To some at Oregon’s old-timiest, fiddliest music competition, winning is crucial.
Others who gathered Saturday in Lebanon for the 56th Oregon State Fiddle Contest said they’re drawn to the energy, appearing on stage to saw out a very fast three abridged songs in four-minute rounds for the benefit of blind judges.
Organizer Eileen Walter was just happy to have fiddlers back in front of a crowd after the pandemic forced Oregon Oldtime Fiddlers’ Association to cancel in 2020, then hold a virtual contest in 2021.
“Some competitions are a soft tradition that goes back hundreds of years, but this is an excuse for a show is the way I think of it,” Walter said.
About 55 fiddlers flowed into Lebanon Mennonite Church fixing to place first in their divisions, organized by age across seven groups beginning as young as 8 and under.
Top contestants won the right to have their way paid by the Oldtime Fiddlers to a national competition, with five competitors coming from out of state for the opportunity.
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Judy McGarvey had driven from Medford to compete in the senior senior division. She said she’d been to multiple competitions, aging up from the adults to the seniors. At 87, she’s out of divisions.
“The only way you get out of that division is you die,” she said.
McGarvey said age doesn’t necessarily correlate with experience – fiddling as a tradition is as much about feeling as it is book-learning, drawing on the dynamism of dance halls and rowdy barrooms in the early 1900s.
Those professionals, drawing on African American and folksy music traditions, weren’t sitting in orchestra pits mastering sheet music.
“They learned by the seat of their pants, and they were darn good,” McGarvey said. “Well, most of them.”
Saxon Ropp worked on his third competition appearance. The young man didn’t have to go far, driving from a farm just outside of Lebanon.
But he did have to feed the animals before leaving for the show. His sister Gretchen, 14, competing in the teenaged junior division, said she’d distributed food for chickens, ducks and goats before a pre-show practice session.
Gretchen said she feels pressure before competing that motivates her to sharpen her skills, rehearsing old-timey tunes and practicing fiddle technique that, hopefully, she said, helps her stand out to the judges who would advance her or not.
“It would be cool to even be able to place,” she said.
Saxon Ropp said he and his sister had started playing classical music on violin before spotting Jerry Parks playing violin in a park in Lebanon four years ago. He approached Parks and asked for lessons.
“I love that kind of music,” Ropp said. “I wanted to get into that.
In a room far removed from the competing fiddlers, three judges hovered over computers and an audio feed from the stage that they gauged for rhythm, accuracy and tightness of playing, and whether contestants were playing material that was too easy for their skill level.
They awarded contestants up to 100 points for each of their three songs, 300 for a perfect recital, but rarely lower than 210 points, Walter said.
Kelly Wadsworth was surrounded by grandchildren, ages 5 to 16, all at different experience levels with six expected to participate in the contest. Leo Wadsworth, 9, was playing competitively for the first time.
Those kids learned from Kelly Wadsworth, who said she’d been playing for 15 years.
“I always say if I was a tennis player, they’d all be playing tennis,” she said.
Wadsworth said she wasn’t worried about the competitive part of the competition, with several dynasties of revered northwest fiddlers represented in the lineup. She just wanted her grandkids to try something outside their comfort zone.
“It’s okay to do stuff that’s hard and scary,” she said.
Alex Powers covers business, environment and healthcare for Mid-Valley Media. Contact him at 541-812-6116 or firstname.lastname@example.org.