“I fiddled around with it enough that I finally got it to work”
-Kate MacLeod, quoting her father
“Stop fiddling around!” I spent most of my school years in a fog of missed deadlines. I never knew about schedule changes, when my homework was due, or sometimes even what class I was in… I still vividly remember looking up from reading a book and discovering that the kids sitting around me weren’t the ones I had been sitting next to when class started. I must have totally missed a class change! It wasn’t that I didn’t pay attention, it was just that my attention was always drawn to the wrong thing, like a really good book, where I was going hiking after school, or how to construct a robot of myself so life like no one could ever tell if it was me or my robot sitting in that school desk.
I was one of those kids whose pockets, if turned out, could have probably filled a small rucksack. I was terrified of being caught with nothing to do (which was pretty much my view of “appropriate” school behavior) and so had enough materials with me, on the sly, to keep my attention occupied precisely where it shouldn’t have been. I still remember the day I realized that all the desks and tables height was adjusted with Alan screws. Most kids my age didn’t even know what an Alan screw was back then, but my dad was quite the tinkerer and I knew just where I could find the tool I wanted. I spent plenty of time working on a look of decided innocence and mild disinterest when puzzled teachers had to reseat classmates whose desks were now to small or too tall, or call the custodian when a table collapsed because the screw on one leg had suddenly given way. I didn’t view myself as a troublemaker, just a very curious student of the world around me. I couldn’t understand why my teachers valued repetition and sitting still more than imagination and movement.
My interest in music started at the age of four when I saw a performance of a violin concerto on the television at home. My parents traded and bartered to afford the cost of classical training with a family friend who played in the Utah Symphony. There is a VERY specific way to play the violin that has been carefully honed, honored, and cherished over the past 500 years. My instructor initiated me into the world of etudes, exercises, and note reading (with somewhat sporadic success) and I made reasonable if not stellar progress. I was expected to practice a lot. (Often two hours a day or more). As I advanced into more difficult music my teacher prescribed an abacus which I was to use to carefully count the number of times I played a difficult passage
correctly (often 50 or 100 times were ordered). I found the structure stifling and the repetition mind numbing. My sight reading skills negligible, my attention span crumbling, I often turned to the instrument and simply fiddled around, following my dancing thoughts up and down the fingerboard, growling with anger, or laughing with delight. Luckily I was blessed to have one of those rare teachers who could honor imagination and passion as well as rote learning. She always told me that to play music you had to be like a tiger, you had to take a risk and leap at the prey or you stood no chance at getting what you wanted.
I switched to Viola when I was 11. This more introspective instrument was a better fit. As the “poet-philosopher” of the string family its deeper tone and more dreamy nature spoke to me. Still, I found myself wasting my practice time “fiddling around,” making up tunes, trying out tones. I carried my passion for Viola into college, pursuing a double major of Music Composition and Viola Performance, but, as usual, I got involved in too many things and my graduation languished on the periphery of unfinished projects and an overbooked schedule. My composition teacher eventually forced me to make a choice. He advised me to drop one side of my double major and progress on toward graduation. Agonizing on which side of myself to favor, performance or composition, I finally went with the latter, feeling it offered more room for my “fiddling around.”
From the start it should have been clear I was more of a fiddler than a violinist. Naturally curious, I spent hours exploring the sounds the instrument could make. The fiddle is a remarkable canvas for the imagination. An embodiment of paradox, it can both break and heal the soul. Perhaps that’s why so many folks have been frightened or dismissive of the fiddle, it represents something other than business as usual. It refuses to sit silent, or still. A tool of dreamers and prophets it can both create and destroy. It can set the feet of the righteous dancing down the path to hell, stich up a broken heart, or leave one grasping on the edge of epiphany. It caters to those whose attention wanders the roads less traveled and whose feet march to the rhythm of a music only they can hear. As a musical explorer, the fiddle keeps me on the sharp edge of discovery; exploring new sounds and techniques, diving into the deep waters of tradition, or gathering the strands of a new song out of the immense shimmering firmament of notes. The fiddle can stand the strain due not to its rigidity, but because of its flexibility. For a long time fiddling was a secret side affair for me, something I did when I should have been doing something else. Now I realize that everything else was just getting in the way of fiddling.
About the author: Peter Danzig is the 2013 Utah State Fiddle Champion as well as an award winning songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and one half of Otter Creek (www.OtterCreekDuo.com). When he’s not fiddling around he’s probably asleep.