The summer before I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, was the summer I was a fiddle player in a folk band.
I had plans to start at Memorial University’s School of Music in September for violin, something that both excited and terrified me. I was invited to join the band by a workmate, a guy a few years older than I was, someone I was pretty well acquainted with. He had written the outlines for a collection of songs and wanted a full band to jam them with.
I was pretty nervous at the first band practice. I was the only 17-year-old girl in a group of 20-something guys who already knew each other. The conversations revolving around beards and home brews were conversations I had little to contribute to, but as we continued to meet up and practice the songs, a sense of warmth and camaraderie started to grow. We all contributed to the songs’ harmonies, textures, and layers in an incredibly raw and fluid way. Band practice every week became something I couldn’t wait for—it was a lighthearted and comfortable place to pull notes out of the spheres and make music sound beautiful.
In June of that summer, we started recording the songs to produce a full-length album, a totally foreign and exciting project for me. We also started to play some live shows in local bars. The first few shows were a blast. There was something so thrilling about showcasing all of this originality. There was also something thrilling about the guys buying me a drink or two while I still held an underage status.
Then, one of our shows ended in an upsetting way. We went on without a real sound check and this particular bar didn’t have the best space for sound to begin with. Our group leader was controlling the soundboard and mics, and when I told him I couldn’t hear my violin, he dismissed it. After a few more songs some guys in the bar came up and told us to turn up the fiddle. The band leader still didn’t do anything about it. I played the whole 45-minute set knowing no one could hear anything I was playing. I felt that night like I was on stage to be the token visual of “the girl” playing the fiddle. I felt stupid the whole time on stage. After the show one of the other guys in the band asked if I was okay. I told him how I felt; he sympathized and said he’d watch out for that kind of thing. He also said he would talk to the band leader. I appreciated that a lot.
He was a guy and his voice held weight in the band. I found out that night that my voice didn’t hold the same weight.
We played some more shows that summer and continued recording. I learned quickly that I had to be twice as loud as the guys in the band to be heard. Bar owners would try to make me pay cover if they didn’t think I belonged in the band. “Are you sure you’re part of this band, sweetie?” one bouncer asked at the door while I held a violin case. A sound guy at another show set up my mic close to the front of the stage saying, “Baby always has to be in the front.” So many of these people in positions of the slightest power viewed me as a girl musician; girl first, musician second. Gender took precedence.
I moved to Newfoundland and started school that September—a big adjustment. I started learning from professional musicians, both men and women, who worked incredibly hard to get to where they are now. My current violin professor, Nancy Dahn, is a graduate from some of the top music schools in the world: New England Conservatory, Juilliard School, and the Cleveland Institute. She is constantly touring the world in her critically acclaimed duo ensemble, Duo Concertante, and teaching at Memorial because she loves teaching. Nancy is one of the most hardworking and talented musicians I have ever met; she also possesses one of the most respected and powerful voices in the university’s music faculty.
That summer was one of the best summers of my life. I made some of my best friends in that band, friends I still hold dear. I learned how to throw my voice in a room full of men who don’t listen. I also learned that there are some men who will use the weight of their voices to speak up for women who are dismissed, ignored, and degraded.
There are always going to be people who see you as a woman before they see you as a musician, and there are always going to be people who make degrading comments in an attempt to undermine your craft. If you are confident in your art, people will forget the source of the sound. If they don’t, they are sad, small people intimidated by the art you project. The next time your violin mic is turned down so low it’s inaudible, walk over to the PA and turn yourself up.