The Rare Magic of Fiddle Contests

The Rare Magic of Fiddle Contests

By Celeste Johnson

People often ask me why I like fiddle contests. They seem like an odd thing to many people. “So you’re telling me that you get up on stage to be judged on purpose?!” And when it’s put that way, I see how contests can be off-putting. But when I go to a fiddle contest, I don’t go up on stage to be judged. In fact, that is the least important part of a fiddle contest. So let me paint a different picture of fiddle contests—let me show you why I love them. And spoiler alert: it’s not because I like to compete.

When I was a child, I heard the fiddle for the first time and have not stopped thinking about it since. When I first got a violin of my own, I marveled at it every day, looking at it and gliding my fingers over its cool strings and smooth body. I thumbed through pages of sheet music I did not yet know how to read, coursing with the excitement that I might one day play the notes written there. Every week when I walked into my teacher’s warmly lit house, I felt like I was entering a different, magical world. I quickly fell in love with everything about fiddling: the beautiful instrument, the challenge of learning, the happy tunes, and the way that it made me feel like I belonged to something and something belonged to me.

About a year and a half after I began taking lessons, my fiddle teacher Chris Daring suggested that I enter the state fiddle contest that was approaching a few months later. My stomach plunged with fear at the thought of entering a contest, but I felt an electric excitement at the same time. I decided to do it and began dutifully preparing my two tunes for the novice division (I believe they were Arkansas Traveler and I Don’t Love Nobody).

Months passed. The contest came closer and closer. I circled the date on my family’s calendar and watched for its arrival. Finally it came. I woke up around six in the morning, feeling like I would throw up. Despite my mother’s urging, I refused to eat much for breakfast. My hands were shaking before I even got to the contest site due in equal parts to nerves and excitement. When I walked into the practice room for the first time, I was taken aback. There, fiddling, were several other kids like me, small and scared and excited. Some of them loved playing, you could tell, and some of them were there because their moms wanted them to be. Regardless, they were there and so was I, and we were all part of this thing. I remained nervous but my excitement grew to tremulous new levels as I unpacked my fiddle among these newfound peers.

The rest of that day is a blur in my recollection. The few snapshots that stay with me are feelings more than memories: the warm comfort of getting ready with my guitar player, the breathless terror that overcame me in the moment before I walked onstage, the explosive joy I felt each time I met a new person who shared the same love for the music that I had.

I left the contest hungry for more chances to immerse myself in fiddle music and discover the rich community I had glimpsed there. After that day, I went to as many fiddle contests as I could. Each one was a little different, but they all had one thing in common: every contest exists because of a community of people who love fiddle music and care about it deeply. That feeling of community was what made my first contest experience so transformative. It is without a doubt what has kept me fiddling and attending contests all these years later.

That community stretches across the country and brings the same people together year after year to connect to the music and to each other. Never have I been part of a more intimate, passionate, and generous community than the one I’ve discovered through fiddle contests. The community I became part of by participating in contests has shaped my very concept of what it means to belong to something.

I made my first great friends at fiddle contests. At first, my “friends” were people I would briefly talk to in my uncomfortable seven-year-old way before I went back to practicing in my corner. But year after year, as I kept going to contests and seeing the same people return, I got to know them. Some of them I know in friendly, familiar passing. But some of them I know almost like family. We help each other warm up for our rounds and cheer for each other on stage. Afterwards, we stay up late into the night laughing and playing tune after tune together, relishing the specialness of each other’s company. The happiness that sparks between us is pure and infectious, the kind that comes from people doing what lights them up together. It is rare magic to spend time with people who love what you love as much as you do.

