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Summer Campers Fiddle Around - 2001-08-06

Fiddle music has been popular in North America for generations, played at places like Irish music festivals and country dance halls. Many fiddlers say there's nothing like playing in large groups. In Ontario, Canada, each summer, several dozen people meet to practice old tunes and learn new ones.

One sunny July morning about an hour's drive north of Toronto, it would have been possible to hear fiddle music slicing through the pine forest near the town of Orangeville, Ontario.

A fiddle is a violin. The style of music varies depending on where it is played, and ranges from slow waltzes to faster Irish jigs and reels. The Orangeville Camp is in its seventh year of hosting a week of lessons and performance.

Local engraver Bill Elliot founded the camp. "I've been going to fiddle events in Ontario for 25 or 30 years," he said. "I love fiddle music. I was talking to the competitors and I said we should have a fiddle camp in Ontario. They said, 'Yeah, go ahead.'"

The students come from all walks of life. Policemen in their 40s, retired people in their 70s and 80s and kids as young as seven. They attend four hours of instruction each day, and many practice a few hours more.

A massage therapist at the camp reminds them that much fiddling can be stressful on the body. Sandy Jewett is a fiddler herself and helps others find a form that won't hurt after a few hours of playing. She said, "Your elbow is the thing that moves with the bow. Your elbow is moving the bow up and down. Not your shoulder. Not your wrist."

Many of the instructors have won competitions in Canada, and are keeping a long tradition of fiddling alive. Paul Dacier, 20, of Quebec City is among a declining number of fiddlers who both learn and teach others the traditional way with no sheet music. "Twenty years ago," he said, "all these fiddlers and accordion players had no sheet [music]. They were learning by the radio or by someone else teaching the tune. The new generation is [learning] mostly by note."

Instructor Lloyd Wilson says passing tunes through the generations by ear has changed many of them. He said, "People were going by what they thought they heard or what they heard, and so the tune would get changed. By the time it was handed down it was like a story. If someone tells you a story, it usually gets expanded, added to, lost or whatever and by the time it gets to the third or fourth generation, it is not necessarily the same thing at all."

Mr. Wilson learned to play by ear, but today teaches only by using sheet music. He says it is easier for most students to follow, and it is easier for him to show students how a tune should be played by pointing out the notes.

Paul Dacier says playing and listening to fiddle players is enjoyable no matter how the tunes are learned. "I think it is something social," he said. "You meet people and play together and exchange tunes, and here is what I've learned. You try to get better. That is what happens at fiddle contests. It is fun to get on stage. You are nervous and you have to play good, so it makes you practice and you get better and when you win a prize it is fantastic."

Eight-year-old Sam Dunham from the United States knows the feeling of competition. "It is exciting," he said. "I get really nervous when I am up on stage, but once I get it over with I am calm."

Fiddling's popularity reaches beyond Canada. An annual competition in the U.S. state of Connecticut attracted 7,000 people this year and 15,000 people watched 100 fiddlers compete against each other this year in one small town in Texas.