The first thing Marge McFaul, 84, will say about her fiddling skills is that she’s the least of the gifted. True, she has won her share of trophies at Idaho’s famous Weiser Fiddle Festival, and yes, she’s played violin since she was a child, but she’s very humble.
“I just have a love of music. Getting in the top five at a contest doesn’t mean you are good fiddler,” McFaul said, sitting in her condo with a sweeping view of Spokane. “It depends on the judges; it depends on who else is competing. It depends on so many things.”
Yet fiddle she does, and she loves it. This summer, she attended a weeklong violin workshop in Manhattan, N.Y., which was put together by world-famous violinist Mark O’Connor.
“O’Connor was here in Spokane performing with the Symphony a couple of years ago, that’s how I got to know about the workshop,” McFaul said.
Her children – there are 10 of them – pooled their resources and paid her tuition.
“Mark O’Connor is just top-notch – he was a prodigy as a child,” said McFaul. “He had a workshop at EWU when he was here, and I went out to meet him. He said he’d have the workshop ready by 2009. I figured I could be ready by then.”
McFaul picked up fiddling around 1989. She’d played classical violin as a child, but 10 children and a career as a nurse got in the way of practice. She retired in 1992, and that’s when she really committed to fiddling.
“I hadn’t played in 45 years. I wailed away and wailed away,” McFaul said, laughing at the memory. “It was not pretty. I have a good ear and I could hear it was not good, but I kept at it.”
She told her husband – who has since died – that if he loved her, he’d take her to watch the fiddle contest in Weiser. Yet competing for the first time was an afterthought.
“If you compete you get good parking, so I thought, I can stand on that stage and play,” McFaul said. She made it to the top five in her division – and took home a fourth place. “I never in my life thought that was going to happen.”
If that was the beginning of McFaul’s fiddling career, then this summer’s O’Connor workshop was a definite high point.
Staying at the YMCA right by New York City’s Central Park was amazing, McFaul said, but getting to play the violin with 280 students from all over the world, guided by 16 teachers all with their own claim to violin fame, was a dream that came true.
Her favorite teacher was Russian-born violinist Philip Quint.
“I took five classes from him – he just blew me away,” said McFaul.
Students could freely move from teacher to teacher and take the classes they wanted.
“Every night the teachers performed for us, and what a treat that was – you couldn’t have paid for a concert like that,” said McFaul. Students were encouraged to perform as well, and one evening McFaul stepped out on the stage.
“I figured I’m never ever going to get another chance to play in New York City,” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t believe it when I received a standing ovation.”
Much younger students repeatedly told McFaul what an inspiration she was.
Talking about the O’Connor workshop makes McFaul beam – it was clearly an amazing experience – but she quickly brushes off any idea that she’s a great musician.
“Fiddling keeps me off the streets,” she said, laughing. “Except when I did the street music festival with Doug Clark. A friend stopped by and said he figured I’d always end up in the streets. I made him give us five bucks.”
Back home in Spokane, McFaul put together a scrapbook of her trip and went right back to her Friday morning gig: playing dance music in an orchestra for Day Out for the Blind. McFaul said the volunteer orchestra consists of working and retired musicians from all over Spokane.
And she looks forward to every Friday performance.
“There is no need to sit around and be bored,” McFaul said. “I’m here to tell you that you can surprise yourself by setting some pretty high goals. Just remember to have fun. If you are not having fun, then don’t do it.”