When each contest ends, we all go back to our “regular lives.” Most of the time, it feels like the shock of waking up from a good dream too soon. After being immersed in fiddle music for several days, it’s jarring to hear a pop song in a restaurant or to be met with silence, rather than a late-night jam, when it’s time to go to bed. It’s odd to try to explain what just happened to people who weren’t there. “How did it go?” they ask. I realize they’re asking how I placed in the contest. “It was incredible,” I usually respond, and leave it at that. It doesn’t come close to describing the experience of a fiddle contest, but it must suffice. I want to capture the experience in words. I want to hold onto it for a lifetime, but I know it’s impossible. Instead, I hold onto the idea of what the future holds: another contest, another jam, another night among friends. Rare magic.

Baxter Bell – Oakland, California

Baxter Bell – Oakland, California

My Fiddle Story – Baxter Bell

I started playing the violin before I knew any better! I was five at the time, and apparently, I had grown fond of the piano, as my grandmother had a baby grand in her living room, quite an extravagance for the wife of a barber in the early 1960s! I liked to sit on the piano bench with her as she played and she would have me hit a few high notes to play along with her. This led to my repeated requests of mom and dad to get us a piano for our house. Having neither the means nor the space, my mom embarked on an adventure of finding a violin teacher in Toledo, Ohio in 1965 willing to teach a 5-year-old. This was essentially unheard of in our town! She approached a teacher who offered classes to 4th and 5th graders and proposed just such an absurdity, and it did not initially look promising. However, this teacher just happened to be married to a music professor at the University of Toledo, who supposedly (perhaps aware of the introduction of Suzuki method in other parts of the US) encouraged his wife to give me a try. Predicting I would not last a month, she reluctantly agreed, with the promise from her husband that he would sit in on my lessons. Although I have no distinct memory of him actually being in the room, in retrospect, I now feel honored he was there. Mrs. Gunderson was an old-school classical teacher, prone to more brow beating and pointing out the negative in my young playing, and I recall more than one occasion when I was brought to tears for “not practicing enough this week” and the like. But I did really like, at 5, the prize at the end of my first recital: popsicles and ice cream for all us students! That got my attention (being kind of like my first paid gig), and I immediately asked my mom if I could hold my own “recital” outside our house, featuring the only song I knew- Mary Had a Little Lamb! She agreed, I rounded up all my little friends from the neighborhood, and following my brief but spirited performance, mom gladly dispensed the popsicles!

I continued to study violin with Mrs. Gunderson for the next 5 years, gradually acclimating to the unique challenges of a fretless instrument- I am so grateful that I did not know what frets were then, and therefore simply set my sights on learning the violin in blissful semi-ignorance. Not only were there recitals to prepare for 2 time a year, but I began to compete in String Instrument competitions and occasionally won some prize money! In 4th grade, I began studying with a new teacher, Miss Vashaw, who was newly back from some time in New York City, where she taught and wrote instructional books for violin. She was in her 60s at that time, and was not only an excellent violin teacher, but a great motivator, encouraging and bringing out the best in her students, and an extra “grandmother” to me, taking me under her wing and making me feel seen and heard. She also gave me my first rock ‘n roll album…one day after a lesson, we were looking through her large collection of classical albums and came upon the Beatles Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and seeing my curiosity and not missing a beat, she gave it to me- not loaned, but gifted!  Well, from the opening bars of the track “A Day in the Life”, my understanding of music was forever changed…and that great Orchestral section on that track seemed to say “Violins can Rock!” It would be a while before I experienced that literally, but the seed was planted.

Middle school and Junior High saw me forming a Trio with my cello playing brother Dave and our viola playing friend Dale, playing for my parent’s bridge clubs and holiday gathering, and making a little coin along the way. Sprinkled in among all our classical repertoire, there were a few more contemporary pieces, but they were still a rarity. Another personal musical milestone was playing in my first pit orchestra in 8th grade for a local high school production of “Tea for Two”, with my brother Dave and me making up the entire string section!  Upon entering high school myself, I joined the Toledo Youth Orchestral and auditioned into the 1st violin section, working my way into the second chair over a few years, and soloing with them in my junior year. I also recall the excitement of doing a short tour a towns a few hours away from Toledo during those years and the joy of participating in a good orchestral performance.

