Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Fiddle music charms Westerners

New student gets itchy to fiddle just watching teachers fingers

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Express Staff Writer

Monique Ruwe works with one of her youngest students, 5-year-old Kobe Tamura of Boise, who's playing a 1/8 fiddle. When Kobe heard Ruwe play at the 2004 Wagon Days Fiddle Contest he decided he wanted to play too. Express photo by Dana DuGan

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A violin is a fiddle is a violin. Get it? Basically, what this silly Gertrude Steinish observation means is that there is one instrument and two different ways to play it. Out here in "don't fence me in" land, we're kind of partial to the fiddle.

One would like to play it, in the abstract, but learning to fiddle is a treacherous way to idle your time away. First, find a good teacher, ideally someone like Monique Ruwe, a fifth generation fiddler. She teaches fiddle in Boise and every other weekend in Hailey at the Music & Me studio. Right off the bat, she's lovable; she plays her great-grandmother's fiddle. It looks beloved, too.

She learned the songs "Cripple Creek" and "Old Joe Clark" at age 4 and was in her first fiddle contest at age 10. Ruwe led a charmed life for a young fiddler. She attended bluegrass festivals all over the United States, while her family played with some of the greats in the business, including Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Kenny Baker, Chubby Wise and Del McCoury. Since then she has competed at contests and performed throughout the Northwest. Last summer she won the Adult Division in the First Annual Wagon Days Fiddle Contest over Labor Day weekend in Ketchum. She is also a two time Idaho State Champion.

"My whole family plays," she said. "My Dad plays banjo, mandolin, guitar. My Grandpa plays fiddle, mandolin, guitar, My uncle, mandolin and guitar. My cousin plays flat bass. Grandma plays bass and steel guitar. Playing together is part of the family culture.

"It's a given on holidays," she said. "But you go through your teen years where you don't want to sit down and jam with your grandparents. Now it's wonderful."

This just proves that it doesn't matter whether it's music or putting on plays or beating politics to a pulp, every family is different in the same ways.

"My husband's family plays, too. That's how we met." In fact, her husband, Ruston Ruwe, is a three-time Idaho State winner and a one-time Junior National Champion. He teaches mandolin from their home in Boise as well.

So, she's got the background and her playing is beguiling. A new student gets itchy to fiddle just watching her fingers dance on the fret.

To get started, Ruwe shows how one holds the fiddle and bow properly.

"I teach everybody the classical method. It gives you and your body an advantage. My Grandpa and older fiddlers typically don't use shoulder rests. They play out in front. That's all well and good, but if you do that you have less movement in your hand."

With the classical style the chin and shoulder hold the fiddle while the fret hand moves freely up and down the neck of the instrument.

"It's ergonomically better for your arm," Ruwe said. "There should be some comfort. The elbow should hang just under it. Then you come at it (with the bow) with your arm on an angle."

Okay then. Ready, set. The bow slides across the strings making a first attempt at scales. Cats screeching!

"Stay parallel to the bridge, keep the bow in the middle of the string," Ruwe admonished softly.

The bow string is horsehair; the part you hold is called the frog. Ruwe demonstrates on her instrument how clean and pure and simple it should be. (Operative words: should be.)

The strings are G D A E, just like on the mandolin, which explains why so many people can and do play both instruments.

After the scales are duly practiced, Ruse produces the tablature for the classic folk tune "Cripple Creek." She whips off a quick little do-dah of it. The subsequent copied version is somewhat different. In fact it isn't even recognizable. It becomes obvious very quickly that a lot of practice lies ahead.

A tablature, by the way, is a system of musical notation using finger positions instead of the musical scale to record songs. It's a good starting method when learning a new instrument.

"You know this is a very hard instrument to play," she said somewhat needlessly after hearing the struggling cats screeching over and over. "But you're better than 15 minutes ago." Thank God for small favors, the angels could be heard saying.

The fiddle is a light instrument and easy to handle. But what's the sign of a really good fiddle?

"My own personal preference is mine, but I love its sound. It's very loud and open," Ruwe said handling her instrument lovingly. "I can get marvelous tone out of it. A lot of people don't prefer that. They want it more muted. I'd be like a horse if I brought this into a classical situation. But I love it."

Her student gazed at the instrument she'd been abusing. Who knew if this was a good fiddle or not? Its inner imprint said it was a Hungarian copy of a Stradivarius, the best violin in the world. With practice and a good ear, it might prove to have a marvelous tone too.

Ruwe and her bluegrass group, including her husband (and very probably Boise musician Rebecca Scott) are among the featured players in the "From Russia to Idaho: Classical to Bluegrass," concert, Friday, Feb. 25, at the Community Campus in Hailey. The 7 p.m. show is free. Other featured performers are Russian concertmaster Elena Leonidovna Watson, soloist Janice Walton, Mitzi Meacham and Sue Mendolsohn.

Next up: Piano lessons for the tone deaf.

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