You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Jul 25, 2010 : 7 p.m.

Saline Fiddlers and Fiddlers Restrung embrace their roles as musical ambassadors

By Tara Cavanaugh


Greg Morsfield performs with the Saline Fiddlers at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dexter earlier this month.

Angela Cesere |

Fiddle music often starts this way: One fiddle sings out silky sixteenth notes to the rest of the group. Then other musicians come in: cellos, guitars, drums, and more fiddles, the music swelling in a cacophony of sound synchronized carefully to the beat.

Soon the audience joins in. First, one person can’t help but clap his hands. Then the people around him start clapping too and stomping their feet, and suddenly the entire room is full of noise and movement. No one is still. Two student groups in Saline, the Saline Fiddlers and the Fiddlers Restrung, have experienced this plenty of times. There are two groups, each full of high school students. But don’t let the age of the players fool you. The fiddling groups are serious business, performing around the country and the world. Students practice daily with music tutors and perform increasingly complex and original music. These young ambassadors often give communities their first introduction to the city of Saline.

Humble beginnings But in the beginning, it was just an after-school program. In 1994, Bob Phillips, the orchestra director at the middle and high schools in Saline, started the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic, an after-school club dedicated to giving orchestra students the chance to fiddle around with a different kind of music. Ben Culver started off as a junior in the group's first year, when there was “such an explosive interest” in fiddling. Since then, fiddling has remained fairly popular with Saline students. He said interest peaked in the late 1990s, when as many as sixty students auditioned for eight open spots. By 2003, Culver was the director of the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic, and the group was still associated with the school. But “artistic differences” between Superintendent Scot Graden (then the director of community education) and Culver caused Culver to resign that fall. Those artistic differences also resulted in the creation of two fiddling groups in early 2004: the Saline Fiddlers, a private group, and the Fiddlers Restrung, which stayed affiliated with the school. “You’re in high school?”


Members of the Fiddlers ReStrung perform at the Saline Celtic Festival earlier this month.

Angele Cesere |

Since then, both groups have become tuition-charging programs that take kids on performance tours of at least 70 gigs a year. Saline Fiddlers just finished a tour of southern Texas and played in Germany last year. Fiddlers Restrung just took a two-week tour of cities along the Great Lakes. Both groups tend to perform mostly in the Midwest. And both groups have barely-paid staffs and an army of parent volunteers to keep them going. Culver, who is the orchestra director at the middle school and the artistic director of Saline Fiddlers, is amazed at how the groups have evolved. “To watch our kids achieve such a high level of performance competence, and just be fun to watch and listen to, it’s a real source of pride for the community overall,” he said. Players and leaders in both groups say the reaction from the audience is always the same: “You’re in high school?!” They’re often asked that question because the level of music they play is so advanced. “They’ve grown to the challenge of the music as we’ve learned to write it better,” Culver said. The audition processes for Saline Fiddlers and Fiddlers Restrung are long and tough. Both groups have two rounds of auditions: If students clear one round, they can start practicing with the group. If they pass another round, they can perform on stage. “I’ve learned to put other people’s needs before mine” But it's not just auditions that are grueling Students have to find time to practice and perform, do homework and play sports. Both groups demand a 3.0 GPA to be involved. Students also have to be a part of the music program at school, so they have to practice music for those classes as well. One skill that comes with all of those demands is time management, said Ian Waters, who just graduated from Saline High School and will attend the University of Michigan this fall. “Understanding what your commitments are, how you need to plan for them. It’s extremely important. You can’t be late. We have a lot of performances and rehearsals. You can’t just not show up if you forget or something.” This means that the kind of kid who asks for all this responsibility is the kind of kid who can handle it, Alison Craig said. Craig is the artistic director of Fiddlers Restrung. “We tend to attract students that are ambitious and want to learn and be successful. Because of that, the personalities in the group tend to be overachievers,” she said. Players learn they’re not just responsible for themselves, but they’re responsible to a whole group of people too. Meredith Phillips plays cello, dances and sings for Saline Fiddlers. She’ll be a senior this year. “I’ve learned to care about people more. I’ve learned to put other people’s needs before mine,” she said. “I’ve really become like a mom to the group. They call me ‘Mama Mer,’” she said, gigging. “I love being able to take care of my friends and be there for them. I think that’s what changed me the most.”

“It’s so rewarding" Students in both fiddling groups feel a lot of responsibility, and so do their parents. After all, half of these kids can’t even drive. But the parents could not be more thrilled that their kids are a part of a traveling fiddling band. “It’s so rewarding. It’s unbelievable,” gushed Priscilla Olsen, mother to a former and current member of Saline Fiddlers. “The things they’ve done. The people they’ve met. My daughter shook hands with two presidents and opened for Reba McIntire. They’ve traveled all over the United States.” Parents fill a variety of needs, whether it’s driving kids to a gig, preparing food or selling merchandise, Culver said. Parents tend to really like it because they can be “a part of their kids’ lives without being directly involved in their kids’ lives,” he said. “Which is a quirky way of saying they can be there with their kids as they’re growing up, but the kids don’t resent their presence.” Miriam Bohnen, a parent of a violin player in Fiddlers Restrung, likes spending time with her son and his friends, and she’s also pleased at how much community service he does with the group. Members of both fiddling groups give workshops to students at other schools and give free performances. Bohnen described one performance in a nursing home last year. Some of the residents were bed-ridden, and couldn’t come out to hear the music. So the kids traveled through the corridors like a parade, playing music as they passed each room. “The people were listening in bed, they were tapping their feet,” Bohnen remembered, smiling. “It’s these kinds of things that makes [the kids] grow as a person too.” She also likes that the group fosters her son’s confidence and creativity. “He just played a piece he wrote, she said after a performance of the song at the Saline Celtic Festival. “He’s not the only one. If players have a talent, it’s encouraged, developed even more.” Next stop, China? The Saline fiddle groups have no plans to slow down. “Our goal is to visit every state that we haven’t visited,” said Mark Visovatti, Saline Fiddlers’ booking manager. That's about half of the states in the country. “We have very high goals. Wouldn’t surprise me someday if this group goes to China.” He’s heard high praise for Saline Fiddlers wherever the students have traveled: “They say, ‘We always hear about the bad [in kids today], we never get to see the good, and this is definitely the good.’ That’s what they say to me." So Visovatti is saying that someday, the lone silky call of a fiddle could open up to crowded hall in Beijing, introducing the audience to American fiddling music as studied by a bunch of talented teenagers from Saline, Mich.



Tue, Jul 27, 2010 : 8:06 a.m.

Awesome groups of great kids. Nice job Tara!


Mon, Jul 26, 2010 : 7:17 a.m.

Two wonderful groups - I'm so proud to live in an area that supports these programs! So many communities don't even have an orchestra program, let alone an "alternative" music style like fiddling..... The kids who make a commitment to one of these fiddle groups have an amazingly special element added to their high school years, and their lives are much richer for the experience!