By Tandum Lett | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
As I walked onstage at the Mark O’Connor string camp with my fellow adult learner and friend Suzette, I tried not to look out at the audience full of campers. It was my first attempt to perform in front of a group since I’d taken up the violin to play with my children a couple of years before. Suzette and I had agreed to play a duet and then each take a solo to get used to playing in front of people.
We’d picked “Lazy River” from Mark O’Connor Method, Book III. I loved the whimsical, wistful feel of the piece. Suzette and I had been exploring it at lunch the last couple of days at camp and wanted to share what we’d discovered.
Looking out into the audience I forgot why I had thought it was a good idea to get up there. Sudden, sharp stabs of regret threatened to freeze me on the spot. I set my bow and took a deep breath before I became incapable. A tremor started shaking my bow arm as we began.
It took all my concentration to keep playing and remember the next notes as we moved through the piece. Now, I hope some of what we had found in “Lazy River” came out in that first try, but the moment we finished, I was mostly relieved to have avoided a massive crash and burn. Our ever-supportive fellow campers applauded, and Suzette left me to my solo.
My childhood was steeped in gospel and blues, and I’d picked for my solo “In the Cluster Blues,” which I’d been delighted to find in the O’Connor Method. As I lifted my bow, the tremor came back for the ride! I shook my way through the entire beloved piece—and learned I can shake like an earthquake and still manage to play if I persevere.
Later that evening in a jam session, Mark O’Connor started up “Florida Blues” from Book II. The solo opportunity wound its way around the group, each person taking a whack, and Mark leaned in on a sliding blue note just as he handed the solo to me. Even through my shaky bow earlier, he’d recognized that I had a special love for that bluesy sound, and responded to that musical spark.
I imagine it would be easy for Mark to always focus on the most amazing players in the room. There are lots of them at camp, and they’re truly energizing to listen to. But he is also genuinely drawn to musical interest at any level. It seems native to his spirit. If a musical light goes on, he notices it and invites it out for an airing. He models this sense of inclusion, and so it pervades the camp in general. The most amazing players really show us how it’s done—but it’s always about the music. Whatever your capacity, you’re invited to share, connect, and grow.
I started playing to be a dutiful mom—encouraging my son who’d been introduced to the violin in school. It was like a light went on in our house. We all responded to this new dimension in a visceral, intense way. My daughter picked it up almost immediately. My obligatory mom sessions turned into long hours of practice at home. I was drawn to the puzzle of coaxing a beautiful sound from this unlikely assemblage of parts. I found it meditative, invigorating, and rewarding.
I began waking up earlier and earlier to get extra time in the quiet of the morning. As my son’s journey led him around the string family—to cello, then mandolin, viola, and double bass—I curiously engaged along with him. His main instrument remains violin and I have shifted to cello as my main instrument, but we play and perform interchangeably. We play chamber sessions in the house regularly, inviting friends over to romp through diverse forms. Sometimes it’s Haydn’s “Fifths” quartet or Webern’s Langsamer Satz. Other times, it’s Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz or a foot-stomping improvisational version of the fiddle tune “Daphne.” I still wake up at 4:30 AM and practice cello, then violin usually. I play mandolin on the ferry commute to work. Evenings are often family play time or parent orchestra or an adult learner’s chamber group I’m so happy to have found.
I was a professional dancer until I retired to raise a family. I moved to office work to pay the bills and in the rush of motherhood, I barely noticed how much I missed the constant, intense self-expression afforded me as a dancer. Music has revived this outlet for me. Just as my children grow older and more independent, I’m gifted with this means of rediscovering myself. Even better, it’s led to a very special connection with my family. We share things with each other through music that can’t be said in words.
The whole family has continued with the O’Connor Method and we look forward to camp all year. I’m much more comfortable performing these days. My children have grown up there and we’ve all made friends with whom we connect all year.
As we advance, we still play repertoire from all the books: each new level of understanding means we can do more with the tunes. And the early tunes aren’t really simple. There are so many layers there waiting to be uncovered, so you’re never really done with any song. That is my idea of a suitable passion—a pursuit that you can dig into for a lifetime, through which you can continue to grow and discover new things. It’s interesting that I only found this world in my 40s! I might never have known that I could do this. But maybe it’s a gift of beauty that was saved for this later period of my life.
In any case, it’s certainly better late than never!