Despite the encouragement of Miss Vashaw that I consider studying music in college, I opted instead for pre-med- I loved science and biology and felt drawn to the idea of being a healer as a profession. But my violin went along for the ride, and came out at the holidays, for a talent show in Medical School, and other such occasions. My introduction to bluegrass and old timey music came years later during my Family Practice residency when I was actually living in the Blue grass state, in Covington, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. One of my mentors, Dr. Andy Baker, an obstetrician, also played banjo and enjoyed jamming to bluegrass tunes. Procuring a copy of the Fiddler’s Real Book, I joined him and a few other players at his actual off-the-grid log cabin on the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky to learn my first old timey tunes by candle light and fueled by Wild Turkey!

My next big shift in musical reality came from a patient of mine around my 37th turn around the sun. Lou kind of defies being pigeon-holed into a style of play, but he is a master guitarist, and what he turned me onto was improvising by ear. He also exposed me to experimental jazz, and other fringe trends that vastly expanded my understanding and tastes in music. Learning to play by ear meant all I needed to know was the key a tune was in, and I could find a way for my fiddle to sing along. This began a pretty continuous period of getting together with friends for casual jam sessions that include pop tunes, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass- all musical genres were welcome! Then, 3 summers ago, I finally got to join my guitar strumming, harmonica blowing, John-Cash sounding friend Kevin at the summer music camp he had already been to two summers running. The moment I walked into the cafeteria/greeting area that first time, I know I was home! The California Coastal Music Camp, no longer residing on the coast, has been around for over 20 years, and some of the campers have been coming for almost that long!!! Camp is welcoming to players of all levels and supports folk, blues, jazz, rock and roll, and more. It gave me an opportunity to dive into realms I had rarely visited: Celtic fiddle style, Mandolin, Django Gypsy Jazz ensemble, and this past summer, Katie’s Western Swing Fiddle! And probably not since my early days, I am playing on my own most days of the week. What a ride and what a joy this humble violin has provided!

Bob Davis – Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Bob Davis – Guanacaste, Costa Rica


Wow. Daunting challenge. So to begin, I’ll relieve those of you who may read this, the mental exercise of determining my age. I’m 72…which underscores that it is never too late in your life to pick up your axe, and start making it put out tunes! Doesn’t matter if you strum it, squeeze it, pick it, bow it, blow it, tinkle its keys, slobber on its reed, bang on or beat on it, or any of the many more ways to let the music in your soul come to the fore. Let it OUT! In tune, sort of in tune, doesn’t matter!

Because Katie’s Musical Journey invitation established that vocals and playing instruments qualify equally, my journey began with vocals. To wit, as a seven year old American kid temporarily living in a British suburb of London, England. Me and my british mates in the days leading up the Christmas Eve would trek up and down our neighborhood street, knocking on neighbors’ front doors, offering our Christmas Carol vocals, for which we would be rewarded a few ‘pence each. Wow…a paid gig! When my mates got too cold to continue, my capitalistic, entrepreneurial spirit sprang forth and I soldiered on until the venue was exhausted. (And that, was pretty much, other than singing along with John Denver tunes on the drive to work, the end of my vocal career).

So, shortly thereafter, back living on the east coast as a short and stocky, very proper British-speaking 4th grader, I decided, here’s a good idea, “I’ll take up violin”. This did not go well…First, it quickly became clear I wasn’t a childhood prodigy; second, it required practicing every day, which apparently just didn’t work for me (you’ll see this pattern again later); third, none of my school mates, all of whom were striving to soon depose Mickey Mantle (major league baseball hero) were inclined toward picking up a violin. So, – actually I can’t any longer remember the end of the 4th grade violin era – moving on.

