Fiddling around on a violin

Brigid McNutt
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Having been asked many a time, I’m here today to clear up all rumors and confusion surrounding a good question —what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

The answer is simple. They are the exact same instrument; the difference is in the style of playing. The instrument is called a violin when playing classical music, and a fiddle for folk music — whether it is Celtic, old time or bluegrass among a variety of styles. The same instrument can be played for both styles, as the difference lies in what you are playing, not in the size or tuning of the instrument.

A large part of playing classical music is reproducing the composer’s interpretation of the song. Technique and sight-reading are an important part in this. In fiddle, there is much more room for one’s own interpretation of the music, with improvisation serving as a key part. Traditionally, fiddle tunes have been passed on by ear from one player to another, as opposed to sheet music. A large part of the fiddle culture is jamming, where musicians gather to play through tunes, each player adding their own variations. This could mean adding dynamics, ornamentations, playing in different keys, adding or leaving out notes.

Another difference between the styles can be in the technique; the way that a fiddle player holds their instrument can be much different than how a violin player does.

Each style comes with its own stereotypes, and with that there can be tension between the players and their pride. However, I have found that increasingly the two groups are overlapping — at least in the musical communities I am a part of.

I first started playing violin at the age of eight. I moved to fiddle after five years of playing. Though I have tried to keep up with some classical playing, I have been mainly playing fiddle ever since.

In playing with both fiddle and classical players, it is evident that we can all learn from one another. One of the people I often play with was raised in the classical world, recently seeking to learn all about fiddle as well. When we play, we both look very different, and our approach to the songs is different. But, it means more ideas when making arrangements, and ultimately a more complex sound — a kind of collaboration I would love to see more of.

A prime example of this kind of collaboration is the band The Fretless. Playing the instruments of a classical quartet, they blend Celtic, folk and chamber music to create unique arrangements. This combination of fiddle styles with classical inspirations demonstrates how the two musical worlds can work together to create some magic. I recommend you give them a listen!

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