TEACHING: The Art of Trick & Fancy Fiddling
A fiddle mom shared a cute story with me recently. After seeing me perform, her son would NOT stop talking about how much he loved the fiddle and wanted lessons. He kept saying, "I love all the places she plays!!" which was a curious thing since he had only seen me once. After a few months of lessons, I decided to teach him some novelty fiddling. He lit up and exclaimed, "this is the day I've been waiting for!" Apparently, when he said he loved "all the places" I played he was talking about the Trick Fiddling I had done at the show ... behind my back, over my head, behind my legs ... thus all the "places" I played.
I grew up fiddling in the Northeast fiddle contest circuit in the 70's-90's. The Novelty Fiddle Category, also known as the Trick & Fancy Class, was definitely a favorite to both compete in and watch. This was a time for fiddlers to show their lighter side with a mix of fancy fiddling (complex fingering/tricky bowing), sound effects (train/cars/animals) and fiddling in unconventional postures (behind legs/over heads). Audiences were treated to competitors step dancing while fiddling, people fiddling while blind folded, contestants flipping their bows into the air like batons, several versions of Orange Blossom Special and Mocking Bird, fiddlers playing while standing on their head (true story--my sister Rebecca!) and a few players diving into a summersault (with their fiddles tucked under their chins) only to finish the tune standing back on their feet. A-maz-ing!
The judging of this class varied from contest to contest. Some were carefully scored using the standard contest rubric, while others skipped the panel of judges altogether and used an applause meter (ie. the act with the most applause won!!). At one contest, an applause meter allowed my 4 year old son, Gaétan and me to take home a trophy for our T & F routine based the audience's reaction to his adorableness while playin' Boil 'em Cabbage with his mommy.
FIDDLE TRICK GUIDE
Get out your fiddle and give it a try!
TWO HEADED FIDDLER
Not only is this an audience favorite, but it is a useful teaching tool that allows beginners to focus on one hand at a time. I tell my young ones to share a fiddle and a hug with their practice buddy at home.
To fancy things up, players can using various "bow substitutes" like coat hangers, yard sticks or most things that have a hard, straight edge. The key is to prep the straight edged with a thick layer of rosin.
PHOTO: Rebecca & Gretchen Koehler circa 1977
The taller players stands to the left and wraps their bow arm around their partner.
Both players can play the melody or you can assign one fiddle to play melody and the other to play harmony. This requires each person to bow/finger two different parts!
A variation on this is to use two different instruments between the two performers. Imagine one person bowing a fiddle and fingering chords on a guitar while the other strums the guitar and fingers the fiddle melody.
PHOTO: Syl Foisy & Gretchen Koehler
The real trick here is not to get your bow hair caught up in the fine tuners. To avoid this, start in standard playing posture, then position and "glue" your fingers and bow to the string and move everything as a unit over your head.
PHOTO: The Madstop Fiddlers of Potsdam, NY.
Keep your fiddle in regular playing position (under your chin) as you bend at the waist and head upside down.
Many players elaborate on this position by separating their legs and threading the bow behind their right leg to reach the fiddle in front. Some take it a step further and balance on their left leg while lifting their right leg off the ground and bowing from underneath that leg. Whatever variation you do, be very mindful of your fragile bow while playing behind your legs.
PHOTO: Rebecca Koehler, 1989
The fiddle assumes a position under your arm while your bow arm goes behind your back. With a little flexibility, the tip of the bow can reach the strings of the fiddle. I did this trick years ago for an audience while I was 8 months pregnant. People are still talking about it 20 years later! LOL Thankfully there is no picture proof of that day and "facebook LIVE" had not been invented yet!
PHOTO: The Madstop Fiddlers of Potsdam, NY
Years ago, I performed this with 150+ of my elementary school orchestra students at once. In this photo (left) we made a "5 headed fiddle monster" from tallest to shortest to make the bow "reach over" easier. I encourage the players to point their scrolls straight out toward the audience (vs. our regular posture which angles to the left) as a way to avoid bow tips heading towards their neighbor's eyes! (Syl, move your scroll over, kiddo.)
PHOTO: Bill Casey, Joel Foisy, Gretchen Koehler, Syl Foisy, Iris Casey.
These are some of my very favorite Novelty videos. Pass the popcorn!