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Never Too Late: Part Three

February 2011 10 Comments

Your Comments and My Responses

By Lois Siegel

Photo by Victor Turco

Why does it not surprise me that so many people have decided to take up a fiddle or another instrument late in life….  some returning to the past, some starting something new… and it’s not just the Baby Boomers.    It seems that people are waking up to the fact that you don’t have to hang up your life once you reach the age of 40+. You have many more years of artistic expression, exploration and education.

A new life is just beginning.  Now you have more time to experiment with everything you’ve always wanted to do. Your kids are grown up. Your work life is settled. And the joy of playing an instrument with others will be amazing if no egos are involved.  You might find a jam session that suits your level of playing. If you can’t find one, start one. Community Centers are often receptive to this and will lend you a room once a week for your gathering.

Stacy Phillips, editor of Fiddle Sessions, thought it would be a good idea for me to reflect on some of your comments to my “Never Too Late” articles.  What a great idea.  So here goes….



Sherrie wrote that she started fiddle at age 46.  Now she’s learning Celtic music and has just discovered gypsy violin.  

My Response:  Terrific.  Every different type of music you try will be a new challenge. The techniques will vary, as will the sounds and accents.  Celtic music is mostly in the key of D or G  and sometimes C for the violin. Gypsy music will require playing in another key with lots of flats.

Sherrie said she plays a Skylark fiddle. I didn’t know this fiddle, so I looked it up on the Internet:  The site said classic violin starter kit is available at a price anyone can afford. 

Starting with an inexpensive violin is good if you’re not sure you want to continue with the violin. You just have to make sure that the violin pegs are easy to move so that you can keep your violin in tune without breaking the strings every time you turn them. This can be a major problem with beginning violin players.  You can buy an electronic tuner that tells you whether you are in tune or not. These are easy to use.  You can also find online violin tuners and online violin tuning instructions on the Internet and on YouTube.  I advise having fine tuners on each of your strings, but be careful not to let these pegs dig into the wood of your violin. Tune the “A” string first, then D, G, E.

Brand new strings will be a bit more difficult to keep in tune because they stretch and will take some time to settle.  You will have to check your tuning frequently with new strings.

Eventually, you will want to purchase a better violin. Try different violins before you decide what tone you like best.  A good violin repair person can adjust your bridge so that it’s not too high. This will make the violin easier to play.  I go to someone who has studied violin making, is currently making violins for professional orchestra players, and keeps up with workshops and new techniques.

Susan said that she took up the fiddle/violin at 55.  Great. She played mandolin before.  It always makes things easier if you have played an instrument before.  She doesn’t read music but uses ear and notation.

This is fine – whatever works for you.


My Response:  Yes. The learning process is fun.  And muscle memory really helps. We all have muscle memory.  Once you know a tune by memory, your fingers ‘do the walking.”  They know where to go.  We learn in patterns.  When I read music now, I’m not really reading every note.  I’m remembering the pattern.  And I can often take my eyes off the music and still remember the notes. 

I started going to a wonderful jam session mostly composed of lots of Newfoundlanders (Canadians from Newfoundland), old-time singers, and Celtic players.  It’s a great mixed bag of all sorts of instruments and backgrounds.  We meet in the back room of a pub and play every Tuesday night for hours.  People in the pub can hear us because the room is not closed; it’s merely another section in the pub.  At first, I would bring music and a small tabletop stand to the pub.  (Hint:  You can purchase a small, lightweight metal recipe holder stand at a restaurant supply store for much less then the ones in music stores).

Now I rarely bring any music to the jam session. I’m trying to develop my ear and play without music. I’m amazed that this seems to be working….slowly, but surely.  I will recognize a tune, but I won’t remember the name of the tune… even if it’s a Celtic tune I’ve played many times.  I sometimes ask the name after the tune finishes. I intend to work on those tunes at home…perhaps with the aid of sheet music, but I know I’m getting closer to memorizing the tune. A good method is to remember how each section of the tune starts.  I want to build up my repertoire from memory. But this is my decision and is not forced upon me.

Deborah Fuldauer said she also learned classical violin at a young age and then family and other responsibilities kept her away for almost 30 years.
She is now interested in Celtic and Bluegrass music.  She wrote:

“I have two basic problems. I can’t play without a written score in front of me…. And I live in southern Spain where there is absolutely NOBODY to jam with.” Deborah is 64.

My Response:  Bravo.  It’s great you are exploring a new interest… fiddle.  Perhaps you can go to a fiddle camp. There are many summer fiddle camps

In Europe – even in Spain:

Crisol de Cuerda Tradicional
 Scottish and Spanish Traditional Music Workshop
 Burgos.  Spain
 July 31 – August 7, 2011

The Spanish camp features Celtic music from northeast Spain. It will take place in the small village of Burgos, and there will be lessons on several instruments (guitar, bouzouki, flute, cello, dance… and fiddle) and other lessons where musicians can improvise -  play together with other instruments. There will be musicians from Castille, Basque Country, Galice, and Scotland, teaching tunes from these and other places.