Next, while trying to navigate the travails of life as a still stocky short sixth grader, my Mother, in her arguably wise ways, decided that I was well suited to playing Accordion…not just a squeeze box that an 11 year old might play…no, a 128 button, full blown keyboard with at least 8,000 keys. An instrument housed in a box that took a crane assist while ascending the stairs to my music teacher’s second story studio. This was such a massive instrument that if you spread the bellows to their full extension, it would have required assistance from Arnold Schwarzenegger to compress. Like the violin, this did not go on long.

So, on to 12 or maybe 13 years old. Aaahhh, Electric Guitar! Got one for Christmas. A Silvertone electric two-pickup guitar, with amp, from Sears. In case you are trying to figure out timing, 1961. Now living in Panama City, Florida. Gonna be Elvis The 2nd. My Dad signed me up with a 950 year old guitar teacher (he was really good by the way). But dang, he wanted me to first practice these boring scales, and learn to read, of all things, musical notation. Nah, wanna be a Rock N’ Roll star…NOW! I suspect you’re getting the picture. Rock N’ Roll star didn’t pan out, guitar went to the back of the closet. Now 16-17 years old, living in Northern California (1963-1965). SURFIN USA!!! I’m all over that! Broke out that Silvertone, started playing with neighborhood buds, got better…not great… sorta practicing…and one of my buds kind of oversold our skills and song list, and the next thing I know, we’re on the stage of my High School doing a Friday night dance gig…wait, I’m the rhythm guy, why am I now playing lead???!!! It wasn’t pretty, and we weren’t invited back, not only for an encore that night, but ever! Guitar…back in the closet (wish Instill had that axe, it was really sweet).

Advance the clock about 40 years…no musical instruments touched during that time. Moved to the central coast of California. Big bluegrass fan. Hmmm, like the sound of mandolins. Bought one.  Don’t need no stinking lessons…I’ll teach myself. And did, sort of. Relearned how to sight read music, evolved to starting to step it up on Irish and bluegrass mandolin stuff…but that dang practicing thing – I just want to play like David Grisman or Sam Bush, NOW…kept getting in the way of my musical success.

A few years later, my wife and I took off as full time live aboard ocean-going  sailors on our 50’ sailboat.  My mandolin’s on board, sharing space with my wife and I in the forward bunk of our home, she blabbing something about “play the damn thing or lets use it as a dinghy paddle”.  By happenstance I got hooked into taking lessons in Puerta Vallarta at a mexican bar/night club owned by a very excellent gringo musician. Something sparked, I lit off, got serious, haven’t stopped playing and seriously practicing since. And several years later bought my first of now five fiddles (way up in the mountains of Mexico).  Fiddle became my passion. I’ve since been playing mando and more recently almost exclusively fiddle with fellow sailing musicians who come from across the world while sailing throughout the Caribbean and Pacific waters and coastlines of Centraland South America. My fellow musician’s skills range from rookies like me, to a retired 50-year long cellist who was at one time the lead cellist in the Washington DC symphony.

But, as as largely self-taught fiddler, I knew if I was ever going to play at a level that I seek, I needed instruction. By pure coincidence in 2019 I attended California Coastal Music Camp, and ended up in Katie’s Swing Fiddle class which brings us to today. When I signed up for the Camp, hoping to find help in simply getting help to better play my fiddle and saw that “Swing Fiddle” was the only option, I ended up spending five days in her class. That led to my becoming  Fiddle School student, for which my wife is eternally grateful…my cat-screeching Fiddle play is pretty much a thing of the past. I have a repertoire of pieces that I am able to play without having to endlessly repeat a phrase to nail it, and most of the time my notes are on key. Now…about that Rock N’ Roll Star part!

Cheers, Bob



Linnea Kenney – Englewood, CO

Linnea Kenney – Englewood, CO

A Note About My Music

I grew up on a farm on the land my grandfather homesteaded and in the house he and my grandmother built. My dad grew up there too. He and my mom remained hereafter they married. My mom was raised in a musical family. She sang and played the piano. The Allen family would get together each Thanksgiving and have a huge meal. Following dinner, we would all gather round and sing songs that my granddad Allen passed on to my mom, her siblings, and their children. My uncle would play the guitar and harmonica, my cousins would take turns playing the piano, one cousin played the banjo and other cousins would play their guitars as we all sang. We sang and played old time music and religious hymns. It was always a magical time.

