched bow to strings it sounded like an industrial accident scene. It seemed the learning curve was extremely steep, but then again, I can be pretty stubborn. I thought I’d try an online fiddle course, and I’ll say that started me off on the right foot. It was difficult, but I got to the point where the sounds coming off my fiddle were getting closer to musical. The course was set up as a lengthy series of videos designed to teach skills bit by bit while teaching a series of tunes.

Along the way a few things happened. I started finding lots of other free resources on YouTube and some of these were really good. I found myself spending more time working with these resources and less time working with the course. Another thing that happened is that I started listening more and more to Canadian Old Time music. I discovered I really enjoyed it for all kinds of reasons. I loved that Canadian players included a broader range of musical forms than I was used to playing American old time stringband music. As well as reels, I found myself listening to all kinds of jigs and hornpipes, two-steps and foxtrots. This didn’t diminish my love for the Appalachian old time music I have been playing on the banjo, but still I’d listen to tunes by Ned Landry and Reg Hill and so many other players and think, I’d love to learn to do this.

Charlie Walden’s excellent YouTube channel quickly became a go-to resource for me and eventually I became a Patreon subscriber to access more of his tasty fiddle goodies. Charlie is a Missouri fiddler living in Chicagoland. Curiously, he plays a lot of the Canadian fiddle tunes I’ve been chasing. I’ve been listening to his various live broadcasts – the Big Fiddle Show, the Wednesday night sessions, Twin Fiddle Time and his Camp Possum tutorials. Highly Recommended for fiddle freaks everywhere.

These days I’m taking weekly lessons with a fabulous teacher from the Ottawa Valley, Cindy Thompson, which we do via Facetime. I’m having a blast! My learning has accelerated to the point that I’m now confident I can actually learn to do this. Still, I have lots and lots and lots of work to do to improve my intonation, build speed, get better at figuring out satisfactory bowing, improve my tone, learn to develop variations and so on, not to mention learning a repertoire well enough it sticks in my tiny brain so I’m not dependent on notation.

The more I’m learning the more I want to play. Some days I’ll have 3 fiddle sessions, including a late-night session in my converted garage studio. I can’t seem to get enough right now. In part I think this is because it’s way more fun to play when you can the progress you’re making. The next thing I want to do is start adding some fiddle when I get together to play with my friend Ted on guitar and Tuffy P on gutbucket bass and scrubboard.

I haven’t tried to record any fiddle on video yet. I feel I need to improve both my skills and confidence more before I do that. I do regularly record audio on my phone though. I find that being able to listen to what I just played exposes the areas I need to work on. Listening back, my mistakes seem so obvious, even though I couldn’t appreciate them as I was attempting to play the tune.

I recall while jamming with a couple people a couple years ago, mentioning that I wanted to learn fiddle. The fiddler said something like, “That’s the trouble. We keep losing banjo players. They start playing fiddle and it takes over.” That won’t happen with me I thought. The truth is that fiddle does seem to be taking over. Sure I still play banjo, including regular sessions with Ted and Tuffy P, but I’m putting far more effort now into learning the fiddle, and enjoying every minute of it.

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