Interview: Fiddle player Gaelynn Lea talks orchestra, advocacy and connecting to humanity

Gaelynn Lea

The Mill — Sunday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m.

Gaelynn Lea, a fiddle player hailing from Duluth, MN, burst onto the national scene by winning NPR’s 2016 Tiny Desk Music Contest. She will perform at The Mill at 8 p.m. on Oct. 2 (tickets $8–10), and will speak the next morning at Systems Unlimited. A performer whose perspective on life has been shaped by her personal experience, Lea also serves as a public speaker and advocate for disability rights and pride.

Video still via NPR Tiny Desk Concert
Video still via NPR Tiny Desk Concert

Why did you first fall in love with music — as a listener and as a performer?

My family is very musical, and so grew up with that as a huge part of our lives — singing as little kids. Parents did musical theater for 20 years, and so grew up with creativity that involved music. In fourth grade, I heard an orchestra for the first time — I heard the strings, fell in love with the sound. I was the only one to get a perfect score on the entrance test in fifth grade.

What are the major influences in your development as a musician and as a performer?

My parents were the first, and two orchestra teachers — my first and last one, who pushed me to do everything that I could. The first teacher helped me learn how to play without putting up barriers, and the last teacher taught me crazy high standards — she didn’t expect less of me because of my disability. She held me to the same standards, at least.

Also: the nature of fiddle music — there’s no words, so it’s hard to have specific protest or advocacy. But it is communal: I learned fiddle tunes in bars, where we’d play together. Performance is about a shared experience with the audience, and music is accessible and meaningful to everyone — not just a touring musician. It’s been a helpful experience to know how to connect with an audience and to remember that their experience of music is meaningful. Everyone has access to music, even when not performers, and fiddle music helped to ingrain that.

What’s special about orchestral sounds in a world that can reproduce those sounds quickly and easily?

The strings are the closest sound to the human voice. They can always be perfected — it isn’t like a piano, where you can strike a key and hit it right. It’s a unique thing — and while every instrument needs practice, strings are less forgiving. It’s like gymnastics in music. It’s an art form that requires constant focus. Real strings — each fiddler, each violinist has their own tone. It becomes more like your voice — it’s one neat thing about strings, there’s a lot of variation in that voice.

Iowa City has seen its budget for orchestra continue to wither. How important do you think orchestra is as a space for young people to learn music, relative to other extra curricular activities (art, band, choir, sports)?

I’m obviously very biased, but orchestra is the thing that kept me engaged in school. I like learning, and liked other subjects, but something about an orchestra is unique. Playing a stringed instrument uses more parts of the brain than almost any other activity. It’s important for people — it helps all other areas of learning. The younger you start, the better you can do … The orchestra had the nerdy kids, and it allows for such students to find each other in a creative space. The more options there are of being creative, the more they can find. There needs to be multiple arts activities.

Both musicians and those with disabilities end up requiring a lot from the surrounding world, especially touring musicians, who depend on a whole host of people to arrange dates, set up spaces, run sound, drive, etc.

How has your work as a musician and speaker helped you learn about ways to value your illness, or vice versa?

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I feel very grateful that I have a husband who is awesome enough to take a six-month leave of absence to travel — it wouldn’t be possible otherwise. People forget that everyone needs help to live on a daily basis. Everyone is in the same boat; we just prefer to forget about the boat. I have no qualms about admitting that the tour requires my husband [and] venues that can cooperate. But it does work out. A lot of people don’t have my support, and that’s too bad. I also want to work to help others find support: I want other artists with disabilities playing so that venues will be more open, that personal care assistants will be more flexible. It’d be nice if that were a more normal thing to see. Gratitude, mostly.

The folk tradition is also a musical tradition of public advocacy that uses its simplicity, tradition and anger to draw attention to class struggles. What do you think inspires you toward the kind of music that you perform — and how does it relate to your public advocacy?

I write music from personal experience, but as a lot of other advocates will tell you — it’s changed over time. The songs I’ve personally written, there’s only one that is directly about disability, and it’s pretty veiled in metaphor. A person with a disability is also just a person. Songs are more human things, not directly related to disability. Eventually, I hope to make an album more linked to disability rights as a struggle.

What I love about the tradition of music I play in — fiddle music-[is that] these melodies have literally been around for hundreds of years and have survived. Most of the songs we hear on the radio won’t be played in even five years. What drives me to traditional music is enjoying nature and thinking that men or women a few hundred years ago were playing this. It connects me to the broader scale of humanity.

Daniel Boscaljon is the founder of the Center for Humanist Inquiries and author of ‘Vigilant Faith.’ He currently teaches at the University of Iowa and at Cornell College, and occasionally finds time to enjoy listening to, and thinking about, music. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 206.

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Wed, Oct. 23, 2019

Hilton Garden Inn Iowa City Downtown University at 7:15 a.m. (program starts at 7:30 a.m.)

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