My Golden Fiddle: Story of a Homemade Violin
My Homemade Violin While New, 1998
I held the finished violin for the first time, and a great flood of remembered music drowned my analytical thoughts. Yet it felt awkward in my grasp. Tentatively, I put the synthetic bow to the strings, and produced a weak hum. A screech as the bow slipped in my fingers jolted me back into reality. Yearning or not, I would need to practice to become good.
This violin, only the second I had ever held, had begun four years earlier as a bet. Could my dad, or his friend Rick, make one sooner? My father had won the bet, then given the prize to me. I did not that day know the preciousness of this gift. I did not know that many men before Dad had tried, and failed, to make violins that actually sang. He considers his success a fluke. I had no idea of the power of the golden elm wood he had used to fashion the back of the instrument--a power for soothing and healing the soul, for enlivening the heart and making merry a weary spirit. I knew with certainty only that this was an instrument I could cherish.
The Plans and Books Which My Father ConsultedClick thumbnail to view full-size
Trees Which Provided Elm for Both Case and Fiddle Back
My First Instructor, Miss Linda
I started out with a virtuous and kind violin teacher, Miss Linda. I found I had a knack for the precision required to play well, and the drive to succeed at playing anything I chose. I was marked “superior” at music contests, though I struggled with timing, making my piano player work hard.
Expanding My Horizons
I found people reacted with unusual delight to my playing, because of the elm wood in the fiddle. It acted like a tonic. The lame in spirit leapt to its sounds. I soon had invites to play at church, at the nursing home, at the living center, and at an English High Tea, where sophisticated old women clapped and tapped their toes, making requests of songs they had loved in their youth. Since these women were the daughters of American pioneers, I held them in awe and learned all I could from them. They didn't care that I was far from wonderful in my playing technique, they cared that my golden fiddle stirred their spirits and their memories.
The High Tea
The club of which these women were a part was presided over by a very proper middle-aged lady who was originally from England. Most of the women were in their 80's and 90's--which is not to say slow and confused, but in fact spry-minded and with loads of life experience.
I was 16, and had played for about a year. As I still had a tendency to freeze when not playing casually, I put together a list of tunes I knew well emotionally. The list was longer than I thought I would need, but the women enjoyed it immensely, and when I came to the end of it, asked for an encore. Would you believe, out of perhaps 100 suitable tunes I knew, I drew a blank? Scrambling, I finally reached for "The Old Gray Mare," hoping to make the ladies laugh. They did. They laughed with sparkling eyes, clapping and shouting, and began to dance in their souls, recalling their youth spent traveling and establishing homesteads. They told me it was the best time they had had in ages.
So I learned to play with abandon whatever it was I was playing, and wherever I played, people responded.
Inspirations outside of these incidents came mostly from books. I thought of how Elnora Comstock in Girl of the Limberlost had been able to duplicate birdsong, and how Charles Ingalls of the Little House series took such spirit from whatever music he heard or could make with his own fiddle. His family, too, found courage in his playing, and I wanted to own a magic like that. Anything that could keep a family together emotionally was worth striving for. I often pictured "Pa" Ingalls playing the evening that Mr. Edwards visited his family in Indian Territory, and danced in the moonlight before the mostly-built log house. I also saw Elnora, once again playing in the moonlight, while her friends and mother--who had for so long lacked a social life--reveled in "Moneymusk" and other fiddle tunes which she had danced to as a girl.
The eternal music in the moonlight, I feel, is still playing somewhere.
Miss Vera, Fiddle Teacher
The gift of the fiddle extended further the day I met Vera. Miss Linda had done what she could for me in the way of teaching fiddle technique, though she could have taken me yet several years into the reaches of classical violin. But there was a fiddlin’ woman in town named Vera, and I went to her. At my first lesson, I learned “Chinese Breakdown,” a tune that impresses audiences but requires only moderate ability to play. I soon had more than I could do with the heaps of music Vera copied for me, and I envied the inborn abilities of her family.
The day I met her brother Lavern, I felt once more like a beginner. His knotty and crooked fingers flashed over the strings, making my best imitation of “Devil’s Dream” sound brittle and inefficient. He had learned to play fiddle while standing backstage at dances and shows, listening to professionals in his childhood.
