Fiddle Contests are a Life-Long, Small Muscle, Participatory Sport!
Parents of kids playing in fiddle contests: I urge you to learn to play rhythm guitar so you can play music with them on or off the stage. Fiddle contests are a life-long, small muscle, participatory sport. Unlike large-muscle organized sports run by adults who permit parents to cheer for their kids while watching from the bleachers, fiddle contests need parents to contribute and participate as backup guitar players with the kids. You won’t regret it!
Learning to play backup guitar provided me with the chance not to merely watch my kids and a whole bunch of others, but to be actively with them. Moreover, learning to play guitar lasts a lifetime. For more information, this is the link to the Second Edition of my book about playing rhythm guitar, “Applied Rhythm Guitar with Texas Style Walking Bass lines“.
Colorado Contests were Disappearing!
These pages began during a discussion in “The Fiddler’s Forum” on Facebook. Even if the discussion ends, we intend to continue adding our experiences to this page and will likely create others as a supplement.
Of all the fiddle contests Chris and I attended in 24 different locations in Colorado between 1985 and 1990, none are left. In fact, they ceased to exist by 1990. Some had tried to stand on their own, most were part of a larger event such as the State Fair. Some had been around for years while others only a year or two. In any case, all were gone by 1990, all 24 different contests that I can remember and probably more.
Many questions exist within the subject of contests: Are they valuable; who should they be for (kids, adults, communities, amateurs, professionals etc.); then depending on those answers you get into structure, funding, and finding audience and contestants.
Without spending a lot of time digging around in the conceptual and philosophical stuff, our approach to resurrecting fiddling in Colorado back then was fairly straightforward: contests held at fairs and festivals were a natural vehicle, kids were the fiddlers of the future, the contests had to be fun for the kids and their families.
Funding was the Easiest Part!
Funding contests was actually very easy. We never tried to raise any money from traditional sources like garage sales, local businesses, or the community at large. We went to places that already had the money and needed to spend it. We told them they needed to spend it on somebody like us.
We went to the festivals, county fairs, and communities already hosting or sponsoring events several days long. They had the money and needed to find entertainment to fill two or more stages for two or more days. Fiddle contests showcasing kid fiddlers, especially those of a higher caliber, were and are a natural.
Contests are a natural for the community presenter because we provide an entire days entertainment for less difficulty and usually less money than they would have spent on several bands. We did it “turn key”, meaning all they had to do was provide the prize money, the stage, and the electrical outlets. We took care of everything else. What could be better! Our only substantial financial investment was our sound system.
From 1990 until shortly after the century turned, we regularly ran between four and eight contests per summer. Yes, it was exhausting – but well worth the effort.
Adults like Katie Glassman, Evan Meeker, Sydney Green, Bridgett Law, Aarun Carter, Denice Carter, Christine King, Ricky Selman, Cam Cross, John Reinhart, and quite a few more are recognizable products of that effort.
Our Actual Contest Structure
The most evident commonality across the now extinct 24 contests I mentioned was in the structure of the divisions.
The youngest age group varied a little between contests. Most often the division was either eighteen and under or sixteen and under, a few were fourteen and under. This was followed by one or two adult divisions and a senior division. The youngest division almost always paid less than the others.
Since the number of contestants was always small and our intent was to increase participation, we concluded a contest structure containing one large division for younger players could not provide them (nor their parents) with much motivation to play in other contests or to continue fiddling at all. Essentially, we didn’t think many ten year old kids would want to attend more than one or two contests before discovering the best they could ever hope to do was to place behind older kids with more experience. We also thought that the parents of the younger players wouldn’t continue to drive them to many contests for the same reasons.
Consequently, we sort of followed Weiser’s age-division lead of: under 10; then 10, 11, and 12; then 13, 14, and 15; and then 16 and 17.
Sometimes, if we had enough prize money, we created more divisions so that after the under 10, they were all two year groupings. Occasionally, the youngest division was eight and under.
After the younger divisions, we went to one or two adult divisions and a senior division.
Everybody Could Play More than Once!
Additionally, there would be an open division available to any contestant who played in the age groups. Consequently, everybody, kids included, had the chance to play twice.
We spread the prize money around throughout the contestants as much as we could. Usually, that meant a $50.00 for first place in each division, then $40.00 for second and so on down through fifth.
Money in the open division varied greatly, especially the amount for the first place starting point. Almost always we paid down through fifteenth place, sometimes twentieth. Once in a great while we could only pay through tenth.
We charged a $10.00 entry fee which we used for the guitar contest.
We did not wait until the end of the contest to announce the winners. Prizes were awarded throughout the day after each division or two.
Awarding the Prize Money and Happy Families!!!
