By Kerry Paul Altman | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
When I was a graduate student in clinical psychology in the early 1970s, music was my refuge from the stress of classes, research, and clinical training. When I graduated, a musician friend gave me a beautiful and unexpected graduation present—a fiddle she had picked up at some music shop in San Diego. I had strummed a guitar since childhood, played with some awful garage bands in high school, and performed for beer money at coffee houses during college. I always loved the sound of the violin but assumed that it was an instrument for serious musicians, not suitable for a self-taught picker like me. I must have mentioned how much I enjoyed violin music to my friend, which led to the lovely gift.
A week later I was living in Washington, DC, starting a residency at a federal psychiatric hospital. Believing that I needed to learn classical violin before I could learn the fiddle music I really wanted to play, I found a wonderful teacher who was the concertmaster of a local symphony orchestra. She was kind, patient, and encouraging, but I quickly learned that playing the violin required more time than I was willing to commit, and after six months of lessons, I stopped playing and put the violin in a closet, where it remained for the next 35 years.
Life moved along. My career flourished, I got married, raised two wonderful children, and found myself entering my sixties with time to devote to personal interests. One evening, my wife and I came across a television program featuring a rousing performance by Doug Kershaw—the Louisiana fiddler known as the “Ragin’ Cajun.” “If I could find someone to teach me to play the fiddle, I would dig that violin out of mothballs and learn to play!” I declared.
The next part of this story is hard to believe, but it is the absolute truth. The very next day, my wife was driving to her yoga class at a local studio. Traffic was slow as she inched toward the parking lot, and when she glanced to her right, she saw a small sign thumbtacked to a telephone pole: “I Teach Fiddle” followed by a telephone number. She copied it on a scrap of paper. When she arrived home, she handed me the note. “Here’s your teacher,” she said.
The note led me to Larry Rice, who became my teacher for the next five years. We hit it off immediately, and he understood what I was looking for—to have fun with the violin and hopefully become skilled enough to play with others someday. Classical violin music is beautiful, but I was more interested in learning to play blues, roots music, and pop tunes. Larry focused on the basics, and before long I was learning to play songs from the Great American Songbook. I knew that I was not Stéphane Grappelli, but I’m sure I had just as much fun as he did working our way through “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “I Got Rhythm.”
Surprisingly, I found that I loved practicing and looked forward to losing track of time while I worked on scales and songs and my primitive improvisation. Larry encouraged me to sample many different genres, and we worked on all kinds of tunes—country, bluegrass, Cajun, and Irish, among others. I played whatever Larry recommended, but I found myself most attracted to the soulfulness and improvisation of American blues music. When I heard the classic compilation Violin, Sing the Blues for Me, I was really hooked.
Weeks became months, months became a couple of years. One day I asked Larry, “Do you think I’m ready to jam with other musicians?” He encouraged me to try and told me about a group called “the Barbershop” that had a weekly open jam session dedicated to blues music. I eventually learned that the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation was the sponsor of the jams, and that the late Archie Edwards was a DC barber and well-known musician in the Piedmont Blues tradition who held open jams in his barbershop on Saturday afternoons. The weekly jam had moved around a lot when the barbershop closed after Archie passed, but Archie’s friends and fellow musicians had kept it going and had found a permanent spot in an old bookstore in Riverdale, Maryland. The “shop,” as it was known, was literally a shack by the side of a railroad track, and it just oozed authenticity. I nervously entered for the first time and saw a handful of guitarists sitting around. A sign on the wall read:
- Only blues
- Only acoustic
- If you can’t hear the leader, you’re playing too loud!
Eventually, someone said, “Well, somebody showed up so we might as well play.” The other musicians were funny, fun, welcoming, and helpful. I kept coming back, learned the informal rules of playing in a blues jam, and eventually became a regular at the shop. Archie’s Barbershop is pretty well known in the acoustic blues community, and traveling musicians often drop by to join in. There are lots of guitars and harmonicas at the jams, but only the occasional other violin. One visiting violinist shared this bit of wisdom with me: “If you can play the fiddle, they’ll always let you into the jam.”
Lessons with Larry continued for several more years. I have sought out many opportunities to continue learning—online lessons, occasional extended classes with violinists I admire, blues and fiddle camps. Covid made things difficult, but I practice every day and have recently returned to the shop to jam with friends. About a year ago, I was asked to join an acoustic blues group, and we have played at benefits, farmers’ markets, and festivals in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas.
It turns out that the violin I received as a graduation gift is a wonderful German instrument from the early 1900s that produces a strong, clear sound perfectly suited for the blues. It has become my faithful companion and consistently rewards my hard work with its lovely voice. As I strive to face the opportunities and challenges of retirement with presence and grace, I am grateful for every chance to learn and grow. Playing the fiddle and making music with my friends has added an element of passion and joy that I never expected at this stage of life.