Fiddle-L Anthology 1999

A Tour 'Round The World Of Fiddling

Performer Bio


 

16.

Jerry Agin, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (agin@pogo.isp.pitt.edu)

Jerry was born in 1942, Baltimore, Maryland. He holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and worked as a computer engineer before retiring. He holds membership in Scottish FIRE, Potomac Valley Scottish Fiddle Club, Otets Paissi (Bulgarian bitov ensemble), and JCC (Pittsburgh) Community Orchestra.

HERITAGE, HISTORY, FAVORITES

Jerry's is of Eastern European Jewish heritage; both parents were born in Brooklyn, New York. No previous family members played the violin. "I have been a folk dancer most of my life, with particular interest in Balkan dance and Scottish dance. I share these interests with my wife, Stefni. Stefni is also passionately interested in the vocal folk music of the Balkans, the British Isles, and America. I had had musical training on the trumpet as a child, but the idea of applying my musical skills to my folk interests never occurred to me until the summer of 1987, when Stefni dragged me to Balkan Music Camp at Buffalo Gap (West Virginia). I brought my trumpet along. I also borrowed a fiddle from a friend, under the mistaken impression that the camp would teach all musical instruments from scratch. It turned out that they intended to teach only the Bulgarian village instruments from scratch -- if you played a traditional western instrument you were expected to at least know how to play some sort of scale. Nonetheless, the camp director graciously located another camper who played professionally, Fran Berge, and Fran agreed to give me a short lesson once a day. That enabled me to also participate in a group class in Romanian fiddle taught by Miamon Miller. With my trumpet I sat in on a Balkan brass band. I was apprehensive at first at joining the band, but Stu Mennin, the leader, made me feel welcome.

I worked hard that week -- harder than I could remember at any previous recreational activity. Every moment I wasn't at a class or rehearsal, I was practicing the trumpet or the fiddle. At the end of the week, the brass band played for the nightly dance. We played a set that lasted about an hour, maybe half a dozen tunes we had worked on all week. At the end of the set, the dancers yelled and clapped, and they wouldn't let us off the stage until we played an encore. Stu chose "Ramo Ramo", a tune I was familiar with, but I had never played on the trumpet. I was winging it the whole way, and I had a terrific time! I was so high that night it took me three days to come down. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I resolved at that time to do whatever it takes to become a fiddler who could play at dances for other people's enjoyment.

"That week transformed my orientation from dancer to musician. Then, as now, I still enjoy dancing when the conditions are right, but dance as something to work on and get better at had lost its appeal. Music adequately filled that gap. Instead of being one of the best dancers at the camps, I would be one of the worst musicians at the camps, but I now have something challenging to work on, and I'm proud of the progress I've made. If you listen to my contribution on the tape, you'll see that after 10 years of struggle, I'm to the point where I can sit in with a group of fiddlers, but I'm not yet to the point where I could pull off a solo stint as a dance musician. That's what I'm aiming for, and I don't think it will take many more years to get there."

Jerry has been taking classical lessons once a week. "I've had three teachers, and each of them has been supportive of my efforts to do fiddling as well as classical music. However, I've learned that it is not useful to ask a classical teacher to critique a fiddle piece, because they usually misunderstand the intent of the music." Jerry also enjoys trading tunes with other musicians and has had plenty of opportunities to do so at the following workshops & camps: Balkan Music Camp (Romanian and Greek); Scandinavian Camp at Buffalo Gap; KlezKamp (Klezmer music); Swannanoa Gathering (Scottish and Irish); Valley of the Moon (Scottish); Jink and Diddle (Scottish); Scottish weekend at Buffalo Gap/Ramblewood; Weekend Scottish music workshops near Philadelphia; Irish and Old-timey classes with Calliope (Pittsburgh Folk Music Society); Princeton Chamber Music Play Week; Summer Conference on Strings Education (Glassboro). At Balkan Music Camp, Jerry learned his first fiddle tune, Ioara din Aurig, a Romanian tune. Today his favorite tune is Flowers of Edinburgh, with no particular favorite rendition, although he names his favorite fiddler as Alasdair Fraser.

TYPES OF TUNES, INSTRUMENTS, VENUES

Jerry enjoys a variety of tune genres, including Scottish tunes: jigs, reels, strathspeys, marches, hornpipes, and airs; Scandinavian tunes: hambos, schottisches, waltzes, polskas, rorospols, snoas, ganglats, etc. Besides fiddle and trumpet, Jerry also plays the Bulgarian tambura and the Gudulka "(just barely)". As for favorite backup instrument? "Don't know. I haven't found a backup musician who wants to play with me." However, Jerry does play in orchestras and at all the fiddle camps.

FIDDLE CONTESTS

You can also find Jerry participating in fiddle contests, an activity he enjoys: "It gives me something to work for. It is the only audience who will pay attention to my fiddling." He began competing in 1995 at the Ligonier, Pennsylvania Highland Games. His tunes were Flower of the Quern, Lady Dorothea Stewart Murray's Wedding March, John Stevens of Chance Inn, and Miss Shepherd. These tunes were played without backup. Jerry considers the pleasure of competing a prize in itself, and he believes Colin Fisher took first place. Jerry won first place himself in the novice division in the Ann Arundel, Maryland Highland Games in 1996. His thoughts on contest judging: He does believe a good judge should be a fiddler, and adds, "At my level, I greatly appreciate a judge who takes the time to fill out a critique sheet saying what he or she did and didn't like about my playing."

STYLE

Jerry calls his fiddling "eclectic" and names Bonnie Rideout as an earlier influential musician. To the question of how many styles exist overall: "How many fiddlers would you say there are overall?" Old-timey fiddling predominates in his region.

THE INSTRUMENT

Jerry's fiddle is a Hopf, made in Germany around the 1920's. Its sound is very full; he recently changed string brands from Thomastik Dominants to D'Addario Helicore and uses a Kun shoulder rest. His bow is an Erich Steiner.

WHY DO YOU PLAY THE FIDDLE?

"Because I enjoy the beautiful sounds that occasionally emerge from the scratching."

THE TUNES

Jerry chose to record tunes he has been familiar with as a Scottish Country Dancer long before he started playing fiddle: Bonnie Dundee (jig); Monymusk (strathspey); Flowers of Edinburgh (reel).