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Never Too Late: Part One

October 2010 14 Comments

By Lois Siegel
Photo by Victor Turco
Squeak, Squeak….

Squeak, Squeak….

Screech

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

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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,

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14 Comments »

  • Sherrie said:

    You have no idea how glad I am to see this-I took up fiddle at the age of 46-at the beginning of this year and have been teaching myself. I turned 47 in August and am Learning Celtic,with some old time tunes. I just discovered Gypsy violin,and love it. (Can’t play any tunes in that genre yet but still learning)I’ve also seen tons of articles that state one should start young. I wanted to,but I think I had the only mother on the planet who wouldn’t hear of her daughter playing violin. I do play guitar & mandolin,however. Can’t wait for the next segment of this article! I play A Skylark fiddle.

  • Susan said:

    I took up the fiddle/violin at 55! However, I did have a slight advantage, I play mandolin as well. Reading music was my major challenge as I played mandolin with the help of tablature. I have since left tab way behind and play fiddle/violin with the help of ear and notation. I love fiddle music, but my playing is still a long way from good. My husband doesn’t seem to mind, my cats do though (lol). You are never too old to learn if you really want to. Thank you Lois for sharing, it has inspired me to keep going.

  • John Beeler said:

    I enjoyed your article.

    I began plan “violin” when I was 12 years old and played classical style until age 21. Most of my playing was in orchestra in high school and one year in college. I grew tired of all the practicing required and laid down my violin for 48 years.

    Last year, at age 69 (retired) I decided to take up the “fiddle”. It has been something of a struggle, but I do remember the fundamentals of physically playing the instrument. However, I knew nothing about the playing of fiddle tunes. The learning process has been lots of fun. I learn new things mostly by listening to fiddle recordings. Then I try to copy those sounds.

    One of the best things I’ve ever done.

    Still learning.

    John Beeler

  • Deborah Fuldauer said:

    My experience is a little like John Beeler’s. I am 64. I played classical violin from age 8 through college. Other interests, responsibilities, family and work kept me away from it for almost 30 years. Then I started to get interested in Celtic music and thought “I can do that.” Only it isn’t that easy. For ten years I have been battling to get the sound and the beat and ok, at least the neighbors don’t complain. Now I am more into Bluegrass. I have two basic problems. I can’t play without a written score in front of me and two, I live in southern Spain where there is absolutely NOBODY to jam with. But one thing I don’t lack is plenty of enthusiasm, and I have added a new dimension to my life.

  • Lois Siegel said:

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. Don’t give up. Playing music is a great way to enjoy life and to alleviate stress.

    What wonderful experiences you are having.

    Lois

  • Haze said:

    You can add author to your extensive background….looking forward to hearing the next segment of your violin escapades.

  • Don said:

    You young whippersnappers! I’m in my 70s and am just starting. I tease my great granddaughter she has to teach me. She’s 9. I doubt I’ll be able to keep up but we’ll have fun.

  • Terri said:

    Wow, I’m nearly 62 and trying to teach myself fiddle. I have Brian’s The American Fiddle Method book, dvd, and cd and ready to go. I’m encouraged that I’m NOT to old to learn. I do play guitar quite well and love bluegrass music. I’m on my way!!!

    By the way, I am now in the screech, screech stage but working diligently just to get a good sound.

  • karen said:

    Hello from Florida!
    Lois, you are always so inspiring!
    Hope to come to a performance one day!

  • Jeri said:

    Sooooo proud of you!

  • Jeanne McTiernan said:

    Wow, who knew there were others out there! I have always loved the sound of the fiddle – but no one plays the instrument in my family. When my son was 7 I wanted him to learn so he took lessons. He hated to practice and when he did, he made the dog howl, so his lessons were cut pretty short. At 45, I decided to take lessons myself. I rented a violin and took lessons for 8 months so that I could learn to read the music. My teacher was great but her forte was classical, she did make the effort to find me some tunes I could relate to. When I was confident enough to “do it on my own” I went to see Peter Dawson on Bronson and bought my very own violin with a couple of books that had cds included. I would play those cd’s over and over again in the car to and from work until I knew the tunes by heart. Believe me, it was a lot of listening because at the beginning, everything sounded the same – now I listen to a tune and know the name of it.Yes – the screetching is horrible at the beginning. Honestly, I remember making the coyotes howl one night while I was practicing outdoors that’s how bad it was. But they say practice makes perfect so I continued even though it was only 10 minutes everyday. Then, before I knew it, I was playing for an hour and loving every minute of it. The biggest compliment I have ever received was from my husband. He used to watch the hockey game while I practiced upstairs. One night, I couldn’t hear the TV and thought he had fallen asleep – so I called his name and he said: I’m not sleeping – I’m listening to the concert! At that moment – I knew I had it! I’m 53 years old and I love playing the fiddle. I have a three year old grand-daughter and I’ve bought her her first 1/8 fiddle. Now, when she visits, she comes to play with me at the Legion on friday nights. She doesn’t really play – but she stands there in front of everyone and bows the strings and she thinks it’s great to play like grandma! My only regret is that I did’nt have someone to teach me to love the instrument at that age!

  • Grace said:

    I think that it is wonderful to learn anything. Some people think that once you are older it is the Children’s turn to learn. For one thing children don’t always appreiate it as much and another some people don’t really have the opportunities when they are young. I played the violin many years ago but stopped because practicing for piano exams took up so much of my time. I started piano at 27 years of age and the violin a year after. I am learning violin again and I have the same teacher that I started with. She is now 86 years old and still teaching violin. She has started taking viola lessons as well. It truly keeps her going. I reached my Grade 10 in piano so far, not to boast but just to say it is amazing what we can do even though we supposedly start late. I used to feel depressed when I was taking piano lessons and going to recitals where teenagers were playing their Grade 8 piano. I never thought that it was possible for me to get to Grade 8. I thought it was too late. Well it wasn’t and people just brain wash the adults to make them feel that it is too late. It is wonderful to learn. The gift of learning is available to all of us and it is God’s gift to us.

  • Erica Stux said:

    More power to you, Lois! I think it’s great what you’re doing. I learned to play the accordion at age 7, took lessons till age 12 or 13, after that the accordion gathered dust in a closet until about 1990, when I joined a group of retired people to play old standards at nursing homes and senior centers. Then I moved to California and joined a klezmer band. But I really prefer to play oldies.

  • Will Becker said:

    Well, Lois, thanks for the encouraging article here. Also, reading the other comments from persons my age (67) I see there is definately hope. When I was 11 a neighbor gave me her full size violin which she had played when she was a girl. She was 91 at the time. The instrument was in fair condition and in its orginal case with the bow. A few years ago I took this violin to a local luthier who works exclusively with violins, violas, double basses, etc., and he fixed it up form me. I have been to a few workshops on playing folk fiddle style and I love to go to Irish sessions and hear the Celtic style. Here in Florida there are quite a few Celtic sessions around and quite a lot of bluegrass and folk fiddle opportunities. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve waisted all that time and not taken lessons, but this article has shown that I’m not alone. I do play guitar, bass, a little banjo and love percussion too, so maybe there is room for one more instrument, my sweet sounding vintage violin.