Stunt Instrument: A New Use For An Old Fiddle

April 1, 2019, 10:30 PM ·

"Bring the beater fiddle." "Don’t worry, it’s just a beater guitar." "Was that your travel mando?" "Stage instrument." "Leave it in the car, it’s a beater." "Banjo." -

These are phrases of the past - phases of the a bygone era - the "beater" instrument. Today, I put my fiddle in the sand and make a stand: an optimistic ideal that asks, "What can we do with this instrument that we cannot do with our expensive axe?" Welcome to the age of the "stunt fiddle."

Stunt: noun; "an action displaying spectacular skill and daring" or "something unusual done to attract attention." (found on Google Dictionary)

In the movies, a stunt double replaces the famous actor or actress to accomplish dangerous and impressive feats. Evel Knievel famously jumped large distances on a motorcycle as America’s preeminent stunt performer. Something amazing! Something unexpected! Something to wow your friends and strangers! Something fun! Something imaginative! Something unique!

A stunt fiddle is not an ordinary fiddle. A stunt fiddle can be left in a car in three degree weather while you earn your turns to ski two feet of fresh powder. A stunt fiddle can be played while skiing! A stunt fiddle can be played while skydiving. A stunt fiddle is fiddle-shaped and can make music where your ordinary expensive fiddle cannot.

A stunt guitar is not an ordinary guitar. A stunt guitar can be played floating down a river. A stunt guitar can be played while stand-up paddleboarding. A stunt guitar is guitar-shaped and can make music where your ordinary expensive guitar cannot.

A stunt cello is not an ordinary cello. Joy Adams carries her stunt cello to play Bach on the tallest mountains. Rushad Eggleston plays cello hanging from festival rafters. The new patented Block Strap can be deployed to free the cellist from chairs and endpins, facilitating new and more impressive cello-playing strategies. A stunt cello is cello-shaped and can make music where your ordinary expensive cello cannot.

A banjo is already a stunt instrument. A banjo can go places and make music where other instruments cannot. A meteorologist named Leonard Hussey brought a banjo to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s "Imperial TransAntarctic Expedition" in 1915. When the crew was ordered to abandon ship and bring only what was vital to survival, Shackleton made sure Hussey brought his banjo (12 lbs.) His playing in the coming months while stranded on the ice is credited with saving the mental health of the rest of the crew.

My name is Andy Reiner and I am the skiing fiddler. I have four stunt fiddles and two stunt mandolins. I am a Yamaha Performing Artist (YEV-105 and Acoustic Stunt Fiddle) and a Codabow Ambassador, and I have a podcast called River of Suck. With a careful selection of instruments and gear, I can play music in the worst of weather, take managed risks and continue to perform when the show must go on! My fiancé, Joy Adams, is a stunt cellist. Our band, Half Pelican, performs music while skiing, and we hike Colorado 14ers (mountains above 14,000’) with our instruments, performing fiddle tunes, free improvisations and Bach on the summits above the clouds.

I am not arguing that our finest instruments are incapable of accompanying us on our life journeys. In many cases, musicians’ best instruments have survived intense travels, disastrous weather, and centuries of time. These instruments are still passed down, bought and sold, restored, copied, and played. I am arguing there are times where both professional and amateur musicians find themselves planning adventures and travels, during which they would not ordinarily bring an instrument due to inclement weather, lack of security (stolen instruments!), or action sports.

In these cases, a stunt instrument can bring music, light, happiness, creativity and joy to new places where music may never have been played before. A stunt instrument is an invitation - an opportunity - to find new places and ways to play music. Music: the universal language! How human is it to climb a mountaintop only to appreciate the view and play music? What is the purpose of this? What is the meaning of life anyway, if not for the pursuit of happiness and to enjoy the ride?

A stunt instrument solves the problem of worrying about the safety of your instrument. How much money is peace of mind worth? A stunt instrument should be relatively cheap or free, to the point of being replaceable should anything catastrophic occur. A stunt instrument may be more difficult to play, and sound more nasal than your favorite, but it will be there for you when your fine expensive instrument rests peacefully at home.

