Friday, May 24, 2013

Glasgow Kit Fiddle

For some time, I've wanted to build a kit fiddle, aka pochette or dance master's fiddle.  Just never got around to it.  A kit fiddle, as I understood it, was primarily used by dance masters as they gave instruction in the homes of the well-off.  This was the way people learned the dances, in order to show proper education at those formal public events. The National Music Museum has a nice photo display of pochettes, including this of one in action.

These things are tiny, say 15 inches or so, and not meant to put out much volume -- a tool for a job, one that isn't done much these days.

Last month, Rachel Barton Pine put on a concert of Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the Boise Baroque Orchestra.  In conjunction with that, she gave a talk on Baroque performance techniques, which I also attended.  During the talk she made two points regarding kit fiddles that caught my ear.  First, these were also used as traveling fiddles.  Most taverns had a violin for use by customers, and since it was hard enough to travel in those days, it would be an additional chore to carry along a full-size instrument.  But travelers might want to play a few tunes, so these pochettes, with their small bows and small cases, could be taken along to while away the idle time.

This also struck me, having just returned from a trip where I took my full-sized fiddle, case, and bow, and then ended up putting a heavy practice mute on it to while away the random spare time in the motel room, learning a few new tunes with my iPhone headphones on.  I'm traveling to see things, and the violin is nice to have along, but I'm not performing.  Something smaller to carry, particularly when flying, would be convenient.

The second thing Mrs Pine mentioned that caught my ear was that while idling away the hours, these travelers developed, or improved, their strathspey bowing.  I'm still not sure how, but since I am involved with Scottish Country Dance, that was interesting to me.

So, I started looking through my collected materials and that on the web.  I wanted a simple design, as this was a concept to be tried, and I didn't want to get bogged down in decorative details.  I settlled on the Glasgow Kit Fiddle --

I had no dimensions for this instrument, but decided to go with a 3/4 violin string length and scale from that to the size of the photo.  I drew out a pattern and cut a simple plywood form.

I should add that since I was being simple, I decided also to be cheap.  All the material I used, except the fingerboard and the ribs, were scrap I had lying about the shop -- discarded other projects.

The neck I cut from a block of local maple, roughly at the right orientation.

The ribs I bent in one piece.  Not sure that was a great idea, but that's what I did this time.

When I was done, I had a kit fiddle with a total length of just under 20 inches.  Here it is next to a 1/4-size violin bow.

Still learning how to play the thing, and plan to put up a video soon.  If you'd like to see more details of the construction, you can go to my Flickr set (assuming the new format allows such a thing).


  1. I have loved watching you work on this project, Ken! As a fan of all things old, odd, and undersized I am just loving this. Looking forward to hearing how it sounds.

  2. Thanks, DIane. I took it on the trip to Florida, and it was pretty nice to take something smaller on the plane. I learned a new tune while there, and I hope to get a video up soon. As far as sound, it's not much, but that was the intention. Something that worked to learn tunes yet easier to pack around.

  3. This design is cool, I was looking for some ideas for the "tracciatura"; I saw some thin cricket violins, that has made with a neck that is the same piece of the back plate; nice idea, but i already made the necks separately, and this design seems to be the most fair for my situation here. Thanks for you share. Sorry for any weird english that I use to speak. I know this is like 4 years past, but it was usefull for some ideas here. Cheers!