Kaitlin Kenney, Joey McKenzie, Royce Franklin – National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest

My mom sang in the church choir and as we got older she had us join the choir. I went to a small school with a combined grade school and high school students. Our school would put on plays and some were musicals. I auditioned for a singing part in one play when I was in grade school. I got the main character part and still remember one of the songs I had to sing! The whole community would come to see the plays in the high school auditorium.

I took piano lessons and played the trumpet in the junior high and high school bands. My cousin lent me her trumpet to play. I was actually pretty good at not taking lessons. We had some good band teachers who taught us in school. I was in the marching band and we competed in state music competitions. I remember going to CU Boulder for band day where bands from all over the state competed. It was a treat to participate. I tried to teach myself how to play the guitar. I was never very good at it. I took piano lessons but didn’t practice like I wish I would have.

Fast forward to getting married and having four children. My children played a variety of instruments. One or the other played piano, clarinet, flute, saxophone, bagpipes, and the fiddle. Our family loved music and went on family vacations to the Telluride Blue Grass Festival for many years.

Kaitlin Kenney, Christine King, Lisa Barrett

When our youngest, Kaitlin, was 6, I asked if she would like to learn how to play the fiddle. She said sure, so I started taking her to lessons. Her teacher taught Suzuki and Texas-style fiddling. She learned quickly and was naturally talented. I loved to hear her play. I took her to many group performances, fiddle contests – including Weiser, jam sessions, and fiddle workshops. I didn’t realize how much I absorbed from Kaitlin’s fiddling experiences. My love of fiddling became deep-seated. In high school, she took lessons from Katie Glassman who taught her Texas-style, jazz and improv. As life takes twists and turns, we lost Kaitlin in 2013 at 21 years of age. My heart was heavy when seeing Kaitlin’s fiddle in its case.

Katie encouraged me to take lessons and give her beloved fiddle some love. In 2018 I finally decided it was time. I did it with trepidation that I wouldn’t be able to play by ear. To my delight with Katie’s thoughtful teaching program she showed me I could do it, even at my age! I love that I can now play the fiddle! I look forward to learning new techniques to improve my playing and enjoy the challenge of learning new songs. The fiddle has become part of my musical soul.

I took Kaitlin to pick out her last fiddle from Lisa and Dick Barrett. Fiddles and fiddlers choose each other. I realize she picked this fiddle not just herself but also for me. Kaitlin’s fiddle no longer sits lonely in its case. I pick it up to practice every day and look forward to hearing the music it can play. It brings me great joy and Kaitlin is in my heart every time I pick up her fiddle to play.

—Linnea Kenney

Paul Pruett – Saltillo, Tennessee

Paul Pruett – Saltillo, Tennessee

I currently reside in the rural west Tennessee community that I grew up in. We raised cotton, hogs, and a large garden. We were poor people like most in the community. We had music and making music to fill the hours that chores and the cotton patch didn’t require. Yes, I know too much about hoeing and picking cotton by hand. No complaints though, it built a strong work ethic.

At 67 and now retired for seven years, you get plenty of time to reflect on things  (and music is one of those that has made my to-do list off and on), but a lot of years were absorbed working and rearing children.

