Mixing it up: The Fiddle Orchestra of Weastern Massachusetts

  • The Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts isn’t just about violins: The group includes guitar, mandolin, harp, concertina, accordion and dulcimer.   STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS GOUDREAU

  • Accordionist Benjamin Kalish (right) of Northampton primarily plays mandolin. But he joined the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts to learn a new instrument.  STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS GOUDREAU

  • Fiddle Orchestra conductor David Kaynor leads the group during its weekly Thursday rehearsal at the Northampton Senior Center.   STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS GOUDREAU

  • Fiddle Orchestra conductor David Kaynor leads the group during its weekly Thursday rehearsal at the Northampton Senior Center.   STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS GOUDREAU

  • The Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts brings together musicians of all ages and backgrounds. Photo courtesy of Fiddle Orchestra

  • The Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts is all about playing fiddle music, and doing that on a variety of instruments. Photo courtesy of Fiddle Orchestra

Staff Writer
Published: 10/3/2018 4:34:27 PM

More than forty instruments play along to a mournful ancient melody in a community room at the Northampton Senior Center. Whether they’re playing fiddle, guitar, accordion, dulcimer, harp, or a concertina, the musicians who make up the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts all spend the first 15 minutes of rehearsal playing a centuries-old fiddle tune they’ve never played before, without sheet music to guide them.

That’s how the orchestra’s conductor, David Kaynor of Montague, started off the fiddle orchestra’s weekly Thursday rehearsal the last week of September before the group dug deeper into its repertoire of English, Scottish, New England, and Canadian fiddle tunes, ranging from lively and celebratory reels to ballads that pull at the heartstrings.

“It’s a more formalized version of the old community dance that I’ve been involved with for a long time,” said Kaynor, a veteran fiddle player and teacher (he also plays piano and guitar). “The melodies themselves are incredibly varied to hear and play … They’re very fun and satisfying to play whether I’m solo, in a small group, or a big orchestra.”

He noted that some of the tunes date back to the 17th century, while others are of indeterminate age and come from various cultural backgrounds such as Scandinavia.

Now in its second year, the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts has recruited players from across the Valley, whether retired musicians looking for a community orchestra or teens in high school. First and foremost, the mission is to make the group accessible to everyone regardless of age or how accomplished they are on an instrument, Kaynor said.

“I feel like it’s a constructive experience to be part of this, whether as a player or as a listener,” he said. “It’s my hope, and I think some others as well, that it can help to dissolve barriers and enable people to connect with each other.”

For Elaine Gernux, a fiddle player who lives in Hampden, being part of the group is well worth the hour and a half she spends each week driving to and from the rehearsals at the Northampton Senior Center.

“I belong to a lot of musical organizations, and I always wanted to play fiddle,” said Gernux. “This is one way I can challenge myself. I love that we have instruction ... and the comradery with all the folks in this room, who come from all over to play, it keeps me coming back every week.”

The group was founded by Becky Shannon of Northampton and Alice Yang of Sunderland, who now serve both as board members and as players in the orchestra. Their inspiration came from fiddle jam sessions at Shannon’s home in Northampton, sessions the two still hold regularly.

Yang and Shannon, who have both played the fiddle for over a decade, wanted to create a group similar to another one, the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra, for which Kaynor also serves as the musical director. 

“I love that it’s so different from what else is available in our area,” Yang said. “By that I mean that there are so many jam sessions that people can go to around here … but there’s no other thing like our orchestra. It’s not a jam session.

“This is overtly coordinated and taught by professional musicians,” Yang added. “That helps everyone lift to a higher level of playing.”

Annika Amstutz, an assistant conductor with the orchestra and a private music teacher, said she loves that everyone who joins the orchestra isn’t looking to be the star player but seeking to better themselves as musicians.

“Nobody has this yearning to be the center of attention,” said Amstutz, who also plays a variety of fiddle music with other groups. “Instead, it’s a place where people can support each other, try to improve on their instruments, learn new tunes, and be part of a community.”

Coming together musically

During the orchestra’s rehearsal last week, several members talked about why they’d joined the group.

Ellen Mathews, a 15-year-old freshman at Northampton High School, plays violin in the orchestra. She joined the ensemble per the recommendation of Amstutz, who is her violin teacher.

“There’s not a lot of people my age who like this type of music … I love the community, and the songs are just so much fun to play,” Mathews said.

Laura Cunningham, a 33-year-old resident of Buckland, is another fiddler in the orchestra. She joined the group because she was looking for a local community musical group after recently moving to the Valley from the Boston area.

“A friend of mine told me about the orchestra when it was just starting up, and it’s just the perfect environment,” Cunningham said. “It’s very casual and it’s a good place to learn by ear, which I like to do, and play the styles of music that I play.”

The orchestra has also inspired some musicians to expand their reach. Benjamin Kalish of Northampton, who’s 36, is primarily a mandolin player, but he decided to take up accordion to be part of the orchestra.

“I figured this is a good place to learn a new instrument,” he said.

David Whittier, a 69-year-old Conway resident, started playing violin three years ago after he retired from his career in higher education at Boston University. He started out in the Suzuki Classical violin method, then decided to branch out by playing fiddle music.

“I knew I had to dedicate myself to it, so I started playing every day,” Whittier said. “I found teachers; one teacher after another as I moved on. After a couple of years I was like, ‘Oh my God! I have to get out [and play music]’. I found out about this and figured I’d give it a try.”

Deborah Stevens of Shelburne Falls has been playing fiddle for the past four years, though she also took up guitar when she was 10 years old. Now in her 50s, Stevens also plays in two other groups: an old-timey band called Wild Time and a Celtic group called Whistle Stop.

“To me, this is just ongoing learning,” she said. “Music is my meditation because it’s what I think about when I’m doing it. Not much else creeps in. I’m just amazed that four years ago I picked up a violin and started playing.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

For more information about the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts, visit fiddlewesternmass.com.




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