Young Keizer fiddler storms annual contest

Ai Nguyen (left) practices with a guitarist before performing at the Willamette Valley Fiddling Contest on Friday, Aug. 2 (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).

Eight-year-old Ai Nguyen hasn’t been playing the fiddle for very long.

She only picked up the instrument six months ago when her violin instructor, Martha Hughes, encouraged her to try it out. 

But what started as an experiment has turned into a unquestioned talent. 

Nguyen, who will be going into third grade at Forest Ridge Elementary, took second place in both the peewee and novice categories at the Willamette Valley Fiddling Contest on Friday, Aug. 2.

Nguyen even took home a $70 prize for her performance in the show. 

“I was really excited. I knew that I wanted to at least get second place, so when I found out that I got second, I was really happy,” Nguyen said. 

Before taking on the fiddle, Nguyen had been playing the violin for nearly a year under the private tutelage of Hughes. 

While she has a love for classical music, Hughes is also passionate about the art of fiddling, which is why she started offering free basic fiddling classes at the Willamette Lutheran Retirement Community. 

“I really felt like the art of fiddling is dying, especially in the younger generation,” Hughes said. “I believe that playing the fiddle can be more enjoyable for young players, rather than the classical violin, because when you play the violin, you have to be perfect. But with the fiddle, there is more room to have fun with it.”

“It’s also an instrument that young players can play by ear.”

Hughes recommended the class to Nguyen, who quickly took a liking to the fiddle. 

“I like fiddling because it’s more fun playing dancing music instead of sad music,” Nguyen said. “The music is a lot happier.”

Nguyen started practicing the instrument every day, and was seeing Hughes multiple times per week for extra instruction. 

As she began to see Nguyen’s potential, Hughes started to have her pupil see people that had more expertise with the instrument for special instruction, such as Starr McMullen, who is a former National Champion and a judge at the Willamette Valley Fiddling Contest.

“If you want to be a champion, you need good coaching,” Hughes said. “I wanted to prep her as best as I could.”

As Nguyen started to get more comfortable with the instrument, she began to play for neighbors, and even performed at Uptown Music and the Marion County Fair last month. 

“I was nervous at first to play in front of people, but then I started to get more used to it,” Nguyen said. 

Due to a medical emergency, Hughes was unable to attend the contest. But when she found out that Nguyen had taken second place in two different categories, Hughes beamed with pride. 

“It’s amazing to place in your first contest. That usually doesn’t happen,” Hughes said. “I was so happy to see that all of her hard work has paid off. No one deserves success more than her.”

Nguyen plans on playing in more competitions in the near future, but in the meantime, she wants to keep improving her craft.

“I really like working with (Hughes) because she makes playing music fun and she helps me get better,” Nguyen said. 

Hughes also added: “It’s a joy to be (Nguyen’s) teacher. She is incredibly driven and ambitious. She is also a really fast learner and is an incredible musician for someone her age.”

Matt Rawlings: [email protected]