Ashlanders: Duane Whitcomb

Duane Whitcomb wants the violin to shed its stuffy image and take its place next to the guitar as a go-anywhere party instrument. The 44-year-old classically trained musician says fiddle music, the music associated with traditional or folk styles such as Irish or bluegrass, is where the fun is.

"The violin has a lot to learn from the guitar about being a social instrument — something fun you can take out and jam with friends," he said.

Whitcomb teaches violin and fiddle and plays in the Celtic-influenced trio Wendi's House with Wendi Stanek and Steve Shaw. The busy parent, musician and teacher spoke with the Daily Tidings about the joy he finds in music and the joy he takes in sharing it.

DT: How long have you lived in Ashland?

DW: We've lived here for 16 years.

DT: What brought you here?

DW: My wife, Helen, and I were living in the Bay Area and, after some travel, we planned to return and go to school there but, when we returned, we realized it wasn't what we wanted. We decided to just drive north. Ashland was the first place we stopped because it was convenient. My wife immediately knew this was where we should be. Still, we kept driving and looking at places, but everywhere else we went Helen would say, "It's nice, but it's not Ashland."

DT: Talk about playing the violin.

DW: I was someone who was very much on the classically trained track. I grew up in a musical family and was playing violin when I was very young. I played a lot of symphonies and concerts. I had fun, but it was primarily the people I enjoyed. By the end of high school, the only time I was playing was at weddings or funerals. I never felt comfortable just taking it out at a party and playing the way people do with a guitar. It was sort of a kill-joy. A party is just not the place to sit down and play a Vivaldi concerto. It's beautiful, but not the right place. I had almost given up on the violin before I came to folk music.

DT: Is there a difference between a violin and a fiddle?

DW: The fiddle and violin are the same instrument. The violin is usually associated with classical music and the fiddle is associated with folk styles such as Irish, Cajun, blues or country music. Folk music is more social. My work is very much to get the violin to be much more of a social instrument again. The violin fits so beautifully with so many different kids of music. I want people to enjoy it beyond being center stage of an orchestra. It basically has an image problem, and that has become a burden for it.

DT: How did you make the move from classical violin to folk music?

DW: The turning point came when I moved to Ashland. I was working at (Jefferson Public Radio) and we produced concerts. I saw this Irish fiddler, Mark Haines. Everything seemed wrong, his posture, the way he hunched over the violin, the way he held his bow. When he played it was so beautiful, it was life-changing. It wasn't the first time I'd heard fiddle music, but he was the first person who brought out the beauty and breadth of Irish music. After hearing him, I dived into the thousands of CDs at JPR and I worked at that sort of music, trying to imitate it and get that sound.

DT: When did you start teaching violin?

DW: I started about eight years ago. I wanted my children, Isabelle and Theo, to be exposed to music. When they were in school, I'd go to their school and show the kids how to play. That sort of took off. Now, I teach and I work part-time at JPR. I wasn't much of a teacher at first, but I think kids get more from enthusiasm than anything else. It's more about the people. That's where the joy is: hanging out with great kids and their parents. The violin isn't half as intimidating as you think it is.

DT: Is there an ideal age for learning the violin?

DW: It's so specific for the child. I started when I was 5. Some people start earlier, some later. It really depends on the child and his or her interests. If parents want their children to learn music, they should have music around the house. Play it throughout the day. It's not different from teaching a language. The earlier they start and the more they are exposed to it, there is a certain fluency that develops.

DT: What do you like best about teaching?

DW: There are so many things. I like it when kids become enthusiastic about it. The fiddle camp I teach in the summer sort of embodies what I like best. That's when kids who don't know each other get together and have fun together and, in the process, they make great music.

For more information about Duane Whitcomb's violin and fiddle classes, see or e-mail

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