To begin with, music was always a part of my Dad’s family even though neither of his parents played instruments or sang. Gone before my birth, it was said my grandfather Levi John Eli was a fiddler but he died before my arrival. My dad’s siblings, six in total, sang and or played. Family gatherings always included a few hours of music…singing, mandolin, and guitar but no fiddling. My dad had an old Harmony guitar that had given up the ghost but was still a little playable. It wasn’t beginner friendly and was falling apart. My sister, Nancy, was taking piano lessons at school from Ms. Kate, who was a rather large old maid who gave piano lessons for a $1.00 per month. Nancy stayed on the piano stool from the first grade through graduation. The piano was one of the household treasures as it had been purchased by my maternal grandfather for his wife in the early 1900s. He purchased it from New York and it made the trip to Saltillo Tennessee by river barge. It’s a beautiful old upright with walnut, and cherry woods and features a fourth pedal said to be a banjo/honky-tonk tone. I wanted to play but it wasn’t cool for boys to take piano lessons…only the girls and a few sissy boys took the lessons.

I got the bug for a guitar and my dad gave me the proceeds from selling one of our hogs which I fed before and after school. Loaded with $35 to spend, we ordered a Montgomery Ward Airline from the catalog and awaited its arrival. It took a month and came by rail freight from Chicago to our county seat, Lexington, TN. It was a lot of money to spend but far less than the $100 for a new Gibson J45 at Wright’s furniture store in Lexington. We were ecstatic to get the Monkey Ward special. It was like fretting a fence to quote “Doc Watson”, so my ever-handy Dad improved the action with some adjustments on the bridge and nut. My dad acquired an old Kalamazoo mandolin from one of my uncles who had quit playing. The mandolin had supposedly made a few trips to the Opry stage with the John D. Springer quartet back in the day. My dad was a good rhythm guitarist and had seconded many fiddlers at square dances as well as his brother who was a really good mandolin player. The high school years passed with my brother and I learned to play rhythm behind my dad’s mandolin playing. Sally Goodin, Ragtime Annie, Milk Cow Blues, Chicken Reel, Wednesday Night Waltz all still ring in my head (with my dad questioning why we couldn’t hear the chord changes). Finally, we learned to hum the tunes which opened the door to hearing the changes.

On to fiddling, our little town of 300 had a 1 through grade 12 school that I attended and graduated from with my fellow 22 classmates. An annual event and fundraiser for the school was the West Tennessee Fiddlers Contest. It ran for 50 years before ending in around 1999. In 1968, I attended my first contest and heard live fiddling for the first time. It lit a fire in my soul that has never died.     The judges required a playoff to determine the winner. Wayne Jerrolds, who eventually had a short stint with Bill Monroe, played Listen to the Mockingbird while his opponent a young man from Corinth, Mississippi played Blue Moon of Kentucky. I can still hear the soulful crying notes from Blue Moon of Kentucky and the shuffles from Listen to the Mockingbird. I was forever hooked to those sounds.

Our neighbor, Henry Bivens, a retired blacksmith, owned a fiddle and was a poor to fair player according to my Dad. I never heard him play. Henry routinely enjoyed adult beverages and dipped snuff with a sweet gum toothbrush. He and his wife Hattie sat on the front porch of their home dipping snuff and sometimes with their feet in a pan of water for cooling in the summer. They both passed away around 1969. My dad bought Henry’s fiddle for me when their possessions were auctioned.

Armed with mandolin tunes, we all attempted to play the fiddle with little success.    Lessons or money for lessons didn’t exist. The fiddle stayed in the dilapidated case but I counted it in my prized possessions. Soon it was off to college. The day before leaving home for college I got my most memorable lessons for life words from Dad. I had gotten loans and scholarships to pay the way but he told me the day before I left as we stood in the side yard looking at the fields, “don’t go off and act a fool or your ass will be back here in that g**dammed cotton patch”. Properly motivated, I graduated with honors holding a chemical engineering degree. After graduating I packed my fiddle, guitar, and two suitcases with the rest of my junk to begin work with Dow Chemical. Music for the most part was on hold except for a beer-loving band that I played in while with Dow. I soon began job-hopping and relocating to enhance my career.

