Tag Archive | violin

Camp Kiya

I spent the first half of last week at Camp Kiya, a traditional music camp in Tehachapi, CA. My friend Chase, a fellow student in my department, had heard about the camp, decided to go, and invited me to come too.


All packed and ready to go

We left on a Sunday morning in a rental car with one cello, one fiddle, one hammered dulcimer, a collection of Irish whistles, and camping gear and drove north across scrubby desert, through a forest of windmills in the mountains, and past a Norbertine monastery to Tehachapi Mountain Park. The park itself was not scrubby but wooded, with tall pines and live oaks full of mistletoe. We pitched our tent at a campsite on the other side of the hill from the cabins of the main camp, near some other campers’ RV.

The three and a half days of camp were filled with classes in fiddle, cello, bass, guitar, harp, mandolin, accordion, mountain dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, harmonica, Irish whistle, ukulele, and bodhran, not to mention hula, Irish, and Cape Breton dancing. Styles and genres ranged from blues to classical, old-time to Scandinavian. There were lots of opportunities to pick up a brand new instrument, but I stuck to Intermediate/Advanced Cello and Celtic and Welsh fiddle. In each class, we’d learn a tune or two by ear, plus ornamentation or, in cello class, chords. There were certain tunes that recurred across classes. For instance, both the cellos and the Welsh fiddles learned a tune called Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper), and the cellos, mountain dulcimers, and accordions all learned the tune Crested Hens (Les Poules Huppées).

Part of what I hoped to do at camp was get better at accompanying on cello, because a folk cellist isn’t really expected to play melody much of the time. Well, I’m still pretty bad at chopping, but I did learn some stuff. I was also pleasantly surprised to find I could hold my own in a fiddle class despite having no formal training. The Scottish Fiddlers of LA tried to recruit me (although they may have been trying to recruit everybody…).

Me at Camp Kiya

Me tuning my cello by our tent

One of the cool things about camp was that it was totally normal to be a multi-instrumentalist. In classical music circles, this is less common; you have your instrument, and that’s it (or maybe you also play the piano). At Camp Kiya, most people played two or more instruments: guitar and harmonica; bouzouki, whistle, and bodhran; harp and accordion; cello and mountain dulcimer. Another cool thing was how intergenerational camp was. There were cellists of all ages in my class. My Celtic fiddle teacher was in his eighties. There were young children doing fiddle and cello from scratch while their parents attended other classes. There aren’t that many settings in which unrelated people of all ages mix like this.

The camp’s name comes from the Nuwa (Kawaiisu) word kiya, meaning ‘laughter’ or ‘play’. Nuwa is the language spoken by the indigenous people of Tehachapi; it belongs to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family. I learned about Nuwa from Jon Hammond, a camp instructor who owns a ranch in Tehachapi and is one of three fluent speakers of the language. We all heard him introduce his seven-year-old daughter, Kiya, in Nuwa on the first night of camp and also give a blessing in Nuwa at the ceilidh.

The ceilidh was not a dance party but a camper talent show. It was held on Tuesday night at the fire circle. People sang and played and told stories and jokes. Chase and I sang a two-voiced version of Okro Mch’edelo, which, like all Georgian songs, is actually in three-part harmony. After the ceilidh, we joined the Celtic jam session in Cabin 1, wedging ourselves with cello and Irish whistle in a lower bunk in the corner.


Chase playing hammered dulcimer at our campsite

On Wednesday afternoon, after my cello class and Chase’s hammered dulcimer rehearsal, we sat in a nook on the footbridge between the mess hall and the fire circle and went through Chase’s Datvebis Gundi folder, singing more Georgian songs. As we sang, a fire crew tromped through camp, inspecting a dead pine and who knows what else. When we’d exhausted our Georgian repertoire, we also sang the tenor and alto parts of a few Sacred Harp tunes: Wondrous Love, Idumea, New Britain.

