Getting Started | Bowing Down Home
Most youngsters who became successful fiddlers – such as Francis MacDonald, Johnny Morrissey and Merlin Quinn - were inexorably drawn to the instrument: both to its sound and to the kind of emotional expression possible on it. This fits in with the widespread Island notion of fiddling as divine gift or calling.
Most fiddlers report that even before they first picked up the instrument, they already had a many tunes committed to memory. The most important source for this initial stock of tunes was the fiddling and jigging (mouth music) they heard in their own homes or communities.
For many youngsters, the very first stage of playing took the form of pretend-fiddling. As described by Omar Cheverie, Ervan Sonier, and Clifford Wedge, this often involved using two sticks to simulate fiddle and bow, while tapping one’s feet like a fiddler and simultaneously “jigging” (singing) fiddle tunes note for note.
According to Francis MacCormack, some families provided their offspring with a fiddle-shaped toy – often a two-dimensional fiddle-shaped silhouette cut from a wood shingle – supplemented by a toy bow carved from a block of scrap-wood.
The next step was to get consistent access to a real instrument. If there was no fiddle already in the home, youngsters might have to wait months or years until a sufficient amount was saved, to purchase one.
Children from fiddling households had to establish that they were sufficiently responsible to be entrusted with a fragile instrument. In many households youngsters were often under strict orders not to touch the family fiddle. In one common pattern – described by Andrew Jones, Jim MacDougall, and Reuben Smith – the child picks up the instrument when the fiddling parent is out of the house and succeeds in picking out a recognizable melody. This accomplishment is then unveiled, and the pleased parent thereafter gives the youngster permission to play.
In some families, access to the family instrument was forbidden because a parent didn't want the youngster to partake of a fiddler's lifestyle. As noted by “Young Peter” and Kevin Chaisson, such strictures were not always successful.
Youngsters from non-fiddling households had to sort out a number of logistical issues before they could actually get down to playing. Even when they were brave enough to ask questions of their elders, the ensuing responses could be less than completely helpful. Fred Richard, for example, was told he needed rosin but not a practical way to obtain it. Herb MacDougall knew he needed horsehair for his bow, but had to figure out how to obtain it on his own. Similarly, Dennis Pitre had to come up with a resourceful way of getting his instrument in tune.
There was very much of a sink or swim attitude towards music-learning on PEI. Fiddling was considered to be a gift that an individual either possessed or lacked. If a youngster had the gift, he or she would find a way to learn; if he or she did not, there was simply nothing to be done about it. What’s more, in a typical Island household with a dozen or more children, it was difficult for any one child to command sufficient focus to become the object of concentrated teaching.
Learning to play often went on under the radar, and it was entirely possible for a youngster to become a fairly adept player without the family even being aware of it.
In the absence of systematic instruction, most Island youngsters – like Joe Albert, Sidney Baglole, and Joseph Doucette-- learned their fiddling skills by watching, observing and emulating accomplished fiddlers in the family or community.
The process of acquiring fiddling skills wasn't entirely ad hoc, and some fiddling parents did try to pass on rudimentary skills or pointers to their offspring. In one common pattern, a seated parent would hold the fiddle and produce appropriate noting changes on the fingerboard, while the youngster sat or stood nearby and operated the bow. Alternatively, a parent might show the child exactly where to place the noting fingers, or “jig” (sing) tunes slowly to the youngster while he or she hunted for the notes on the instrument.
Most fiddlers report that once they got underway, their progress was quite rapid. Some were playing for dances within a few months of taking up the instrument. Quite often, a youngster's first experience playing for dances came he was thrown into the breach as an emergency substitute when a more experience player was indisposed.
This sink-or-swim training method may seem haphazard, but for generations it managed to provide the Island with a steady stream of highly accomplished players.