The Bow Belles: Scotland's female fiddlers are hitting all the right notes
THE violin's sensuous curves have often been likened to the lines of a woman's body, so much so that photographer Man Ray famously photographed a female muse from behind, the curved f-holes of a violin painted on her back so that her torso took on the appearance of the instrument.
• Nicola Benedetti has brought the violin into the mainstream with her chart-topping albums
Despite its feminine connotations, however, the violin was once very much considered a man's instrument. Today all that has changed. Female violinists often outnumber their male counterparts in orchestras, and at the finals of the prestigious 21st Glenfiddich Fiddle Championships, which take place this weekend, seven of the eight finalists are women in their early twenties.
"We have welcomed a mix of male and female competitors over the championships' 21-year history, but there does seem to be a very strong show from the girls this year," says Liz Maxwell, the event manager at the Glenfiddich Piping & Fiddle Championships. "It is wonderful for us to see such determined and talented females really leading the way and forging their place in the rich history of the Championships."
So why are the girls leading the charge when it comes to the fiddle? Over the past decade a number of female violinists – from Vanessa Mae to Scottish musician Nicola Benedetti – have enjoyed worldwide fame. While Mae made the violin cool again by exploring techno music, Benedetti has brought it into the mainstream with her chart-topping albums. Have these virtuosa violinists paved the way for a generation of young women to take up the fiddle?
Twelve-year-old Brogan Bridges took up the violin two months ago and is working towards playing in her school's Christmas concert next year. "I love people like Nicola Benedetti, and I do find her really inspiring, but I started playing because I love the beautiful sound a violin makes," she says. "I practise for a couple of hours a day because if you're learning a new song and you don't practise, you forget it. I have a violin which my parents bought me as an early Christmas present. It's pink because I wanted to play in style. At my school it's mainly girls who play the violin because a lot of the boys say it's a girly instrument."
It wasn't always so. Playing the violin was once considered highly unladylike. In 1834, violiist Elise Mayer Filipowicz reviewed a fellow female violinist's performance, writing that although her playing "(gave] our ears great pleasure … our eyes told us that the instrument is not one for ladies to attempt."
Ironically, it may have been the feminine shape of the instrument, and its range – which is very similar to that of a soprano - which meant it was deemed inapropriate for women to play. The celebrated 20th-century American violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, who taught Nicola Benedetti, wrote: "I have often wondered whether psychologically there is a basic difference between the woman's relationship to the violin and the man's. Does the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves? Is there an element of narcissism in the woman's relation to the violin, and is she, in fact, in a curious way, better matched for the cello?"
The Glenfiddich Fiddle Championships were established in 1989 to reward and encourage the art of fiddle playing throughout the world. Their introduction came after the already established Glenfiddich Piping Championships, which began in 1974, to celebrate the world's finest individual pipers, and to seek the best exponents of the legendary ceol mor or piobaireachd (the great music) and ceol beag (the little music).
Twenty-one-year-old Gillian Ramsay from Kirriemuir first picked up a violin when she was five, and started taking lessons at 11. This weekend she will compete alongside seven other finalists in the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championships, taking place at Blair Castle in Blair Atholl. This will be the third time she has competed.
"Music was always a part of family life for me," she says. "My dad and my aunt played the accordion and my grandad played the pipes and the fiddle, so I was surrounded by music, and now it's opened up a lot of doors for me. Traditionally the violin was quite male, but recently I do think more women have been picking it up. For those who're interested in Scottish music, it's less bulky than something like the accordion, and it's certainly quite a delicate instrument. Plus, we have a lot of female role models, so that may have made it more accessible."
Her fellow competitor, Nicola Auchnie, 22, from Turriff in Aberdeenshire, has been playing violin since primary school and now teaches violin and viola after graduating from the University of Aberdeen with an honours degree in music and education. She says: "When I was growing up, I shared a lesson with a boy in primary school, but when we got to high school he just didn't think it was cool any more. I think we lose a lot of boys that way."
Susan Matasovska, from Penicuik, has been teaching the violin for more than 20 years and says that girls have always been more drawn to the instrument than boys. "It's simply not perceived as very cool for boys to be seen walking down the street with a violin case," she says. "When they're very young, boys and girls take it up in more equal numbers, but as they get older the boys tend to quit as things like football take over. The girls are much more likely to hang in there and much more likely to take it into adulthood."
Shona Macfadyen, 23, from West Kilbride, will be competing this weekend. She has a degree in traditional music from the RSAMD in Glasgow and graduated in 2009 after gaining a BA in Scottish Music. She is now back at college studying Supporting Learning Needs and hopes to build her music into working with children and young people with learning difficulties. She has been playing since the age of eight, and learned within a group of girls. "Even when I reached my teens and joined a divisional orchestra, the girls still outnumbered the boys when it came to the violin," she says. "I think it just comes across as a particularly feminine instrument. It's a small instrument, and I think that people think you need small, nimble fingers to play it, which is a myth."
The seven female finalists will join a lone male – Graham MacKenzie – to compete for the title on Sunday night. Last year, the winners and runners-up were all female. The title was taken by an American, Rebecca Lomnicky, from Oregon, while Nicola Auchnie was the runner-up for the second time and Gillian Ramsay came in third place in her second year of competing. The competition – which includes entrants from across the globe – is one of the most prestigious in its field, and those who compete do so by invitation only following earlier competitive successes. That this year all but one of the finalists is female proves that when it comes to fiddling, increasingly, it's a woman's world.
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