The annual Tucson Old-Time Fiddling Contest takes place tomorrow, Feb. 15, at San Miguel High School, 6601 S. San Fernando Ave. That’s south of Valencia and between Sixth and 12th avenues. Admission is free; the competition starts at 10 a.m.
What you will find when you go it this: the fiddlers perform in categories of age, starting with the youngest. Each player is allowed three tunes: A hoedown, a waltz, and a “tune of choice.” This last can be a ragtime piece, a jig — anything, in fact, that isn’t either a waltz or a hoedown. There is a strict time limit on each performance. Contestants are allowed backup accompaniment, which often consists of a guitar or a bass or both.
The judges are sequestered elsewhere, with the sound piped in to them, and the contestants are identified only by numbers, in an attempt to make the judging more objective. (This makes good sense — I’ve been at contests where, if there was a cute kid or a colorful character competing, that person stood a better chance of winning!)
From what I said earlier about different fiddle styles, one would expect a sort of musical chaos — rather like judging apples, oranges and bananas with an occasional goldfish or cocker spaniel thrown in. This is avoided through the fact that there is indeed an identifiable “contest style” — with the tunes slowed down a bit, well-ornamented, and a bit cerebral.
Things are further simplified by the fact that many of the favorite techniques of the old-time fiddler, including using different fiddle tunings and employing pizzicato — are outlawed. The music is played and taken seriously; and some of the performances can be pretty exciting.
You’ll find a different sort of fiddling outside. There will be a continuous jam session complete with fiddles, guitars, and banjos, in which the musicians will play a repertoire of mostly southern instrumental dance tunes. Depending on who participates, the excitement level of the music will vary considerably. You may hear some wonderful tunes that simply aren’t in the standard contest repertoire. And while the competition players are given strict time limits, some of these tunes can go on till the musicians are tired of them.
These jam sessions are occasions for learning new tunes, for listening to new ideas, for the deeply satisfying activity of playing music together. Competition and jam are both real aspects of today’s old-time fiddling scene.
An event like this can be a fine way to spend a pleasant afternoon, conscious that you are encouraging the continuation of a living, dynamic art form that has been on our continent for about as long as Europeans have!