Saturday, June 15, 2013

Commit Random Acts of Music

Nearly every day, I walk past the Immaculate Conception Church on Derby St. Sometimes at night, I sit by their slender wooden statue of Mary, which sits atop a rock overlooking a goldfish pond, but I have never found my way inside the church's walls.

This morning I passed by Immaculate Conception on my way back from the local herbal shop, and the faint tones of the organ grasped onto the center of my heart, pulling it up through the crown of my head, into another plane. I paused and turned back towards the large wood-panaled doors. They looked closed, and why should they be open on a Saturday morning? I turned around again and began walking home, but another chord, just barely finding its way out of a cracked window in the sanctuary curled its delicate fingers around my inner being, pulling me back.

Again, I turned around and climbed the staircase looming before the door. It opened easily when I pulled, revealing an empty sanctuary with tinted light streaming through stained-glass windows, so well-kept, I felt as though its caregivers were extending their arms towards me, an invitation to worship. I wandered towards the front of the church so that I could look back into the organ's balcony. I didn't see a soul and, when I heard the sounds of chimes and opera singing accompanying the organ, I felt duped to think that some CD and a big speaker had lured me into a Catholic church.

Still I could not leave. I knelt before a pew in the back row. Prayers and tears flowed through me and mixed with the gentle organ tones in the expanse of empty space above. One song flowed into the next. After the third ended, there was a pause. The CD must be over, and God forbid, someone comes to change it and I have to explain myself. I stood up and heard a slight shifting above me. The faintest rustle of papers. I wandered again to the front of the sanctuary, this time at a different angle, and saw the back of a woman's head. She began to play, and when the angelic singing began once again, I noticed her jaw moving ever so slightly.

I returned to the pew and listened to the song before wandering back into the sunshine. Perhaps she will never know that her music was heard by another soul this Saturday morning. I thank her for the blessings carried in her music and pray that my own random acts of music--out at the lighthouse at night, in my yard, at local restaurants, or at the beach, may bring half that much joy to someone else.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

If there is a God

There were more people than usual at the first neighborhood paella gathering of the spring. The living room and adjoining kitchen, warmed with wood flooring and dark wooden furniture, were packed with people, plates of food, and bottles of wine. I walked through the crowd, claustrophobic by the time I reached the counter, where I set down my jug of fresh apple cider. New and old friends mingled, laughing loudly, catching up on local news, and debriefing the previous night’s dance party as they downed their first glasses of wine. 

“Laura,” a warm voice called out of the chaos, “Get your fiddle. My guitar is downstairs.”

“No. Surely these people don’t want to be subjected to such a thing. It would….”

“Oh just get it. We can practice a song or two downstairs first.”

After a quick walk home to retrieve the fiddle, Mel and I sat down to our first attempt to play together. She looked up the fingering to a D chord and, now with a guitarist capable of all three chords in an Old Time G tune, nothing could stop this duo. Mel felt ready for an audience after a couple rough run-throughs. I wasn’t convinced, but we plodded up the stairs with guitar, fiddle, the salivating bulldog Foucault, and Mel’s coffee mug of frothy beer.

We re-entered the party and made our way to the back of the room. Perched on the narrow stairs leading up to Dinah’s loft, we could look down upon the whole party, and had just enough elbow room for bowing. When I began playing, I could hardly hear my own fiddle above the conversations.

After the first tune, a smattering of applause. After the second, a few warm compliments. After the third, Brian Donnelly, a legend in the Salem music scene, wandered over with a harmonica and set of jaw harps to join the band. After the eighth, a man with a French accent picked up some spoons and politely inquired what the rhythm was. Now our band was four musicians strong. Partly through the ninth tune, the dancers began to bounce and sway, and so did the floor. The tenth tune brought a move they were calling “the guerrilla” across the dance floor. Too may tunes to count flowed from our fingers and breath until we finished a rollicking rendition of “Cluck Old Hen” and Brian leaned over, crushing me with a hug.