In two of my 13 relocations, I got the opportunity for fiddle lessons but they were short-lived. The first in Huntington, West Virginia in 1977. The instructor quit after two lessons and the second came in Columbia TN circa 1982. He quit commuting from Nashville after four lessons. I did learn from the second teacher that the old fiddle was really not very playable…..Back in the case!

I continued guitar noodling off and on through the1970 to 2013 period. No serious pursuit with the guitar as chemical plant management and children took all my time. Upon retiring and acquiring an iPad I discovered YouTube. We had moved from Nashville and were living in our weekend getaway planning to build a home. I ran across Bryan Sutton playing Beaumont Rag and immediately discovered all of the music tutorials and aids on the internet. I bought a ton of books from Steve Kaufman’s parking lot picker series and practiced all my fingers would allow. I got to a reasonable intermediate level in two years and decided to attend the Kaufman flatpick camp. I got some great guitar tips and a few tunes but the highlight came when I attended a class offered to any and all attendees hosted by Barbara Lamb, who played a short stint with Asleep at the Wheel. The class was titled, “So You Always Wanted to Play the Fiddle”. I left the class knowing I wasn’t too old and that the better my instrument for learning, the easier it would be to get a good sound. I bought a violin and bow a few weeks later in July 2018.

After four torturous months of trying to play by ear and internet tutelage, I bought Brian Wicklund’s American Fiddle Method Book and started at the beginning. I couldn’t stand more than 30 minutes a day but I finally made progress and got comfortable holding the instrument and making recognizable tune noise. I acquired an online teacher and learned a good bit but she didn’t play the way tunes are in my head. She made beautiful music but her real forte was classical.

Along the way, I discovered Fiddle School and Katie Glassman playing the Eighth of January and must have watched that free video 200 times. There was the sound I wanted. I joined fiddle school and haven’t looked back. I try to practice 3 hours a day but seem to lose focus if I go too long and I’m scared of learning bad habits. I’ve set a goal to play pretty well by age 70 or quit. I don’t know if I would really quit but I’m presently loving the journey. It is such good medicine.

I enjoyed penning most of this but I got a little weepy thinking about my dad, sister, and brother, who all met the Cancer foe. The best of my memories with them were around music. The piano my sister played is still at home with my mother, Henry’s fiddle and the old mandolin are resting in my living room. My old Montgomery Ward guitar is sitting in an outbuilding on the farm…..maybe I’ll bring it home to rest too…..

–Paul Pruett



Camille Arnold-Mages – 16 Years Old – Boston, MA

Camille Arnold-Mages – 16 Years Old – Boston, MA

I started playing the violin with the Suzuki method when I was 6 years old. When I was 10, I had joined a local youth orchestra, but I was always interested in more kinds of music than classical. At a summer camp I learned about fiddling.  At about that age, I remember searching on the internet for violin contests and found a fiddle contest hosted by the National Western Stock Show. I was always a competitive kid, and a fiddle contest sounded amazing!

To prepare for the contest I asked my dad to find sheet music for fiddle tunes that I could easily learn in the month leading up to the contest. I competed in the Novice division where I played Cripple Creek and Wizard’s Walk by Jay Unger. To my great dismay I didn’t win. I stopped playing fiddle for a while. I had decided that if I couldn’t win right off the bat then what was the point?

Later that year at the same summer camp from the previous year, I met Katie Glassman. Katie got me hooked on the fiddle. She made it look so fun! Shortly after, I began taking private fiddle lessons with Katie. What an experience! Till then, I never realized how different Classical playing and fiddling were. I had thought that because classical was so much “harder” than any classical player could easily play the simple fiddle tunes. I was so very very wrong. I spent about a year with Katie in person where I worked on learning the “basics” of fiddling, the feel, and the bowing patterns. (I must admit I still am searching for the feel of fiddling.) 

When I was 11, with my family, I made my first trek up to Weiser for the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest. I was fired up to compete in the Jr. Jr. division with other kids my age. I thought I was going to beat everyone. Once again that was not the case…. at all. I had never realized how competitive fiddling was, and really didn’t understand what it meant to be an “advanced player”, even after my many trial and errors.