Wednesday evening was the campers’ concert. Chase performed Ode to Joy in a hammered dulcimer trio and also played with the fiddle from scratch class. I played a set with the Welsh fiddlers (with my cello class backing up), then switched to cello for our two tunes, a bourrée and the amazing Raivlin Reel. We also backed up the Scandinavian/Nordic fiddlers on the Danish (?) tune Kingo P. Here is a video (by fellow camper Alan) of me with the Welsh fiddlers. The set is Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper) – Tri a Chwech (Three and Six) – Ymdaith Gwyr Dyfnaint (March of the Men of Devon) – Y Lili (The Lily). I’m not sure you can hear me, which is probably a good thing, but hey, my bow seems to be moving in the right direction most of the time!

Thrift Shop Fiddle

So, I hate shopping. My whole family is allergic. Consequently, it is an unusual day that sees me entering a store to buy anything other than groceries or perhaps books. However, I also covet musical instruments. And so a week or so ago, when a couple of violin cases appeared in the window of one of the National Council of Jewish Women thrift shops in my neighborhood, I noticed.

I’ve kind of wanted a violin for a long time. In orchestra class, I’d always ask my violinist and violist friends to let me play their instruments. Toward the end of high school, a friend of mine lent me her violin for a summer so I could really figure out how to play. And then at the end of my senior year of college, a friend from Folk Dance Club lent me her violin for that strange in between period after classes had ended but before graduation, and another folk dance friend and I wandered the dormitory playing “The Wren” on penny whistle and fiddle, respectively.

In fact, it was because of Folk Dance Club that my interest in acquiring a violin intensified. I discovered oodles of jigs and reels I wanted to play, and though I could play some of them on the cello, there’s less scope for fiddling on the cello than there is on the violin (Natalie Haas notwithstanding). But I knew I wasn’t going to pursue the violin seriously enough to make it worth going out and buying an actual good instrument, so I just waited and learned to play lots of tunes on cello.

Fast forward to those violin cases in the Council thrift shop window. It immediately occurred to me this might be my chance to get hold of a violin cheaply. On the other hand, I barely had enough time to practice cello anymore, so why was I considering picking up another musical instrument? In the end, I couldn’t resist stopping in the thrift store. I tried not to get my hopes up, telling myself the cases might be just that, empty cases. Who donated violins to thrift shops? (On the other hand, there was also a grand piano in this thrift shop, and last fall I saw a Mason & Hamlin pump organ in the Goodwill down the street.)

I squeezed into the space between the jewelry case and a belt rack and picked up the violin cases. They felt too light to have anything inside, but when I unzipped them, there they were, the violins. One was missing the G string, and the other was missing both the D and A strings, but neither was broken. I tightened and loosened the bows, twisted the fine tuners, examined the pegs, plucked the strings, and peered through the F-holes. I’m decidedly lacking in expertise, but the instruments didn’t strike me as pieces of junk. So I decided to buy the three-stringed violin. As I was discussing the price with a clerk, a small group gathered, apparently impressed that I was buying a violin in a thrift shop. A woman even started to ask me for advice as she considered buying the two-stringed violin for her fifteen-year-old daughter.

I took my new violin home. The next day, I carefully tuned its three strings, applied some Magic rosin to the bow, and gave it a whirl. Turns out I’m kind of rusty. The neighbors are probably thinking, Oh, no, the resident of #8 has another stringed instrument now? And this one she can’t even play? I sawed out “Wachet auf” and “Finlandia,” but it’ll probably take some time (and a new string) before I work my way up to “Curvy Road to Corinth.” 


My new three-stringed fiddle

If I am an amateur cellist, I am a dilettante violinist. I don’t aspire to play Bach partitas. In Sparkers, though, Marah plays the violin, not the cello. Why? I’m not really sure. I think I pictured her tromping all over the city with her instrument, and I couldn’t really see her lugging a cello around. But in Book 2, which I’m currently revising, the main character is exactly like me. She’s a cellist by training, but she likes to mess around on her brother’s violin too. So putting myself in her shoes can be my excuse for spending time playing my new violin. Now, how many years will it take me to acquire a nyckelharpa?