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"This ain't your grandpa's fiddling music"

by Barbara Krolak, The Monroe Evening News
March 14, 2010

Who knew that fiddling around could be educational? The Saline Fiddlers do.

The teenagers may look like they're having a good time on stage, but their teachers know they're learning.

The Fiddlers will be on stage "having fun" at Monroe County Community College Saturday night.

Besides traditional high-energy "fiddling" music, the group will play Celtic, jazz, popular and Western music. They'll dance and sing, too.

"This ain't your grandpa's fiddling music," said Mark Visovatti, the group's booking manager and the father of one of the group's graduates. "They play Earth Wind and Fire, a Michael Jackson tribute medley. My favorite part is when the girls come out and sing the old Chordettes' 'Lollipop' song," he said.

"It's a very entertaining show. The audience reaction alone makes my job worthwhile. I always look through the house and always find one person who won't stop smiling through the whole show," he said.

The 30 performers led by Ben Culver are all 9th through 12th-graders at Saline High School, although the group isn't affiliated with the school. It has grown into its own nonprofit entity.

The band started as an outgrowth of the music curriculum back in the mid-1990s.

"Orchestra groups in school play more classical music. Bob Phillips (former music director at Saline Middle School) was looking for ways to give students other outlets," said Doug Rhine, Event Manager. In school, if kids want other music opportunities, they traditionally turn to marching band, jazz band or show choirs.

Mr. Phillips "had a bluegrass background and he got kids interested in fiddling. He was the first in the state with a middle school fiddle club," Mr. Rhine said.

The kids then went on to high school and as their fiddling skills grew, Mr. Phillips suggested they go out and perform. And the rest, they say, is history.

The group eventually outgrew the school program and struck out on its own. There remains a school fiddling group, Fiddlers Restrung, which is part of the district's community education program.

The fact that the members are high-schoolers creates challenges for Mr. Visovatti. Their reputation for excellence has grown, but so has their involvement in school activities.

"This group is the easiest group in the world to book but the darnedest group to schedule. The kids have other activities and things in their life, not to mention their families have other activities. It puts limits on our schedule, especially during the spring and fall sports seasons," he said.

That hasn't kept the teens at home. They've traveled the world, including a music festival in Germany last summer. "They were blown away," Mr. Visovatti said of the audience.

After the Fiddlers play at the Mayfly Music Festival in Dundee June 19, they head to southern Texas for a nine-day tour, hitting San Antonio, San Marcos and Austin.

The group also records a new CD every two years to keep the music fresh.

"This year's is phenomenal," said Mr. Visovatti. The CD, named "Kaleidoscope," is set for release June 11.

But what was that about fiddling being educational?

"It exposes the kids to other styles. Folk music lets them learn by ear," said Mr. Rhine.

The musicians play off one another, not necessarily according to the score on the sheet, he said. "They learn to listen. They hear the flow of the music. It helps all their playing."

"Most folk music is fairly simple chord progressions. (The kids learn) by improvising. Jazz is more complicated. This is an easy way to teach kid to improvise. And it's dance music, quick tempo, so it's fun and the kids want to speed it up," Mr. Rhine said.

Mr. Phillips, now retired, was at the forefront in the nation on providing alternatives for young musicians. Other music teachers saw his success and started to emulate the program, Mr. Rhine said.

Over the years the concept has sprouted other branches. Now, across the country, there are alternate style musical groups that have gone in other directions -- Mostly Mozart, show tunes, even mariachi, Mr. Rhine said.

Even though his son no longer is a member of the group, Mr. Visovatti remains committed to it because he attributes his son's success in music to the Saline Fiddlers.

"It's like a magnet school. Jacob (who plays cello) got a full-ride, out-of-state scholarship for the music school at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He's a fine, young man," the proud father said.

The program gives teenagers a creative outlet, he said. And it shows "what young people are capable of."

Copyright, 2010, The Monroe Evening News. All Rights Reserved.

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