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Director of UMFK's Acadian Archives fiddle program receives recognition by the National Oldtime Fiddlers Association

January 11, 2002



Lisa Ornstein, director of UMFK's Acadian Archives/Archives acadiennes, never dreamt that her fiddle program in the St. John Valley would receive so much attention. This time it was from the National Oldtime Fiddlers Association based in Weiser, Idaho. The organization featured an article about Ornstein entitled Music in Maine - Growing Young Musicians.


Ornstein's story was featured along with stories of other musicians from Alaska, Kansas, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington State who are volunteering their time and effort to promote the art of fiddling. The one thing that all the musicians have in common is the passion to give of themselves in order to pass on the art form to the next generation, therefore keeping the heritage and traditions alive and well.

In addition to the article about Ornstein, the newspaper recognized a Seattle, Washington man who, discovering an incredible musical tradition in Tierra Caliente, located in the Hot Lands of Mexico, formed an organization called Fiddles for Tierra Caliente in order to provide instruments, bows, strings and the like along with some funding to preserve the fiddling style that is unique to the area.

In the Fiddlin Kids Corner of the publication, a young lady was featured who began learning violin basics at the age of two years and ten months old and continues playing today as a sophomore in high school.

Also featured is a teacher, Trimble Wilbert, living in Arctic Village, Alaska, who also had a wish for the Athabascan children, who also live there, to be able to learn the traditional fiddle music of their grandparents and great grandparents. A Seattle woman, learning of Wilbert's wish, tapped into her local fiddling community for donations of fiddles, cases, bows and rosins and mailed Wilbert eleven fiddles to get his program started.

Ornstein, having a true passion for fiddling, took it upon herself to do something about what she calls a loss of tradition. With the blessing of the local superintendent, the elementary school principal and the university, she decided to volunteer to start a fiddle program for 4th graders at the Fort Kent Elementary School.

"Our region has a rich heritage of traditional fiddling, but while fiddle music is still very appreciated by local audiences, the informal transmission of this art has all but disappeared, leaving no up-and-coming generation to carry on the heritage," said Ornstein.

In the spring of 2001, Ornstein made two twenty-minute "fiddle visits" to each of the three third grade classes, to see where the kids were musically and to get a sense of how much interest they might have in learning to play.

"I found the children to be musically very bright (good sense of rhythm, good sense of pitch, good ear for melody) and very, very interested in learning to play," said Ornstein.

In her desire to put fiddles into the hands of those children who wanted to learn, she set out to raise the funds to buy violin kits. In the spring of 2001, she posted a letter seeking donations of instruments to the FIDDLE-L listserve, posted an article in the newspaper and began buttonholing perfect strangers asking for ½ or ¾ size fiddles.

According to Ornstein, the outpouring of generosity was amazing. A New Hampshire gentleman, who got "bit" by the fiddle bug, went out on E-Bay and purchased eight instruments and sent them up to her. A museum curator in southern Maine donated her old violin. Ornstein's friends and acquaintances, from as far away as North Carolina and New Mexico, sent her instruments. By early summer she had twelve instruments, all of which needed repair.

A cello builder and string instrument repairman, named Paul Perley, volunteered to do the repairs if Ornstein would supply the parts. She then contacted a musical supply wholesaler in Ohio, who responded to her call for help by giving her a break on the parts. Needing the necessary funds to purchase the parts, Ornstein organized a benefit fiddle concert locally. The concert raised $ 480 and the bill for parts came in at $457.

Letters were sent out to the parents of 45 fourth graders in September. The letter offered free lessons and the free loan of a violin kit. In return, parents agreed to assume financial responsibility for damage or loss to the loaned instruments, and to pick up their children after school twice a week. Ornstein figured with those conditions, ten children would enroll in the program. In October, Gary Stevens, principal of the Fort Kent Elementary School called to let her know that 19 children had signed up.

She began the program lacking seven instruments. She decided to go ahead and order the instruments needed and now must raise the funds to pay for them.

"Now that the program is up and running and the children are looking forward to their lessons, the challenge now is to come up with a viable strategy to provide for longevity and expansion of the program," said Ornstein. "I still have more to learn about the ins-and-outs of effectively working as a volunteer instructor in the public school setting, but I also need to begin to plan for how we might recruit, train, and support more community volunteer teachers and last but not least, how to manage the cost of maintenance of the instruments."

Ornstein is once again turning to the community to help her find the resources to expand the program.

"I am asking anyone from Van Buren to the Allagash, who is seriously interested in teaching children, and would be ready, willing and able to volunteer their time to teach in their school district, to please come forward," said Ornstein. "I would be willing to teach them, train the trainers so to speak, because I cannot do it all alone. This is the only way the program can expand."

The Fort Kent fiddle program is one of only two established strings classes in Aroostook County and northwestern New Brunswick. The only other established program with a local instructor is 180 miles away in Houlton.

The youth fiddle program does not mark the first time Ornstein instructs others to play the instrument for which she has developed such a passion. The musician has been teaching fiddle lessons off and on for 25 years, including a "fiddle from scratch" class she taught to area adults when she first arrived in the St. John Valley a decade ago.