Never Too Late: Part One
By Lois Siegel
Photo by Victor Turco
That was me at age 50 when I finally had time to engage in the formidable challenge of learning to play the violin.
I had started “playing” the piano at eight in Omaha, Nebraska. My teacher, Mr. Johnson, tall and lanky, looked a bit like Ichabod Crane. He would crack his fingers as he listened to me torture a tune. During one piano lesson, I changed a tune because I didn’t like the way it sounded. Mr. Johnson listened, didn’t mind that I had changed a perfectly good piece, and wrote on the music sheet “Composition by Lois.” I was a composer. I liked the idea. I now know that Mr. Johnson was a very good teacher. He realized that encouragement stimulates learning.
When I was nine, the kids in my class filed onto the school stage one at a time and stood in front of a music teacher sitting at a piano. She plunked at one note and asked if the note was higher or lower than the first one. She repeated this exercise several times. I passed the test and was very excited to have been chosen to learn to play the violin. My violin lessons were to begin the following school year.
I had already lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; West Orange, New Jersey; Springfield, New Jersey; Kansas City, Missouri. Omaha. Every so often, at dinner, an announcement would be made to the kids in the family. This one came next: “We are going to move to Kansas City, Kansas.” I was no longer going to learn to play the violin.
In the back of my mind, the violin must have still been there because many decades later, I still remembered being selected to play the violin. When I finally had time, I decided I wanted to learn the violin. I was 50.
The violin is not an easy instrument to play. And everyone always says you should start the violin when you are no older than 7. I met “babies” learning to play who were 4-years-old. I figured I was at least 43 years too late. I didn’t care.
I bought an $80 Chinese fiddle from an elderly violin teacher in Montreal, Canada, where I was living at the time. A violin lesson was included in the price. He was Russian, old-school, and he crunched my left hand fingers into the correct position on the strings. I wasn’t old-school. I cried out in pain. The violin went back in its case. I took it home. It sat there.
Then I moved to Ottawa, Canada with my boyfriend. I sometimes visited a friend of mine whose husband, a psychiatrist, was taking fiddle lessons. I would hear unusual, lively tunes emerging from upstairs – Celtic music. When the lesson was over one day, I finally met his fiddle teacher. I asked his teacher if he would take on another student. Suddenly it was a done deal, and, once again, I was going to try to learn to play the violin. I had no idea what Celtic music was, but that was what I was going to learn.
Lessons were by ear. I would record tunes on my small cassette tape recorder. My fiddle teacher played the first tune: “Auntie Mary.” I listened to him play and then tried to copy small sections of the tune at a time.
Left hand: My fingers had trouble finding their way across strings. My fingers wouldn’t move naturally. They struggled. They didn’t know what to do. They were stiff and clumsy. Right hand: The bow, it moved unevenly back and forth. I sounded awful. I was playing on top of the strings. The sound was weak and flimsy. I wasn’t using the weight of my bow arm. My boyfriend used to hide upstairs when I practiced and listen to heavy-metal music through earphones. He insisted I sounded like a tortured cat.
My fiddle teacher said that there were some Celtic music jam sessions in town, listed on the Internet. I checked: Celtic Slow Jam, Glebe Community Centre. I called the contact number and was invited to come check out the group. A few days later, December, 1997, I grabbed my violin, music stand, and tape recorder and headed out in a snow storm, not really knowing what a jam session was.
You have to be brave to learn to play the violin.
This was the last jam for the season until January. It was their Christmas party/jam event. They had a potluck dinner and were ready to play. The room was filled with at least 20 people. They were adults of all ages. I was handed a compilation of Celtic music. I placed it on my music stand and stared at it. I hadn’t really spent much time reading music for ages. And I didn’t recognize any of the names of the tunes. I taped all the tunes they played.
The group sat in a circle and took turns selecting a tune. The person who chose the tune would start it at the speed he desired. I tried to follow the music. They were playing much faster than I could ever imagine playing. It was a losing battle. I was able to play maybe two notes that first night. That was it. But I did play those two notes.
Hang in there.
to be continued in next issue of Fiddle Sessions
about the author
Lois Siegel is a filmmaker, casting director, photographer, writer and musician. When she isn’t playing fiddle, she teaches Video Production at the University of Ottawa. She plays fiddle, bodhran, spoons, the Ugly Stick and the dancing marionette with The Lyon Street Celtic Band, Celtic North and Vaudeville. She just started Siegel Entertainment,