Yakima Valley students fiddle while they learn

  • Thu Feb 11th, 2010 11:21pm
  • News

By Adriana Janovich Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA — It’s the same instrument.

Whether you call it a fiddle or violin is little more than a question of semantics. The real difference is how you play it. And these kids are learning to play hand-clappin’, knee-slappin’, heel-tappin’, dancin’ music.

Not Mozart.

These minimusicians — third- and fourth-graders from throughout the West Valley School District — are learning to play fiddle tunes. They’re beginners now.

But, their fiddle teacher Cheryl A. Hall says they’re committed. And so is she — as long as her charges hold up their end of the bargain.

Their once-a-week fiddle class is free. Hall volunteers to teach it. But students must sign a contract — along with their parents — promising to practice at least an hour and a half between lessons.

They also pledge to show up at the music room at Summitview Elementary School — the West Valley school closest to Hall’s home — from 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. on Friday afternoons.

“We have fun, and we don’t just go there and do it because we have to. We do it because we want to,” said fourth-grader Katlyn Shockey, 10, who added, “I’m trying to learn as many instruments as I can.”

The fiddle is her first one.

“I think it makes me want to play more,” she said.

Hearing that makes Hall happy.

“It’s a tough instrument,” said the 52-year-old fiddler. She also plays guitar. And she teaches private lessons, too. But this class is a gift.

“My children went through West Valley schools,” she says simply. This is her way of giving back.

It’s also her way of helping preserve the tradition of American fiddle tunes. Immigrants — particularly from the British Isles, Scandinavia and eastern Europe — brought their fiddles to America as early as the colonial period. Their descendants kept the music alive, adapting tunes, composing new ones and passing much of them down aurally.

“It’s a dying tradition. In the olden days, the most important person in the community was the fiddler,” said Hall, who worries there are fewer fiddlers in the age of big-screen TVs and computer games.

Those digital distractions don’t stop her: “I love to fiddle. It’s just that simple. It’s been my outlet, like sports are for some people.”

She started her free fiddle class in the fall, at the beginning of the school year. Students must bring their own instruments. If they don’t have a fiddle, Hall recommends renting one.

She has six students — five girls, one boy — as well as a three-strike policy that applies to attendance, practice and not calling ahead if a student must miss a class.

Hall hopes to add an advanced class next school year. And she’s entertaining the idea of opening it up to fifth-graders, too.

In the meantime, “We’re going to learn a new tune,” she tells her class on a recent Friday. “It’s called ‘Boil Them Cabbage.’ ”

But before that, they warm up. The children gather in a semicircle around her, lift their fiddles to their chins and raise their bows.

One, two, three, four.

“Listen to each other!” Hall encourages. “No drooping! No dropping and no bad posture!”

After a few rounds, she invites students to lead. Ashton Haughton, 8, a third-grader, goes first. She chooses “Go Tell Runt Rhody.” It’s her favorite.

“I know it really well, and it’s a good song,” she said. “It’s a song that’s really fun for me.”

Next up: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

“Once you play, it’s contagious,” Katlyn said. “You can’t stop. You want to do it more and more, just like eating cookies.”

Hall usually brings an after-school snack. Students get a break about halfway through class. Sometimes, Hall even brings cookies, which are a hit with all the kids.

“We have a lot of fun here, and after a couple of weeks you’re not shy anymore,” said Jon Connell, another 10-year-old fourth-grader. His favorite fiddle tune is “Cripple Creek.”

“It’s not that hard, and it sounds really good, and my mom really likes it,” he said.

After the snack, it’s back to making music. The students move back into their semicircle, lift their fiddles to their chins and raise their bows.

One, two, three, four.

Above their heads, a poster declares: “A song is a star born to the universe.”

Information from Yakima Herald-Republic: www.yakima-herald.com