- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

SALINE, Mich. (AP) - After 10 years of separation, Saline’s two high school fiddle groups, Saline Fiddlers and Fiddlers ReStrung, are combining into the former fiddle super-group, Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic.

“The final verdict is that it’s the best thing for both groups, the community, and for the kids,” Fiddlers Restrung Artistic Director Jimmy Whitman told The Ann Arbor News ( https://bit.ly/1qhQDrd ). “It just seems to make too much sense not to pursue it.”

Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic originated in 1994 with then-Artistic Director Bob Phillips. When he retired, however, his then-assistant director Ben Culver took over the group, and the organization was eventually split in two in 2004 after administrative and privatization disputes.

Fiddlers ReStrung continued to be supported by the school, while Saline Fiddlers, led by Culver, separated themselves from the school system, and the organization became its own nonprofit. The two groups continued to both recruit from Saline High School.

With two new directors on board within the last few years, however, Whitman and Saline Fiddlers Artistic Director Brad Phillips decided it was time to become one group once again. Saline Fiddlers Board of Directors chair Bonnie Leutheuser said after the directors decided to merge the groups, Bob Phillips recently visited both groups to talk about what the group was like prior to the split.

“He kind of put us all on the same page. That was very beneficial to us all to hear how it started and what his vision was for the group,” she said.

She added that the new group will stand alone as a nonprofit separate from the educational system, but that the school system has been very supportive of the merge.

“Community ed has been very helpful. They ran the early meetings for us, and they’re helping us in a lot of fronts,” Leutheuser said.

In August, Fiddlers ReStrung and Saline Fiddlers will mend the split’s wounds and recreate what Bob Phillips had created 20 years ago. In recombining, the groups are attempting to avoid duplicating efforts and end the confusion of having two separate high school fiddle groups in Saline.

Saline sophomore and Saline Fiddlers violist Ryan Chu said the bigger, combined group makes more sense than having two.

“I just feel like it’ll make more sense to only have one group in Saline instead of two. There’s no reason not to merge,” Chu said.

The new group will continue to play fiddle music, with fiddle and rhythm sections. The group will also, like the current groups do, sing and dance during their performances.

Saline freshman and Fiddlers ReStrung cellist Tori Mongee said the fiddle group has been beneficial to her music experience - she auditioned, like most students in the group, during eighth grade. She added that merging will bring together the two groups in a positive way.

“I think that it is going to be tough at first, but I think we’ll come out stronger. There’s definitely issues that need to be fixed, and this addresses them,” Mongee said.

Once the groups merge, both artistic directors will run the organization as co-artistic directors.

“We’ve been essentially doing the same thing for 10 years. It’s time to pool our resources and grow bigger and better together,” Brad Phillips said.

Whitman added that he and Phillips complement one another with rehearsal and performing techniques.

“To have two different high school fiddle groups in one town really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when you have two directors who philosophy-wise and education-wise pretty much go hand in hand,” Whitman said.

Currently, each group has about 20 members. After the seniors graduate high school and leave the group, the fiddle groups will be left with about 35 members to begin the combined effort. They will not hold auditions until the beginning of 2015.

Saline sophomore and Fiddlers ReStrung mandolin player Thomas Murphy said the fact that both groups have lowered their roster numbers in recent years is a sign that the groups are ready for the merge and for a larger, combined group.

“It needs to happen definitely because both groups were kind of falling apart by losing members over the years. (The merge) seems to going really well so far,” Murphy said. “I think it will be difficult but a good challenge.”

Murphy added that in the past, the two groups had split performance opportunities, and merging into one group will give the students a chance play more shows with a larger repertoire made from a combination of the two groups.

Come August, after both groups have gone on individual tours in Michigan and throughout part of the Midwest, the new Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic will come together, and the group will create and craft much of their repertoire at a summer camp.

Saline sophomore and Saline Fiddlers cellist Alisha Ungkuldee said both groups are excited about combining repertoires and moving forward with the group.

“A lot of us are excited about it because we like a lot of their music and they like a lot of ours, so this summer when we go to camp, we’ll just pick out the music we want to play together,” Ungkuldee said.

Another Saline Fiddlers member, Saline senior and violinist Rachel Hart, said coming together will bring together a group of students who have been longtime friends.

“We’re all friends. We all go to school together and we all hang out outside of school and fiddlers,” she said. “I think that there’s been tension in the past and not even that long ago. And I think the kids are ready, and the parents are ready, and it will kind of go back to what it used to be.”

Not only are the students ready for the merge, but Phillips said the two groups have collaborated in the past and share some of the same repertoire, which will make the transition flow more easily.

At a Saline orchestra performance in March 2014, the two groups played a song together that each group was familiar with. It was a dance tune, with about 10 dancers on stage, including a clogging section.

“The energy was so much higher. It was really exciting. I kind of expected it, but no to the degree they performed it at,” Phillips said of the performance.

Saline senior and Saline Fiddlers guitarist Andrew Bonczyk said the collaboration at the Saline Schools String Fling was a good sign for things to come. He added that although he won’t be performing in the group next year, he plans to return and support the group as an alumnus.

“I’m in support of anything that will further improve the musical strength of the group, and I think the addition of more students into the group to make a larger group will really help us to pick up more parts,” Bonczyk said. “Just to see a bigger group will really be a positive influence for the fiddlers as a whole.”

Whitman said that merging together will eliminate the redundancy of having two groups in the community.

“We’re basically doing the same thing. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to try to recruit from the same pool; it’s an uncomfortable topic because of the split,” he said.

The merge will hopefully eliminate the uneasiness of having the two fiddle groups. Leutheuser said having the organizations come together will be good for the community.

“We’ve come to a point in the community where it’s just what the community needs. It’s going to be a healing - a lot of people were ready for the groups to come together,” Leutheuser said. “It gets rid of any kind of competition. Nothing but a healthy situation is coming from this.”


Information from: The Ann Arbor News, https://www.mlive.com/ann-arbor

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