Fiddling in My Forties

by Kathleen Bustamante

The recital was the strangest I’d ever attended. I arrived 30 minutes early to snag a practice room as recommended by my instructor. She said running through my piece a few times prior to performing on stage would relieve nerves.

“Thanks, kiddo.” Flashing her a smile, I climbed out of the car and straightened my skirt one last time.

We noticed a small group of people milling around the parking lot as we approached the music store entrance. All eyes were on a woman in her 50’s who punched a number into her cell phone. She waited a moment before rubbing her forehead and sighing. While she left a curt message, I approached a mousy, thin woman clutching a violin case against her chest as if shielding herself from the drama unfolding a few feet away.

“What’s going on?” I asked the woman.

She explained that the door was locked and the music store owners couldn’t be reached. I checked my watch—1:35 p.m. The recital was scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m.

Apparently, the woman on her cell finally reached a human being, so I listened in.

“I’ve been here since one o’clock. Someone was supposed to be here to open the door at one o’clock!…I don’t care that you’re sorry…I don’t want to hear your excuses. Just get someone here to unlock the door now!”

She shoved the phone into an oversized bag and issued a public apology to the group of ten or so students who had also arrived early in hopes of a quick run-through of their recital pieces. I glanced around at the assortment of my fellow students. The instrument we grasped was the beginning and end of our commonalities. Students ranged from late teens to 60 years old, men and women, some wearing jeans and polos, others wearing suits and ties. Some were clean cut, others were decorated with tattooed sleeves and partially shaven, teal hair. I wondered what it was about Texas style fiddle that connected us to the two instructors standing together engaged in intense conversation. The younger of the two was my teacher, Aarun. Her mom, Denice, was the woman trying to get us into the building.

My own fiddle journey began four years before when my youngest child turned two. I was 38 at the time. I had promised my grandfather before he died that I would take up fiddling just like he had decades previously. I waited a while—too long—after his death to take the plunge.

Grandpa asked me during every visit whether I’d begun fiddling yet. It’s no wonder he persisted, considering my brazen requests to possess the 70-year-old fiddle hanging on his retirement home wall stained yellow from a decade of cigarette smoke.

Finally, when I turned 30, Grandpa bequeathed me the mahogany instrument he had purchased as a young immigrant just before the start of the Great Depression—a new arrival from a tiny village off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland. I hadn’t realized then, but I understand now, the significance of that purchase so many decades ago. Money and jobs available to Irish immigrants during that era were scarce, but his compulsion to create the music that connected him to his homeland made the sacrifice worthwhile.

“I haven’t begun yet, Gramps,” I replied bashfully month after month when I would make the two-hour trek from Portland to Olympia to visit him. 

“Why not?” he’d press, never accusing. He simply hoped his granddaughter could share the joy of creating music to bind us together in a unique way.

I always answered with what I thought were legitimate excuses: “My job keeps me so busy,” “my bagpipe band has me travelling and competing a lot,” “the baby has me running all the time” or “I haven’t had time to search for fiddle lessons.”

“Fiddle lessons? You don’t need fiddle lessons.”

I know, Grandpa. You whittled your own violin out of scrap wood and taught yourself how to play when you were a kid. No pressure, though.

I would change the subject, asking him to play his recorder or sing me a song. His fingers were no longer nimble enough to stretch bow across strings, but they could still dance along a wind instrument to create a hornpipe or reel. And his mind was still able to recall the words to “Molly Malone” or the “Fields of Athenry.” I knew someday I would play the fiddle just like he did. But after his death, I decided it was time, saddened by the realization that I would never get the chance to play for him. So, I opened a Google browser on my laptop and searched for lessons around the city, settling on an “Introduction to Fiddle” class offered through a community college on the other side of the city.

Realizing that his aged fiddle was in no shape for my inexperienced hands, I searched for instrument stores in my area, discovering one not far from my house. The shop was located in the basement of the store owner’s two-story house. The owner revealed his collection of violins and I decided on a lower end instrument, selecting the rent-to-own option.

The first night of class, a damp January evening, I drove 45 minutes through rush hour traffic and parked curbside in a poorly lit neighborhood. I felt like an imposter, awkwardly slinging the violin case over my shoulder, empty binder under my other arm. I stepped into the classroom, soggy Sketchers squeaking on the tiled floor, and settled in a chair at the back.

The instructor, a middle-aged woman with curly gray hair greeted the class and passed around a collection of tunes, a finger chart, and basic music theory. The hour-long class raced by and I did my best to keep up. To my relief, most students were also novices and screeched along with the instructor. I even noticed a few students struggle more than me. My confidence soared. By the end of class, I felt positive I was on the right track with this endeavor and walked to my car, head held high.

That self-assurance was short-lived, however, as the reality of life encroached. The demands of raising two small children, housework, grocery shopping, play dates, cooking, and grading essays for the writing class I taught left me little time to practice. In fact, my only opportunities to practice while raising a toddler and first grader occurred during the toddler’s bath time. My fiddling progress was in direct relation to his bath time which, judging by my skill level, made me realize the child needed more baths.

After lowering him inside a tub full of bubbles and toys, I would prop the sheet music against the mirror, resin the bow, tune the instrument, and play mostly uninterrupted for the next 20 minutes. My diminutive audience often hummed along with the tunes, then shouted “Yay!” when I finished, clapping his pudgy, soaked hands.