I learned that one of Vera’s brothers had played seven instruments by the time he was twelve, and the whole family played for dances on weekends. One of the littlest boys regularly fell asleep while drumming, but never missed a beat.
The family could have made a comfortable living playing music, but they stuck to farming with unreasonable tenacity, relegating their passion to the status of hobby.
Vera's Family Becomes Mine
Vera’s unrealized dream was to have a dance band. But due to health problems, teaching fiddle was the best she had been able to do. So with unusual ability and patience, she taught me for three years.
In that time, I learned to know her children, and developed ties thick as blood. While attending a music festival hosted by her brother Lavern, I learned he was grandfather to a family I had treated as cousins since grade school. One of his granddaughters and I attended college together.
Vera’s son, Will, and I eventually cast our gazes on each other, though at 38 he was twice my age.
A few weeks into our dating, we wound up at his mother’s house--the restaurant he had planned to take me to was closed. We ate pizza, watched “Little Rascals,” and laughed as he turned red trying to play the same uncooperative cornet he had played when he was twelve. (He had scarcely played it since then, yet managed to bring music from its throat.) So I found him to be a comfortable match. On marrying and moving into his house six months after our first date, I found an array of musical instruments, scattered in odd corners, and added my fiddle to them.
Good Ol' Fiddle Music
Since I've always adored music of nearly all kinds, I expected that Will and I would have many good times together.
The concept of music itself is what matters to me...the way it speaks without barriers and without the need of language or props.
As a child, I assumed that my eclectic attitude toward music was a normal part of being human, and by the time I figured out that many people take a more casual or limited view of the subject, I was faced with the fact that I was not only obsessive and abnormal, but rural, isolated, inexperienced, and lacking in opportunities to change my circumstances.
I therefore embraced any musical opportunity I could, even though it often meant playing or singing things I had no foreseeable use for, in places that were, from an artistic standpoint, far from ideal. For instance, the Haxtun nursing home, playing fiddle for a crowd of largely incoherent, deaf, drugged-up, miserable folk who barely knew we (or they) were there.
I recall on one occasion being distracted by a particular gentleman, moaning and yelling in the front row, who had shoe-string drool to make any pitbull envious. I managed to keep playing, but afterward had no idea what I had played.
The music I played in the nursing home was traditional, or such as was considered suitable for rural dances, and included such gems as "Blue Skirt Waltz," various jigs and reels, and "Ragtime Annie". These were tunes I played with my mother-in-law, who often joined me at the nursing home, and since there was no music available for so many of the songs in our lists, we played by ear, made up variations that suited us, and kept it loose.
Occasionally we played alongside another local woman, who took turns at the piano, and danced whatever she remembered of some traditional steps from her girlhood. These dances included a poor--but laughing--imitation if a Schottische.
Bible College, 2000
I had attended a small Bible college for one semester when Will and I began dating. The school was designed to turn out pastors, pastor's wives, and missionaries. As such, the types of music allowed were limited, and never included anything which could be judged harmful to one's psyche or spirituality. Also, there was a no-music-played-aloud policy in the dorms.
Frontier School of the Bible
But after spending a few practice sessions in an empty classroom, I was allowed to play my fiddle in the girls' dorm, provided my roommate and neighbors enjoyed it. They did, and often sang along to the more familiar fiddle tunes, laughing and dancing in a carefree manner.
I had to be ready for conversation while carrying my violin case across campus, because the men invariably mistook it for a gun case. This was not helped by the fact that, after Will and I began dating, I often wore a necklace consisting of a golden chain hung with two .30-06 brasses. These were a token of one of our first dates, which we had spent at the target range. Will was a gun nut, and took hunting and all kinds of firearms seriously.
I spent some pleasant evenings playing violin in the empty chapel building. Sometimes other students would join me, and we'd do whatever we felt like on piano, violin, and whatever else was available. A boy named Rich had played cello, and borrowed my violin from time to time, playing it in an upright position. We worshiped God, played traditional music, and goofed off with dance tunes and fiddle music.