That same summer my family moved to Pittsburgh. I continued taking lessons from Katie but online, through Skype. Skype brought a new sort of learning curve I had to overcome, there was no way for Katie to move my arms into correct positions, it was harder to show me how to make technical changes, and not to mention the shotty internet connection. Altogether there was something lost when doing online lessons. 

When I was about 13 I began to lose interest in fiddling. The contests in Pittsburgh were an entirely different genre than the Texas-style I was used to. They also lacked the sense of community I had found at Weiser. I struggled in lessons and I wouldn’t admit it at the time but I wasn’t working nearly as hard used to. I began to listen to my peers who told me that I should just quit because what was the point? This struck a certain bell with me and once again I began to think “What’s the point in trying if I’m not going to win?” I convinced myself that I now hated fiddle. 

The only thing that kept me playing was Weiser. When I was 15 I got an opportunity to travel to Europe with my Orchestra over going to Weiser. This allowed me to lose all (if any) focus I had on fiddle. 

Later that Summer my family once again picked up and moved to Boston. While we were trying to buy a house in Boston there were many conflicts and we ended up being homeless! Luckily our family friends offered us one of their cabins in Vermont. Even though I wasn’t excited about it at first, Boston has proved to have many opportunities. 

I continued to try to convince myself that I “hated” fiddle. I continued to not prepare for lessons. Thankfully things began to turn around. That Fall Katie came to visit us and gave me and my sisters a fiddle intensive. While she was here she would pull me aside from my sisters to talk with me. She encouraged me to continue playing and told me that she could tell that I was still in love with the fiddle. No matter how hard I tried, Katie had reconnected me with a part of myself I had shoved deep down. I began to pick my fiddle up a little more, began to play guitar, and listen to fiddle music. Though I did all this where my parents and sisters couldn’t see me. I didn’t want them to know that I had begun to reconnect with the music I’d worked so hard to distance myself from. 

That Winter I worked up the courage to ask my Dad to check out some books about the King of Western Swing Bob Wills. I read as much about him as I possibly could. He had me hooked, not only on him as a person but his music. Around the same time I got these books I began to surf the internet in search of fiddle videos. I found Lyle Dixson’s channel where he recorded every fiddle contest imaginable and posted it on YouTube. I would spend hours upon hours watching and researching fiddle. I was once again (whether I liked it or not) hooked on fiddle. 

That summer I, unfortunately, was unable to make it to Weiser again. This time for financial reasons and as far as my friends know I missed Weiser because I had rowing practice. Lucky for me, the contest was being streamed. I stayed up late every night to watch the Junior and Championship rounds. I admitted to myself for the first time in 3 years that I very much missed openly enjoying fiddle.

That summer things got tough, rowing was grueling, my favorite dog passed away, and I was in a sort of funk. All my time was spent at rowing. I woke up at 6 to get to practice and wasn’t home till after 5. When I got home I’d shower, eat, and go to bed. I was way too tired to practice. Luckily in August I finally got a break from rowing. I picked up my fiddle and began practicing again. This time I approached my practicing with the attitude of if I’m going to spend time doing something, I may as well do it the best I can. I took a deep dive into fiddle music. I spent hours listening to Terry, my favorite fiddler. I began to get tired of playing songs I had learned the previous spring and wanted to learn something new. I learned a few parts of Say Old Man off of a Terry recording. During my first fall semester lesson with Katie I played her the parts of Say Old Man I had learned. She seemed so happy that I had taken the initiative to learn something on my own. I’d never done that before. That got me even more hooked. From there I began to pick up speed with my learning. I was very hungry to learn more and to more importantly make up for all the lost time. 

I continue to read and watch fiddle videos. I sometimes sneak my laptop into my room at night to watch videos of Terry or other famous fiddlers. I am once again playing fiddle for the joy of playing!


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