Henry Ford loved fiddling so much, he held fiddle contests at his dealerships in the 1920s.
New Hampshire Fiddle Ensemble founder Ellen Carlson has a photo of her great-grandfather that her family suspects was taken at one of these competitions; it gave her an idea for an upcoming concert.
“I got to thinking it would be fun to have our ensemble do a show at a car dealership,” said Carlson, who started the group eight years ago to encourage music in New Hampshire. “Henry Ford’s idea was to promote fiddling, and that’s the same thing I’m trying to do, just in a different way.”
Carlson partnered with Amanda Grappone Osmer, a banjo player and owner of Grappone Toyota, for a concert at the Bow dealership last spring. Cars disappeared from the showroom and made way for fiddlers and more than 100 audience members. It went over so well, they’re partnering again in 2017 for the group’s spring performance series.
New Hampshire shows occur Saturday, April 1, at Grappone Toyota; Saturday, April 8, at Exeter Town Hall; and Sunday, April 9, at the Franklin Opera House. All proceeds go to charities, including the New Hampshire Children’s Trust, the Franklin Opera House and the Maine Irish Heritage Center.
The ensemble comprises 80-plus players of all abilities, ages 5 to 85. They’ll play a variety of genres, including country, bluegrass and folk, plus music with mariachi, Canadian, Scottish and Irish origins. Rehearsals occur every other week starting in November, though some practice remotely with help from Carlson’s fast and slow fiddle recordings, which they must learn by heart.
“The hardest thing for people in the ensemble is that there are no music stands on stage; you just have to memorize it,” said Carlson.
This way, fiddlers can connect with audiences and react to their responses.
“That kind of back-and-forth is great at a show,” she said.
Carlson’s goal in forming the ensemble was to create a way for people to learn different styles and play with other fiddlers.
“They’re standing there with 80 other people, so it’s a little more comforting,” Carlson said. “There’s a lot of fiddling in New Hampshire and New England. A lot of people think it’s just contra and Irish dancing, but fiddling is involved in so many different styles of music. … They get to experiment and see what they like.”
Within the group are a handful of families — like Paul and Valerie Smith, and their daughters Audrey and Shelby Smith, who live in Lee. The girls have played in the ensemble five years, their parents about two. The family likes that it offers them an opportunity to work toward something together.
“I think we all enjoy getting together and practicing at home. A few hours go by, and we realize nobody’s been watching TV or on their phones. We’re creating together,” said Valerie Smith, who only began playing a few years ago. “I’m not going to be the best one on stage, but I can still participate. And that’s the beauty of it. Ellen constructed it in such a way that the music as an ensemble is impressive to listen to, but you can learn the tunes and participate even if you don’t have years and years of experience.”
Another ensemble family includes teen siblings Brennan, Declan and Fiona Adams from Concord, who’ve been playing the fiddle since age 3.
“Ellen really puts together a good show with people from all different levels of proficiency. There will be some 60-year-olds who’ve only played for a year and 10-year-olds who’ve been playing for seven years,” Brennan Adams said.
Organizing this massive assemblage of fiddle players is a lot of work, but Carlson perseveres because she believes in music.
“I taught middle school math for a long time. I quit my job eight years ago because I wanted to pursue my passion. I’m a really big believer in thinking the world would be a better place if we all brought music into our lives,” Carlson said.