A girl named Sarah had another violin, but had never learned to read music. She admitted that, while she liked to play, she had often skipped lessons. Also, her violin case was shabby and had a disreputable clasp, which forced her to carry it clamped under one arm. It looked like it might contain a Tommy-gun. Since she was a bit of a rebel anyway, we laughed about this--she with her mock Tommy-gun and devil-may-care attitude, and I with my brasses on a chain and a case which might have contained a rifle.
Since neither of us read music too well, we once again played whatever we liked from memory, and sometimes learned from one another new techniques or sounds.
I've no idea what happened to Sarah, or Rich. But I think of the good times often.
The Fiddle Box Which Was Mistaken for a Gun Case
The Traditions Continue, 2006
Who would have thought that a woodworking bet would lead to such a union as Will and I, and to the carrying-on of a longstanding tradition? Now, my little son Billy plays his own tiny fiddle, and delights in the piano. He inherited the skills of his forebears, and composed piano duets at three years old. If he keeps up his interest, he will soon run circles around me musically.
This coming Monday, I will play a set of tunes for the residents of the nursing home in my hometown, and sing with my mother. We plan to end with “God Bless America”…and while You are at it, Father, please bless my father for his gift of a golden fiddle.
Tyger Playing her Small Violin
My Daughter, 2008.
I now have a daughter added to the mix. She was born in late 2006, and at two years old, loves tinkering with everything musical. She also carries a tune extraordinarily well. She has taken up the 1/10th size violin, and though she plays violently, I think has some clear talent. We will see how she progresses.
She and Billy both go with me when I play somewhere, and have been exposed to the joys of entertaining, as well as inspiring and encouraging others through music.
My Full-Size Violin Against My Daughter's 1/10th Size
Changes in 2009
Life has gotten full now, what with homeschooling the kids, continuing to work construction with my husband, and working whenever we can on improving our homestead.
I can picture playing together as a family in the cozy winter evenings, with the wood stove gently crackling in the background, and light shining off the winter-blackness of the windows. Of course, there will be chores and schoolwork and chess, too. (My family loves chess.)
But taking time to play at all has gotten to be challenging, and I've sometimes taken my violin with me in the work truck, so I can snatch minutes here and there to practice. Hopefully, after things have taken shape at the farmstead some, I will find time for more consistent music again.
I still occasionally find time for tinkering on both violin and piano, making up music to fit the stories I write. Dark fantasy, horror, and fairytales lend themselves to all kinds of compositions. I look forward to making more of these, and getting them together enough to be called proper songs and scores.
Linda Again, 2011
At last, life has slowed enough that I can once again play consistently.
Miss Linda is still teaching, and she and I have started playing together regularly. I had to take a full year to regain the skill I had lost while my life was topsy-turvy, but am gaining satisfactorily.
I have decided to pursue mainly classical music now, as the fiddle music holds bitter memories for me, which I am still processing.
Vera and our family were forced to part company over some unpleasant assumptions, and though I am grateful for the times we had, I am also thankful they are over.
Linda remains a kind of kindred spirit to me, and I am sure we will always be friends.
Still Linda, 2018
Linda and I have played together as adults for several years now. We mostly play to please ourselves. There are times we have played in public, mostly at Christmas and Easter cantatas sung by our local interdenominational choir. It has been great fun to be involved this way, as well as singing in the choir. (Sometimes the changes of clothing between prelude and choir are interesting, but it always works out.)
There is a streak if sadness in this story. Linda has begun to have some cognitive problems. That is, she often forgets things. But as long as one of us can recall where we are and what we are doing, our times remain fun. Sometimes she forgets what song we are playing, or which part she is supposed to be focusing on, and these mix-ups get quite comical. So we laugh much and play a little. We agree that these afternoons are very good for us.
I do hope we have many more years together this way.
More Violinists, Please!
Do You Play The Violin?
The Devil's Trill, Vanessa Mae
The Devil Went Down To Georgia, Charlie Daniels
"Come Dance With Me," 2nd Waltz - Andre Rieu
© 2019 Joilene Rasmussen