Prize money awarded at the end of contests is done because of tradition – that’s the way it has always been done, and everybody else does it that way so why shouldn’t we – or for the more insidious reason of forcing contestants and their families to stick around so the audience appears larger to those putting up the money. Either way, it is done without concern for the contestants. New and even higher levels of frustration are accorded the contestants if the contest organizers mandate the actual personal presence of each contestant when prizes are awarded. Meaning, nobody else can pick up the prize for the person.
We did not wait until the end of the contest to announce the winners. Prizes were awarded throughout the day after each division or two.
This small change in the timing of awarding the prize money proved far more important than we thought when we implemented it. Awarding the prize money at the end of each division became a major selling point for us when pitching the contest to the festival organizers.
Normally, when the prize money is awarded at the end of the contest, everybody packs up and goes home as fast as they can. They take their prize money and flee.
These folks are hot, sticky, sweaty, tired, and especially for the parents of kids who played early in the day, more than a little grouchy. After all, they’ve been forced to be there for six hours or longer to see their child spend three or four minutes on stage, and then maybe, just maybe, have the child receive a small award at the end of the day.
On top of the resultant general prickliness, the family has made at least five complete wanderings around the entire festival with all of their kids in tow. These parents have used the word “no” a minimum of 4,213 times during the day, and told their kids they don’t know when the contest will be over or when the prizes will be awarded another 44 times. When the family is actually allowed to go home, they are not overly motivated to attend another contest.
Awarding the early divisions their prizes early in the day eliminates this unfortunate phenomena.
More importantly, it puts cash in the hands of a bunch of kids who then spend it within the confines of the festival itself, instead of leaving with the cash and spending it elsewhere. Moreover, because the parents are still happy at this point in the day, they tend to stay happier longer and spend more of their own money than if they were forced to stay for the entire day. They leave happy and can’t wait to attend the next contest.
This way the festival merchants receive a direct benefit. Awarding the cash at the end of the day means the money leaves with an unhappy family. The parents are thinking, “God, how I hate these things”.
Other Dynamics of Early Awards
This relatively simple structural change provided benefits on many levels.
Receiving their award early in the day provided the kids and the parents with the chance to talk about the performance among their peers, to strut their stuff so to speak. They wanted to stay at the contest longer and be as a part of the entire event. By providing the families with the choice of whether to stay or leave, it became difficult for them to leave. This was group pressure at its best.
Early awards provide teachers with enthusiastic students who want to come to their lessons, and can make it easier for parents to get their child to practice. Additionally, parents become more likely to tell others about the fun they have at fiddle contests. They act as walking talking advertisers for their child’s teacher, fiddle contests, for involving more people in fiddling, and for helping to eliminate fiddling’s second class status.
Changing a Downside into an Upside
If there was a downside to awarding the prizes immediately after each age division finished, it came in the form of extending the entire time of the contest itself. Calculating and double checking the scores takes time, as does labeling the envelopes containing the prize money and so forth. Consequently, you have more time between each division where the stage stands empty.
Rather than treating the empty stage as a necessary evil, or turning it over to the MC for entertainment, we turned what could have been a downside into another upside. We turned the stage over to the fiddlers.
We allowed and encouraged any contestant to play for entertainment during these extended breaks. The pressure was off, they weren’t competing, they were just plain having fun fiddling for an audience. Kids loved it, parents loved it, and adults loved it.
Especially for any contestant who had not yet competed in their division, here was a chance for “stage time”, a chance to get up there and see what this stage felt like, a chance to help remove some of the butterflies, a chance to receive some acclaim by showing the audience what you can do (without being judged), in other words, a chance to strut your stuff, and to learn to relax in front of an audience.
For those contestants who had already played in their division, here was an opportunity to play again, an actual reason to remain at the contest. All contestants had the opportunity to participate on stage outside of the contest itself, if the person so desired and time permitting which it always seemed to be.
Parents who had endured all that time driving their child to and from lessons along with the aggravation of urging their child to practice, loved the idea of additional stage time outside of the pressures of the contest.
These parents drive considerable distances and spend much of their day just to have their child spend maybe four or five minutes on stage during the contest. An enormous effort for little benefit. Providing the opportunity to play for entertainment between divisions, gave parents the additional benefit of seeing their child perform more than once, if they chose to take advantage of it.
No Fiddle Group Performances!
Providing stage time between divisions ( instead of paid formal entertainment or more often the formal showcasing of groups of students) keeps your contestants coming back, makes family and friends happy, serves as a built in source of entertainment for the audience, and the opportunity to return to the stage after the division ends provides a reason for your fiddlers to happily stick around.
Between divisions the stage should not be used as a formal showcase for teachers. Kids do not like being forced to perform in a group of other kid fiddlers, and especially for the teenager seeking to escape the anonymity of section playing, finding him or herself buried in a large group of fiddlers with widely varying ability works in opposition to their reason for learning to fiddle – they want to solo. Moreover, by virtue of having touted the benefits of solo fiddling to the child, then to varying degrees (all quickly recognized by the child) the parents and teacher become hypocrites for inserting the kid into fiddling’s version of orchestral performance. It is not fun for them and they resent it.
