During a break between sets at the Yankee Peddler Festival many years ago a man stopped to talk about our instruments and the music, and I could tell he was itching to play. He asked if he could play my violin and acted offended when I said no. I don’t let strangers play my instruments, I explained, but unexpressed was my shock at the audacity of this total stranger wanting to touch my violin.
My stringed instruments are some of my most cherished possessions, and a total stranger asking to play one is like a stranger asking to hold your child. A special relationship builds between player and instrument over the years. My parents bought my violin 40-plus years ago; that instrument has traveled with me farther and to more places than most of my friends. Holding it and playing it are as natural as breathing. My mandolin was handmade in Virginia, and I picked it up at the builder’s home in the Blue Ridge when it was finished. Within three days, a mystical bond had formed between us, a connection that has been noticed by others. My mother said that when we play it’s like are working together.
While I was playing violin in a demonstration workshop at the Kent State Folk Festival once, the guy next to me, another workshop musician, picked up my mandolin and started playing chords. This guy was another stranger, and my surprise at his effrontery nearly caused me to stop playing. It was one of those situations where decorum prevailed, but I pictured myself doing what I really wanted to do: yanking my instrument out of that moron’s hands and giving him a few choice words. That incident, and the time a nut fell from a tree, leaving three marks in the mandolin’s finish, convinced me to keep my cases closed when not playing.
Traditional music is living room music. It’s casual, relaxed and fun, so some people take a casual approach to etiquette. But for most, some unspoken rules prevail. Don’t play anther person’s instrument without asking, my corollary being don’t ask unless you know the person well.