ANDREA PLUHAR / FIDDLER / WELLFLEET
Andrea Pluhar grew up in a family of writers and artists. She followed in the family tradition and went to art school to become a fine art painter. Now, at 63, Andrea is a fiddler. She’s been playing since 2012 and calls herself an adult beginner. She will be performing with the Chatham Fiddle Orchestra this Saturday at Wellfleet’s PorchFest. Here’s Andrea in her own words. You can hear Andrea’s voice in the online version of this story at provincetownindependent.org.
Traditional fiddling isn’t for everybody. Often, it is not the lovely, smooth voice that you hear out of a classical violin. It’s a lot harsher than that. Fiddling is like playing a drum, almost. The melodies we play are all about rhythm. Traditional Celtic and traditional American music is all dance music. Your bow is like a drumstick.
For me, fiddling is like life itself. It’s become my world. It’s joyful! It’s like the energy of the universe is right there under your chin.
I’m not from a musical family. My grandmother was a painter. I was pegged early on in my childhood as the painter, or the artist, of the family. I went to art school to be a fine art painter and pursued figurative, expressionist painting for a decade and a half until 2008, when I had my last show.
It was just extremely lucky that I found a violin. When my kids were little, we were hanging around with a cohort of friends. A couple of them were classical cellists. And one of them was just beginning to learn how to repair instruments. He had repaired a violin that he’d found at the flea market. And he asked me if I wanted it. I offered to trade one of my paintings, and that was fine with him. So that’s how I got my first violin.
I started taking classical violin lessons, and that lasted about a year and a half. But there was no way in the world that I was ever going to be a classical violinist! It just didn’t jibe. Eventually, the fiddle went under the bed. It was a violin at that point. Now, it’s a fiddle. Under the bed, in the back of the closet, whatever.
Later, when my boys were in high school, they had a pretty tight-knit group of friends. They all used to hang out here in my studio. They had friends who played the guitar, friends who played the mandolin. I’d hear them, and I began to think about that instrument that was stuck under my bed. I was like, I should really drag it out, because instruments like being played. I knew that. If they are not played, they crack. They get brittle. I pulled it out at one point, and it was, of course, in bad shape. I put it back under the bed.
Fast forward a little bit. My friend Denya LeVine brought me to a show at Rose Clancy’s fiddle shop in Chatham. Rose Clancy is an amazing Irish fiddler. That night, Nuala Kennedy (an Irish singer and flute player) was there with her band. At the end of their set, they invited Rose to come up and play with them.
I sat there. I am going to cry telling you. It was like the heavens opened! And I realized, that’s what I want to do. I want to do exactly what she’s doing. It was a real revelation. It was like all the cells in my body stood at attention.
It took me a couple weeks to screw my courage to the sticking post. I finally asked Rose, “Can you look at this instrument, mend it, and teach me a couple of tunes, so I can keep myself company?”
I remember my first lesson. Rose took out her violin and played something. I had never stood that close to a violin before. And the sound that it was making was so amazing. It was like I jumped two feet in the air, and I don’t think I ever came down. Yeah, here I am! And the rest is history, as they say.
I played it by myself for about a year, and then Rose started pushing me out the door to play with other people. It’s really scary when you start out. I mean you can’t play fast enough, and you don’t really have the repertoire. So those first sessions are intimidating.
There’s no way to be good at anything unless you practice it, whether you’re playing an instrument, drawing, running, or whatever you are doing. I play every day. I can’t imagine not doing it, actually.
For me, a lot is about learning not to intellectualize, not to try and second guess my fingers. Because it’s not your head that plays music, it’s your heart. You get to a point where your fingers disappear, and you are just playing the tune.
I go out to play about three times a week. The real thing about music is that you play it with people. If you are playing music by yourself, you are missing the point.
One of the things about the fiddle culture, especially the Irish fiddle culture, apart from the fact that there are beautiful melodies, is that it takes place in a bar. I like that. Not that I’m a great drinker. It usually takes me the entire set to get through my Guinness. The whole atmosphere of being out in the world and playing music — it’s really a life changer for me. You go out and play music, and you can manage anything.