They say there are two basic plots. A stranger comes to town. Or a person goes on a journey. This is a post about the start of a journey…
I started taking violin lessons when I was around seven years old. At first I played classical music and then later I switched to old time fiddle at about eleven or twelve. Combined with piano lessons, my life was musically rich throughout my childhood. This went on until I graduated high school and I moved away from home. Apartment living made it hard to find a place to practice, so I essentially stopped playing.
For 15 years my life was musically void.
Every so often I would pick up my acoustic guitar or sit down at a piano and plunk out a few tunes but nothing very serious. Like any skill if you don’t use it your brain uses those neurons for other things and my abilities started to atrophy.
After Tina and I purchased our house I realized it would be possible for me to start playing an instrument again and, on a whim, I rented a mandolin for a weekend to see if I’d enjoy it.
The mandolin is tuned in fifths – the same as a violin – so I figured it would be easier for me to learn. And it was. I was soon addicted to mandolin playing and over the last five years I’ve gone from just learning basic tunes to playing at an intermediate/advanced level.
Throughout the journey of learning mandolin, I was introduced to bluegrass music and my life has been forever changed. Bluegrass camps. Bluegrass festivals. Bluegrass albums. Jams. This is what occupies my free time. Thousands of hours have been spent appreciating this music. Tina even gave me a license plate for my birthday this year with the word ‘BLUGRSS’ on it! 🙂
Listening to so much bluegrass music it’s no suprise that I’ve started to develop an appreciation for the other instruments in the traditional ensemble. Last Christmas I started playing clawhammer banjo, and in the spring I started to think about I started playing the fiddle again (on the student violin I had packed in my closet).
Slowly I’ve been building back my muscle memory, but the main problem that I’ve faced is that the fiddle I have sounds horrible. It’s a cheaply made student violin and the tone is really hard on the ears – even if it’s played really well. Owning a nice mandolin, which has great tone, has trained my ears to what an acoustic instrument should sound like and the fiddle I have isn’t going to cut it if I want to play more.
It was time to start a fiddle fund so I put a jar beside my bed and started saving money. The first deposit came from selling my old student violin.
Let’s back up a bit.
A year ago my Grandma Pearl Sutton passed away. Grandma was like my mom it was a really hard on the family and it took me more than a few months to grieve her passing. It was the second time in my life where I cried after somebody died. The first was when I was eleven and my Grandpa Jim Sutton passed away. They both had a deep impact on my life and I get tearful writing this…
Grandpa was an accomplished old time fiddler, who much like my own story played when he was younger and abandoned fiddling throughout much of his life. I remember on a monthly basis there would be family jams and grandpa would be sawing on the fiddle with either grandma (or often Mr Dunn) on piano. And, of course somebody was always playing the spoons!
Grandpa got so good that he would compete in contests and he’d often place – if not win. Fiddling seemed to bring him happiness and one day he purchased a new fiddle.
It remember seeing it for the first time. It had this beautiful flamed back and sides and it came in this gorgeous brown case. Unlike many fiddles – especially student fiddles – this fiddle had a deep rich tone and it made even the amateur sound like a pro! Ok, maybe I wouldn’t go that far but it was an amazing fiddle.
After grandpa passed away it was a fiddle that my grandma often played and on special occasions it was a fiddle that I got to play. As I got older, and more responsible, grandma let me play the fiddle more and more.
Growing up grandma would always say to us grandkids (there were four of us that played fiddle), “Whoever stayed with the fiddle the longest would inherit grandpa’s violin.” It was a statement that all the grandkids knew and it was one that at a very subtle depth kept us all competing with one another. Grandma was a teacher for 30 years…she knew how to motivate!
After leaving home I never really thought about this statement much unless I was back home. I’d every year or so get to play the fiddle and store it back in it’s case until the next year…
Then about 10-15 years ago – it’s funny how time blends together as you age – I went to play the fiddle and grandma said, “I sold it.”
I was heartbroken.
I tried to find out details of the sale but grandma was a stubborn woman and she refused to tell me more. I asked around to the other grandkids and nobody knew what or why she would have sold the fiddle. It was her’s to sell and we needed to respect her decision. I don’t think I ever asked her about it again.
A few months back, with the fiddle fund slowly accumulating, I decided it was time to start looking at fiddles. I rejected fiddle after fiddle. I either didn’t ‘love’ the sound or couldn’t afford the instrument. I started to get frustrated until about a month ago I tried a beautiful fiddle from a maker out in Lethbridge. It had just about everything I wanted in a fiddle, but I hadn’t really heard of the luthier before – and it was expensive – so I asked a few friends in the fiddle community their thoughts.
During those conversations I reached out to a friend – Adam Pye – who I met at a bluegrass festival here in Saskatchewan. Adam plays in a band from out east called Modern Grass (some great music – http://www.themoderngrass.com). And, over the last year and a half he’s been in the United Kingdom in Newark studying violin-making! I figured he probably knew a thing or two about fiddles 🙂
Adam mentioned that he didn’t know the maker I was asking about, but he wondered if I might want to work with him on making a fiddle.
I told him the story of grandpa’s fiddle and he mentioned that if I could find reference material or describe to him the qualities of the fiddle we could try to create a fiddle that meets my specific needs!
We jumped on a Skype call to work out the details. I wanted a one piece back which was highly flamed. I described the colour I rememberd and the tonal qualities. We shared some photos etc. Then halfway through the conversation Adam mentioned, “I have a good camera I could take some photos and document the process.” To which I responded, “I have a blog…why don’t I write some entries and we can post updates for other’s to enjoy.”
This brings us to today.
Adam has been searching for wood this week, and I woke up to a photo of this beautiful one piece back.
I know it’s just a piece of wood with a line on it…
I can already see grandpa’s fiddle taking shape.