EFFINGHAM — With lively, folksy sound all around her, a Chicago teenager took no time to jump into a circle during the Illinois Old Time Fiddle Contest and Jam Session, known as Fiddle Fest, in Effingham on Saturday.

Willa Arnold, 13, became enamored with the fiddle at the age of 3 after attending a talent show at a school where her mom is a teacher.

"Someone was playing a fiddle and I wanted to do it, too. And I stuck with it," said Willa.

Willa knows "a lot" of songs, probably more than 100, she estimates. Her family came to the Effingham Performance Center from Chicago to join others in jam sessions and fiddle competitions.

This past weekend was the 55th annual Illinois Old Time Fiddle Contest, which kicked off with an impromptu playing session that included fiddles, banjos, mandolins, guitars, and at least one upright bass inside the Effingham Performance Center. Saturday’s jam was followed by three bands, Hand Picked, Motherlode and Firebox, all featuring fiddlers.

Sunday’s events involved the state fiddle contest, open to any resident of Illinois.

Formed in 1965, the Illinois Old Time Fiddle Association is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to reviving and furthering old-time fiddle music by preserving old-time tunes and fiddling techniques, and passing on this traditional form to the younger generation.

Willa’s mother, Cynthia Rosario, said the teenager attends the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and plays in a youth string band called String Strangs. She plays upright bass, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.

“We heard about this event through Old Town School,” said Rosario.

Doug Arnold said his daughter started taking music lessons at age 3 1/2. Although they enjoy music, the couple said they are not musicians themselves.

Old Town School is reported to be the largest public school of the arts in the US, teaching traditional folk instruments like guitar, banjo and mandolin, a wide range of dance, theater and visual arts classes, according to its website.

Willa’s grandparents, Tom and Linda Cyrier of Deltona, Florida, originally from Bourbonnais, made the trip as well.

Tom Cyrier said a trip to northern Illinois to help move his elderly parents to an apartment timed just right to make a stop in Effingham to see their granddaughter, Willa, perform.

"We decided to delay our trip headed back home and stop in Effingham on the way home back to Florida," said Tom. "We'll just take the slow ride home."

"We're just lucky enough to be here for this," said Linda.

While other musicians attend Fiddle Fest annually, Susumu Okano, 63, of Urbana, was attending the event for only the second time. He's been playing the fiddle for many years.

"Last time, I just joined the jam,” said Okano. “This time, I decided to try the contest."

"I learned the violin when I was very young at about 5 years old," said Okano. "I was introduced to bluegrass music and I switched to this — playing fiddle and mandolin." 

Okano said with a laugh he’s not a great mandolin player.

Emily Causey, 17, of New Athens, a member of the Hand Picked Band, jammed out on her mandolin before the band was to perform on stage at the EPC Saturday.

"It's fun. It really is. I love it," said Causey, about the mandolin. "I can pick a little bit on a ukulele too. Those are pretty easy to learn." 

Causey works at The Blue Grass Shack in New Athens, a music shop run by Chris Talley.

"Bluegrass draws people. That's what's neat about it. There are lots of great people you meet in this as we spread the love of bluegrass music," said Causey, who started playing the guitar at age 5, and the mandolin at age 13. 

Janine Neel is a parent to one of the Hand Picked Band members based in New Athens.

“They are a youth and bluegrass band and have been together for several years,” said Neel. “They get together at the Bluegrass Shack under the direction of Chris Talley. They just competed at Silver Dollar City at the Bluegrass Festival.”

Illinois Old Time Fiddlers Association President Junior Hobson of Stewardson said while the ages of musicians at the annual event range from the very young to the elderly, the love of bluegrass music brings them together.

“We try to start them out young,” said Hobson, who plays a fiddle and banjo.

Elijah Doty, 17, of Beecher City, has been attending the event since he was 13, but he’s been playing for many years.

“I really think this is going to be a good year. This is our second year holding the whole event at the Performance Center,” said Doty.

In years past, the jam session was at EPC and the music competition was at the Keller Convention Center.

Gaye Harrison of Charleston, who serves on the committee for the event, said throughout the years the contest has gone through some fine tuning. She’s a musician and plays with Motherlode, as well.

No longer are there separate divisions for men and women, and younger children now have their own division, so they are not competing against more accomplished players.

“However, the original purpose has never wavered. From the beginning, the contest has been a way of keeping traditional fiddle music alive and part of our culture in Illinois,” said Harrison.

For more photos, click here.

Dawn Schabbing can be reached at dawn.schabbing@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151, ext 138.


Dawn Schabbing is a senior reporter at the Effingham Daily News, covering Effingham City Hall, Unit 40, and special projects. A graduate of Lake Land College and Eastern Illinois University with degrees in journalism, she lives in Neoga.

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