On a rainy Saturday morning, the lofted room filled with the miscellaneous notes of stringed instruments being tuned and the voices of eager players.
One cellist sits, with the face of a model student, back straight and instrument ready, face fixed on the director. Nervous fingers play across the strings and tuning knobs of the cello next to her. In the back, viola players chatter.
“OK, I’m in tune. Anybody want to use my tuner?” director Sue MacDonald calls to the group.
Handing the electronic tuner to the cellists, she turns to explain: “They’re finding their starting notes. I’ve made them get rid of the cheats,” she says, referring to the tapes novice strings players use to mark finger positions on their instruments.
The scene is typical for Davis with its plethora of school orchestras and ensembles. But the faces in this group have moved beyond the round cheeks and pimples of youth; the brows furrowed in concentration are marked with the lines of life.
Fiddling After Forty, led by MacDonald, is exactly what the name implies — an amateur strings ensemble whose players range from their early 40s to 90 years old. With the exception of MacDonald, a local music instructor, all of the group’s members are either new to their instruments or have returned to playing after hiatuses of sometimes many years.
Betty Dugan, a viola player, talks of taking her instrument from its case after 50 years.
“It needed to be cleaned up and the strings replaced,” she said, shaking her head slightly as if asking herself, “What took me so long?”
Several of the musicians took up their instruments for the first time as parents, as a way to bond with children who study music in school or through lessons. Others such as Donna Sanders, who had played piano for years, decided to use retirement as an excuse to try something new.
“I wanted to play with others, and you can’t really do that with the piano,” she said. “So I chose the cello.”
At any stage, picking up an instrument either as a beginner or after many years of letting the skill lie fallow can be daunting.
“You can’t learn something new unless you go through the part where it’s very challenging,” Sanders said.
Linda Schmidt, another cellist, nodded. “I think it’s especially hard for adults,” she said. “We’ve heard so much music, and we know how it’s supposed to sound.”
She shook her head and smiled a little ruefully. “It’s more frustrating when we don’t sound like that.”
The group began practice with a familiar piece, one of the movements of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Furrowed brows, lapsing fingers and halting notes depicted the struggle of the first few measures. MacDonald halted the group, having them begin again from the point where things turned rocky.
“When you practice at home,” she told the students, “don’t start at the beginning of a piece. Start where it gets murky, hard.”
These players have learned these lessons in life in ways that their counterparts in youth symphonies have not yet discovered. They already have learned to work through the hard and murky pieces, to persist until the parts come together.
During the next pieces, MacDonald has the group play individual instrument parts separately and then together. The notes begin to sound more confident and the faces relax. At the end of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the group breaks into spontaneous cheers and smiles, shaking out cramped fingers.
Afterward, MacDonald explains the goal of the group: “We’re all here because we want to be improvers.”
Fiddling After Forty meets for rehearsals at 11 a.m. Saturdays at the Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, 1701 Russell Blvd. in West Davis. The group had its first public performances this fall and is planning on more in the future. Anyone interested in joining should call Sue MacDonald at 530-902-0801.
As far as qualifications for the group? “We’re all here because we love music,” MacDonald said.
— Christy Corp-Minamiji is a Davis resident and freelance writer.