Swamp rocker teaches kids to fiddle

BAKER CITY — Jocelyn Wellman snugs the fiddle under her chin, then starts sawing away with the bow.

Back and forth, back and forth — so far, sounds good.

Then: squeak!

She sticks out her tongue in annoyance as her eyes find instructor Kelly Thibodeaux.

"It hurts my ears!" she says with a grin.

Then she starts again, joining the cacophony that is warm-up time for the session Rick Rembold's third-grade class is having with Thibodeaux, the artist-in-residence this week at Brooklyn Primary School.

"With the reduction in staffing, we wanted the artist-in-residence to be music," said Principal Troy Fisher.

This year, music teacher Terry LaMont is dividing his time between Brooklyn, including kindergarten, Haines and Keating.

Fisher said the students have enjoyed this week of fiddling.

"This has been the most reaction to an artist-in-residence we've had in the six years I've been here," he said.

Fisher said the program was funded by grants from ArtsEast and Crossroads Carnegie Art Center. Also, Rob and Lori Thomas have donated the use of a guest house for Thibodeaux's lodging.

Thibodeaux grew up in New Orleans, but not with the fiddle.

"I grew up with rock n' roll music, and a family of engineers," he said.

He was one year shy of earning a degree in electrical engineering then changed his mind, and decided to play the fiddle instead.

"I think it was because I was doing something I didn't like and didn't understand," he said.

His dad's reaction: "But you don't know how to play the fiddle."

That was 35 years ago. Now he describes himself as a "working musician" with his band, Etouffee, that plays a style called swamp rock. He now lives in Oakridge, near Eugene.

When he's not playing, he's teaching youngsters how to make the fiddle sing.

He brings about 40 fiddles with him for the students to play. Thibodeaux is full of stories, and these fiddles bring another one: he was in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit. After the hurricane, he said the oil companies doubled the price of gasoline, and he didn't think it was right to capitalize on other's misfortune.

"My only way to protest was to sell my gas-guzzling SUV and buy a Honda," he said. "Then I bought all these fiddles."

At the beginning of a session, the students take up a fiddle and start rubbing rosin (made of tree sap) on the horsehair bow, which has to be sticky to work on the fiddle strings.

"This is the only quiet part of the program, when they rosin up their bows," he said.

Then comes the warm up.

They improve every day, he said, as the sound of 20-some students "sawing" fills the room.

"Believe it or not, I can hear that little song being played," he said. "I'm teaching them a little dance fiddle tune, a little two-step."

After practicing for a few minutes, Thibodeaux takes up his guitar and brings the students up, one by one, to practice a short song.

"Okay, short, short, long. Take it away," he says, strumming the guitar in time with the young fiddler.

When the students switch, Thibodeaux shares music tidbits with the class.

"You know, a couple hundred years ago they didn't have itty-bitty fiddles," he said. "They only had one size, probably their grandpa's. They'd saw on it till they got big enough to hold it off the ground."

He said a fiddle which is also a violin was made to imitate people. It is shaped like a human (an hourglass shape) with the scroll representing hair, strings the vocal cords, and the bow providing the vibration that creates sound.

"Fiddles are magical," he said.

And youngsters take right to these instruments, especially when he welcomes them with a catchy dance tune.

"With a kid, if you don't grab their attention right away, you won't get it," he said.

Most can't get enough.

"The most significant thing is it's an amazing self-esteem builder," he said.

And then they're hooked.

"After this, they all want fiddles," he said with a grin.

To learn more about Thibodeaux and his workshops, visit his Web site: www.etouffee.com.

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