“That was amazing!” he shouted. “If there is a God...” Brian’s proclamation soared over the merry din of the party “If there is a God above that brings good things, then He is music!”

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Traveling at Home

Travel used to be a necessary part of life. We are so vividly alive when we travel--powerful interactions with strangers who seem to bring us just the message or lesson we need; not knowing where we are or what is next, but plunging ahead anyway; seeing new landscapes and encountering people with different life routines and thought patterns.

Playing fiddle has come with a new way of life that puts me in this state all the time--without ever needing to physically go very far. In part, it is the joy of playing music in community that gives the feeling of being as acutely alive as when one travels. It is also the people one meets, and the adventures that one embarks on for the sake of playing music in community.

When Nemo struck yesterday, and Governor Patrick banned transportation, I set out with skis, headlamp, and an Adirondack pack basket containing fiddle, bread, and cheese, for a house session with friends in Beverly. Over the course of the 2.7 mile trek I crossed paths with old friends, shared moral support with a new Nigerian friend as we crossed the Beverly bridge together, and dodged many snowplows, while my fiddle somehow stayed in tune. On one dark Beverly side street, I could make out a lone figure shoveling through the falling snow. "Hi Miss Quayle," I heard the familiar voice of one of my students say.  He gave me a knowing grin from under the bright orange hood of his parka: "I saw the fiddle and knew it must be you."

At the session, we shared Indian food, plum gin, and many Irish tunes. The wind rocketed me back across the Beverly bridge at about 11:00 pm, and the waves crashed about 3 feet from my skis on the Collins Cove bike path.

Just an hour ago, my younger cousin posted a photo of her plane about to depart for Bolivia. I remember those days fondly, but for now, I think I'll just travel at home with my fiddle.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

An article I recently wrote for North Shore Art Throb about the Salem Old Time Jam:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The melancholic couch potato

I live as the happy fiddler and tend to remember and tell stories about all of the joy that I find myself immersed in as a novice fiddler. I would normally sit down today to write about my recent joyful adventures: the finale of Northern Roots in Brattleboro, where a fiddle concert ended with a curtain opening to reveal forty fiddlers of all ages beaming with joy as they played “My Cape Breton Home”; or the No-Superbowl potluck jam I attended at my neighbors’ home, where the evening ended with repeating “Coleman’s March” until it became more like a prayer than playing a tune.

But today I am going to go off the grid.

For the first time in months, perhaps since I acquired my fiddle seven months ago, I did not play any tunes all day. I did not even open the case. Furthermore, for a few moments, I allowed myself to not be happy. I allowed a deep, satisfying sort of melancholia to creep through my whole body, to the point that even my limbs, which are endlessly walking, running, hiking, and fidgeting, got so tired, I could do nothing but spread out across the couch for hours--a rare phenomenon in my world. I sank deep within myself, began to breathe more easily, and embraced all of the love and joy resting in my soul, but also the sadness and pain.

I tend to be joyful and move so vigorously through life that I don’t notice that I, like everyone else, may hold sadness and pain. A wise and beloved friend recently suggested that perhaps I avoid facing the challenging situations and inner fears that we need to face in order to grow. I tend to see it more in this light: I seek out joyful people and situations, so that I can foster positive energy within myself and share that light with the world. But I have taken my friend’s point to heart and have been wondering where the line lies between seeking joy and avoiding growth. Tomorrow I may return to both fiddle and joy with renewed vigor, but tonight, plunging the depths has been delicious.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A bass in the living room

