GREENFIELD — Going into Sunday’s fiddle competition, Kurt Watkins knew the odds were good: he’d be leaving with at least a second-place prize.
One of only two performers in his age bracket, the 17-year-old ended up winning top honors at the Old Fiddler’s Contest, one of the final events of the Riley Festival in downtown Greenfield Sunday. Although the event — which divided contestants into three age groups: 10 and younger; 11 to 17; and 18 and older — was by name a contest, Watkins said the competition wasn’t what motivated him to perform.
“Playing the fiddle is just about having a good time,” said Watkins of Cumberland. “It’s really upbeat and light-hearted music, so I just came out to play some tunes and have some fun with everyone else.”
The Old Fiddler’s Contest has been a standing tradition at Riley Festival for decades, if not longer, said Amy Klene, who’s acted as chairperson at the event for 15 years.
The small competition — which in all had six contestants, ranging in age from 7- to 18-years-old — drew hundreds of afternoon festival-goers under the shade of an expansive white tent along West South Street. Contestants were instructed to play three songs and were allowed to have up to two guitarists on stage to play along with them.
Though many fiddlers are trained as classical violinists, the two musical styles present two very different appeals to audiences and performers, said Angela Mickler, who was one of three judges for the contest.
Fiddle performances don’t revolve around the same set of rigid rules that violin concerts do, she said.
“There’s so much more freedom in style with the fiddle than with classical violin music,” said Mickler, who also serves as director of the Greenfield Orchestra. “With violin, the way the music is written is generally how it will be played; there’s not a whole lot of freedom to change notes or change style.”
But with the fiddle, she’s assessed performances off of subtle deviations from the way the song is written, she said. Those improvisations are one of the hallmarks of fiddle performance, and without it, fiddle music wouldn’t be the same, Mickler said.
“One of the first things I notice in a fiddle performance is if the person playing is having fun,” she said. “If they’re not up there having a good time, then it won’t be much of a contest.”
Klene, who also plays classical and fiddle music, said one of her hopes for Sunday’s event was to help some of the contestants build confidence while performing.
“Getting up on stage to perform is tough; there are a lot of adults who won’t even do it,” Klene said. “So to get a little 7-year-old up there to play, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.”
It’s a skill Watkins admits has taken him time to develop, he said.
When he first played at the Old Fiddler’s Contest five years ago, he didn’t score in the top three of his age group, he said. But each time he got back up on that stage, he improved, he said.
“I used to get nervous going up there, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” he said. “The more you do it, the more fun it is to come back.”