Fiddle Circle

A Fiddle Circle Near You

Violin for fiddle circle
Violin ready for the Fiddle Circle, photo by Lukas

“I will join your circle/ and be welcomed in…”

These lines, from Back Home at White Springs by Jim Rhodes, come into my mind as I begin writing about the Fiddle Circle.

Jim Rhodes, who wrote the song, was singing about the Folk Circle. I believe the Fiddle Circle is a variation of the Folk Circle.

It’s a familiar sight for me, and one I’ve seen many times. Singer-guitar players and others gathered in a circle to sing folk songs. Your might even say it’s primitive. And it has a morphic resonance that keeps persisting in the face of many commercially promoted forms of music. Well, folk is folk.

The fiddle aspect can be flexible or focused on just one genre. It depends on the consensus of the players. Some may prefer to stick to only the Appalachian old time styles and tunes. That’s very powerful in the central north Florida region.

The Bay Area Fiddlers Association, which I helped found about twenty years ago has evolved to a more folkie/ old time country group. I don’t mind that. There is yet plenty to do to back up and take solos in this music. And where we started with eight to ten fiddlers, sometimes I’m the only fiddler who shows up.

My Wednesday Dunedin group plays old time tunes and Irish tunes along with some newer old time tunes. That sounds contradictory, but if you write purposefully in the old time style, your tune will sound old time, even though you wrote it last year. (Thinking of Sawgrass Creek, or Moscow Duck.)

Fiddle Circle Rules

With these groups  the rule is everybody plays at the same time. In bluegrass, when a player takes a break, the others play back up. In jazz when a player takes a break, some of the players don’t play at all, unless they are designated rhythm players. Dixieland jazz allows counter melodies and harmonies and melodic riffs to be played.

In these groups, I will often look for harmonies to the tune while we play. Sometimes I loose the tune completely as I go off in search of the lost melodic fragment. The other players tolerate this, and sometimes even express approval. In some circles it may not be appropriate. That’s why you need to tune in to the group consensus.

On of the rules of the Wednesday group is that we tune to the natural tuning of A-432Hz. In my experience this is unusual. We meet every week at 11 o’clock in downtown Dunedin next to the Pinellas Trail, about a block from Main Street. Any player is welcome to join us. During the off season, when it is hot and humid in Florida, we meet from 1 to 3 in members homes.

The Bay Area Fiddlers Association meets at the Community Center in Dunedin the first and third Saturday of the month at 1 o’clock. Anyone may show up. Once we had a clarinet player sit in with us. He played well and held his own on most of the songs and tunes.

Learning in the Fiddle Circle

One more thing about the fiddle circle. If you are not up to speed on some of the tunes it’s okay to play along softly, picking out the notes you can. If your version of a tune is quite different from what you are hearing from the bulk of the group, it may be diplomatic to play more softly, also. The idea of just edging in without creating waves is common to these groups. We want to be welcomed in, and that can be facilitated by tack and sensitivity.

Back in the day I attended more fiddle circles, bluegrass jams, etc. Back then i was convinced I knew what I was doing. I believe other people allowed my delusion rather than be pushy. I thank them for that. Now i tend to be sneakier about fitting in. At first. Once I get comfortable I start playing out.

And playing out means playing loud, or at least, louder. I notice most fiddle players do not get a lot of volume when they play. Maybe that is a good thing. And some fiddle players just bear down and create a big sound. Hanneke Cassell gets my vote for that.

The range of softness to loudness is called, in music, the dynamic range. We should all have an ability to go from very soft to loud, if not very loud. It’s just a matter of touch with the bow. And some tunes invite a big sound, especially after being played three or four times. 

One of the hallmarks of the Mike Block String Camp experience is the exposure to a broad range of dynamics. I see this as being the new standard of string band performance. It is migrating to Fiddle Circles around here.

Elan Chalford

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