So next time you refer to your spare instrument and bring it on an adventure, call it your stunt fiddle, stunt guitar, stunt cello, stunt mandolin, stunt instrument, or banjo. Leave the beater in the garbage bin of history. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies. Rummage through your local thrift stores and pawn shops. Buy that old guitar with the scratches and gouges. Dig up your old student instrument. Hound your relatives for what’s hidden in closets and attics. Keep your eyes open and your ears peeled. And next time, bring your stunt instrument so you always have music with you.

Replies

April 2, 2019 at 08:32 PM · I remember an apocryphal (at least I hope it was) where Stern was to perform for a children's music camp. The story is that he spent a few hours in a pawn shop finding a terrible instrument with a nasty howl on the G-String. Stern being Stern he managed to make a quite acceptable sound till he hit that note on the G-string. He stopped trying again and again till he finally took the violin by the neck and smashed it against the floor sending pieces flying and the children thinking he had just destroyed his Strad.

Personally, I never found it funny. I don't get a kick out of breaking things or treating them with disrespect. Perhaps your "Stunt" instrument makes you popular, gives people a laugh but it is open disrespect to the instrument and the craft. At the least that stunt instrument could be used to teach a beginner who cannot afford a good instrument for a short time.

My instrument is far from the best that money or a sponsor can provide but I respect it as do my students get taught to respect their instruments regardless of how cheap they are.

I'm unimpressed.

April 2, 2019 at 11:19 PM · Okay George, we should take our fine Italian instruments into any situation? Even Perlman had a lesser instrument to play outside in the cold for Obama's inauguration.

I'm with Andy. Everyone should have an instrument that you don't have to worry about, especially if you are a working musician. Even if it's something like a classical violinist that gets hired to play for a wedding on the beach in the hot sun. I know I've played some extreme conditions with the outdoors over the years. Never went skiing with my violin though!!

April 3, 2019 at 01:33 AM · I think what was objectionable was not the use of a lesser instrument for the children's event but the lack of patience and temper display in destroying the violin at this event. What did it teach the children? Bringing a cheap instrument so as to have music in a challenging environment - that is simply someone living life to the fullest!

April 3, 2019 at 01:49 AM · George , Andy and Joy are not smashing their instruments ! They are incredible musicians and having spare ,gently used instruments that they chose to call "stunt" instruments give them the freedom to experiment and perform in some unbelievable majestic places. I have a "camp" guitar for the same reason that they have "stunt" instruments ! It's simply a great idea !! SMR

April 3, 2019 at 02:02 AM · George - if I can address your comments - I hear what you are saying and I appreciate respect for craft and for instruments.

I am advocating for playing music in places that otherwise would not have music - using a stunt instrument to avoid the possibility of damage to an expensive instrument or one with sentimental value.

This does not mean I am advocating for the destruction of any instruments - far from it. All of my stunt fiddles are in excellent condition. I don't fall on them, I don't break them, I don't smash them, and I do in fact treat them with respect. However I will leave them in the car when it's cold, and I will play them when it's snowing and my gig is outside, or when I have to play in direct sunlight in the summer. I live in Colorado and frequently play gigs outdoors in challenging conditions. Stunt (and electric) instruments mean I can get the job done without stress or damaging my best instruments.

I'm not making a joke out of destroying instruments. I don't find your story about Stern to be funny either, and I don't believe I am advocating for anything remotely similar to that situation. The only instrument in my column that has jokes directed towards it is the banjo, but I give a detailed explanation in a later paragraph about its value in an Antarctic expedition.

I am the skiing fiddler. This is who I am and I am not doing it "for laughs," nor am I putting any instruments in danger. In a world with many fiddlers and violinists and skiers, I am making my own path filled with music outdoors. This hasn't made me "popular" and it's not "for laughs." It's a serious stunt to ski actual mountains while playing music and any job requires the proper tools. That I can do both at the same time is no insult to anyone's instruments or craft, or the craft of building skis, or the art of finding your own line down a mountain..

Perhaps give this paragraph another look:

"I am not arguing that our finest instruments are incapable of accompanying us on our life journeys. In many cases, musicians’ best instruments have survived intense travels, disastrous weather, and centuries of time. These instruments are still passed down, bought and sold, restored, copied, and played. I am arguing there are times where both professional and amateur musicians find themselves planning adventures and travels, during which they would not ordinarily bring an instrument due to inclement weather, lack of security (stolen instruments!), or action sports."

