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The Well Aging Fiddler - Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number

August 10, 2022, 9:56 AM · I thought I was an outlier. I thought I was a bit beyond the presumed paradigm of musicians. After all, the accepted picture of musicians is this – if you don’t start when you’re a child, there is little to no point in picking up an instrument and learning how to play. Here’s an example of that kind of thinking:

This Happens a Lot

I was at the Tri City Airport, outside Saginaw, Michigan, sitting in the waiting area with my violin in its case. A pilot walked toward the gate, saw me, smiled, and strolled over to me.

“Are you with an orchestra?” He asked.
“No,”
“Oh,” he said. “You’re a soloist?”
“I’m just beginning to learn how to play a violin. I play for my grandchildren!”
He shook his head, turned, and walked away.

On the Bus
I took a seat on the city bus with my violin in its case, on my way to my first violin lesson. This was a first. That’s important. At my age, anytime something comes up that is a first – it’s a big deal.
A young guy was sitting next to me. He looked up from his cellphone and saw my violin case.

“What orchestra are you with?”
“Um…. Excuse me?”
“That’s a violin, right?”
“Yes.”
“So, what orchestra do you play in? Oregon Symphony?”
“Well, actually I’m on my way to my first lesson.”
“What?”
“I’m a beginner. I’m going to my first lesson.”
“Seriously? At your age? Ha! Well… good luck, dude.”
He turned away from me and looked back at his cellphone.

On the airplane

I boarded a Delta Airlines flight from Detroit to Portland. I had a window seat. As I placed my violin in the overhead compartment, the man sitting next to the aisle rose to let me get to my seat.

“Is that a violin?” He asked.
“It is,”
“Are you in an orchestra? A touring soloist?”
Oh dear, here we go again.
“No,” I say. “I’ve just take lessons.”
He looked startled. “Really? At your advanced age? That’s amazing!”
“Well, I’m 70 years old.”
“70! Exactly! And learning the violin! Wow!”
I just smiled. “Yep. 70. It’s a miracle.”
“Absolutely! Way to go!”
"Thanks."

This sort of thing happens now and then. I’ve learned to roll with it.

This past May I ended five delightful years of violin lessons. I loved it. I could have gone on, but something inside of me said it was time to move forward. I needed to explore other roads with my music. Also, frankly, I was wondering if I was wasting my time with all of this music.

Where am I going with this? I practiced daily for weekly lessons. Every single time I went into a lesson, I was prepared to do my best, but as time moved forward, I was starting to feel adrift. Perhaps those people were right. Perhaps I’m too old for all of this.

I spent the majority of the past two and a half years playing my violin alone in a bedroom. In the darkest days of the pandemic, I had over 50 lessons online, rather than face-to-face. On occasion, I played in recitals and soirees with the other students. I went to the park by myself, stood by picnic tables, and played music for whoever was there. But it seemed stale. Was that it? What happens when the discipline of lessons ends? What’s next?

I needed to get out of my routine. I needed to be with people. I needed to shake things up.

So, I did what I always do when I hit walls like this – when in doubt, spread the wings, jump off the cliff, and see what happens.

I signed up to participate in the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop at Fort Worden State Park, in Port Townsend, Washington.

Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop

While I enjoy classical music, and other genres like Irish, Scandinavian, Eastern European, Bluegrass, and American fiddle tunes, I’ve always had a deep love for the blues. I’ve seen many of the great blues performers; Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Hound Dog Taylor, James Cotton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Dr. John, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Otis Rush, and many more. Ironically, I’ve never played blues music with anyone. It had never happened. So, no time like the present to scratch that off the Bucket List.

This week-long workshop, takes a wide and loving approach to acoustic blues music, with sessions in guitar (fingerstyles, slide guitar, country blues, etc.), harmonica, bass, mandolin, bones, fiddle, voice, washboard, accordion, piano, ukulele, and pretty much anything else you can pluck, strike, shake, or vibrate. Every night there are performances from students and teachers. The final day is all performance and a great Barbeque lunch.

I had only a hint of what to expect.

I’d see videos of the teachers and participants on YouTube, and I was impressed with their skill and imagination.

So, of course questions and doubts spun around in my mind. Can I do this? Will I stick out like sore thumb? Most of these people have probably played blues for years. Should I just bring my violin? How about my mandolin and guitar?

While I was nervous about the whole experience, I did my best to get ready. For three weeks, I put everything away and worked on basics. Blues scales in major and minor keys. Improvisations, chords, slides, hammers, staccato, and so forth. I also brought my mandolin, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, and my viola. I practiced some song I’d written in case any opportunity came up to play them. I wanted to go in ready to play.

The biggest question still loomed, in my mind. Am I too old for all of this? I didn’t think I was too old for anything, but what if some people were right? What if this? What if that?

Of course, being a Gemini – the Twins, two personalities, and all that other astrological gobbledygook, the other side of my brain was screaming, “What do I care about how they see things? Jump in!”

So, Juliana and I drove up to Port Townsend, and I signed in. For her part, while I was making music for a week, she went hiking in the Olympic National Park. Smart move. While the rest of the West Coast was baking in 100+ temperatures, the northern coast of Washington was in the 60’s and low 70’s.

I went to dinner in the Mess Hall. Fort Worden is a former military complex. The movie, An Officer, and a Gentleman, was filmed there. Hence, the cafeteria was called a mess hall. Nifty, eh?

