Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Grace Fiddler

Second generation Big Sur community member Grace Forrest began studying violin on her own initiative at 6 years old. She is a key organizer of the week-long 2nd Annual Big Sur Fiddle Camp from April 12-18 at Rancho Rico in Big Sur. Six nationally known and Grammy Award winning teacher-musicians will perform on Thursday, April 16, at 7:30 pm in Lygia’s Barn on the Rancho Rico property.

A poster child for home-schooling, Grace heard the famous Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser on the radio when she was little, and liked it so much she asked her Mom, Torre, to take her to one of his concerts. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen, about 50 fiddlers all playing together. I loved that there were people in their 80’s playing as well as little kids, 4 or 5 years old. I said to my Mom, ‘this is what I want to do’.” She went on to become even more inspired by his music camp in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Grace brought self-motivation and genuine interest to the learning process. “My parents didn’t have any expectations, so I just took lots of classes from lots of teachers, and there was no pressure to practice.” Today she plays every single day, loves it, and it shows. Last summer she performed at the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, Idaho, for the first time, and did well, though she modestly downplays the accomplishment.

Now 16, poised, articulate, and lovely, Grace is a natural for the disciplined passion that the violin requires. And yet she’s not interested in a future as a performer as much a becoming a music teacher, in mastering the process of how the human brain learns music. “A good teacher has tons of performing experience, really, really cares about the students and has a lot of patience,” she says.

Her current local teacher encourages her to bring her own interpretation to the notes, trusting her skill and feeling for music. She's excited to bring this new dimension to her playing, and is also beginning to compose. Her first composition, she says, is in B-major, because “there aren’t enough violin pieces in B-major.” Playing violin now, Grace says, "is what I do; it's just like talking." I ask her if learning and performing music keeps her focused on the present moment. “Oh yes,” she laughs softly, “it definitely does that.”

She knows a remarkable amount about the history of the fiddling, and is impressed with "mouth music," the Scottish vocal form that arose when the English, oppressing the Scots, took away their fiddles and bagpipes. She has a love for Irish fiddling, the new acoustic sounds of performer Darol Anger, and for classical violin music. “Pretty much every tradition has produced some variation on the violin,” she remarks. In India the violin is very different from say, in Ireland. How interesting that, like a belief in the afterlife, the impulse to create music on strings seems universal.

Grace met Tashina Clarridge, who teaches and performs with her husband cellist Tristan Clarridge in The Bee Eaters, at the Mt. Shasta fiddle camp. This inspired Grace to create with Tashina’s help a similar experience for advanced students on the Rancho Rico property where she lives in Big Sur. The music is loosely known as Bluegrass, with a uniquely American approach to improvisation.

This Spring's 2nd Annual Big Sur Fiddle Camp will host 53 students, with classes each day in violin, cello and voice, with time for hiking and exploring in the afternoons. Each evening the Rancho Richo “barn” (an enormous two story high-ceilinged building that defines rustic elegance) will be filled with music. Grammy award winner Laurie Lewis will teach vocals, a special treat.

Grace arrived in Big Sur when she was just two days old, and her grandfather is local patriarch Don McQueen, who fought to save his property during last summer's Basin Complex fire. Among other things, he shipped in his own D-4 Caterpillar bulldozer to cut fire breaks while the fires raged.

She remembers watching the flames creep down the face of Mt. Manuel at night, hoping that they would not reach her home west of Highway One, and will never forget the helicopters that dropped water from the ocean on the flames, watering her garden as they passed overhead.

One of her earliest memories is bringing her Dad Blake his lunch each day while he built their home. She appreciates a real sense of belonging to a great community, and feels that young people here need exposure to quality art, music and cultural programs. "I also like bringing people to the ranch to share what life can be like: the experience of living in nature, with neighbors and families," she says, "versus being in big cities surrounded by strangers and asphalt."

As we finish our talk, I ask Grace to play me her "B-major" composition, which she does, standing out on her deck in the brisk Spring wind, with the forested slopes leading down the ocean as her backdrop. Her dog Pablo ambles by to listen as well. We are both transfixed by the energy and well, grace, of her impromptu performance.

I'm struck by the dynamic balance here of a refined art form, contrasting with raw nature, in the context of a loving family. Later, as we walk out towards my car, Grace calls out to her little brother, Nandi, 9 (who also now studies violin) to put his bicycle helmet on right as he flies down the canyon road on his bike.

Big Sur Fiddle Camp's Concert, on Thursday, April 16 at 7:30 pm at Lygia's Barn, will feature performers Tristan and Tashina Clarridge, Liz Carroll, Laurie Lewis, Bruce Molsky and Darol Anger. Sponsored by the Big Sur Arts Initiative and the Land and Water School, tickets are $25 per adult and $10 child at the door. For more information about the Concert call 831-667-2398.

Photos of Grace Forrest by Linda Sonrisa

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