Like all fiddlers, Cliff Raymond has no need for sheet music.
Every note played by the retired construction worker from Troy comes from memory. First he listens to a tune, and then he works on replicating it by ear.
“I still practice two hours a day,” beamed the 81-year-old Raymond, who carries a tune well even though he now suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
The last time Raymond picked up sheet music was roughly 73 years ago. His father, an accomplished fiddle player, handed him with the music along with a blunt proclamation.
“He said learn that and I’ll tell you if you’ll ever be a fiddle player,” he recalled.
Raymond doesn’t remember the tune he learned from the music. But his ability to successfully meet his father’s standard is evident by his skill in the craft today.
Raymond is now among the 165-plus members of the Adirondack Fiddlers Association. Founded in 1978 and incorporated in 1989, the group aims to preserve the craft of old-time fiddling and the accompanying dance arts.
The group meets at the American Legion Hall in Schuylerville on the second Sunday of every month between September and June. The fiddlers suspend their meet-up in the village during the summer months because they play at county fairs and other functions around the region.
The group jammed away before a gathering of square dancers Sunday, filling the hall with the toe-tapping sounds of fiddle music without a scrap of sheet music in sight. The lead fiddler strikes up a tune and then the others join in.
“They all learned to play by ear,” said Marie Raymond, Cliff’s wife and the president of the group. “It’s a gift to be able to pick up a tune by ear.”
John Bodnar first picked up a fiddle when he was 7 years old. A music teacher from Schenectady visited his one-room schoolhouse in Quaker Springs and offered to teach him the violin for a small fee.
Bodnar picked up the instrument, but gravitated toward fiddle music. Now he’s been playing for more than 83 years.
“You’ve got to really listen to it and pay attention and keep trying,” said the retired carpenter. “Watching people enjoy the music when they’re having a good time — it makes me feel good.”
Jani Hurd was trained as a pianist, but picked up a violin along the way. But the 59-year-old music teacher from Schaghticoke said she didn’t learn how to fiddle until joining the Adirondack Fiddlers about a decade ago.
“People ask what the difference is between a violin and fiddle,” she said. “Well, you’re a lot happier when you’re fiddling.”
Despite its improvisations and lack of sheet music, Hurd said fiddling isn’t as difficult as some may think. She said skill is like second nature for the musically inclined.
“Once you’re a fiddler, it’s muscle memory,” she said. “Your fingers just know what to do.”
Fiddling, however, is also a craft that is slowly disappearing. Younger generations of musicians aren’t picking it up and those who are good at fiddling are elderly.
The Adirondack Fiddlers have five players 90 and older and eight over the age of 80. Raymond said her group is desperate for new blood to help prevent old-time fiddling from becoming a lost art.
“That’s why we’re trying to keep the club going,” she said.