As I sat and talked to other participants, I discovered something wonderful. To my delight, most of the players at the workshop were in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. My violin classes (oops fiddle classes) were 70% players over 50. Some players were very experienced in guitar, or violin, or mandolin, piano, accordion, and so forth. Several, like me, played more than one instrument. Some were relatively new to their instruments, and everyone – seriously, everyone – was eager to play music with other people.

This wasn’t a competition, but a shared journey in musical discovery. We weren’t there to dazzle each other with our musical skills. We were there to share what we knew, to learn, to put some well needed twists on formal musical training, and have a good time. Although, I’ll admit, I was pretty dazzled by the skill of many of the teachers and students.

Age just didn’t matter. The schedule was exhausting. We had a choice of over 20 workshops, late afternoon jams, evening performances by both teachers and students, and jam sessions that often went into the early hours of the mornings.

I jumped in and participated in five sessions a day, played in jams, and even knocked out a song I wrote in an evening show. It was my first time playing alone before an audience since 2017. Later in the week, I fronted a band with another original song. I was completely exhausted. I had a great time.

Do yourself a favor. If you are like me, and you’ve spent the majority of this pandemic playing music alone, it’s time to get out there. (By the way, masks were required for indoor activities, everyone had to be vaccinated and boosted. Safety first, right?)

When you discover you’ve hit a wall, knock it down. Loosen up. Spill some beer on your fiddle. Of course, if you insist on remaining a classical violinist, I suggest spill some pinot noir on your violin. In any case, know this – age ain’t nothing but a number. Sadly, some people haven’t received that message.

Here’s a final story.

In the hall of the music school where I was taking lessons, I was sitting in a chair next to a young girl. Both of us were waiting for our lessons to begin.
“How long have you been playing?” I asked.
“Eight years!” She said with pride. “How about you?”
“Four years.”
“How old are you?”
“72.”
There was a pause.
Then she shook her head, and said, “It must be hard to learn violin at your age.”
“Nope,” I replied. “It’s no harder for me than it is for anybody else.”

Before she could respond, our teachers appeared, we went into their studios, and life moved forward.

* * *

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Replies

August 11, 2022 at 06:39 AM · I'm probably always going to be mainly a classical violist, but even so, when I started going to summer chamber music workshops a few years ago, it was a real eye-opener. Similar atmosphere to the blues workshop you're describing. A whole range of ages and experience levels, including a fair number of people who started as adults. Whatever the genre, getting out and playing music with other people is great for breaking down assumptions and dispelling self-doubt.

It was very different from my experience starting out, where I ended up self-teaching for many years because a bunch of teachers rejected me, all saying I was too old (as a teenager!) to learn a string instrument at all, and claiming more-or-less that it would be almost impossible to develop the motor skills to sound like anything but a tortured cat.

August 11, 2022 at 04:35 PM · Michael, you're always inspiring to read. I picked up the violin a little over 7 years ago (at age 49), and self-taught for most of it. Now I have a teacher. I don't think I've made nearly as much progress as you seem to have. That might be partly because I split my time with the bass viol, which I took up 4 years ago, getting a teacher right from the start (but skipping 18 months of lessons during covid). I wish I could quit my job (ie, retire) so I could actually put in the many hours I'll need to get any good on either instrument. I yearn for opportunities to play with others, as you happily describe. I'm always alone in my room with my instruments. I'm at the point now where I'm thinking of starting a Meetup group to find other adult learners and put together some consorts or other ensembles.

August 13, 2022 at 03:44 AM · I get a lot of that sort of thing when traveling to my cello lessons on the bus. Including the predictable "Is that a coffin?" So I'm planning to put "R.I.P. E.T." on my cello case when I find the time.

August 14, 2022 at 01:57 PM · My story is similar. I started violin at 12 and left lessons when I married at 19 and could no longer afford them. My violin resided in a closet for about 50 years! I started lessons again at 69 and just played for myself as I was unable to connect with groups and my teacher said there were none. I moved to a bigger city to be closer to my sons. I played for myself through Covid and just last Sept, I discovered an International music group for people JUST LIKE ME! New Horizons(Tampa) International Music Assoc (NHIMA) was coming back again after Covid! I joined and have been playing for a year now. It has transformed my life! And just last June, 58 New Horizons musicians from all over the US and Canada came together in Dublin Ireland, rehearsed, and got ready for 3 performances in Dublin, Cork, and Killarney! I’m on my way…at 75! It’s never too late!

August 14, 2022 at 10:14 PM · Happy to see I'm not alone! I think we all fall under the illusions presented in the media regarding the presumptions of popularity, age, and the arts. The assumptions that popularity is based on sales, units sold, and the immediacy of what is "in" as some sort of cultural barometer. While that may make for good press, and sales of a newspaper, or subscriptions to an online site, the reality is far more fascinating. I'm convinced that people all over this country and world engage in the arts on a regular basis, and enrich their lives with these activities. Unfortunately, that doesn't make for exciting copy in the man-bites-dog world of popular media. Because of this people like my colleagues and me, can fall under the illusion that what we do seems rudderless and even pointless. it's good to read your comments, to attend workshops like the one I attended in Port Townsend, Washington, and to see that press invisibility - the lack of mass attention to our efforts - really doesn't matter. Fill your soul, do your art, and it will speak volumes.

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