Attitudes about Fiddling | Bowing Down Home

The Gift

Probably the most widespread notion about fiddling on Prince Edward Island is that the ability to play constitutes an inborn gift from God, a view often expressed by the local clergy. Most Islanders also see the gift of fiddling as an inheritable trait which then passes along family lines, and via ethnicity. Many Islanders believe that fiddling inheritance often skips a generation, and that players with the most potential gifts have fiddling grandfathers on both sides.

Conversely, there is the sense that it is pointless for individuals not possessed of the gift to even attempt the instrument. And when confronted with a successful first-generation fiddler, Islanders often feel the need to rack their brains for a suitable forbear.

In the past, possessing the gift of fiddling carried with it an important responsibility. For whenever fiddlers were called upon by friends and neighbors to play, they were expected to share their gift willingly. The clergy preached that those blessed with the gift of music had a distinct duty to the community. And within the network of community obligations, playing for dances was viewed as an expression of neighborlinessT comparable to helping the neighbors harvest potatoes. Sometimes, as recalled by Roland Jay and Angus McPhee, and Archie Stewart, such pressures to share were quite blatant.

Qualities of Playing

The playing of the best Island fiddlers is considered to be so lively that people are literally driven to get up and dance. "Lively" music must be perfectly steady and played at a tempo (speed) that is just right. Most importantly, fiddlers must also catch the subtle rhythmic nuances that characterize the movements of Island square- and step-dancing. This allows dancers to move precisely along with the music, which in turn produces both an exhilarating sensation of lift and a longing to get up on the floor.

Other qualities prized in fiddlers include a sweet, smooth sound, a fairly large repertoire of dance tunes, and true playing (reproducing the major themes, or strains of each tune faithfully and coherently).

Note that the value placed on true playing is not absolute: tunes are believed to have both essential and inessential elements, and fiddlers are permitted, even encouraged to vary the inessential ones.

See also Style, Fiddlers’ Role, The Dark Side of Fiddling, Women and Fiddling.