Tuesday, May 7, 2013

When the Well Runs Dry…


I wasn’t able to post over the last month: the tank was empty. The well ran dry. I was feeling pretty burnt out with end-of-semester fatigue.

I’ve felt this way before.

So, what does one do? You fill the well back up again, but not with work. You fill it with as much play as your schedule will allow.

These instruments fill my well.



I love playing old-time Appalachian-style stringband music. I started playing the fiddle as an adult, while I was writing my dissertation. I’ve been at it for about five years. I think it’s one of the things that helped me finish my PhD. For one thing, learning the fiddle broadened my social circle beyond other graduate students; while having a supportive group of grad student friends was also really important in helping me finish, interacting with folks outside of academia (or meeting musicians who were also academics) gave me some healthy perspective on what I was doing in graduate school. I met people who showed me that it’s possible to have a life and be an academic, although not always all the time… it gets harder to maintain that balance at end-of-semester crunch time, and I’m not sure “balance” is even a reasonable goal to have at the end of term. At the end of a semester, survival is the only goal.

While I love the tunes themselves, I also love how this music is played. The fiddles all play the melody more-or-less in unison over and over again. It’s meditative. There’s a basic melody line, but there’s some room for colouring outside the lines, as well. It can be a very forgiving genre. This can make the music a little boring to listen to, but very fun to play. I was once on the Montreal-Toronto train listening to a Bob Carlin CD (old-time fiddle and banjo music). Strangely, the sound didn’t seem to be coming through my headphones, so I had to crank up the volume on my laptop. After about 20 minutes, I heard a voice a couple of rows back say, “Excuse me, but could you please turn your music down?” I had that sinking, “Is this about me?” feeling and took the headphones out of my ears. My CD was blaring away for the entire train to hear. I turned down the volume and said, “Sorry. I didn’t realize” and the lady across the aisle said, “Yeah. It was just the same thing over and over and over again.”

The bumper sticker that I once saw at a music festival is true: “Old-time music. It’s better than it sounds.”

I also really love that I learned the fiddle as an adult. It reminds me that I can still learn new things. It also means that I will never be a virtuoso. I love having that off the table as an expectation for myself. It just makes this activity an ongoing project done for pleasure and love of the music.

Playing old-time music is “real time” activity, as a friend of mine calls it; when you’re doing it, you’re fully immersed. I can’t do anything else. I’m not thinking about deadlines or the many list of things I “should” do.

So, readers, what fills your tank back up when it’s feeling empty? What are your "real time" activities?

3 comments:

  1. I fill my well by listening to old-time string band music. My brand new ipod alarm clock means I can start the day with a banjo and a fiddle, which is truly the best way to start the day.

    My boyfriend has recently acquired a fiddle. If you have any tips for picking it up as an adult (and specifically playing stringband music), I'd love to hear them: kaarina.mikalson@gmail.com.

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  2. I take walks, go to the gym, and often bake or make soup. Sometimes I just sleep for a full night!

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