At age 5, Andrew Caden wasn’t a fan of violin lessons. But within a few years, he would fall in love with Irish fiddle.
Playing the same instrument with a change of style and mind-set, the Bethesda, Md., boy was off and jamming.
“I liked learning by ear, and the individuality that came with the fiddle, the improvisation. You make the tunes your own,” Caden, 20, said in a recent Zoom call from a Dublin hotel room. “I really liked the people who played it, the culture. It’s a social music.”
Now a rising Boston College junior, Caden will compete this weekend in the All-Ireland Fleadh, an event that draws many of the best Irish fiddlers in the world. He’ll be pitted against 15 to 20 adult fiddlers of all ages. Billed as “the largest annual celebration of Irish music, language, song and dance,” the Fleadh will attract some half-million visitors this week.
Fiddlers compete regionally from around the world to qualify for All-Ireland. Caden won the over-18 category this year in the mid-Atlantic region. In 2017, at age 15, he won the age 15-18 open fiddle category at the Fleadh.
The All-Ireland Fleadh in Mullingar is “very prestigious,” said Caden’s longtime teacher, Brian Conway, in a phone interview from The Burren in Somerville, where he was performing.
Conway called the Fleadh “a snapshot of some of the world’s best fiddlers in any given year,” and Caden “one of the best fiddle players in the world in traditional Irish music for his age.”
When Caden was around 8, his mother, Stephanie, reached out to fiddle teacher Mitch Fanning as a way to make violin “more fun, and it worked,” he said. Fanning “inspired me to love Irish music. I just progressed quickly. He sent me off to Brian Conway [who] taught me 90 percent of what I know.”
At age 10, Caden started lessons, mostly via Skype, with Conway, considered one of the world’s greatest traditional fiddlers and an expert in the Sligo style of fiddling. Caden describes Sligo style as “rhythmic, flashy, and with lots of ornamentation and variations.”
Under Conway’s wing, Caden soared.
“Early on, it wasn’t obvious he was going to be the great fiddle player he is now, but at some point, it clicked,” Conway said. “He became passionate about it, and that’s all it took. His progress in a short period of time was phenomenal.”
Caden no longer needs lessons, Conway said. “At this point, he’s so good, he needs to explore his own style.” Caden now considers Conway a friend and “great mentor.”
When he’s back in Boston, you might find Caden playing at The Bebop, Emmet’s Irish Pub, The Burren, or The Druid in Cambridge. But he won’t be here any time soon — he’s studying abroad this fall semester at University College Cork and plans to immerse himself in Irish culture. At Boston College, he majors in economics and minors in music and Irish studies.
“I don’t know if I want to be a professional musician or not,” he said. “It’s hard to make a living at that, no matter how good you are.”