April 3, 2019 at 02:56 AM · Agreed, Andy is not talking about abusing or destroying instruments, but giving a new and adventuresome life to a spare instrument that otherwise would not be used. I definitely want to try playing on a mountain summit! (But I think the world is better off if I don't trying skiing while fiddlin' - unless it's on "Schoolmarm"!)

April 3, 2019 at 08:30 AM · I have never met anyone with a greater love and respect for any instrument than Andy. It's a sensible mentality to have different tools for different jobs. You wouldn't dig a garden in your best clothes, and you shouldnt subject you finest instrument to conditions that could damage it.

April 3, 2019 at 11:57 AM · I think it's respect to your instrument to use the stunt double!

I think Georges comment is interesting though as it points to an attitude of the violin not as an inanimate object but as an icon and an icon that must be respected and not be desecrated - like the American flag or a crucifix or something. To others, violins are tools of the trade that can be treated well but also must be used to do the job, changing tools accordingly. As far as we know, even if you destroy an instrument, you are not going to hell (unless you are going to Fiddle Hell!!) - https://www.fiddlehell.org

April 3, 2019 at 01:14 PM · I have no problem with stunt fiddles, and think what Andy and Joy are doing is cool, as it has the potential to bring in a wider audience for acoustic violin-playing.

I've been reading a scholarly book about Heifetz's childhood, and there's a description of Auer's classes at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The author says that when Auer used to get annoyed by a student's less-than-stellar playing, he would push the violin or bow out of the student's hands, breaking the equipment. But then he would repent and go and buy another violin or bow for the student. (I guess violins weren't as expensive as they are today--or Auer was loaded.) More recently, Naomi Cummings wrote that one of her conservatory teachers dropped her violin on a desk several times to make some sort of pedagogical point. There's a story in my family that my maternal grandfather's violin teacher broke a bow over his head. Not sure whose bow it was--but I can't imagine it was the teacher's.

I wonder if generations past had a different relationship with equipment than we do today...or maybe simply a more autocratic relationship to their students...

April 3, 2019 at 04:10 PM · I wouldn't use the word "stunt" violin, but I do have several inexpensive violins. One is my rehearsal violin that I use for teaching lessons and some practicing. Another is my outside violin, with a synthetic varnish. I have played in direct sun, in snow, in the rain walking in church processions, outside at dawn serenades,..

April 3, 2019 at 08:23 PM · Criticism accepted. Perhaps it is the use of the word "Stunt" that caught my ire. Yes, professionals have instruments for all kinds of environments where their prize instrument doesn't come out. Why not go with Kevlar instruments instead.

Yeah, I'm pretty thin skinned about the topic as I deal with a handful of young musicians and their parents who do not treat their instruments well and weekly hand them to me to both tune and fix. Fortunately, most of these young musicians stop after one season, a few continue and a very small percentage actually learn about respecting their instruments.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

April 4, 2019 at 01:47 PM · Teaching a college violin class to lots of br/ww/pno majors that didn't wish to be there, I had to develop a scheme and did the following: I had an old crunched up violin in pieces that'd been given to me as a gag by colleagues. I'd enter the first class with said violin in the case, carefully holding the clasp with my fingers. As I descended into the teaching level, I'd release the clasp and allow the pieces and parts to clatter across the floor...Gasps and moans of piteous grief followed...til they realized it was a spoof. However, it was an attention getter and ideal way to reveal the inner working of a violin. Also revealing a lighter side of my teaching personality.

April 4, 2019 at 03:01 PM · I recently started working with some 6th and 7th grade violinists at the school where I otherwise teach science. The music teacher is a trained woodwind player and band leader and wanted some help with the string players. For a while I was carting my good violin back and forth to school every day, and then I remembered my old high school violin.

That violin was my first full size violin and in high school it was my "good" instrument. I had a VSO that I left at school; I've long since gotten rid of that one. And then I upgraded about 11 years ago, after I started playing seriously again and taking lessons. My daughter also played my old violin for a while, but she's in college and isn't playing now. It was just sitting there unused. Not anymore!

I think the term "stunt violin" is great for this instrument and situation!

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