The Well Aging Fiddler – Living with Mutes - Metaphorical and Genuine

October 18, 2020, 1:44 PM · So, here we are, eight or nine months into this kerfuffle of a pandemic. All of us are at home, or venturing out into the neighborhood looking at mask styles, or trying to communicate emotions without the use of most of our faces. I’m getting to the point where I almost forget what people look like from the cheekbones on down to their necks. A couple of days ago, a woman across the street, in a large hat, sunglasses, and a mask gave me a huge hello and looked excited to see me as she waved. I waved back with equal enthusiasm, although I still haven’t the slightest idea who she was.

Anyway, as an adult violin student, in the midst of my fourth year, I’m finding the violin and my weekly lessons are a refreshing link to sanity. Working on scales, arpeggios, double stops, and my somewhat painful-to-the-ear vibrato, takes me away from our current situation. It’s like meditation with a focus, and after a while it everything that is going on disappears.

Now, if I skip a day of practice, I get a bit grumpy. Juliana, my delightful spouse for almost 25 years who has been patiently listening to my slow progress for three and a half years, has been great in hearing my tunes over and over and over again. During this pandemic she had one episode of pandemic fatigue and frustration with my practice.

She came into the music room, sat down and said, "I don’t mean to discourage you, but is there any way you can play softer?"

I went to my desk, got a mute, and put it on the bridge. Then I played.


"That’s perfect!" She said. "What is that thing?"

I said, "It’s called a mute."

She smiled. "When did you get that?"

I replied, "Oh, it’s always been here. I got it a couple of years ago."

There was a silence in the room.

"Wait a second!" She said, "you’ve had something that could make a violin play softer for two years and never used it?"

Oops. Oh dear. It wasn’t my finest moment.

I miss people. Before the pandemic shut things down, I was taking a chamber music class, and an old-time fiddle class, along with my regular weekly lessons. Both classes were preparing for final concerts/jams when the bottom fell out. That was it.

Along with Juliana, I managed to get out of town three times this autumn. The first time was to escape the dangerous smoke from the wildfires here in Oregon. It was just as bad as you can imagine. We drove through thick yellow and black smoke for over 400 miles to the east, along I-84, and finally managed to find clear air in Twin Falls, Idaho. We camped in a motel for three nights and then drove back to Oregon once the smoke cleared.

Then we took a day trip to the coast so we could walk along the beach. This past week, we spent four days in a cabin in the woods, where social distancing was easy since nobody was around.

Throughout all of this, I brought my violin, practicing in various locations – a highway rest stop, under a tree outside a Best Western motel, next to a lake in Twin Falls, in an unused breakfast room in another motel, and in the cabin in the forest.

After I played in a park in Twin Falls, a maintenance worker came over and thanked me. "We don’t get that kind of music around here very often."

When I told him I’m from Portland, Oregon, he looked at me for a few moments then said, "Portland, eh? Well, we vote Red around here."

I smiled, "I’m Blue all the way, but I like to see all of us as Americans, and I hope we can all work together for our country."

He nodded, "That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day."

We had a delightful conversation. When Juliana and I went back to the park the next day, he came over to us and we discussed our grandchildren.

Little steps...

I managed to play 21 solo shows in the parks since April. Now that it’s getting colder, and the rains are coming back to Portland, I’ll be lucky if I can play in the park until spring. That was fun, and it really helped me get over being nervous about playing in public, but now I’m eager to play with others again.

Having said that, I should point out that in September, my teacher, Mirabai Peart, started holding bi-weekly masked, social distanced violin jams in parks here in Portland, and they have been fun and a breath of clear air. While those jams keep things rolling, but as with my solo shows, the weather is turning cold and wet, so we don’t know how many more we may be able to enjoy until the rains roll into Oregon. Also, we are all looking forward to the day when we can remove our masks.

I feel like I’m in a space shuttle without a way to come back to earth as I go around and around and around. The beauty is right there outside the window, but I can’t reach it.

So, like Bill Murray in the movie, Groundhog Day, I’ve just accepted the present. Not to be a pessimist, but until I’m offered something that will change this situation without placing myself in danger, I’m going to live for today, celebrate today, and not spend my time filled with regret in the edited illusions of nostalgia.

I’m just going to work go make my immediate life and circumstances as productive as I can.

But while I accept my present, I haven’t given up hope for the future. I’m hoping January 20th comes around with positive changes for America. I’m hoping a safe and effective vaccine can be created in a timely way, and be distributed safely. As far as my part goes to promote those two hopes - I’ve already voted, and I wear a mask.

My most immediate hope – beyond seeing my children and grandchildren in person rather than on FaceTime – is to play music with others. So, I practice. I practice Bluegrass fiddle tunes, and old-time fiddle tunes. I work on classical pieces in hopes of playing some chamber music, and I keep my weekly lessons rolling along as well as possible.

Next Sunday we will have our annual Halloween concert outside in a park here in Portland. We will keep socially distanced, use hand sanitizer and hope for good weather. We will also wear masks for safety and, since it's Halloween, for fun. The little kids will be adorable, the adults will be fine, and the teenagers will knock it out of the park. Even with a pandemic, somethings never change.

Let’s all keep rolling along.


October 19, 2020 at 11:58 PM · Thanks for the motivation and hope! Stay safe, stay well and Go Blue!

October 20, 2020 at 08:17 PM · My situation is a little different here in the American Southeast. I don't play in the park; but I do play evening sessions in the garage each day -- it's warm enough for this about 8 months each year, The garage has the reverb I like, so I use it for my recording studio. No mute, although I use foam earplugs to keep the volume reaching my ears at a safe level. I don't get to see my audiences, but I know I have them, because neighbors and passers=by tell me they stop to listen. It will get cold enough within the next month that I'll have to move indoors for about 4 months.

I, too, am "hoping January 20th comes around with positive changes for America." Like the Twin Falls, ID, people you mentioned, I will be voting Red -- because I'd like to see what I regard as positive changes of the last 4 years continued.

Regarding comments below on "pandemic with no plan for containment in sight, skyrocketing unemployment …": There are now containment plans, not just in sight but in operation. Unemployment did skyrocket early this year but has been coming down the last several months. On "environmental degradation … increased societal division and tension": These are longstanding problems. Much has to be done at the local level, where a lot of the problems result from slack enforcement of existing laws.

October 20, 2020 at 08:22 PM · No doubt, Jim, great stuff like a raging, out-of-control pandemic with no plan for containment in sight, skyrocketing unemployment, environmental degradation, the U.S.'s stature dropping like a rock, increased societal division and tension, etc. I would say it is time for a change.

Also probably a good time to turn off the screens and fiddle!

October 20, 2020 at 09:02 PM · I do most of my practicing with some kind of mute; to not bother everyone else in the house, and help preserve what is left of my damaged hearing. Apochryphal story: A reporter asked Heifetz's neighbor what it was like to live next to him and hear him practice all the time. The answer was something like; " well, I like coffee, but I wouldn't want to live next to a coffee factory".

Now if only someone would invent a practice mute for singers---

October 20, 2020 at 11:10 PM · Well, if Pablo Casals was right when he said "perhaps it will be music that changes the world", then we should all just ditch the mutes and play like we've never played before in the coming weeks!

Seriously though, I have appreciated my violin much more these past 7 months. It's one of the few escapes I have from the craziness out there.

October 21, 2020 at 01:46 AM · Michael, that's the lovliest blog post I've ever read; just a delight!

Thank you

October 21, 2020 at 05:03 PM · You're welcome!

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