New Hampshire Fiddle Ensemble unites ages and styles in shows
Brennan, Declan and Fiona Adams of Concord show off their trick and fancy fiddling at a New Hampshire Fiddle Ensemble rehearsal on Sunday.
What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin? No, this is not a riddle.
“Most people say that a fiddle is a violin with attitude,” said Ellen Carson of the New Hampshire Fiddle Ensemble.
The fiddle and the violin are the same instrument. Some fiddlers will do things to their instruments (flattening the bridge, for example) that violin players might not, but the music played determines what you call the instrument. This Sunday, the instrument is definitely a fiddle.
The New Hampshire Fiddle Ensemble, a group of string musicians of all ages, will perform 2 p.m. Sunday at the Franklin Opera House in a concert to benefit the opera house. The musicians also sing, and Leah Hoey will perform an Irish dance.
At a recent rehearsal, Bob Paul got everyone’s toes tapping with “Jenny Dang the Weaver,” a Scottish reel. The mood changed as Jan Merrill of Amherst soloed on the haunting Scottish tune “Loch Lomond” with the rest of the musicians joining in.
Concertgoers will also hear such diverse numbers as “T-Bone Shuffle” (blues), “You Done Me Wrong” (country), “Lady Be Good” (swing), the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” and many more.
Carlson formed the ensemble five years ago to give musicians of all ages and skill levels a chance to experience the joy of playing music with others.
“We do lots of different kinds of music,” Carlson said. “Irish, swing, country, bluegrass, popular, blues, to expose people to different styles of music.”
This is the biggest group yet, she said, with about 60 people on stage.
“Plus, I hire a few people to play rhythm, like guitar and bass,” Carlson said, “to help keep us in time because there are so many people and I don’t direct or conduct. It’s more like a band environment.”
Many of the same people come back each year, she said, but each year there are some new people, too.
At first, everyone gathered in Franklin to rehearse, driving from across the state and even from Massachusetts. Now there are four groups that rehearse in Somersworth, Exeter, Conway and Tilton from November through March, and then come together for two rehearsals before performing benefit concerts in April.
Everyone learns the same music, but each group gets a turn in the spotlight.
“We give each group an opportunity to pick a tune of their own that they’ll perform,” Carlson said, “and they work it out in their rehearsals.”
Because she can’t be at all of the rehearsals in the four locations, Carlson decided that she needed some assistance.
“This is the first year I’ve hired other teachers to help,” she said. “I run a music camp, so I have access to a lot of people I know are very good teachers. That’s important to me.
“I had Shana Aisenberg and Melissa Bragdon, who are very positive people. I’m all about being positive and welcoming.”
That includes accommodating the player of an instrument that’s not usually in this ensemble.
Kimberly Morrison said that her daughter Makenna (age 7) has been playing the cello for about two years. Makenna’s father, Jason, and sister, Ainsley, play in the ensemble.
“She really wanted to be in this group,” Morrison said, “but she’s the only cellist. Melissa was fabulous with her. We had to rewrite some parts for her to learn because most of the parts were for fiddle.”
Carlson doesn’t think of herself a as a conductor or director. She’s more like a coach, she said, putting people together and teaching them the tunes. She also welcomes feedback from the musicians.
“I have arrangement ideas but change things as we go,” she said.
Fiddlers traditionally learn by ear, not by reading music, Carlson said, and that’s how she teaches. For the songs that everyone will play, she provides a CD that she records herself on GarageBand (a software program that works as a music studio).
She gives them all the parts to listen to – on a slow CD and a fast CD – and only later gives them the written music, but not for all of it.
“I always purposely exclude one or two songs with no music so that people have to learn them by ear,” she said.
In the ensemble’s first year, many of the musicians didn’t think they could learn this way. Carlson told them not to worry. Now some have been here for five years, she said, and it’s old hat.
As a former math teacher, Carlson knows that there are many ways to help people learn.
“Sometimes in rehearsal we’ll sing the parts,” she said. “If you can get it in your head it makes it a lot easier to play. It becomes like another language.”
Some songs start out slowly, and then speed up for the more experienced people. Everyone doesn’t have to stay onstage for all of the songs, but Carlson doesn’t want anyone to give up too easily.
“Some people need a little push,” she said. “I push a little bit to make sure people know they can do it.”
The members of the ensemble range in age from 7 to nearly 80. And age does not always correlate with experience.
Some have impressive credentials, like Muriel Orcutt, a prize-winning violinist from France who is the orchestra teacher for the Goffstown School District, where she developed the string program 12 years ago.
Some have years of experience with a number of instruments. Jason Morrison started as a trombone player in fifth grade, and moved on to bass and guitar. He played bass with his grandfather’s swing band and in pit bands for community theater productions, and now he plays mandolin, upright bass and tenor banjo.
Others, like Mary Braun of Exeter and Noel Dickinson of Concord, have been playing on and off since they were children.
More than a few are adult beginners. Gail Ryan, 62, of Danville has only been playing for a year and a half. She became interested in fiddling after a trip to the South introduced her to music she had never heard before.
“I just figured it would be so much fun to learn how to do that,” Ryan said.
Many in the ensemble started playing in their 40s and 50s, Carlson said.
“And then we have kids who have been playing since they were 3,” Carlson said. “Some of the 10-year-old kids have been playing longer than some of the adults.”
This is the fifth year that the Franklin Opera House has hosted this concert.
“The Franklin Opera House was really supportive from day one,” Carlson said. “It’s the only place we rehearsed and performed during the first year. They offered their facilities to us for free, which helps us out immensely, so we do the concert for them as a benefit.”
Tickets are $6 for children, $12 for adults and are available at the door, by calling 934-1901, or at franklinoperahouse.org
The Franklin Opera House is located at 316 Central St., in Franklin, at the back of Town Hall.
Members of the ensemble will also perform at two more benefit concerts in upcoming days: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Exeter Town Hall to benefit Womenade of Greater Squamscott, and at 7 p.m. Saturday at Salyard’s Music in Conway to benefit Mountain Top Music.