Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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As in fiddling, as in life: ‘You can do a lot more than you think you can do’
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Oct. 22, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
Marge McFaul performs with an unidentified accompanist during the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp last summer. (IR photo courtesy of Marge McFaul)
Marge McFaul, a daily Mass participant at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Parish, is one of the youngest 84-year-olds you’re ever likely to encounter. One big reason seems to be her enthusiasm for playing her more than 100-year-old made-in-France violin, a gift from an aunt in the late 1930s.
“There are so many other people more interesting to write about than me,” she says. But with a little encouragement to talk about her fiddle playing, Marge lights up to about 100 watts and recounts a tale that goes back to when she was a girl growing up during the Great Depression on a farm north of Spokane. McFaul first took violin lessons as a fourth-grader in the early 1930s. The public school she attended paid half of the violin teacher’s fee of 75 cents for a one-hour lesson, and her father gave the teacher potatoes, eggs, milk, and other farm commodities to cover the other 37.5 cents – an arrangement that the teacher was quite happy with, McFaul remembers. “He was glad to get the food.”
After high school, McFaul attended nursing school, married, and eventually became the mother of 10 children. Forty-five years later, in about 1989, her kids grown and flown, one day she happened upon an old-time music group that was playing at a mall in Moscow, Idaho – she and her family then lived in nearby Pullman, Wash. – and she thought, “I can play that stuff!” So Marge retrieved her violin from a closet, dusted it off, tuned it up, drew the bow across the strings, and. . .“It was terrible! It had been 45 years,” she declares with a grimace. (She uses “fiddle” and “violin” interchangeably, as the only difference is in how the instrument is played.)
McFaul took a few lessons from a local teacher, and with patience and persistence her fingers remembered skills learned long ago, her playing improved, and in 1992, after retiring from nursing, she decided to join the 20,000+ people who attend the annual National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho, and entered the competition in the seniors division.
In the weeks prior to the trip to Weiser, friends helped Marge practice. “For the contest,” she explained, “you had to play three tunes in four minutes, a hoedown, a waltz, and a tune of your choice. So I went over to my friends’ house, and I’m playing with one of the daughters who was in high school. And the mother is listening from the kitchen while she’s fixing dinner. She calls out, ‘Old woman! You play like an old woman!’ She said, ‘Play it!’ So we did it again, and I played it a little louder. She says, ‘Old woman!’ So I went over to their house about three times before we went to Weiser, and she says, ‘If you’re going to make a mistake, do it with some pride. Don’t just slap along like an old woman. The judges don’t know who you are. The judges can hear the contestants, but they can’t see them. They have to go by your playing alone.’”
At Weiser, Marge played her round, “and,” she said, “it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I could play on the stage! I focus on something, and I don’t look at the audience, I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I looked at a dirty spot on the floor, and I just played what was in my head.”
To her astonishment, Marge survived four cuts, and she placed in the final five, ultimately taking home the fourth place trophy out of some 40 contestants. “It’s something I can’t explain,” she says. “I never expected this.”
“As I was standing off-stage, getting ready to go out and play,” she recalls, “I said, ‘Okay, Jesus, it’s you and me. I’ve got the body, and you’ve got the Spirit, now take my hands and let’s go play this sucker.’ It was an out-of-body experience. I wasn’t playing.”
Without hesitating, Marge McFaul says that she knows that any skill she has as a fiddler is a gift. “You can do a lot more than you think you can do,” she declares. “Set your goals higher than what you expect. Everybody has something they can do. People will say to me, ‘Can I play the fiddle?’ and I say, ‘Of course you can. But how bad do you want to do it, and how hard are you willing to work? Starting as an adult, you learn slower and you forget faster. I can learn a new tune in maybe three hours, learn to really nail it. Ten-, 11-, 12-year-olds, they’ll learn it in 10 minutes.”
McFaul has been to the Weiser festival 13 times now, and she always drives the 300+ miles herself. “I made the top five 11 out of 12 times,” she says. “These trophies are beautiful things, so each of my kids has one of the trophies.”
This past summer, she attended a weeklong fiddle camp in New York City presented by one of the top names in today’s fiddle and violin world – Mark O’Connor, who grew up in the Seattle area. The McFaul offspring paid their mother’s way for the workshop. “It was so extraordinary at that camp,” she said, “because everybody was the same, everyone was made to feel equal. Oh, it was wonderful, off the charts!”
One evening during the Mark O’Connor camp in New York, the faculty gave a concert. “You couldn’t pay for the music we heard that night,” she says. “But there was 40 minutes that evening when students could perform. There was no way in the world that I was going to get up there and play. But I got there, and I thought, ‘I will never have another chance to play on this stage with these kinds of people.’ So I did. My good friend who was an instructor backed me up on guitar, and I played a really simple, slow song that I learned at a Montana fiddle camp. It’s called ‘Montana Glide.’ You had to introduce (what you were going to play), and I introduced it. I said, ‘I have no business being here, but I’m in New York, and this is one chance in my lifetime that I’m going to do something that I’ll remember forever, and I ask your patience for two minutes.’ I played my two minutes, and I got off the stage.”
Two or three times a month, Marge plays at retirement communities. She is also a member of Spokane’s Project Joy Orchestra. “We practice every Tuesday morning from 9:30 to noon,” she said, “and that’s classical music. These are the retired music teachers, and boy, we have some tough stuff to play.”
McFaul gives more than a few hours each week to playing for and with other people, and each Sunday at Sacred Heart’s 8:30 a.m. Mass she joins a small group to play for the liturgy.
“I pray every day that I do what God wants me to do,” she comments. “I don’t know what it is. I’m just having fun.”