The sign atthe First American Violin Congress registration desk read: "Please check in your ego here. You may pick it up when you leave."

No problem for the hundred or so fiddlers on hand yesterday at the University of Maryland. The atmosphere was casual, as internationally known artists mingled easily with future stars, dispensing freely of their time and of the autograph pen. A cautious eye was kept on the clock, though; two symposiums and lecture-recitals, plus a rehearsal across campus for the various Violin Congress ensembles were typical of the full daily agendas scheduled this week.

Throughout the day, the musician's life and art were addressed. Congress president Sir Yehudi Menuhin chaired a panel discussion titled "Balancing Your Life for a Successful Career." Joshua Bell, a mere 19, gave the prodigy point of view that outside interests, as opposed to the mandatory eight-hour-a-day practice lock-ins, promote equilibrium. With an exclusive recording contract in addition to his concertizing and private study, he should know. His teacher, the esteemed 77-year-old pedagogue Josef Gingold, spoke about dedication when he commented, "The violinist is always at work. He has to be."

Three violinists showed exactly what he meant during the course of the day. Avant-garde jazz artist Leroy Jenkins performed an array of unaccompanied improvised pieces, including his mesmerizing "Hipnosis." Jenkins described his free approach to music as "knowing where you're going and knowing where you're coming from." Improvisation is easier to demonstrate than to explain. Jenkins took John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," played the melody straight, then with his own embellishments added. One example was worth a thousand words.

Improvisation in a 17th-century setting came up later in the lecture-recital " 'New' Baroque Playing." Stanley Ritchie followed Jenkins' lead in a Corelli sonata to make his point. Evan Johnson gave a quick lesson in scordatura, or deliberate retuning of the violin. He used three fiddles with different tunings to achieve sounds that baroque composer Heinrich Biber cleverly devised to elicit specific emotional responses in his religious collection "The Mysteries."

Amid all this activity, the exhibitors offered everything for the fiddle fancier. Custom-made instruments and bows, mutes, shoulder and chin rests, humidifiers, cases -- they were all there and for sale. Racks of musical scores, violin maestro biographies and a curious medical volume, "Senso-Motor Study and Its Application to Violin Playing," sat near souvenir items of a less serious nature. Violin cocktail napkins, treble-clef swizzle sticks and "String of Excuses" T-shirts adorned with slogans like "my bow needs new hair" and note pads ("Chopin Liszt") begged to be purchased.

Who says violinists don't have a sense of humor.