The Well Aging Fiddler - Spreading the tentative wings.

December 2, 2019, 12:15 PM · Here in Portland, Oregon, the winter sun is setting before 4:30 p.m. and it will do so for the next six or seven weeks. It always amazes me.


Experience has taught me to stay busy and not to surrender to the hypnotic light of the television set or this computer. I’ve got to put my coat and hat on and step into the rain and the wind. I’ve got to keep moving. So, as these coming weeks evolve within this winter darkness; I’m hoping to come out with the light at the other end of the tunnel a bit more experience, a sense of direction, and above all, a sense of humor.

Let me explain what I mean.

I’m now two and a half years into the world of violins and I’ve hit something of a crossroad. I’m at a time and in a situation where I can look up from my lessons and start to really explore this musical world. I’m at a point where I want to stretch my violin voice.

My teacher, Mirabai Peart, will be out of the country for the next two months. We will do a couple of Facetime lessons while she’s gone, but the weekly discipline and my daily habits of practice are going to take a shift. I fully intend to continue my regular lessons once she returns, but I also want to use this time to spread my wings a bit. I’m not about to let my violin to gather dust.

So, while she’s gone, I’m about to start some Irish fiddle lessons with the internationally renowned Irish fiddler, Kevin Burke. In February, I will be starting some work in a monthly chamber music class. Along the way, I’ll participate in some old-time music jams, and two or three open mic evenings. So, I know I’m going to be busy, but there is something inside of me that is itching for even more.

I’m going to like the Irish fiddle work, and the chamber music classes will be fun and challenging. The jams will be friendly and lively, and the open mic evenings will be a true blend of the sublime, the wincingly bad, and the curiously odd.

Still, all of that doesn’t seem like enough. I feel myself moving toward some sort of work that involves other musicians, but not in a genre enhancing format, but rather something that bends the edges. I look online at sites for musicians and there are always checklists asking about what genre people enjoy when they play music. I sit there and check off just about everything I see. If I had to lock into a top three choices, I’d have a pretty hard time.

As things progress, I'm hoping to focus on some music that is genre bending in the path of the Danish String Quartet and their work with Scandinavian folk music, as heard on their CD's Woodworks, and Last Leaf; Mark O'Connor and his work on Appalachian Waltz; and the Chieftains with their work on The Nashville Sessions, Out of Scandinavia there is some amazing creative music by Dreamer’s Circus, Våsen, and a host of others on The Møn Sessions on YouTube. There is a lot of blending Irish, American, Blues, Scandinavian, and other musical genres and it feels right.

BELOW: The Danish String Quartet plays "Wood Works":

But vision, experience, and skill are not equal partners. As much as I want to get in on the action, reality is a bit of a wall. Frankly, I may be too new to all of this to pull it off. I’m past playing 1-4-5 chord progressions, but I have yet to play anything over one page long. On the other hand, so what, right? I'm willing to see where it might go. To my advantage, I've worked in the past as a theater director, writer, photographer, and a teacher, so I know how to mold creative projects into fruition. Still, this would be something new, and the vision is still foggy.

So, like I said, I’m at a crossroad, or probably more accurately – I’m in the middle of a labyrinth facing a dozen roads without a map and it’s dark outside.

All of that makes it very exciting. After all, I’m not on any deadlines for any of this. I know some of it will work out and some of it won’t, but so what? I’ve always had a lot more fun on trips getting from A to B as opposed to just sitting still.

Also, I’ve got to remember to enjoy this ride and not get all artsy and serious about the whole thing. I’m not good at that kind of posturing. I’ve often found that the moment I start to take things a bit too seriously, or times that I think too much, everything falls into confusion and missed opportunities. Locking into anything before I’m really ready to commit never works. There is a certain amount of freedom, forgiveness, and even a joy of stumbling when searching for the correct path.

Let’s see what happens next. I don’t know how to end this blog/essay/commentary simply because I don’t know where I’m going. But stay tuned, I’ll let you know how the ride twists and turns.

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December 3, 2019 at 07:36 PM · Have you considered bluegrass? You mentioned old-time music, which is somewhat related, but I find it a bit repetitive. Up here in Vancouver (the Canadian one, not the one just across the river from you) we have an active bluegrass (and old-time) scene. Bluegrass is easy to get into, but you can go a long way with it. The people are friendly, and you're welcome to sit on the fringes and play a few chords or rhythm chops. When you're feeling bold you can get up and take a break when it comes around to your part of the circle. At this point it's all improvisation. Go nuts.

