A Tale of Two Fiddles
A rambling by Tom Knapp,
March 1999

I first brought him home more than 20 years ago and we've been together even since. Heck, that's longer than a lot of friendships and marriages last.

I was only, what, maybe 10 or 11 years old when my parents took me out to the old Don Randall's music store in downtown Lancaster, Pa., where we spent a sunny afternoon testing the various instruments in our price range. Yup, it was time to move on from the small rental I'd been using for the past few years and get my own full-size violin.

I don't recall how much this one cost, nor do my parents (which surprises me). But we do remember that I'd looked at a broad selection before the salesman brought out one which usually would have been beyond our means, but was reduced in price because a local classical violinist had rented it for a few months. (Today, I don't understand why the salesman thought that made it worth less; violins improve with age, and the sound mellows the more it is played.) Anyway, we decided this was the one and I took it home.

For the next eight or so years I lugged that violin in its dull grey case to countless lessons and orchestra rehearsals. Together we learned the basics of bowing and fingering notes, proper postures and grips, playing melodies and harmonies, crunching through double stops, lilting lightly through cheerful airs and sawing our way through rousing symphonies. We earned standing ovations together for the "1812 Overture" and "Pachelbel's Canon in D," and one year we made it to the concertmaster's chair of the County Orchestra. But as my high school years drew to a close, I found myself growing tired of the thing. Several months before graduating I stopped taking lessons, and once the last concert of my senior year was over, I put the old boy away for good.

Or so I thought.

Over the next few years I found myself being drawn back to music -- not just to listen, but to play. I tried to teach myself to play various instruments, like the lap dulcimer, the mandolin and the keyboard, but nothing clicked.

I also was developing a love for Irish folk music, and sometimes I'd get invited to play with friends. Lacking anything else to play, I'd drag the old fiddle (and it was by this time definitely a fiddle, not a mere violin) out of my closet, tune up the strings and rosin the bow, and sink back into old habits for an evening. Then he was shoved back into the closet and forgotten, until the next time.

One day a few years ago, a month before a trip to Sacramento, my friend Tommy called with a problem. The fiddler for his small Irish band had abruptly quit. They had an important gig at a Scottish festival during my visit. The solution: Tommy sent me a packet of sheet music and I spent the next four weeks frantically trying to regain skills gone rusty. I was too busy to be nervous until I found myself standing behind a microphone with a massive crowd of Celtic music enthusiasts ... and then the reality hit me. I swallowed my nerves and played.

When, after one show, members of another band came up to the stage and tried to hire me, I finally started to relax. This was working. And, damn, the old fiddle felt good in my hands. He's never been away for long since. I even bought him a cool, over-the-shoulder, brown cloth-covered case to distance ourselves even further from that old student violin image.

But now I have my own Celtic band. In preparations for my first professional gig, I took the old boy in for some minor adjustments and repairs -- and learned, to my horror, that the neck was beginning to separate from the body. I sought out the best fiddle craftsman in the region and took him in for major surgery, but the news wasn't good. Repairs would cost more than my fiddle -- still really a glorified student violin -- was worth. But without those repairs, I would likely find myself holding several pieces of fiddle in the middle of a performance.

It was time for a decision: spend a few hundred dollars to sustain the life of mediocrity (and oh, how it hurt to hear that!) or spend a good bit more for something better. I chose the latter course. It was time to let the old boy retire with dignity.

Resources wouldn't permit me to seriously consider some of the fine old German fiddles paraded before me. But I did find a new, professional-grade fiddle which seemed to fit right into my hands, which played familiar notes with a sweetness and richness I'd never generated before. She -- and yes, this time it was definitely female -- was beautiful, and I couldn't wait to take her home. Nor was I disappointed. She responds to my fingertips and my light bowstrokes with a passion matching my own. The notes welling up from her body soar and crunch and moan and dance to higher peaks of expression than I'd ever experienced.

But my excitement is tinged with melancholy. My old fiddle, now back in its original grey case and stored in a corner, has been retired after more than 20 years together, and that's a long time to share with anything. I'm afraid to play him even for old times' sake, for fear that the inevitable will occur and he'll break apart in my hands.

OK, so it sounds a bit too sentimental. To many folks, he'd be nothing more than a crafted hunk of spruce, maple, ebony and plastic. But in two decades, I poured a lot of music into that thin wooden shell, and I'm sure it all still echoes there.

But now, I have a new shell to fill, and I hope to pour even greater portions of my music and myself into her for many years to come. So, if you'll excuse me, I have to go play. My fiddle is calling me.

[ by Tom Knapp ]