Welcome! It’s about time I ventured into the blogosphere with my first blog!
I’d like to focus my inaugural entry on a subject I know a little something about: the fiddle/violin dichotomy. As most of you hopefully know, the violin is a single instrument with two names. “Violin” is derived from “viol” (an older stringed instrument), which itself is derived from “vitula,” a Middle Latin word that is believed to have yielded the name “fiddle.” Those who are well-informed often use the two names to describe different styles of music performed on the same instrument. Unfortunately, however, many people mistakenly believe that the fiddle and violin are two separate instruments.
It’s not surprising that some people would be confused about this, but there are two intriguing aspects of this confusion that make the whole issue…well, even more confusing.
First, there isn’t just one physical “difference” people point to – there are many. One has different strings than the other. One has a flatter bridge. You wear a shoulder rest on one but not the other. One is amplified, while the other isn’t. One is dirtier. One is cheaper. One is carried in a sack (!). The list goes on. During my 40-year performing career, I’ve been approached by thousands of people with a hilariously wide range of explanations for the “difference” between the fiddle and the violin.
Second, and perhaps more troubling, many people seem emotionally invested in the fiddle/violin dichotomy. More specifically, people seem disappointed that there is no difference. People often speak of one or the other as a “lesser” instrument. “Violin” fans associate the fiddle with the lower class, with bars and clubs, with a lack of refinement or talent. “Fiddle” fans associate the violin with elitism, with the 1%, with a sense of rigidity and a lack of musical and/or improvisational creativity.
So, for many people, the fiddle/violin dichotomy is about differences in class (and, to some degree, race, but that’s for another blog entry) and the different types of music people of different “classes” play. These perceived class differences reinforce the notion that the fiddle and violin should be different instruments, for why would the same instrument be used by both the upper and lower classes? (Certainly, in this case, the lower class is not seeking to imitate the upper class.) Thus, people invent physical distinctions between the two.
And some of the invented distinctions reflect a focus on class. Which one do you think is supposedly dirtier, cheaper, and carried in a sack: the fiddle or the violin?
Let’s face it: we’re essentially talking about the age-old classical music (i.e., “art music”) vs. folk music debate. As I have said for decades, I believe that music transcends what people perceive to be class boundaries. Both classical music and folk music – or what some would call violin music and fiddle music – are incredibly rich, engaging, challenging, and inspiring.
Rather than emphasize the differences between these “classes” of music, I believe we should recognize the similarities between them, and we should incorporate both into our string pedagogy as well as our iPod playlists.
If nothing else, such a development would reduce the amount of time I have to spend explaining to people that, yes, you can technically carry either the violin OR the fiddle in a sack…
- Mark O'Connor
- Mark O'Connor