Ask any violinist if there’s a difference between a violin and a fiddle, and they will say, “If I had a nickel every time somebody asked that!”
The answer (drum roll)… It’s the same instrument. The difference is related chiefly to the style of music and the manner in which the instrument is played. Violins are used in orchestral concerts and played with classical compositions and jazz. The term ‘fiddle’ is often used for folk music, like bluegrass, traditional Celtic and Irish music, traditional Scottish, French, Cajun, bluegrass, and country. The fiddler often learns to play by ear, to improvise, and to bow with more freedom. A violinist reads sheet music and notation that indicates pitch, tempo, meter, duration, and the precise articulation of a note.
While there is no difference in the non-changeable parts, the body and neck, instrument setup can vary. For instance, Western classical violin standards require violinists to hold their instrument between their jaw and shoulder. The violin’s arched bridge allows for clean, single-note playing, the goal of which is to achieve vibrato—a slight fluctuation in pitch that’s used to create a warm, rich tone.
While fiddlers may adopt more unconventional ways of playing the violin, at the same time, they are not bound to the technical demands of classical technique. Holding the fiddle against the chest, for instance, is a manifestation of economy playing. It is a theory-free habit, which has crystallized over time, with various traditions. In addition, fiddlers often need to use their voice during performances and prefer to hold the instrument down on their arm to keep their jaws free. Players also have optimum eye contact with their fellow musicians and the environment, creating a more intimate and organic relationship with other players and the audience.
For fiddling, the instrument is often modified by flattening the bridge, where a portion of the wood trimmed off the top of the arch to flatten the curve. It’s easier to perform frequently used double stops (playing two notes at once, with a finger down) and triple stops, where multiple strings are played at the same time. In addition, fiddlers prefer to use steel core strings, which are more durable and tend to have a brighter timbre.
Shawn Hawley, a classically trained violinist and violist who teaches Grades 7-8 middle school orchestra and music at JFK Middle School in Utica, NY, also plays in a number of local bands as a fiddle player. The diversity of playing in multiple bands, he says, allows for a more fulfilling performing life.
His musical journey has taken Hawley from classical music to bluegrass and jazz to Irish/Celtic fiddling. He says, “I’ve just been very lucky to be asked into certain musical situations where a variety of musical genres present themselves.”
Before becoming a teacher, Hawley played with the Utica Symphony and Catskill Symphony orchestras and was a violist with the Saranac String Quartet for 15 years. He received a BA in Music Education from The Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam and a MA in Music Education from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.
He’s been playing since he was 8 years old and laughs when he says that being a classical violinist is the reason he felt he couldn’t play Irish music, let alone rock ‘n’ roll. But, one night he happened to play a gig with The Blarney Rebel Band. When the regular fiddle player couldn’t make it, the band asked him to come back and sub. From there, the gig eventually morphed into Hawley taking over the position permanently.
Serving up both traditional fare of Irish folk songs and ballads, rebel songs, and hand-clapping jigs and reels—infused with rock medleys—the band provides Hawley a balance of dual styles.
“It was definitely a huge challenge when I first started playing with Blarney Rebel,” Hawley says. Though he did not modify his physical violin to play fiddle, he says, “I had to adapt to the bowing and fingering technique of the music I was playing.”
“I would have lead cheats and notation to follow, but they would always playfully say, ‘Get your head out of the book!’ I understand why now. You have to learn to ‘jump off a cliff without a net’ and hope someone catches you. Thankfully, I play with very seasoned musicians who are good at playing ‘catch.’”
Hawley also performs with The King Kool Blues Band and the Les Brers Allman Brothers Tribute Band, and has sat in with other area bands, including the blues group Uncle Charlie and the Meatballs.
A traditional violinist and teacher by day, a rollicking fiddler by night, one thing is for sure: Timing is everything. In his role as a fiddler with the Rebel Band, Hawley says, “Knowing when to play and when not to play, and what to play and what not to play are huge.” He adds, “I just enjoy being a Jack of several trades,” adding “Master of none. You learn something new every time you go out and perform.”
Some Violin Fast Facts
- The word violin comes from the Middle Latin word vitula which means stringed instrument, and ‘fiddle’ comes from the Old English word fithele.
- The highest price paid for a Stradivarius violin is $16 million. A rare viola made by the Italian artisan Antonio Stradivari in 1719 was valued at $45 million.
- One who makes or repairs violins is called a luthier. An archetier makes the bow. It can take up to 200 hours to make a good-quality violin.
- Modern violins are constructed from more than 70 pieces of wood.
- Violin strings were originally made from the lining of the intestine of a sheep, goat, horse or pig. Now they have a synthetic nylon core encased in steel or aluminum.
- To create the friction (or grip)necessary to vibrate the strings as the bow is dragged over them, musicians rub the hair of their bow with rosin, made from tree sap.
- Violinists can use both sides of their brain more easily and burn approximately 175 calories an hour while playing the violin.
- The fastest violin player in the world is musician Ben Lee. He set a new record in April 2010 by playing all 810 notes of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ in 64.21 seconds. That’s almost 13 notes per second.