Workshop Hardingfele Loans

To help ensure the best possible experience for hardingfele students (and the gracious lenders) at our annual workshops, the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America arranges the lending of instruments to those who need them for the four days of our event. In the article below, which appeared in the HFAA's journal, Sound Post, vol. 26, no. 4 (Fall 2009), HFAA Board member Hege Ravdal describes how the Loan Program works.

The HFAA Hardingfele Loan Program for Our Annual Workshops

by Hege Ravdal

For the past four years or so I have had the pleasure of coordinating the HFAA’s hardingfele loan program for our annual workshop. Our loan program is familiar to those who have borrowed fiddles before, to the troopers who lend their fiddles out every year (who know I will come asking again), and to the members of the workshop organizing committee. But since we are always on the lookout for fiddles we can include, it occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to explain to our general membership how the loan program works.


Think back to childhood… Children learning the fine art of sharing know that some things are more valuable and special than others, and they only share those things with very special friends. When your best friend offers you her very special toy and says, “Here, you can borrow this!” you know that YOU have just been given a big vote of confidence as friend and borrower. I bet you never felt as included or as appreciated as just then. Why the reference to childhood? Bear with me. In my time with the loan program, I have watched the many facets of human behavior that come into play – from sharing patterns learned in childhood through handling of high stakes investments to family legacy issues.

The plot

HFAA fiddle sleuths conspire to round up a dozen Hardanger fiddles in playable condition and bring them safely to Folklore Village for a July workshop. Basically, they find a dozen agreeable individuals who are willing to lend out their extra – or only – Hardanger fiddles, and match them with an equal number of workshop participants who have indicated that they would like to borrow a fiddle. Organize, systematize, digitize… and make sure fiddle lenders and borrowers are all happy campers – before, during and after!

The characters: The key to the success of the program

Those who lend. Some of our loaner fiddles come from our instructors who have “extras,” and some come from HFAA board members who have known about our fiddle loan program for years. And some come from the likes of you! Enter the generous member, the altruist, the collectivist… the one who owns a Hardanger fiddle, plays it from time to time (or not much anymore perhaps?). She knows she won’t make it to the workshop that year, but she recalls a time when she was new to the HFAA and someone else graciously allowed her to bow her first strokes on their instrument. I quote one of this year’s lenders: “So glad to help! I used a borrowed fiddle at my first few workshops, too. So I'm happy to return the favor.” (Mary Allsopp, July 2009)

Those who borrow. Our cast of borrowers represents all ages and all levels of fiddling proficiency. There’s the teenager with violin lesson background and a Norwegian-sounding name, a family legacy motivating her. There’s the fiddler who has played for contra dances and met someone who had a Hardanger who said, “You’ve GOT to try this instrument.” Then there’s the guy who plays mostly guitar but has found this cool instrument whose sound he has fallen in love with, and he’s scraped together enough money to make it to Wisconsin this weekend. And there’s the young violinist from the Ukraine who came here on a Bernt Balchen Hardingfele Scholarship, who has never played Hardanger, but who takes to it like the proverbial fish to water.

Then there are the ‘tweeners’. Those who have played at our workshops before, but for many reasons have not yet bought their own hardingfele. Some borrow for a second or third time. Hardanger fiddles are expensive, and not ubiquitously available. But if someone does come back to the workshop, they generally come back as an HFAA member, and are much more likely to end up purchasing a fiddle of their own. I can count a number of folks like this among the borrowers I have known.

People who know people – who may have a fiddle to lend. Networking! That’s what it’s all about. Your willingness to forward an email I send out soliciting loaners to your friend whom you know has a fiddle that might work out for us, as well as our president’s many contacts, and those of our wonderful instructors in the Hardanger fiddling community.

People who carry fiddles. The classic middlemen and women! The people who agree to carry a fiddle on the plane or in their car on the way to and from workshops. You have often been the unsung heroes of this process, but know that your willingness to assume fiddle-transport duty is critical: without you, especially in the current climate of TSA and airline carry-on restrictions, we could not continue.

As I said, I regret I do not play hardingfele, but I have carried a fiddle on a plane or in my car on several occasions. A fiddle case makes for a very special piece of luggage. It has brought out the poser in me, and I’ve enjoyed “looking” like a fiddler and even answering the TSA’s questions about what was inside the case. I have lovingly covered fiddle cases on my back seat with a blanket, and searched for a shady spot to park in as I stop to eat on my journey to or from a workshop. Transporting treasure… a thrill of a sort I highly recommend!

The Setting

It’s Thursday afternoon at Folklore Village. A dozen fiddle cases rest on the table in the basement of Farwell Hall, and a frenzied fiddle coordinator gets busy opening the cases, doing inventory on bows, peering into sound holes, looking for signatures or labels, and familiarizing herself with the instruments in her charge. She feels a bit like a new nurse in a neonatal unit, petrified that she’ll get the precious babies mixed up! Thank goodness most owners have attached nametags to their cases… but not all.

She awaits the arrival of ten novice fiddlers who hope that the little box they checked on a registration form back in May or June will mean something real. They are as yet unsure, but as they checked in upstairs, they were told to find the fiddle coordinator. They make their way to the basement of the hall, and cautiously approach the table where someone is busy opening and closing fiddle cases and shuffling papers…

How do we formalize the exchange?

