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Ever changing, enduring

Saline Fiddlers a testament to power of music and community
Sunday, February 24, 2008

When the blimp is over Michigan Stadium, its shadow covers Saline. A little town six miles southwest of Ann Arbor, Saline is a great place to live. Among other things, it is a community that chooses to emphasize music in its schools, starting in fifth grade when the majority of students are persuaded to pick up an instrument.

This commitment to music education has attracted a number of now legendary music teachers to Saline. Thirty-some years ago, Martha Froseth inaugurated the strings curriculum. In 1994, then high school orchestra teacher Bob Phillips began an alternative music education program called the Saline Fiddlers. Fourteen years on, the group continues to flourish. I am privileged to serve as executive director and proud to share some facts about our program.

The Saline Fiddlers is a semi-professional, 30-piece touring fiddle band comprising violins, violas, cellos, guitars, mandolin, banjo, dobro, bass, washboard and drums. The repertoire is bluegrass, folk, Celtic, some Latin, jazz and western swing, including many original compositions by our artistic staff, students and alumni. All of our members are students at Saline High. Artistic Director Ben Culver is the middle school orchestra teacher.

A year in the Saline Fiddlers begins in August, when a convoy of minivans moves out of Saline heading for a camp in the seclusion of the northern Michigan woods. The caravan bears our musicians, technicians, directors and staff to a rendezvous with destiny. The lead vehicle carries that destiny in the form of 40 notebooks filled with the coming year's music. Over the next four days, in three-a-day rehearsals, a new Saline Fiddlers stage show is born.

Our musicians then take that show on the road. They will don the costume and mount the stage before more than 70 audiences in the next year, entertaining thousands of people throughout the Midwest and across the nation. Among more than 1,000 performances over the years were two at the Kennedy Center and three in the White House. The group has performed from Washington to New York City, Boston, Calgary, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Britain and many places you've never heard of but are home to people who love fiddle music.

Twice a year we produce Hometown Concerts in Saline, hosting big-name acts from New York, Chicago, Austin, Anchorage and Nashville. While in town, our guest artists conduct workshops for our students. Mark O'Connor held one for the entire Saline Area Schools string music program - all 600 students.

Every summer includes an extended tour that not only shows a bit of the world to our students, but takes fiddle music to people across the country. Last summer we graduated a class of seniors, who, during their four years as Fiddlers, toured the Northeast, Southeast, deep South and finally the Southwest.

Among the most memorable destinations was Mississippi. Like everyone, we had seen on TV the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and read about the thousands of volunteers streaming to the region to help with recovery. We were told that the residents and volunteers could really use some diversion. So we put together a series of free concerts across the Mississippi Gulf Coast a year after Katrina.

We slept on cots in a school converted to barracks. From there the group ventured out to perform for relief workers and storm-weary residents. With so much demand for the show, there wasn't much time to participate in actual reconstruction work, but we managed to squeeze in one day of it. Guestbook entries indicate that the Fiddlers perhaps accomplished some emotional reconstruction, though:

All of these activities are directed toward achieving the elements of our mission statement, which reads: "The Saline Fiddlers contributes to the preservation of American culture through the mastery and performance of fiddle music; spreads and reawakens an appreciation of this music; serves as a model of alternative music education; and furthers the social development and musical education of high school students."

Four years ago responsibility for the Saline Fiddlers passed from the schools to a nonprofit corporation, created by the parents at that time to perpetuate the organization for future generations of Saline music students. Our funding comes from tuition paid by the participating families, fees for performances, Hometown Concert ticket sales, CD sales and donations from businesses and individuals. Last year, 89 percent of our revenue went to program services, and 11 percent to management and fundraising.

As an ensemble of high school students, our membership turns over every four years. All is change; all is flow. And yet, the fact that people attend our concerts and listen to our CDs however many years after their production, is evidence that some things endure: the power of music to touch and inspire, of teachers to revitalize artistic traditions in each new generation, of a community to appreciate and support its youth.

Each summer we say goodbye to the seniors and welcome a new class of talented freshmen. Recently the new members included two who signed our online guestbook years earlier:

Well, they made it. Long may the Saline Fiddlers motivate sixth-graders everywhere.

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