So much music, so little time...

December 3, 2019 at 08:29 PM · There is a really good site for free fiddle music - the , well worth a visit. I also started about your age and play classical and fiddle.

December 4, 2019 at 12:31 AM · Ah, thanks Charle. That is a great excuse to get to Vancouver! I got into Bluegrass a decade ago, playing flatpack guitar and mandolin. I was riding through Tennessee, and serendipitously, I heard Pine Mountain Railroad on the radio doing "Don't Stop Believin'" and I got hooked.

Minnesota has a wonderful center for Bluegrass and Old Time music at the Homestead Pickin' Parlor in Richfield, Minnesota, just south of Minneapolis. Nightly jams in flatpack, bluegrass, and old time music are a wonderful introduction to the genre. Here in Portland there are some great jams, but I certainly miss the Pickin Parlor! Like you said, the old-time music was getting very repetitive. Strumming G-C-D or C-F-G, with an occasional D-F-G grew old pretty fast. When someone came into a jam with a fiddle, I was fascinated, and one day I put down the guitar and mandolin, picked up the violin, and that's been my focus for the past two and half years.

I do intend to get back to the Bluegrass and Old Time jams in the next couple of months, and coming up to Vancouver is very tempting. Thank you.

December 4, 2019 at 02:30 PM · I absolutely agree with the bluegrass suggestions. I picked up the fiddle when I was 60 and play entirely by ear. And now at 82 I play it every day after listening to so many great tunes that are out there. And I jam on weekends with friends. What a hootch!

December 4, 2019 at 08:07 PM · wow, i wonder how you find the time to learn all the genre's you have lined up and still have practice time for your regular lessons, both with the Irish fiddle person and your (traveling) teacher. i started late in life also and after the first few years tried to be in a fiddle group, our local orchestra, my weekly suzuki lesson and a small group of friends who came to my house once a week to play a duets and some suzuki and i quickly found i was not able to give any of my music it's due...rather i was very hit or miss (mostly miss) with everything. now that i've pared it down to orchestra music, a weekly lesson and practice of said orchestra music every other week with friends my playing is vastly improving. just my experience. good luck with yours! truly, cheryl

December 5, 2019 at 07:33 PM · Michael, if you find yourself in Vancouver check out the Pacific Bluegrass and Old-time Music Society, which meets every Monday evening at the ANZA Club at 8th and Ontario. I'm often there.

December 6, 2019 at 10:33 PM · Totally agree with It's like being at the university, sooner or later you need to declare a Major, i.e. a genre to focus on to allow significant progress to occur, else you'll likely be doomed to mediocrity, or worse, in everything. This might be chosen simply by what is available in your area for playing with others, or, ideally, will be the style that really resonates with you, so to speak, such that you can enjoy and perfect it over a long period of time...a lifetime. A strong fundamental base gives you the flexibility to go wherever you choose musically. Enjoy the journey.

December 7, 2019 at 04:47 AM · " . . sooner or later you need to declare a Major, i.e. a genre to focus on to allow significant progress to occur, else you'll likely be doomed to mediocrity, or worse, in everything."

Oh dear. I'm afraid it's a little late for that one. I'm 70 years old, and throughout my life it has never occurred to me I had to lock into anything or I'd be faced with mediocrity or worse. Yikes! Let's see, I've been an actor, director, I ran a theater, wrote a couple of books, and published poetry and essays in magazines. I've had photos in galleries and art shows, taught English in middle schools, high schools, and fiction writing at a university. I came close to a Ph.D., but I didn't find research all that interesting, so I let that go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I've played guitar and mandolin for years, then made a CD of the songs I wrote. Along the way I got a Fulbright to Cyprus and Greece, had a grant to tour Ireland and take photos. I wouldn't miss doing any of that for the world. It's been delightful.

I started violin at 68, and and I'm probably going to fiddle until I can't move my fingers, and then I'm going to do something else. Lock in? Mediocrity? Nonsense. If I'd locked into something when I was a young man, I would have missed an amazing journey that just keeps on going. With my violin, I'm going to keep looking into everything as much as I can. Every day is Day One, and I'm riding this whole thing through until it reaches its own enigmatic, glorious sunset. Carpe Diem!

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