“Fiddle Hell’ – it’s about friendship, exposure, and learning from the best

For a dozen years now, fiddlers from Greater Boston and elsewhere have gone to their own special hell – and they couldn’t be happier about it.

Massachusetts Fiddle Hell, which takes place Nov. 3-5 in Westford, is an annual gathering that brings together fiddlers and players of other instruments to share knowledge, friendship, and lots (and lots) of music. During the 50-plus hours of Fiddle Hell, participants can attend workshops given by expert musicians; take in a mini-concert here and there, as well as a Saturday evening performance that is followed by a contra dance; congregate for both planned and spontaneous jam sessions; and be part of a “flash mob” experience or two – all of it in the friendly confines of the Westford Regency Inn.

Music styles at Fiddle Hell include Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, Appalachian, old-timey, Scandinavian, Eastern European, blues, Cajun, classical, klezmer, jazz. and just about anything else under the sun – or moon, since activities go on well into the night. Fiddles are in the majority, of course, but there is plenty of room for cellos, mandolins, guitars and banjos, and accordions, flutes, whistles and string basses are in evidence, too.

“Fiddle Hell is for the ‘closet fiddlers,’ or other closet musicians, who don’t get out much,” says Lexington resident Dave Reiner, who created Massachusetts Fiddle Hell. “Above all, it’s a chance to make some friends, get exposure to different styles and to learn from some of the best traditional musicians – some of them are local to Greater Boston or Massachusetts, but some are farther away. Maybe you’ll be able to work out something in your playing that’s bugged you for a while, maybe you’ll be inspired to explore some aspect of a music tradition you hadn’t heard before, maybe you’ll even get turned onto something entirely new. Anything might happen.”

Reiner-based Massachusetts Fiddle Hell picked up on an idea by Missouri fiddler Dale Hopkins, one that also has taken root in other parts of the world. But the scope of Massachusetts Fiddle Hell sets it apart from other incarnations: Last year, according to Reiner, more than 430 musicians from as near as Westford to as far away as California, Alabama, Florida, Canada, Scotland, and even the Netherlands, came to Fiddle Hell, and some 60 others served as faculty.

“Dale’s concept was to give fiddlers from all over a chance to get together for a bit of fun – ‘Hey, let’s meet up at a bar,’” explains Reiner, a former member of the eminent New England bluegrass band Southern Rail. “My thought was, ‘Let’s make it into a camp.’ And now, I think it’s really become a community.”

Reiner, along with his wife Cindy Eid, and their sons Andy and Eric – all musicians who have played as a family band and in numerous other collaborations – form the core of the Fiddle Hell organizational team, aided by a host of staff and volunteers. Faculty members represent a diversity of generations, styles, interests, accomplishments and experiences: Their ranks have included the likes of Laurel Martin, Bruce Molsky, Katie McNally, Frank Ferrel, Lissa Schneckenburger, Mark Simos, Skip Gorman, Barbara McOwen, Andrea Beaton, Pete Sutherland, and Ed Pearlman.

“Fiddle Hell strikes a perfect balance between focused learning and community-spirited joy,” says Martin. “Dave Reiner and his family do a beautiful job organizing the event, so the logistics work seamlessly. I love the fact that teachers are given the freedom to design their workshops according to their own particular interests, and that the students arrive with a sincere desire to learn. 

“I think that the greatest lesson that musicians who are new to traditional music can take away from Fiddle Hell is that a spirit of intense learning and hard work can be combined with the joy of becoming part of a creative, artistic community.”  

Like most any regularly occurring event, Fiddle Hell has had its learning curve and growing pains: The opening night for the very first Fiddle Hell, for example, took place in a snowstorm, and the turnout was a grand total of five people. It’s twice outgrown its venue, first at the Old Groton Inn, and then the Colonial Inn in Concord; the Westford Regency became the host in 2014. Over the years, there have been changes to the format and programming, notably to include workshops for more instruments and also for vocals. And there are now two CDs of commonly played Fiddle Hell tunes (52 on each disc) available for purchase.

“I can’t take the credit for what Fiddle Hell has become,” says Reiner. “Andy and Eric have been to plenty of music camps, and they’ve passed along their insights and thoughts – as have many of our friends and acquaintances. Like I said, Fiddle Hell has become a community, and a lot of people have become invested in it.”

Spend even a few hours at Fiddle Hell, and Reiner’s description of “a community” seems very apt. Elementary school-age kids lugging shiny fiddle cases walk the halls of the Westport Regency along with septuagenarians whose worn, battered instrument cases evince an odyssey of folk festivals, concerts, and music parties, while friends and acquaintances greet one another warmly by the snack table and go over their itineraries.

Depending on your tastes and the schedule for a given year, you might go to the Julia Clifford Room – the hotel’s meeting rooms are temporarily named for legendary fiddlers from various traditions – to learn an Appalachian waltz, then head to Jean Carignan for a seminar on picking up tunes by ear; or perhaps you might like to spend an hour with Bob Wills exploring melodic variations in Irish tunes, followed by a talk with Buddy MacMaster on how to get over performance jitters.

There’s no shortage of jam session aficionados at Fiddle Hell. Pass by one group immersed in Quebecois tunes, and around the corner you might find another playing Irish polkas, or a Scottish march-strathspey-reel medley, or some Texas swing, or perhaps even some hearty sing-alongs. Sit down to join in, and something as simple as a sticker on your instrument case may spark a conversation – and before you know it that total stranger next to you has, in a matter of minutes, become a new-found friend.

“I love seeing such a large group of people getting together to learn, socialize, and make music,” says fiddler Ellery Klein, a Fiddle Hell faculty member who has been a member of Gaelic Storm and Long Time Courting, and now plays in the trio Fodhla. “In our world right now, a gathering of people for music and friendship is something to treasure. I think we are realizing that social connection is something we are losing, and the Reiners have done an amazing job building a weekend for hundreds of people to gather and make music.”

For those new to playing traditional music, or music of any kind, whether on fiddle or other instruments, a full-immersion weekend like Fiddle Hell might sound a little out of the ordinary, perhaps even intimidating. But Reiner says such an experience can be beneficial to one’s musical development.

“It’s true that we emphasize learning mostly by ear, and that may be out of your comfort zone if you’re only used to working with sheet music,” he says. “The thing about traditional music – whether Irish, Scottish, American or whatever – is that it’s not simply a mechanical reproduction of what’s written: You play variations and ornamentations, and these may be different than what someone else plays, and that’s OK.

“At Fiddle Hell, you can get to know about these kinds of details, you can watch and listen to excellent musicians demonstrate them, and then you can explore them yourself through jam sessions – and hopefully, it will all be something that you can help you get to wherever it is you want to go.”

Klein agrees. “There are beginner-level classes, so even those fairly new can bring their fiddles or other instruments, and a spirit of ‘Try it!’ There are also plenty of classes geared towards kids as well as adults. So take along a recording device and try to challenge yourself with something new.

“There is inspiration everywhere,” says Klein. “As a teacher, I believe conscious listening is 50 percent of learning. Between daytime mini-concerts, classes and the evening concert on Saturday, there is listening to be had everywhere. Just tap into your inner musical sponge and soak it up.”

For information on Fiddle Hell, go fiddlehell.org.