Just ask Vanessa Rich about her favorite things and her list will be similar to any other 14-year-old living in Provo, Utah. It includes talking on the phone and going places with her friends. Also on her list will be a number of instruments she likes to play. Right before the banjo, guitar, and mandolin, she’ll say she likes to play the violin and the fiddle.
Actually, when Vanessa is playing either her violin or her fiddle, she is playing the same instrument. The music she chooses to play is what creates the distinction.
Ten years ago when Vanessa’s mom and dad, Linda and Doug, wanted their little girl to learn to play a musical instrument, they couldn’t afford a piano. “So we bought a small sized violin,” Linda said. Vanessa started taking lessons in the Suzuki method. She was making great progress and in a few years had moved up to a larger violin while her sister Joanna started learning on the smaller one.
One day when Vanessa was about eight and Joanna was six, their classical violin teacher gave them a little fiddle tune to learn. Fiddling is a way of playing traditional American folk tunes on a violin. The music is often intricate and always lively. It is used to accompany square dancing. And for Vanessa and Joanna it was great fun to play.
“We tried it and really liked it and asked her for more,” said Vanessa. But fiddle music is not often written down because there are so many variations possible on each melody. The girls started taking lessons from a fiddling teacher. Students learn new pieces by listening to their teacher and then reviewing the pieces by listening to them over and over on tapes. Having had ear training with the Suzuki method, the girls learned quickly.
At first the fiddle music was used as a treat or a reward. After they practiced for an hour on their classical pieces, then they got to practice a half an hour of fiddling. Just one little tune started Vanessa and Joanna, and later another sister, Mindy, and little brother, Jesse, on some interesting adventures. They really got into the fiddling music, and now they perform, with guitar and piano accompaniment from their mother and father, for the wards in their area and for special occasions such as county fairs and conventions. And they have been competing in fiddling contests for several years, including the national fiddling contest held yearly in Weiser, Idaho.
“It’s fun to play for people and see them smiling because of your playing,” said Vanessa. “Sometimes practicing gets pretty boring. I like performing the best.” Vanessa’s mother lets us in on a little secret about Vanessa. “Vanessa will always bring an audience to their feet because she just radiates enthusiasm. At contests, judges are behind the stage and only judge on what they hear. Vanessa would rather play for the crowd.”
As Vanessa has learned more and more, she has been able to help her younger sisters and brother learn. They have each progressed faster in their music because they’ve had the help of an older sister. In a family of performers, everything doesn’t go perfectly smooth. Practice time can get a little heated. Everyone has his own opinion about how things should be done. But all differences fade away on stage. They all get into the spirit of the performance and enjoy sharing what they do with appreciative audiences.
Competing in fiddling competitions has been good for the girls. (Jesse is only four and does not yet compete.) They have made some good friends at the competitions. When Vanessa and Joanna competed in the same age group, occasionally Joanna would beat out her sister. Linda comments about Vanessa’s reaction, “I think Vanessa would rather that Joanna didn’t beat her, but when it happens she’s good about it. She says, ‘I’d rather have my sister win than someone else.’ “
Often their best friend beats them both. They honestly say, “Who could you want to win it more than your best friend?”
The competition, instead of creating a “killer” instinct in the girls, has taught them to value a person for what he is, not for how he does in a contest. They have learned to take the ups and downs of competing in stride. They know that when they come off the stage, all their friends will be talking and having fun no matter how they did in the competition. They get to know and like people as individuals, not whether they come in first or last.
And performing in different places gives them a chance to meet a whole group of friends who have never been around LDS young people before. It gives them a chance to think about what they believe and explain it to others.
As the girls get older, their parents give them the choice about continuing with their performing. Vanessa says, “My mom tells us we can either quit or keep going and they will support our decision. We decided to keep going. It’s lots of fun.” The girls decided to continue with both their classical lessons and their fiddling performances and competition.
For now, the Rich family is content to be a family that just likes to fiddle around.