Dick’s Forum – No. 14
For many years I thought most people learned to play the violin the way I did. A person took lessons, played scales, studies, etudes, concertos, and other music by master violinists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and after a few years of this you might be able to play the violin well. How well seemed to depend on a few variables like how much natural ability you brought to the experience, the quality of your teachers, and your own effort in developing your skill. Certainly, there were exceptions, we used to call them “prodigies” children who seemed gifted and destined from birth to play the violin exceptionally well, but they were few. One of the hallmarks of this educational experience is the ability to read music quite well. Some authors call this learning to play “cultured” music
Especially since moving to Texas, I’ve realized that many have learned to play the violin very well following a different path. Due to my own inexperience with this path I’m going to call it the Contest Fiddle Path. A young person so inclined takes an interest in the fiddle. Here in Texas there is often someone nearby who can show them a few things about getting started, how to hold the fiddle and the bow and how to play a few tunes. Someone, often in the same family plays the guitar and at an early age the budding fiddle player gets included in making music at family and church events. An important part of this experience is not learning to read music, rather to be able to hear and begin to duplicate the music being played. The same author who refers to cultured music would refer to this as “vernacular” music.
The young fiddler may have learned everything they can from their first environment and the search starts for other fiddlers who can teach them more. Here, in Texas there are a bunch of them and our new fiddler can work with as many as they can reach, improving their repertoire and technique along the way. Some of them become very good, if not dazzling, players.
Instead of the classical concert these players hone their skills in fiddle contests. In Texas and New Mexico these contests are held everywhere and are well attended by participants and fans. Some of these contests are national, even international events with great esteem attached to doing well.
I have no experience in contest fiddling and as I write this I am thinking of Randy Elmore and Damon Boyd, both Champion Texas fiddlers. I’m pleased to know both and have great respect for their abilities and musicianship. Randy has won everything there is to win in contest fiddling, more than once. In addition, he is a professional musician with international credits including stints with Reba McIntyre, Mel Tillis, Willie Nelson, and a host of others. He teaches in “fiddle camps” throughout the United States and hosts his own very successful camp here in Texas. Randy is as good as his reputation says he is, in addition to which he is a very nice person.
Damon Boyd of Imperial, Texas is a former Texas Senior Fiddle Champion. Now in his eighties he still fiddles and likes to jam with friends. Although one can hear the effects of time, age, and gravity on his playing, his playing is just the “right stuff”. To hear Damon play a fiddle tune, it to hear it with freshness, charm, and most of all, originality. He tells me he never had a lesson in his life, he just kept at it until he got a tune the way he wanted it.
Damon tells endless stories of the fiddle contests he has played in, the contests he won, lost, and should have won but didn’t, and a few he won and shouldn’t have. He is a grand, grouchy friend who has helped me understand how a person can become a very good player traveling a much different path than I.
To hear these fine fiddlers contact Damon at P.O. Box 155 Imperial, Tx 79743 and ask for his recording Comin' Down The Pecos. Randy has a number of fine recordings available from him at randyelmoremusic.com. Randy also has a summer fiddle camp and is very much in demand. You'll enjoy his website.
Here I must admit to a troublesome bias. I continue to believe that a person who is trained as a “classical” violinist, and here I mean a person that has excelled at this training is unsurpassed and unequaled in the technique of playing a violin. I also believe they make very poor fiddle players. They make the wonderful music of the fiddle sound technical and pedantic, they just don’t get it. It’s the sound, the style, the energy, the soul they lack. So to, the fiddler who becomes very good lacks the “cultured” sound of the trained violinist and it is apparent when one hears them play such music. I readily admit to my bias in these matters but it is one am part of in my own playing. For example I can play the fiddle tune Billy in the Low Ground and I play all the right notes. But, to hear Damon Boyd play this tune is to experience it and I find myself saying of his playing “Man, I wish I could do that!!” Guess what Damon says about hearing my playing, Yep, the same thing.