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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Musicians over the age of 70 use retirement to find purpose later in life with help from Palouse Area Fiddlers

By Frankie Beer For The Spokesman-Review

VIOLA, Idaho – Susan Irvin, 72, stepped up to the microphone and drew a bow against her violin. Underneath twinkling lights strung in the rafters of this small North Idaho town’s community center, Irvin looked out at the holiday partygoers and felt nerves begin to creep in.

She had never held the instrument until the age of 68, and Dec. 10 was her fiddling debut.

Her nerves dissipated as she began to play, and soon, her fellow Palouse Area Fiddlers members wiggled their ankles to signal the song ending – a running joke because the 70-year-old musicians would rather not kick up their leg in the traditional style.

“Every time you perform, you are a better performer,” she said. “Even if you totally wrecked it.”

Founded in the 1960s, the Palouse Area Fiddlers is a local nonprofit branch of the Idaho Old Time Fiddlers, which plays more than eight gigs each month at assisted living facilities and community centers across the region. The group of musicians in their 70s and 80s play fiddles, guitars and mandolins without sheet music, preferring to play by ear, Irvin said.

About 55% of Americans over the age of 45 are actively learning new things, with factors like time and cost influencing their attitudes toward learning, according to an American Association of Retired Persons study released in 2022. Fifty-four percent are motivated to learn to maintain their brain health.

From pandemic to performance

Irvin joined the Palouse Area Fiddlers as a vocalist and guitar player after retiring from her job as an elementary school counselor in Lewiston, Idaho. She said music has always been a part of her life, growing up in a Lutheran church choir and singing before she even talked, much to the annoyance of her brothers.

Watching her group members perform, Irvin wondered “how in the world” they played the fiddle, and began to take lessons with fellow fiddler Mabel Vogt, 81, in 2020 over Zoom. Irvin said it was difficult to set aside time when she was not thinking about dirty dishes left in the sink or unanswered phone calls, but she wanted to make the most of retirement.

The pandemic was a motivation.

“I wasn’t going to waste three years,” she said. “I wanted something to show for it at the end of that very unpleasant time that changed each of us.”

Vogt, who began teaching in 1984, said she lost a few students during the pandemic because they could not play at the same time on Zoom, missing the full effect of a fiddle band.

“The poor student is left without the assist of the teacher accompanying them on the guitar or the piano, so they can’t hear the whole chord of the song that fills in a lot of the gaps,” she said.

After three years, Irvin made her way through a book of 64 tunes, slowly gaining confidence. As she sent checks to Vogt to pay for her lessons, Irvin made homemade cards decorated with stickers, which Vogt keeps in a folder named “warm fuzzies” with all her personal keepsakes, she said.

Her folder rests in the same home as multiple trophies, earned from years of competing in national fiddling competitions for about 50 years. In 2016, Vogt won the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho, after years of placing in the top five, she said.

Vogt said she still competes three times a year, and she performed alongside Irvin on Dec. 10. Her violin case is filled with photographs inside the lid, including one of her husband who died in 2016. He often accompanied her and her daughters on the harmonica.

Life changing

Scott Hallett, 75, said attitude is everything when learning a new skill at an older age. During his retirement, the Palouse Area Fiddlers are his motivation to get out of bed, sharpen his memory and perform rather than “just noodling around.”

“If you retire, you’ve got to have something to do, or you’re just going to sit in your recliner and eventually die,” he said.

Hallett, ukulele player and self-proclaimed “eye candy” of the Palouse Area Fiddlers, learned the ukulele when he was 64 years old, having played guitar in high school but not being “terribly good” at the time. He and his wife were going on a trip to Hawaii, and she suggested buying a ukulele when he could not bring his guitar on the plane.

One year after learning the instrument, Hallett began teaching adults ukulele through a Community Colleges of Spokane class in Colfax, Washington, where he has lived since 1979. He has taught more than 200 students, most of whom “caught the bug” of playing ukulele, he said.

Hallett said the program pays him a stipend, but he would do it for free.

In the Palouse Area Fiddlers, Hallett has also picked up the mandolin, harmonica, singing and songwriting, learning new songs every month. Growing up, he never had the confidence to sing solo, always preferring to have a “chameleon voice” and blend into his choir.

However, with some encouragement from fellow fiddlers 11 years ago, Hallett had a breakthrough and sang for the first time in front of an audience despite his fears.

“They actually changed my whole life,” he said.

Music is healing

Vogt said music helps the fiddlers forget their own worries, aches and pains. In June, she had a stroke that left her right side paralyzed for days, and her doctor told her she would never play the fiddle again.

After a few weeks of physical therapy, Vogt’s daughters brought her her violin, and she was able to play.

Vogt’s doctor recommended picking up new skills to maintain her brain health, but she said she would rather spend her time playing the fiddle than, “God forbid,” learning to crochet.

Listening to the Palouse Area Fiddlers can be therapeutic as well. Circles of Caring nurse Marsha Turnbull said she has seen people with dementia sing along to the fiddlers’ music, somehow knowing the words despite not remembering their family members’ names.

“It keeps people feeling that they still belong, and it helps diminish feelings of loneliness and isolation,” she said.

The Palouse Area Fiddlers will have 34 performances scheduled for senior centers and community groups from January to April, according to the group’s Facebook page.

Irvin said she loves playing at assisted living facilities, especially when she sees an elderly couple clasping hands during a love song. She remembers a woman coming up to the fiddlers after they played “You Are My Sunshine,” saying her husband used to sing the same song for her.

During performances, Irvin herself sometimes sets down her guitar and waltzes with her husband, she said.

“What better paycheck can you get?” she said.