I think I like violins because they cry. Or perhaps it’s the way resined horsehair pushed and pulled over wire strings makes my spine quiver.
It could be the intensity of the violinist drawing the bow, rocking with the motion, fingers dancing deftly on the instrument’s neck, connecting with the sound through closed eyes.
A few years ago in London, Ontario, I saw Lucia Mircarelli give a solo performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in bare feet, her long black mane sweeping her face, horsehairs snapping, filling the arena with hair-raising melody. I can still hear the sound.
I played classical violin as a child, but put the instrument down about 10 years ago to pursue other interests. It is nearly where I left it – nestled among cobwebs in my mom’s basement in Ontario.
Enter, Dawson City. This town trembles with the plucking of a mandolin, strumming of a guitar, beat of drums, a voice rising and falling over the clamour and clink of a bar. It is entrenched with music.
When I arrived in early July, it was the week before the Dawson City Music Festival. I should’ve known it was an early sign that living in the North was going to drag the music out of me – a simple rule of osmosis.
I believe it started at the Westminster Hotel (the Pit) on a barstool with Pilsner in hand – where many great and terrible ideas are born.
When the conversation turned to music, I may have let it slip I used to play. Next thing I knew I was trotting down the dirt street toting a violin case borrowed from Peter Menzies, shop teacher at the Robert Service School and an avid fiddler.
The instrument was accepted it on the grounds I would contribute to the community (including playing in coffee houses, joining the orchestra, etc.)
Needless to say, I took it home, tightened the bow, and tried a few scales and beginner songs I found stuffed in the front pocket of the case.
Intimidated and discouraged from my lack of practice, ear and inability to read the notes, I put it away. Back in its case, the instrument disappeared under my bed for two months.
However, it was a time bomb haunting my conscious. Through the rental, I was under obligations to play. Two weekends ago (December 3 and 4), a fiddler came to Dawson to do a workshop and Peter tracked me down. I couldn’t say no.
The teacher was Amelia Rose Slobogean. Amelia began studying violin at age five and, like me, was schooled in classical technique. It seems Amelia and I have a few other similarities – she also put down the instrument for a decade.
Enter, Yukon. In 1998, Amelia co-founded the celtic-bluegrass band, Fishead Stew, based in Whitehorse. The band toured Canada, Alaska and Scotland for five years.
Amelia went on to tour Europe in 2004 for three months and learned gypsy music, playing with Romanian violinist Lache Cercel and Serbian Aleksander Sisic.
Later, she played in the eclectic gypsy/swing/jazz band from Vancouver, Redboot Quartet.
Over the weekend workshop, a group of about five of us took pleasure ifrom playing and learning from Amelia. We had two private lessons, (working on skills, songs or whatever we wanted to learn – I requested a review of a number of scales to get my technique back) and two group lessons where we learned a tune together by ear.
On the Saturday evening (post-first private lesson and first group lesson), we played the Family Coffee House and Open Mic Night at KIAC Odd Fellows Hall.
The five of us, led by Amelia, hacked through the ditty we had learned three hours earlier – a fun, folky waltz.
It was painful and terrifying, yet exhilarating.
The room was dark and quiet, tables of children and parents gathered behind flickering candles and red tablecloths, bright lights glared in my eyes.
I lost the tune now and then, but the rush of being at the front of the room, playing, beat the embarrassment.
Later that evening, absorbed in listening to Amelia play a Ukrainian gypsy piece, I got that spine tingle again. A yearning, an itch, a crazy ambition blossoming.
Sunday afternoon, our little class rubbed our sore shoulders, messaged the tips of our tender, blistering fingers, and departed from the Robert Service School music room with fresh sheets of music, making plans for a regular fiddle jam session.
Funny, the gold you find in these hills, or rather, the gold that finds you – nuggets of past lives glimmering beneath the surface, begging to be uncovered and treasured for their value.
It seems one of mine has found me with a tune.