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Fiddle competitions 101—no, 102

Dan Carwile teaches at the Mark O'Connor/Berklee Summer String Program

Dan Carwile knows fiddle contests

Coming to you Wednesday afternoon from the Mark O’Connor/Berklee Summer String Program… fiddle cases are everywhere!

Fiddler Dan Carwile is so detail-oriented he has a spreadsheet ranking brands of rosin. He told a dozen students he wanted them to learn past masters’ fiddle tunes so well that they could name every lick they stole. “I’m a fossil,” he said. But not a fogey: “I like to go for something different every time… it’s controlled improvisation.”

The program’s “contest-style” or “Texas-style” teacher, Dan ran the class through a classic fiddle breakdown and shared tips from his experiences judging (among other competitions) the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho. That’s “Weiser,” pronounced “weezer,” to insiders.

Please imagine this all in a soft Alabama drawl.

DAN’S TOP FIVE MOST COMMON BREAKDOWNS

  • “Sally Gooden”
  • “Sally Johnson”
  • “Gray Eagle”
  • “Dusty Miller”
  • “Tom and Jerry”

– A Weiser opening round can have 75 competitors. Only 15 move on. Probably 30 deserve to. “How can you be in that pack by the tunes you choose?” One answer: Play something unusual. “Sometimes it’s cool to go back and play a tune that’s so old it’s new again.”

Definitely never play one of the top five if there’s more than 10 people in your category. “As a judge you’re sitting in the back saying oh no, not that again.” The year after Tristan Clarridge won Weiser with “Angel’s Waltz” so many competitors tried to play it that Dan renamed it “Angel of Death.”

– The characteristic contest-fiddling rhythm: “I like to call [it] ‘strutting chickens‘… if it’s not there you don’t have the right feel.”

– As a teen prodigy, Mark O’Connor couldn’t knock Herman Johnson off the podium at Weiser: He was too creative and the judges didn’t like it. “He started getting real fancy. It was his age… [judges] didn’t appreciate that Mark was giving them cartwheels in three different directions.” Eventually Mark gave in and toned it down. “He started playing more conservatively because he wanted to win it. And he did.” Still, “he never won in the state of Texas. They couldn’t acknowledge how good he was.”

– “I’ve never intentionally memorized any music in my entire life… I just played it so many times it memorized itself.”

– Commenting on Major Franklin‘s version of the classic breakdown “Grey Eagle,” which has a piano accompanist: “You don’t hear that anymore in contests… as a matter of fact you don’t have a piano in almost every home anymore. 50 years ago you did… but I promise you every home has a computer. And a smartphone… Are we really progressing? Worth pondering.”

– “I don’t even waste my time arguing with people who know it all. They probably say the same about me!”

– On his own version of “Sally Johnson”: “Recognize that lick? That’s Benny Thomasson… like a well-written paper, you have various resources and you quote them all.”

– Bow specs for contest-style fiddling: relatively loose, 1/8″ wide or 1/4″ max, hair flat not turned, sounding point a nudge farther from the bridge than usual. “For every hour and a half that you’ve played, rosin three seconds… and wipe your strings off. You’ll sound much better.”

Told you he thought about rosin.

p.s. Who won Weiser this year? The info doesn’t seem to be online yet. Post in the comments if you know!

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1 Comment

  1. Shelly

    Thanks Danielle, this was great! And I think they did post the winners, if you click on the week days listed on this site, http://fiddlecontest.com/2011winners you can see what the results were for each day.

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