Fiddlin’ Around the River Valley

February 1, 2012 | By More

The fiddle is the official state instrument of Arkansas. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History, the fiddle got this distinction in 1985, after Representative Bob Watts of Harrison (Boone County) asserted that the instrument was “most commonly associated with the musical education and entertainment of the pioneer families of Arkansas… and continues as a dominant musical instrument in the culture… of the people of Arkansas.”

But do you know the difference between a violin and a fiddle? Is it the way it’s played or the type of music? Is the shape or sound of the instrument different?

Actually there are no differences between a violin and a fiddle, and although different styles of music can be played, either name is correct, said Darwin Fontenot, a national-award- winning luthier (a person who makes and repairs stringed instruments) from rural Pope County.

Fontenot, a second generation luthier and eighth generation Louisiana Creole, retired to Pope County in 2005 to his love for making violins after a long and distinguished career as a mechanical and computer engineer.

“My father is still making violins at age 91,” said the soft-spoken but powerfully- built Fontenot. Both father and son’s instruments have been recognized for their excellent craftsmanship, tone, projection and playability, as well as for their beautifully crafted wood. In October, 2011 Darwin’s violin won the Gold Medal for overall high points from the Violin Makers Association of Arizona, a prestigious competition that draws luthiers from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Fontenot’s interest in instrument making came later in life as he only began making violins 12 years ago. As a younger man, Fontenot loved building and driving race cars and that is why he decided to become a mechanical engineer, he said.

“I‘ve always wanted to know how things worked,” said Fontenot, who now spends his days working in the shop he and his wife, Connie, built overlooking the confluence of Bear Creek and Big Piney Creek north of Hagarville.

As an amateur musician who plays his viola with the Arkansas Center for Music Education (ACME) Orchestra in Russellville, Fontenot considers himself mainly a luthier.

“I see myself primarily as instrument maker, not a repairer or a musician, because it takes different training. Being a musician is a way to express the instrument itself. For me, it’s easier to make instruments and make them sound good.”

Each of Fontenot’s instruments is painstakingly handmade, using techniques modeled after the world’s greatest violin maker, Stradivari, who made stringed instruments at his workshop in Italy from about 1666 until his death in 1737 at the age of 93.

“It’s a 500-year-old craft and hasn’t changed much since then,” said Fontenot. Each instrument is made from spruce for the top, while the back, sides and scroll are usually made from maple or poplar for violas and sometimes willow for cellos.

But handcrafting violins and violas (a larger version of a violin with deeper tones) and cellos (larger stringed instruments musicians’ holds between his or her knees) is far more complicated than careful hand woodworking.

A lot of engineering goes into each instrument, said Fontenot.

“A violin is kind of like a hamburger. Just as a hamburger with all the trimmings is a well-rounded meal, a violin is a well rounded technical instrument.

Even physics techniques using acoustics are used to make the plates of instruments today. Everything has a natural resonance. Natural frequencies are a measure and I use computers to measure frequencies to improve the sound of the instrument.

Making violins is part art, part craft and part science, which is the newest part of violin making, said Fontenot. Each instrument takes 200 to 300 hrs to complete. There is too much detail put into each instrument to make it faster, he added.

According to a fellow violin maker from Oregon, David Gusset, there is true artistry in making a violin. A luthier wears many hats, Gusset said. He or she must be a wood sculptor, and architect and engineer, a tool maker, acoustician, musician, varnish maker and art restorer, he added.

Fontenot said he uses the Italian or “Cremonese” method to make violins because he uses an internal form to build the body of the instrument.

“Before starting the process, I study existing classical Italian instruments, such as those made by Stradivari, the Amati’s and the Guarneri’s, among others to determine the characteristics of the instrument I want to make. I don’t actually make copies of these instruments; rather the instruments I make are “styled” after a classical instrument.

Once I’ve chosen the model of instrument I want to make, I make patterns of the body outline and the profile of the scroll. The process begins by spot gluing six blocks (usually spruce or willow) onto the form, four for the corners and one each for the neck block and end pin block. Thin strips or ribs, are bent and glued to the ribs. This forms the outline of the body.

This outline is then transferred to the top and back plates which are usually two pieces each glued together in “book matched” fashion. The top and back outside surfaces a carved to the desired shape or “arching” and then the edge decoration or “purfling” is inlayed. The inside of the plates are then carved out in a process called graduation.

Here’s where the science part comes in. The plates are graduated to specific weight and tone properties. These are then glued to the rib structure to form the body of the instrument.

The profile of the neck and scroll are then cut out of a block of wood that matches the back and ribs. The carving of the scroll is a major part of the art process; the so called “signature” of the maker.

Once the scroll is carved the fingerboard and nut are glued, temporarily, to the neck and then fitted with a dovetail mortise, to the body and glued in place. The fingerboard is then removed and the varnish process begins. The varnish which contributes to the final tone of the instrument is a painstaking multi-step process beginning with a suitable sealer/ground followed by several coats of colored varnish and finally clear coats to protect the color.

Many people thought the secret to Stradivari’s magnificent tones was the varnish he used. But it was innate — he intuitively knew the science behind the tone through touch and listening to the sounds made by the various parts,” said Fontenot with genuine awe in his voice.

“Today we use modern power tools such as band saws and drill presses but I’m sure if Stradivari had these tools he would have used them, too,” said Fontenot with a musical laugh.

The violin sings and the fiddle dances

The fiddle has been a popular instrument in Europe and the United States for centuries. In the U.S., Irish/ Scottish immigrants spread all over the country bringing fiddle music with them because of the instrument’s relatively small size and portability, said Tim Trawick, who manages the Arkansas Fiddler website.

A high school teacher of physics and chemistry in Conway and fiddle instructor on the side, Trawick teaches fiddle music through the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) community school of music and three of Trawick’s students have become state fiddle champions.

“They make me look good,” said Trawick, whose son Johnathon Trawick, a guitar player and accompanist for championship fiddlers, recently returned from the Colorado state fiddler championship.

While the fiddle is a popular instrument in blue grass, country, old time folk music and Texas swing-style music popularized by fiddler Bob Wills, fiddle music has been historically linked with dance, said Trawick.

Because of the instrument’s distinctive high pitched sound, it provides a strong tune and rhythm to dance to and has been traditionally used for hundreds of years in the waltz, polka, jig and two-step forms of dance, as well as for hoe-downs and square dancing, said Trawick.

As easy on the ears as the fiddle is, the instrument is not particularly easy to play and take years of practice to master. With four string tuned to perfect 5ths, the fiddle does not have frets (raised bars across the neck of the instrument to help players place their fingers in the correct position) as a guitar or mandolin has. Plus, bowing techniques must be mastered to get the signature fiddle sound.

While a traditional violin player uses sheet music to play from, a lot of popular fiddlers play by ear and can make up something based on the chord progression and what sounds good to them, said Trawick.

“They play by instinct, lots and lots of practice and a familiarity with chord progress and scale notes.”

So, next time you hear a fiddler play and your feet start a’ tapping, thank the musician for his or her hard work and dedication to making music we can all enjoy.

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