When Eli Tragash was four, he started playing classical violin. Then, nearly a decade and a half later, he found his real passion: the fiddle.
Fiddling is a genre of music associated with the violin – most notably country and old time or folk music. While the instrument is the same, the style of music is not.
The 26-year-old musician was a judge for the Cane Boil and FiddleFest’s annual Longleaf Pine Youth Fiddle contest on Nov. 28. He judged fiddlers who are 18 and younger that played music reminiscent of the 1870’s and Appalachian Trail music.
It is the hardest music to play, according to Gary Paul, president of the Friends of Nature Parks. He said the Scottish and Irish settlers who came to U.S. as indentured servants used to play the genre of music in the mountains.
Tragash participated in the contest about 10 years ago. He said that teaching kids to play music at a young age is key.
“When really young kids can take on a difficult task, it can lead to success,” Tragash said.
He was first introduced to fiddling by a mentor, who was also a judge at his first fiddle contest. He was the “spark” who helped Tragash learn a different style than the classical music he was used to. Tragash practiced daily to fine-tune his skills and continues to play one to two hours each day.
Cindy Campbell leads the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival, the only national organization that runs certified fiddle contests. A majority of her contestants are below the age of 25, she said.
Many youth are encouraged to enter the art of fiddling by older teachers, like Tragash was, or because of family tradition, according to Campbell.
Although Tragash didn’t have family who fiddled, he was one of the first Longleaf Pine contestants who stuck with the craft long enough to also become a judge.
He said that while he finds judging hard, one of his favorite things about the music is how it connects people.
“Music is about bringing people together,” he said.
Campbell said fiddlers come from all types of careers, from accountants to lawyers and judges. Fiddlers play at weddings, funerals, coffee houses and camp fires. She said that although not nearly as many people compete in fiddle contests as they do play, it has become a special tradition for many.
“(It’s) a very loose family,” she said. “A fiddle family.”