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What is Fiddling by Blake Turner

If you are a violinist or violist, you’ve probably been asked at some point in your life, “Now is that a fiddle or a violin/viola?” Growing up in Texas, where there is a fiddler in nearly every country band, I’ve been asked that question quite a bit. I’m always happy to tell people that the answer is “both!” A fiddle and a violin are synonyms for the same instrument, and where the differences lie are in the style of play. Fiddling is a style that characterizes a type of folk music just as Bach’s music is defined by the Baroque style.

Some of the more distinctive elements that characterize a lot of fiddle playing include ornamentation, slides, double stops, and drones. Bowings also are a huge part of fiddle music, as they often give a piece its driving rhythm and seamless flow. Another two key aspects of fiddle playing are individuality and improvisation. This is due to the fact that most players learn tunes by ear, and as a fiddler gains more experience he adds his own flair and personality to the music.

0213a Mark O'Connor

Now there are many different types of fiddling, which I find fascinating! For example, there are Irish, Canadian, Celtic, and Texas styles of fiddling, just to name a few. I am neither a music scholar nor an expert wordsmith, so for you to get an idea of the differences among some of these styles, I’ve included links to recordings at the bottom of this post.

Another fun and entertaining part of the fiddling tradition are fiddle contests. Through the years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in several fiddle contests, and they are a ton fun. Contests are sometimes held as events by themselves or as part of a state/county fair, and it is a time for fiddlers young and old to take the stage and show off their chops! Typically each contestant is asked to play a hoedown, a waltz, and a tune of their choice (often times a breakdown) with bass and guitar accompaniment. After everyone plays, the judges choose finalists to play one more tune with the band. Once the judges have deliberated which fiddler has the best total score in categories such as rhythm, tone, danceability, and style, a winner is chosen. The champion then takes the stage a final time for a winner’s round.

Duo Fiddlers

If you have found any of this at all interesting, I would encourage you to try some fiddling yourself. There are a ton of great videos and recordings online that can give you an introduction into this great musical style. The best part about fiddling is that it is not a style limited to just violinists, and it can be just as exciting to play on the viola!

Here is a link to a great presentation that Natalie MacMaster gave on Cape Breton fiddling, which has Scottish roots.

Mark O’Conner is one of the most famous fiddlers of all time, and here is a video of him playing one of my favorite tunes called Orange Blossom Special.

April Vanch in this video gives a very informative breakdown of different Canadian fiddle styles.


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