Thursday, September 8, 2011


Just realized it's been 10 years since I started playing the violin. I feel as though, after a whole decade,  I should be a better fiddle player, but I guess most people feel that way about their inadequacies playing their musical instruments.

After I turned 40 I decided I should branch out from my two long-time instruments of piano and guitar. So, I picked the violin because I knew almost nothing about how to play one, but I really liked the sound of a fiddle.

I found a music store near my house in Pennsylvania where they had violin tutors. The store owner paired me up with a Russian musician who taught at several prep schools on the Main Line. At my first lesson, the music teacher asked me if I owned a violin. I said no, I thought I'd wait and discuss it with people who knew about violins and would be able to recommend what the best kind of starter fiddle I should have.

The violin teacher closed the door to the practice room and handed me a business card. "You. Come to my house Saturday. I fix you up. Good price. Tell no one!" Then he handed me his violin and we began the first lesson.

As he suggested, I went to his house that Saturday and he led me to his basement workshop. He had dozens of violins in various states of repair hanging from the ceiling. He picked up a bright red violin. "This  - made by Chinese factory. Is firewood!" He dropped it on his workbench, and then sorted through a bunch of fiddles on a back wall. "This one - 300 years old. You can't afford it." My teacher brought out a black case and opened it up. "This one. Good sound, nice balance. Wood is really good. Made in the 1930s by Nazis. Play!" I picked up the Wehrmacht-era fiddle and ran the bow up the G scale. Really did sound nice. So now I owned a violin.

I played the violin for three years before I found out I preferred playing the fiddle. It's the same instrument, just played with a different attitude. I enjoyed fiddle playing with others, because playing ensemble keeps you honest about keeping up and playing the right notes at the right time.

When I moved into my house in Blackstone, I found out there were nearby fiddle classes in Rhode Island. I joined an intermediate group and went every week to clear my head and focus my fingers. It was fun, and I met a lot of similarly-inclined catgut scratchers who were very forgiving and quite entertaining.

Probably my favorite fiddle moment was being invited to play at a workshop with Jay Ungar and his wife Molly Mason. Jay is famous for his breathtaking song "Ashokan Farewell," which was used as the theme to Ken Burns' PBS show "The Civil War." It was one of my first fiddle tunes, and is still a favorite to play. You probably know the song, if not for the name, then for the tune. Here - allow yourself a few moments to become acquainted with this beautiful piece:

Jay and Molly were in Rhode Island, teaching a one-day seminar for anyone attending a music class in the state. Originally it was supposed to be for middle and high school students only, but when they came up short on the invite list, they added a few more slots for old-timers like me.

Here's a video of me, a few old codgers,  Jay and Molly, and a bunch of school kids sawing our way through one of Jay's other compositions, "The Lovers' Waltz." I think it all came out rather nice.

I'm still playing, but I need to practice more. Maybe after the Blue Cross gig finishes up, I'll take a few days and run through my repertoire.


  1. Funny, I play piano and guitar, too, and I want to learn violin.

    Well, I'm probably back to square one with piano and guitar since I haven't played in a long time. Or maybe only guitar, because I've been playing piano much longer so that sticks with me a little better.

    I learn fast, but I'm too lazy to practice. Must change that.

  2. The great thing about playing the violin after you've learned how to play the piano is that you can already read music for both instruments. The violin starts at G below Middle C, and goes up to - - well, up to dog-whistle territory but usually stays around the first two octaves above Middle C.

    As to the practicing part, that's another excellent feature of playing with a group. You don't want to skip practicing because you don't want to sound like a klutz when your next session is due! :)