It’s a one-week workshop, though many bands play the last day. Meals and lodging will be included.

They are working on the website. You can contact Javier to have your email address added to their mailing list: crisoldecuerda@hotmail.com

Kate Lissauer runs a fiddle and banjo week at a beautiful house in Andalusia at the end of April, usually with Dave and Tim Bing. Next year’s dates and details aren’t available yet, but when they are, you should be able to find them at http://www.Foaotmad.org.uk, the website for the Friends Of American Old-Time Music and Dance.

I have a fiddle camp webpage:


and a sessions webpage:


I go to a fiddle camp every summer near Ottawa, Canada. It’s great fun. There are players at every level you can imagine.  Everyone is placed in a group at one’s own level.  The camp stresses playing by ear.  I played by ear very well as a child and could copy any tune I heard on the piano. I don’t do as well now, although I’m working on it.

I like playing with notation because it saves me a lot of time, especially at fiddle camp because I don’t stay overnight there. I drive home and often have to work at night as a photographer.  I don’t have time to learn the tunes by memory. I always have to ‘fight’ to get copies of the sheet music.
I learn faster using sheet music, and each class has an ‘end of camp’ performance the last night. I’m not going to learn the music in time if I don’t have the sheet music.  Most of the students in my class are over 50-years-old. Sheet music is always a major contention at this fiddle camp.  It shouldn’t be.

If I play a tune enough times, eventually I will know it and will be able to play it without music.  But I have to have time to do this. I’m not a full-time musician.  And I’ve noticed that the kids coming up these days that I meet at fiddle camp or at competitions are now classically trained.  These kids can play anything. And they learn a tune by ear in a few minutes. It’s amazing. I’m sure being able to read any type of music has helped them.  It quickly opens up access to different styles.

To be continued next issue

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, Canada.  She plays fiddle, bodhran, spoons, the Ugly Stick the washboard, and the dancing marionette with The Lyon Street Celtic Band and Celtic North.  Siegel just started Siegel Entertainment, representing other musicians.

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  • Pippa Middleton said:

    I am just 65 and took up the fiddle nearly a year ago, and have never looked back! I am a whistler/fluter,very interested in Celtic music, so I already have a lot of tunes in my head, which makes all the difference. Please give my email to Deborah Fuldauer,who lives in Southern Spain. So do I, and we belong to the most wonderful, international network of traditional musicians living across Andalucia. We usually go to at least two Irish or Celtic sessions a week. If Deborah gets back to me I’ll give her details.

  • nan parker said:

    Hi , I like the tab music because it is easier. I took up the fiddle at
    60. took lessons for a year then went on my own. I was inspired by my other half. He plays the banjo. Glad to h ear of all the people that
    take up instruments after 50. I only wish I would have done it 30 yrs ago….

  • wilga said:

    anyone you know going to Bargos fiddle campthis year? I’m coming up from australia and am thinking about going. Found this site interesting I started late too, thoroughly enjoy playing with others. music makes the world a happier place. thanks

  • Joanne said:

    Starting again? Starting over? Didn’t
    any of you fiddle-cats see Cormac MacCarthy’s
    The Sunset Limited?

  • Rick said:

    I have a magnificent piano sitting in my living room. I learned to play it when I was seven. It’s rare that I touch the keys anymore (months go by). You and others would be a good inspiration for me to resurrect that muscle memory.

  • Sherrie said:

    Lois,thank you for the tips! I got away from the fiddle briefly after the holidays,but am back with it and looking to join a fiddle society here in CA. Bowing technique needs help tho. I find that as I also play mandolin,I have a tendency to use the bow alternating the direction as you would do “up down” picking. I’m the only fiddler I know right now. Also- when is using dark rosin necessary? Or is it purely a preference thing?

  • Lois Siegel said:

    Sherrie wrote:

    “When is using dark rosin necessary? Or is it purely a preference thing?”

    I’ve read that some people use dark rosin in cold weather and lighter rosin in warmer weather.

    I use Szigeti rosin all year round. It’s called Szigeti Red Label Super Grip. I really like it. I’ve been using it for years. I discovered it at a local music shop in Ottawa, Canada. This was a shop where I would often run into classical musicians. I always listened to what they were discussing. One of the professional violinists who plays with the National Arts Centre Orchestra recommended it. I tried it and liked it.

    $7 Canadian

    You can find it on other sites online. Just Google Szigeti rosin.


  • 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.

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