Old Time Fiddle Championships return to Mountain Iron
Aaron Wilcox is busily preparing to defend his title Saturday.
DULUTH — Aaron Wilcox started to prepare for the 2022 Minnesota State Old Time Fiddle Championship immediately after last year's competition.
"I come away from the contest with so many ideas for new tunes to choose and to learn and try out," the Duluth-based fiddler said. "Then, throughout the year, I work on practicing consistently, though sometimes I practice in spurts, depending on my schedule."
The 2021 champion will attempt to defend his title during the 40th competition at Mountain Iron's Merritt School Auditorium on Saturday. The contest is open to all U.S. and Canadian fiddlers and other stringed instrumentalists. The winner qualifies to compete at the National Old Time Fiddle Championships in Weiser, Idaho, in June and wins the greatest share of $2,000 in cash and prizes.
How does a fiddle contest work? According to organizer Sheila Wilcox, also Aaron's mother, fiddlers come prepared to compete with three prepared tunes: a waltz, a hoedown and a tune of choice.
"That might be something like a jig or ragtime," Sheila said. "But likely, it'll be something that's older than 100 years or so. We're an old-time competition, so we don't see many modern-day composers in this competition."
When contestants compete, they play in front of the crowd, but are screened from view from the judges to allow for impartiality.
"So they never really know who is playing, just that they're contestant No. 2 or whatever. No names or information are given to them," Sheila said. "And it's a hard job, to just really listen to those tunes and try to find a winner based on sound alone, but they're all very skilled and have all been competitors themselves before."
Contestants are also divided into four age groups. There's also a twin fiddle contest and a non-fiddle contest for those who play other instruments.
Growing up in Virginia, Aaron has been competing in the contest since he was 11 years old. He said his mother had a big impact on his musical beginnings, as she teaches orchestra at Rock Ridge Public Schools and previously at Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia.
"She gave me the opportunity to learn a classical background first, then when I got older, she asked if I wanted to try out the fiddle contest," Aaron said. "I really ended up liking it. I didn't know if I would at first; it seemed a little overwhelming, but it got to be really fun."
He also liked to compete with his younger brother, Andrew, for most of their teenage years. "We weren't overly competitive, but we liked to see who could play better," he said.
When it comes to picking music for each competition, Aaron said he likes to make sure the tunes he picks are an "appropriate challenge."
"I like to challenge myself," Aaron said. "I also want them to be very polished by the time the contest comes around. I work really hard to memorize each tune and make sure I can play them without any music way before the contest."
His tunes for this year are already memorized and he said he's "ready to play" on Saturday.
The Minnesota State Old Time Fiddle Championship, made possible thanks to a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, will begin at noon. Tickets are $10 at the door for audience members. Find more information and competition registration at mesabisymphonyorchestra.org/FiddleContest.