I recognized that the violin is not a simple instrument to master. After nine years of piano lessons in my youth and ten years of drumming with a bagpipe band after college, I wasn’t used to struggling so much while learning to play an instrument. The technicality of bow hold, bow pressure, finger positioning, and violin angle was enough to drive a person to drink. “Boil the Cabbage” and “Soldier’s Joy” sounded more like sandpaper against metal than well-known fiddle tunes. My lack of finesse on the instrument was highlighted when Murphy—my usually patient golden retriever—exited the room as soon as I pulled out my violin to practice. 

Before my fourth lesson began, I approached the teacher, hoping she could find something wrong with the instrument. Maybe I had over-tightened the strings, or maybe I wasn’t properly resining my bow. Surely, she could find the offending source and fix it.

“Would you mind checking my violin? It seems especially scratchy when I play. I just can’t figure out what’s wrong.”

I handed her the instrument and she plucked each string, ensuring each one was correctly tuned. Then she placed the bow against the strings and cranked out a lively rendition of “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Her left fingers danced across the fiddle’s neck while her right hand expertly moved the bow up, down, and diagonally across the strings. I stood, mesmerized, taking in the fluidity of motion while she tapped her toe, keeping time.

After she finished, the entire class erupted in applause.

Then she turned, handed me the instrument and concluded, “Your fiddle seems just fine to me.”

“Thanks,” I answered, slinking to my seat in the back of the room.

By the end of the term, I had memorized eight or nine tunes. My bow hold had improved, and the scratchy sound grew more subtle. Encouraged by my progress, it was a shame to finish the term without a follow up class to look forward to. Still, I had to put away my violin for a while as life happened around me.

We sold our two-bedroom house with its postage stamp backyard and moved into a three-bedroom fixer-upper on a cul-de-sac with a sprawling yard. The house was at the top of our price range, but the location and neighborhood seemed worth the financial strain.

My husband picked up an additional part-time job, which had him working ten-hour days, six days per week. My attempt at parenting, renovating our fixer upper, teaching college classes, and figuring out creative ways to pay our mortgage every month took a toll on my mental health and marriage. After months of deliberation, I decided to pursue therapy.

It didn’t take long for my therapist to recognize I was on the fast track to burn out, or worse. She emphasized the importance of finding time to decompress and enjoy life again. She asked me to brainstorm an activity or creative outlet I’ve always wanted to pursue that would relieve stress and bring me joy. Before she could finish her question, I blurted out “The fiddle! I want to play the fiddle!” Then I burst into tears.

My counselor urged me to find a good teacher and pursue this pastime that didn’t include being a wife or mom.

After a bit of research, I signed on to take lessons with Aarun, a master at Texas style fiddling. She was a patient and encouraging teacher who complimented my ear for music. Her affirmations and the folk music itself kept me returning week after week. I dedicated myself to practicing more regularly and before long I could tell my technique was improving. My confidence swelled.

That spring, after eight months of lessons, Aarun encouraged me to participate in the adult recital. At first the idea seemed far-fetched. What skills could I possibly showcase so early after beginning lessons? I mulled the idea over for a week, deciding the experience couldn’t hurt, and I conceded.

The day of the recital I felt nervous, yet determined. I found a shaded spot outside the building to practice my piece one last time. To my surprise, I played nearly perfectly with only a minor flub in the fifth measure. I decided to quit while I was ahead and took a seat next to my daughter.

“Are you ready, Mom?” she asked.

“As I’ll ever be,” I replied, taking a deep breath. She squeezed my shoulder and I attempted a brave face.

My performance was dismal. I scratched and squeaked my way through “Mississippi Hornpipe,” my bow bouncing off the strings because my right hand trembled so violently. Halfway through the tune, my mind went blank and I stopped playing. Thankfully, Aarun, who accompanied me on guitar quietly hummed the part I should have been playing, and I finished—just barely.

The audience clapped politely as I slunk off stage, cheeks aflame, and made my way to my seat.

“You did great!” my daughter lied.

“No, I didn’t. That was awful. But thank you,” I answered, relieved the debacle was over.

Never again, I resolved as I sat stewing in my chair. Never again will I pick up a fiddle!

But I was wrong. When music is in your DNA, you don’t simply give up because of one bad performance. I showed up to practice the next week and discussed with my teacher where I went wrong. She pointed out that even though I stopped playing, I picked up where I left off like a true musician.

In my twenties, I might have given up on fiddling altogether after that disaster, but in my forties, I’ve chalked it up to a learning experience and opportunity for growth. I’ve survived failure enough times in my life to realize that humbling experience was actually a positive thing. My daughter saw her momma press onward despite a not-so-great performance and continue an endeavor that brings joy even amidst life’s chaos.

I owe Gramps a great deal for urging me to take up the fiddle each time he saw me. To him, music was a gift to be shared. As he grew older, each instrument he had taught himself to play became more and more difficult to control. So, he sang. He sang until he died at 103 years old.

Even after death he somehow pressed me to pursue my dream. Now I play for him, although I know he’ll never hear me. Gramps would be glad to know I’m still fiddling in my forties. 

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