Everything was in place tonight for the Salem Old Time Jam. Our new restaurant host, Howling Wolf, seemed to be pleased with us two weeks ago and had welcomed our return for this evening's session. I had sent out an email to our group, reminding them of the day and time. I had asked a strong player to choose and lead a "tune of the week" and had sent out a recording so that members could practice it. Half an hour before the jam began, a friend stopped by my house to pick up a fiddle bow she had left behind earlier and mentioned that Howling Wolf looked a little dark. I jumped in my car, raced over to investigate, and found a scribbled sign on the door: "Closed for renovations." As luck would have it, my upstairs neighbor is away on vacation, so I figured I could get away with an impromptu jam session at home. I taped a note to the door of Howling Wolf, stating that the session had moved to my home, and darted back to pick up the living room in the hopes of accommodating our growing jam in my small condo. Maintaining a healthy sense of priorities, I also stopped on the way to procure some white wine, of the cheap boxed variety.

Seven folks gathered in my living room and the jam went on as usual. The instruments ranged from mandolin to stand up bass, which we somehow squeezed between my piano and coffee table, and the snacks ranged from stale animal crackers to caramel popcorn. Sadly, I realize that others did not see the note on Howling Wolf's door or could not find my home and I feel terrible for the inconvenience.

Now, I enjoy journaling and from time to time. Sometimes I read over my old entries and am always intrigued to see what I wrote in years gone by. Recently I read something that I wrote four years ago, when I had just moved to Salem. I had tried some sort of cheesy exercise where you are supposed to imagine things that you wish you had in your life, no matter how outlandish they seem, and list them freely. Just writing about them, the author had assured, is the first step to manifesting your dreams. Right. The hidden dream that revealed itself upon my page that day was a vision of a room full of all sorts of acoustic instruments, knowing how to play them, and having tons of people to playing with me. At the time I played classical piano and had no plans to pick up another instrument or learn traditional folk music.

So thank you members of Salem Old Time Jam, and thank you to the Howling Wolf managers for planning renovations without informing us, for a lesson in flexibility and for filling my home with all sorts of acoustic instruments and the beautiful people to play them.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Salem Jamlet Becomes a Jam

When the weather became too chilly for the Salem Jamlet to meet out on the ocean, I convinced the owner of a nearby restaurant called Scratch Kitchen to host us. A few days before the first Scratch Kitchen jam, the two most regular players let me know that they could not attend. One by one, the usual suspects from our miniscule pool of players suddenly became unavailable and nightmarish images began to churn through my mind--one not-so-happy novice fiddler attempting to play alone while diners look on, some horrified, others mildly annoyed. Tomatoes hurled across the room, splattering on my beloved fiddle. The day of the jam, I frantically emailed or called everyone I could think of, including musicians from Boston that I had met at various workshops. I begged and I pleaded, but no one seemed to be available.

I arrived at Scratch, prepared for the worst. Shortly after the jam was scheduled to begin, a highly skilled fiddler I had met at Rustic Roots hobbled through the door, armed with crutches, guitar and fiddle. And I knew that all would be well. Over the next ten minutes, several other unexpected players appeared, the jam went smoothly, and we were invited to continue meeting at Scratch Kitchen.

In the new year Scratch will not be open on Monday nights, so tonight marked our first jam at Howling Wolf--a much larger, heavily populated Mexican restaurant. When I arrived, several newcomers to the jam were already seated, carefully applying rosin to their bows. Musicians proceeded to pour through the door until we were spilling out of the alcove Howling Wolf had allotted to us. Thirteen players. Several professional musicians or teachers. Fiddles, guitars, banjo, standup bass, uke, even a hammered dulcimer.

Before me was a mass of friends and strangers, all better musicians than myself, and somehow I was supposed to lead it. Couldn't someone else take charge? Anyone but the girl who got her first fiddle six months ago. I didn't even know how to get everyone's attention so that I could welcome the newcomers. I quietly asked a friend to start "Over the Waterfall" with me and by the third time through, everyone had jumped in and we found one another through the beat and melody of an old familiar tune. We played it over and over and by the time the tune ended, the beast before me had become one body and we played together as such for the next two hours.

Come join us at Howling Wolf on Monday, January 16, 6:00-8:00.