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Fiddler lets her ear and heart be her guide

Idahoan passes on the old-time fiddling tradition

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POTLATCH, Idaho — Violin is all in the accuracy. Fiddling, says Mabel Vogt, is all in the accent.

"The geography of where someone has lived is in their fiddling," says Vogt, a longtime Palouse-area fiddle player and teacher.

But whether a fiddle "speaks" with a Southern drawl, a Midwestern twang, a snappy Latin cadence, French intonation or "basically Idaho," as Vogt classifies her style, to be good fiddling it has to be passed on like an accent.

Writing it down does no good — it must come straight from bow to ear.

It is no easy skill to learn, says Vogt. It takes time, practice and heart. But it is all part of the old-time fiddling tradition Vogt fell in love with 30 years ago and has been passing on to Palouse youths as a fiddle instructor for more than two decades.

"I teach entirely by ear," says Vogt, who was in her home studio preparing to instruct at a fiddling camp in Kittitas, Wash.

Vogt's music room at the rear of her rural home she shares with husband Sieg Vogt is more scrapbook than studio. Photographs, dozens of them, cover the walls just inside the screen door. Some of her more than 150 fiddling students grin from wallet-sized school pictures, their hairstyles reflecting the passage of 22 years.

"These are the things most important to me," says Vogt, picking out highlights from the collage. "It's kind of like a museum."

Here Vogt's grown daughters, Anna and Andrea, are eternally toddlers and teenagers, caught on film with fiddles tucked under their chins.

High on one wall are snaps of her fiddle-playing heroes and friends, like Mike O'Connor and his teacher, Benny Thomasson.

Save the keys on an upright piano, no horizontal surface remains uncovered, either, having long ago been claimed by dozens of fiddle-topped trophies dated 1975 to 2003, avalanches of antique sheet music, books, photo albums packed with pictures of her fiddle students performing, souvenirs from Germany and Italy and more photos.

Tucked away around the studio are three guitars, a mandolin, autoharp and 10 fiddles.

"Maybe 15," Vogt, 60, says, gazing thoughtfully at a row of black instrument cases lying close together under an old pool table. She sometimes loans these to her students who can't afford their own.

The difference between a fiddle and violin is subtle. Some fiddle players prefer a shorter bridge and different strings from those the symphony artists use. The only real variation is in the way it is played.

But fiddle style was not readily available to violin students when Vogt was growing up. A Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, native, Vogt was born into family with a rich American musical tradition.

Her father, Cecil Lovel, was born on a northern Idaho homestead where he learned to fiddle from his father. Her mother, Hildur Lovel, played the accordion and also the piano, a skill she passed on to Vogt.

The family later moved to Moscow, where Cecil started 12-year-old Mabel on violin lessons, but not in the fiddle style he played.

"He loved the sound of the violin, so he thought maybe fiddle was an inferior style," Vogt says.

Plus, "in the 1950s, lessons meant classical," she adds.

A classical violinist she remained for many years, performing 15 years with the University of Idaho Symphony.

"Patsy McDowell Buckley Mercer," she says when asked what prompted her to make the leap from classical to fiddle style. The woman was concert mistress when Vogt was playing with the UI Symphony.

Outside the concert hall Mercer played in the old-time style. Already curious about fiddling, Vogt decided to follow Mercer's example.

In 1972 Vogt abandoned the violin for the fiddle, joining the Idaho Oldtime Fiddlers Association.

"I was really going back to what my father played," Vogt says.

The transition was hard, she admits.

Back then, "I was lost without music, I couldn't play without it in front of me," Vogt says. "But I just kept at it," says Vogt.

"I'm still learning," she says. "But I really haven't been tempted to try any other style."

Hearing Canadian fiddling as a girl influenced Vogt to add tunes in the Mtis style, which comes from a blend of Canadian Native and French Canadian, or Qubequois fiddling, to her repertoire.

Vogt started teaching fiddling about 1981 as a favor to a friend, but soon found an alternate career in it. Vogt founded the Potlatch Junior Jammers about the same time she started teaching to give her students, which included her daughters, an opportunity to play, and began booking the group at every venue from small-town festivals to nursing homes.

"Fiddle music is meant to be heard."

Fiddlers traditionally played for dances. Performing for the public is not only social for students, but makes them work harder as they compete and learn together, she adds.

All the while Vogt has practiced what she preaches.

"I enjoy playing for people."

Vogt plays consistently at local festivals, concerts and churches. A long-time German language professor at Washington State University, she spends her spare time traveling to teach, and to contests as both a judge and a competitor.

In 1992 some of Vogt's former students lamented there was no regular event where local fiddlers could play without the tension of a competition. And so the Scenic Six Fiddle Show was born, and now is a popular annual event in Potlatch, attracting student and professional players.

"It really draws an enthusiastic crowd, too," Vogt says. "A lot of the older folks like the music and they like to hear their neighbors play it."

"We want to expose young fiddlers to the stage and other fiddlers for them to hear, to realize that they are part of a bigger tradition than they know," Vogt says.

"That's what I care about mostly, that this music never dies."