We, the HFAA, facilitate a relationship that is established between owner and borrower. To do so, we have designed a fiddle loan agreement, or, essentially, a contract. The borrower signs this contract, accepting responsibility for the fiddle while it is in her/his possession at the workshop. We get specific, naming the owner of the fiddle, and other information such as the fiddle maker and the year and place it was made – if such information is available – and whether or not it comes with a bow. I believe this is important not only in making sure each fiddle is returned to its rightful owner at the end of the workshop, but also in making the borrower aware of some the history of that particular fiddle, and of the exchange that is actually taking place.

The contract also keeps the borrower aware of her/his responsibilities, such as general precautions concerning where and how to safely store the fiddle while not in use, and replacement of strings should they break while s/he is using the fiddle (borrower assumes cost of any new string). Yours truly, the fiddle loan coordinator, witnesses signatures, and verbally emphasizes the basics of fiddle care. But most of our borrowers are already well aware that they will be using a valuable and fragile instrument, and during my time as fiddle coordinator, we have not had any incidents involving damage to borrowed fiddles. It helps that a new fiddler is immersed in an environment where they meet other fiddlers and can learn from them – not just how to tune and play the fiddle, but also how to care for it.

Flashback: A faithful lender speaks

“My initial experience playing the hardingfele was at my first HFAA workshop in Willmar, MN, in 1994. [--] I also met Einar Johannson of Minneapolis; he was a longtime member of the HFAA and suggested I borrow his hardingfele to take some lessons. I was rather surprised as he'd never met me before and was going to trust me with that beautiful instrument! I've attended the annual workshop most years since then, and several years ago I started taking dance lessons instead of hardingfele. Since I'd purchased a wonderful Hauk Buen fiddle, I wanted it to be played, so I've been loaning it to new students. This year it was played by Solveig Viren. It's really nice to have an organized loan program.” (Karen Odden Roske, July 2009)

Our program operates on a first-come-first-served basis, meaning that as registrations come in, those who check the box for “I’d like to borrow a fiddle” on the registration form are entered on a list of borrowers. That said, we do engage in some degree of matching of loaner fiddle with borrowing fiddler, because, let’s face it: not all fiddles are created equal. Some are typical beginner fiddles, while others may be more suitable for a more experienced musician. Since I don’t play, I have usually had the help of someone who is a “real” fiddler, and who can answer fiddle-technical questions and give advice in this regard. Loretta Kelley has often assisted me, and this year I also had the good help of Vilde Aaslid.

Off goes the fiddle student, carrying a fiddle case, and there are fewer on the table. This year, we managed to provide ten fiddlers with a fiddle to play during the workshop. If you look at it mathematically, that’s 10% of our entire group of workshop attendees! Last year we had as many, and although I have been doing this for a while, I never cease to be amazed and pleased that we accomplish this every year.

Final scene: Happily ever after

At the end of the workshop, the fiddles are brought back to the coordinator, inspected and signed in. They are handed to those who will transport them back, and finally they’re on their way home again. I only wish you, the lender, could see borrowers when I ask, “Did you enjoy the fiddle?” and they reply – complete with dreamy look on their faces – “Oh, yes!” They borrowed one of your favorite and most valuable things, and they know how special that was – that you would lend, and that they could borrow.

Epilogue: Why is it so important to ensure that we continue to have a viable loan program?

I see at least three main reasons. For one, there is the importance to HFAA for recruitment of new members. HFAA could have been an organization that, due to the relative rarity of the instrument, was one where interested people were restricted to a kind of ‘window-shopping’ (“I’d love to try it on, but there is no way I could afford to buy one,” or, “How will I know what to look for when I can’t try it out first?”), and then would have to take a huge leap of faith if they decided that Hardanger fiddling was for them. Instead, by allowing novice fiddlers to maximize their time spent with a fiddle, we offer them participation rather than mere observation. We offer them a chance to learn by doing, and to quote our web page, “As our members' skills and abilities grow, so do our opportunities. HFAA members, both fiddlers and dancers, give many performances, lectures, and presentations throughout North America, helping to promote Norwegian folk music and dance to a wide audience.” What is good for the new fiddler is good for the HFAA.

Secondly, the loan program provides a conduit for networking around the sale of fiddles. It means getting the ‘for sale’ ones to the workshops and allowing them to be viewed and handled “up close and personal” by potential buyers. A written ad cannot take the place of that. The climate at the workshop – where enthusiasm reverberates like a dance tune in the air – is ripe for a good transaction. This year, a sale was in fact conducted, and although the fiddle in question only spent a few hours resting on the loaner table before its new buyer picked it up, I’d like to think that the sale happened at least in part due to the dynamics of our loan-exchange. One sign of a healthy and vibrant folk music environment is that instruments are in circulation. Which brings me to the third point:

Our program brings little-used fiddles out of the shadows and into fiddler hands. I have said (on HFAA’s Facebook page) that a fiddle in the hand is worth ten in a museum. The same goes for the fiddle hanging on display (Aha! Get it? DIS-play – as in not being played!) on your wall or sitting in disuse in a dusty fiddle case in the corner of your study. You know it’s not good for a fiddle to just sit, or hang. Dust it off, let it have a chance to be handled and played once more. And let a new fiddler have a chance to fall in love – with the instrument, the music, and our wonderful workshop environment!