Though she is a veteran fiddler with a solid five years of playing under her belt, it's a safe bet that just a year ago Abi Snell couldn't name a single Irish fiddle tune. A year later, she is the youngest student in the world to hold a Level 3 certificate in Irish Traditional Fiddle from the Leinster School of Music and Drama at Griffith College in Dublin, Ireland.
Abi, who will turn 11 in May, has been studying the fiddle under the guidance of instructor Tom Morley.
Morley is Griffith College's first international outreach teacher for the school's Online Traditional Irish Music Exam program. Before he moved to Chattanooga in late 2017, six of his former students in Alabama passed the exam, but he says Abi is the youngest person in the world to earn a Level 3 certificate.
Abi took the exam via video, and it was graded by an instructor at the school in Ireland.
"She also received the highest score out of any of my students [including adults]," Morley says.
"The fiddle instructor in Dublin who graded her video exam gave her 96 points out of 100 based on different criteria, including intonation, technique and overall musicianship. I couldn't be prouder of her. She works hard to learn the tunes, has a good ear and is always interested in learning more."
Abi, a home-schooler who lives in Red Bank, became interested in the fiddle at age 5 after seeing the large statue of a fiddle player on Frazier Avenue in North Chattanooga. She took private lessons from Fiddlers Anonymous owner August Bruce and eventually joined the Anonymous Fiddle Band, which regularly plays bluegrass music around town.
She took an immediate liking to Irish fiddle music about a year ago.
"We know she enjoys trying new things," says her mother, Lauren, "so when Tom started offering his Irish fiddle classes at the store this past January, we encouraged her to try it."
She also says her daughter became interested in attaining the Level 3 distinction after learning it came with a medal and a certificate. Abi says she also likes playing the music because it's fun.
"I like it. It's jumpy, and I like exciting, jumpy stuff. I'd never even heard of 6/8 time before, but now I know that's how you count to play an Irish jig. It's fun, jumpy music. At first, I thought the online exam would be hard with a lot to practice and learn. But the more I got to know Irish music, the more I liked it, and I decided I wanted to take the exam."
The Level 4 and Level 5 exams, which she plans to take, will require a little more work.
"That will require her to learn and play other types of tunes, more difficult tunes, and to also show knowledge of Irish culture and music," Morley says.
"But she says she wants to do it, so I'm confident she will work hard on it."
Abi doesn't just play for fun and medals. She also regularly busks around town and uses her tip money to pay for her own lessons, instruments and art projects.
Morley is a classically trained violinist, longtime Irish fiddle player and teacher and the author of the fiddle method book "Learn To Play Irish Trad Fiddle." He is also the leader of the new Chattanooga-based string band Stringer's Ridge, which plays a mix of Irish, folk and old-time music.
He believes the Griffith College program is good for students because they are not in direct competition with each other.
"It's not about who is first, second and third," he says. "Each student is judged entirely on his or her own merits. It's really a great way to encourage students to keep learning and keep trying to perfect their playing."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.