In this forum designed to promote the fiddle teacher, the child begrudgingly needs to learn and practice for their part in the fiddle groups performance, which takes away from time they could have devoted to honing their solo skills. Even more painfully for the older more experienced fiddlers, the forced participation is a kind of “dumbing down” for reasons of having to practice songs and techniques already known in order to meet the developing skills of the newer and younger players.
Most importantly, the kids hate it.
- Chris, Shannon Elder, and Andy.
- Andy, Trish Osthoff, and Chris at The Taste of Colorado.
- Anders Hyde with Merna Lewis on his left.
- Award winning Blues fiddler, Lionel Young!
- Kids warming up in Alamosa!
- Judges Table - Larry Struble, John Nielsen, and Dale Morris!
- Dick Barrett and Noel Daring!
- On the balcony in Crested Butte - Andy, Chris, Al Mouledous!
- Dick & Lisa Barrett with Joey McKenzie on the balcony.
- Friends from Texas.
- Bobby Christman, Chris, and Andy at Keystone.
- Bobby, ,John Reinhart, Andy, and Sarah Daring at Keystone.
- Noel, Dick Barrett, Andy
- Andy, Chris, and Grady Harkins in 2005.
- Chris, Andy, & Eischen Harkins.
- Eddy Henson and Jack Whatley at The Taste of Colorado.
- Dale Morris, Ricky Turpin, Chris, and Sarah Daring at The Royal Gorge.
- Sarah, Denice Carter, and Andy at The Taste of Colorado.
- Betty and Dan Freel.
- Andy and Heidi Labensart (now Ludiker).
- Erick, Sarah, and others at Keystone.
Our Fiddle Contest Rules!
We tried to keep the rules for our contests as simple as possible. Primary differences between our rules and those from other contests were that we allowed late registrations, string plucking, hokum bowing, and as many back up players as the fiddler wanted. The following is a copy of the rules sheet from the final State Contest we held at Keystone Resort.
1. Entry form must be completed and entry fee paid in cash, in order to participate. We would prefer each contestant be registered at least thirty minutes before their division begins. Late arrivals will be allowed to participate. If the division has already drawn for playing order, the late entry shall play first. If a contestant arrives while their division is playing, the contestant must perform as though they had drawn the next number in the playing order after the person currently on stage.
2. Contestants will draw numbers for playing order. Drawing will be held approximately ten minutes prior to the start of each division.
3. Each contestant will play three tunes: a breakdown, a waltz, and a tune of choice. The tune of choice must be something other than a breakdown or waltz. No tune may be repeated in all appearances of any fiddler. (Waltz: any tune played in 3/4 time. Reels, Horn pipes and Hoedowns are considered Breakdowns. Jigs, Slip jigs,Clogs, Polkas, Rags, Schottishes, Strathespies, & Blues tunes fall into the “Tune of Choice category.)
4. There will be no time limit unless the number of contestants warrants. The number of tunes may be reduced in order to accommodate everyone and avoid having a time limit.
5. Contestants may enter their respective age division and the Championship division, unless otherwise specified.
6. Contestants may play without accompaniment, or with as many accompanists as they choose. Accompanists are not allowed to provide any lead or melody to the performance.
7. The Accompanist division will be judged by the number of appearances on stage. The prizes and places will be the same as the fiddlers’ age divisions.
8. No electric instruments or pickups are allowed, except electric bass and or piano.
9. Orange Blossom Special, Black Mountain Rag and Listen to the Mockingbird may not be played in the contest. String plucking (right or left hand) and what has come to be called “Hokum” bowing or “double shuffle” are allowed.
10. Contestants will be ready to play when called and will announce their own tunes.
11. No sheet music shall be displayed in the contesting area.
12. If someone were to play in their age group, the Championship round, and in the top five, they would have to play three different breakdowns, three different waltzs and three different tunes of choice, plus the other two songs in the “top five” round.
If someone cannot play in their age group round but can play in the Championship round, then they must pick three breakdowns, three waltzs and three tunes of choice. The contestant will place the names of the three breakdowns in a hat before the start of the Championship round. One will be drawn from the hat by a contest worker. That breakdown will be treated as though it had already been played, by that contestant, in the age group round; thus making it ineligible for play in the remaining two rounds. The remaining two breakdowns MUST be played as breakdowns in the remaining rounds. The same procedure and rules will be used for the waltzs and the tunes of choice.
13. There will be a brief judges/contestant meeting shortly before the contest begins. This may be the only time the judges have to answer any questions you may have. Please plan to attend, as the judges’ decisions are final. The results will be posted and individual scoresheets will be available to each contestant.