Friday, January 21, 2011

How the Violin Changed My Life.

I was a piano player from the time I was big enough to get my sticky toddler fingers on a tiny toy piano. A little later, I plunked out some tunes on my mom's friend's piano. Eventually I started lessons, and I devoted many years of my early life to the keys, until I suffered a serious burnout in my second year of college. I reached a point where I just didn't want to play anymore, and that made me sad. So I changed my major to English to preserve my sanity and my GPA, and left the piano alone for awhile, lest it become a full-blown adversary.

In the summer of 1989, I met this guy. We played a little music together - or, more accurately, he played while I sang. A year later, we were married, and he showed me how to find my way around on the guitar. I got competent enough to accompany myself in public, and we continued to play in our friends' living rooms at parties, picnics, etc. A few years later, we got into historical reenacting, and of course the music naturally followed. While we had a decent act going on, I felt like we needed more instruments besides just the guitar. At the age of 31, I decided I wanted to try playing the fiddle.

I started out renting a violin to see if it could work out; if it didn't, we weren't out a huge amount of money. The first day I brought the thing home and started fooling around with it, I knew this was going to be a long and rewarding relationship. Within a few weeks, Mister traded an electric bass he was no longer playing for a full-size Romanian-made violin. I found a great teacher, completely by chance, and I was off and running.

All those years I spent with the piano worked to my advantage, because I already read music, although my knowledge of theory had slipped a little in the meantime. And somehow, the violin felt --- familiar. I don't really know how to explain that. I had never entertained the thought of playing the violin, not ever, but once I started, it seemed like I had done it before somehow.

With the fiddle, just as I had done with the piano, I learned a lot of things by ear alone. Fiddle tunes aren't really set in stone anyway, so while sheet music can be a great help, it's more of a general guideline than anything else. And while I plugged away on my Irish & early American tunes, my teacher said, hey, do you want to do some classical stuff?

Well, yeah, does a bear poop in the woods?

We started with Vivaldi, then threw in some Bach and Handel along with some technical method blahblahblah. I always hated that as a piano student even though I understood its value in building technical ability, which had never been my greatest strength. While I don't learn classical music to play in public, it has gone a long way in improving my overall playing, plus I enjoy the challenge.

Anyhow. . . the fiddle added a lot to our act. It brought a whole new dimension to what we were doing with regard to recreating historical music. It also brought me a lot of attention - I guess some people, especially gentlemen of a certain age, still see a woman fiddler as a novelty. I think I've been flirted with by every grandfather east of the Mississippi.

A violin case is also a no-fail conversation starter. People want to know, "do you play?" Many people have told me stories about their moms, dads, grandparents, etc., who played. Kids are especially fascinated. Depending on their age, they're a little more tricky to deal with because the younger ones don't fully understand that a musical instrument isn't a plaything, but I try to accommodate them all I can. If a child is interested in music, I don't want to be the one to discourage that interest. And of course there's always someone who wants to know if I'm toting around a machine gun.

One of my fondest memories comes from an event at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, from several years ago. Mister and I had been invited to participate in the Day of Releasement, which was a day when the Shakers took off from work and had a picnic. (This is documented in the site's historical records. So yes, the Shakers did have a little fun every once in awhile.) We portrayed non-Shaker visitors passing through, playing a few tunes in exchange for a meal. I took a short break to visit the facility, and on my way back to the picnic site, a little girl maybe 5 years old walked straight up to me and threw her arms around my waist. Well, naturally I was surprised, because I didn't know this child, but her mother said, "That's Rosa. She's learning to play the cello." That right there was worth the 4-hour drive to play in the summer heat in 3 layers of long clothes.

I love the violin. I'm never going to be Natalie MacMaster or Joshua Bell - I know that - but so what. If I'm in a foul mood, all I have to do is play for a few minutes, and somehow everything is brighter. I still take lessons, because there's always something new to learn. (Plus, most musicians are rarely satisfied with their own ability and want to do better. It's our cross to bear.) It's an hour drive to my teacher's house and some nights I think, aw man, I don't feel like making that drive, and it'll be late when I get home, and I'll be tired. . . but I make the drive anyway, and always feel the better for it.

I write this post not only to share my love of the violin, but also to encourage you, gentle reader, and let you know that if there's something you always wanted to learn, it's never too late. If you really want to do it,  you'll find a way. I was 31 years old before I ever picked up a violin. If I had convinced myself I was too old to learn, I would have missed out on a great joy.

So don't cheat yourself. Never stop learning.

Till next time ---


  1. Dude, you are so cool. You knit, you make soap, you belly dance, you fiddle, you play the piano.

  2. Yeah. What Celia said. I really do want to be you when I grow up.