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Female fiddlers take a bow (Video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
April 28, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated April 27, 2013 at 11:28 p.m.

Bonnie Riley plays her fiddle outside the Knights of Columbus Hall in Hallettsville during the Texas State Championship  Fiddlers' Frolics.

FIDDLERS' FROLICS STATE CHAMPIONS

• FIRST PLACE: Bubba Hopkins, Fort Worth, $1,500

• SECOND PLACE: Ricky Turpin, New Braunfels, $1,250

• THIRD PLACE: Carl Hopkins, Porter, $1,000

HALLETTSVILLE - A confident Bonnie Riley clenched a fiddle beneath her chin and started clicking her right boot heel to the floor.

She's no stranger to competition.

She's fiddled on national stages and played in Ireland, Germany and in her home city of Victoria since she was 11 years old.

Even still, there's pressure to perform well.

Before a panel of expert fiddlers, Riley speedily strummed a long bow across her four-string instrument. Her left fingers danced across each fret in equal pace.

The 28-year-old had two songs and about four minutes to impress at the Texas State Championship Fiddlers' Frolics competition in Hallettsville on Sunday.

She chose to play "Dusty Miller" and "Durang's Hornpipe."

Looking around at her competition before and after her set, Riley knew her competition was more than stiff.

Texas' best fiddlers, comprised of 34 fiddlers from across the state, were all vying for first place.

About half of those were women, something Riley said she was pleased to see.

"Heck, no, this is not a man's instrument anymore," an enthusiastic Riley said.

For the past decade, the once male-dominated style of music has been shifting toward women.

Women fiddlers were once scarce and confined to a women's-only competition division.

That's all changed, Riley said.

"When I was younger, you might have two or three women play. There were many more men," she said. "But each year, you see girl after girl joining the competition."

Riley said it was her father, Patrick Riley, who introduced her to fiddlin' when she was 11 years old. He was a left-handed guitar player. She was willing to learn any instrument that would allow her to spend more time playing music with her father.

Patrick Riley eventually took up fiddling left-handed, and the two played together many times at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Hallettsville, where Fiddlers' Frolics is held each year.

"He was a big supporter of this event before he passed away," Riley said, mentioning her father was inducted in the Fiddlers Hall of Fame in 2010. "He told me before he died to keep fiddling. So that's what I've been trying to do."

Another female fiddler, Eischen Harkins, 19, of Austin, said she, too, has noticed the shift in women musicians.

She's too young to remember fiddling without women, but she isn't surprised to see so many female faces in competition.

"It's about 50-50 these days, and I think it's great," she said.

Before enrolling at the University of Texas at Austin to learn nursing, she said she taught between 15 to 20 lessons each week.

"All my students were girls except one," she said. "I really don't know why, but I'm not against girls stepping up."

Both Riley and Harkins agree women may be better suited for the fiddle.

Riley says women are excellent multitaskers, something fiddling requires to master the instrument.

Harkins said learning to fiddle requires discipline and maturity, and women biologically mature quicker than men.

Both women said they plan to compete as long as fiddling is still fun and as long as there's a stage for them to play.

"Women are known for being strong. Our minds and hands are designed for an instrument like this," Riley said. "We kind of have an advantage that way."

Harkins placed seventh and won $350; Riley placed 14th and won $125.

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