How Did You Start?

An online student recently wrote in asking, “How did you start with fiddling?”

One day while driving to the beach with my family, I was staring out the car window and said, “I want to play the violin”. I was ten. I can’t remember why I wanted to play or what inspired me. I didn’t feel like practicing. My mom told me I had to practice a half an hour a day or she would stop paying for it. That was enough to motivate me.

On days when I had a lesson, I had to bring it to school, which was torture because I felt painfully embarrassed that I played the violin. So I did the logical thing any kid following ten-year-old logic would do: I hid it in the bushes. It worked for a while, but I was still living in fear. One day at a school assembly I heard the vice-principal announce “And Jason Kleinberg has recently started to play the violin.” Before I could drop to the fetal position on the ground my friend sitting next to me said, “Really? Can you jam on that thing?” He made an air-bowing motion as he said it. I said “Y-yeah, kind of…” My friend’s enthusiastic response was a step towards doing music with my life.

My first violin teacher gave me a great book called anthology of fiddle styles which had fiddle tunes in a variety of styles: old-time, bluegrass, irish, cajun, jazz. I liked the tunes. It planted a seed. The variety of styles appealed to me and paved the way toward my master-of-all-trades-jack-of-none approach that I take today.

When I graduated from middle school (ninth grade) I received a Casiotone keyboard as a gift. I spent hours on it, playing along with the beats and chords, making up melodies. It was this that awoke the musician in me because I realized that I could be creative with music. Up until then, I felt like I was just following instructions. I got interested in making tunes and songs and in a recording.

In high school, I started a band called Fresh Corn*. I played viola and eventually bass. Our first show was maybe the worst show of my life. We through candy corns in the audience. But they stuck to our shoes and pulled the cables out of our instruments. The high school newspaper reviews the show thusly, “Fresh Corn Proves Hard To Digest.” Ouch.

Towards the end of college, I started to play viola with a band called Paddlefoot. It was an “alt-country” band. But we called it Wiffleball Rockâ„¢. Soon after that, I started hanging around a pub in Berkeley called the Starry Plough and playing tunes on Sunday night for Irish ceili dancers. It was good for me because, unlike a lot of traditional sessions, they stuck to a relatively small group of tunes (maybe around fifty), so I was eventually able to know the whole set and play along most of the time.

Eventually, Paddlefoot started to write songs with these old tunes. Our guitarist Tim wrote this great song for Whiskey Before Breakfast:

And bass player Joel wrote “’64 Corvair 2” based on the tune “After The Battle of Aughrim”.

The Murphy/Ryan Polka set was a big hit:

So these are some things that come to mind. It’s not too difficult to just write down what I remember. But I feel more unsure of “how I started” now that I’ve written about it. What made me say out loud “I want to play the violin”? What made me not quit as a kid, or after the worst show of my life?

More happened before and more after. I’m slow to change, still starting, still learning.

*Long after the band ended, my brother opened a great restaurant in LA called Fresh Corn Grill. If you scroll down the page you’ll see a player for the “Fresh Corn Grill Jingle” which I made for his restaurant a few years ago.

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7 responses to “How Did You Start?

  1. I loved hearing your story. Each musician has a unique start and journey. Your rendition of Whiskey Before Breakfast was great. I started piano at 4 yrs old and was taught in the strictest classical manner. Taking the violin (fiddle) up in my 50’s was a challenge. It took me awhile to realize I could hear the music. At the start, I was amazed how people knew when to change keys. Now I, am one of them. Thank you for your interactive and fun approach to music. I’m still struggling with fills.

  2. I’ll say music is in my blood. My mother was from a little steel mill town, West Aliquippa, PA. She told me how her brothers would play music out on their porch and Henry Mancini would be there too. She married my guitar playing dad in NY. My brother got lessons and plays everything. I got chord organ lessons and went no where with it. It was stuffy and confining to me. I like to be more portable. Many years ago my daughter played violin in school. She grew up and the violin was stored in her possession. One day I asked her if I could borrow it. I was beginning to like hearing the tunes on you tube and I was picking them up by ear. I didn’t want to spend the time reading the music. After about 6 months, my granddaughter wanted the violin back, even though it was to big for her, so I returned it and eventually she started playing with her school and is doing so well, about 4 years now, and I can’t play what she plays…beautiful classical music. Anyway Christmas came and my husband surprised me with my own violin. Most of my learning is from you tube still and I’m comfortable with that. Almost 70 years old now and I play a little, cook a little,back to playing, do a little Fitbit competing with the grandkids and back to playing…loving life!

  3. Sounds like you just have a natural gift for playing music which is wonderful. For me the piano was painful as a kid, and after 9 years I just couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t progressing and for some reason had immense problems reading chords. BUT I have always loved music of all genres and was envious of those who played instruments.
    Now that I have young children, they are my motivators. In addition the violin just seemed to click with me. It’s emotional to watch people playing and honestly I never thought I would be a violin student at my age, but here I am, ready to take on the lessons and learn everything I possibly can. It’s relaxing and fun and after a hard day at work, I just grab my violin and practice, it soothes me and I’m so happy I started this venture.

  4. I take lessons at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. I’ve kept the lessons pretty much a secret until now. “Fiddle lessons” becomes “violin lessons”. “Violin lessons” becomes “ballet lessons”. Now I am proud of my fiddling and was surprised how cool my friends think it is. Great website