Sunday, January 11, 2009
Musical Questions – Lois Fry
As promised yesterday afternoon, here’s the Musical Questions installment for the very wonderful McCall, ID violinist Lois Fry; & as promised yesterday, I think you'll really enjoy Lois' take on the music in her life.
Music has been a part of Lois’ life from the beginning, as she was born into a musical family. She studied piano with her mother until about 8 or 9 years old, & at 10 switched to violin because her parents realized she had a “knack” for it (they were right). She studied with Stella Margaret Hopper for around 9 years & played in the Boise Civic Symphony (precursor to the Boise Philharmonic) as well as the Community College Orchestra at Boise Jr. College (now BSU). She says: “Playing in the orchestras was a treat as I was in the second section in the middle of the orchestras—my first experiences playing in surround-sound!”
Lois moved to Southern California at age 20, & started playing occasionally in church & in musical theater. A few years later, around 1970, she discovered the art of improvisation & began jamming with anybody & everybody in the Santa Monica area. During this time Lois had the opportunity to play for 3 years with Ron Ferrari; she says Ferrari’s “musical acumen was such that I got to explore fully the pleasures of musical freedom by following his lead. Soon we were leading each other. That has been probably the most valuable experience I had other than my classical study.”
In 1977 Lois moved back to Idaho, and participated in a Boise orchestra accompanying Evita. She joined a band called Stir Crazy in 1981, playing country and southern rock in Montana, Nevada & Idaho for about 2 years. In 1987, Lois moved to McCall and joined the McCall Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Jim Cockey; she’s continued to play with that ensemble each year since. In '89-'91, she played with Barb Pyle, Glenn Gilbert, Marv Allen & Rex Chapman in Cross Country, another country crossover-rock band, which she describes as "a great & fun experience." Throughout the '90s she met with local musicians at Irish & old-timey jam sessions where she "learned a fair portion of fiddle tunes."
Lois met Susie O'Leary & Angie Schmidt in '93, & they formed a really fun 3-part harmony group called The Susie O'Leary Band; this group plays old cowboy classics & big band-era favorites. Stacy Gebhards joined them on guitar, harmonicas & squeezeboxes to add some more great harmonies. Whale Szezepanowski (who also plays with Dale Fisk) is their usual upright bassist. Sadly, Angie passed away, & some time later Dale James joined the band. In the last year & a half, Dale & Lois began a band with singer Amy Crookshanks doing some great old & new tunes— they’re called Amy & the Wildcats. & as if she wasn’t busy enough, Lois teaches violin in McCall to about a half dozen students. & now: Here's Lois!
Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?
My parents were dance hall musicians, Mom played piano and Dad played fiddle along with their friends with whom they formed their dance bands. There were music rehearsals at the house often, and I always went to the dances they played for. Also, before I was born, Mom used to practice classical piano and there I was in her belly taking it all in. I believe that’s why I have perfect pitch, and why music has always been incredibly easy for me.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?
Biggest obstacle was taking my talent seriously enough to prepare for a legitimate musical career. I didn’t have a clue, and my parents and violin teacher didn’t think of me doing anything beyond playing for local events. I think my teacher thought we were too poor for me to think of going to Eastman or Julliard, so she prepared me to be a teacher. Also, I wasn’t disciplined enough to practice as intensely as I would have if I’d known how far I could have gone.
Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?
No. Performing is, for me, a gift to myself (when I feel confident) and to my audiences. What I feel when I’m playing well is a spiritual experience.
What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc? Also, could you talk about the process you go thru when you’re improvising on a melody?
Music comes first, and if there are to be lyrics, they come simultaneously. The process when I’m improvising is to lose myself in the sounds I’m making and let my brain turn off. The inspiration comes from deep within (drawing upon the God energy that is at the center of all our beings), and having learned the physical aspects of playing, I am free to “cruise” in the ethers and let come out what wants to come out. Often I lose awareness of holding and playing the violin, I become the violin, and then I become the instrument being played by that God energy.
What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?
Simplicity with emotional sensitivity. There’s a humbleness to a good clear melody that doesn’t get over-dramatic. There is a place for the dramatic that might be an embellishment of the original melody. A good example of that is Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. The quieter part speaks of feelings of longing and love fulfilled, and the faster part is the exhilaration achieved by the quieter part. Just my take on it.
Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?
As a young girl I played “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs for a small group at church. This is an emotionally rewarding piece, and although the emotional expression passes through me to those listening, I see the effects on people in the audience. This particular time, some of the girls were crying.
In the seventies when I was developing my improv skills, losing my sense of physicalness, I recall a soaring feeling and my brain jumped in and analyzed it and the playing became mechanical for just a moment until I realized I had to turn my brain back off. After I did that and got back into the feeling, I felt a kind of euphoric suspension. I noticed that all my friends in the room were listening with their eyes closed and I knew we were all feeling that euphoric suspension. For me it was like a wonderful electricity surging all through my body.
When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?
The only communication with the audience is in the exchange of energy – they are “leaning” into me and I am leaning into them. I feel like I am giving them something they love (when I am performing well). The focus on other band members comes with making the harmonies perfect. When the harmonies are right on, the vibrational qualities have a profound effect on my emotions, and likewise on those of the audience.
Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learning? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?
I did have some piano training but not enough to make me fluent on the instrument. I love a beautiful piano sound, it can do everything an orchestra can do, but the resonance of the notes plays greatly with my senses.
What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?
I recently was given a CD of Durufle’s Requiem, which I play while going to sleep. It gives me holy feelings! I also listen to a Celtic group from Spain called Hevia that has an incredible range of instrumentation and Celtic expression. I recently found my cassette tape of Gerry Rafferty’s Sleepwalking – every song is great, but I especially like a song on it called “Wise As a Serpent.”
Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?
I continue to play but not as much as in the past. I have some minor physical limitations, but on occasion I can get back into the groove. I am currently in a kind of transition where I’m not as enthusiastic as in the past. When I do get in the groove, I remember the sweetness of the simple melody, which expresses itself best (for me) in folk music.
Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?
I am distinctly tied to my beginnings as a tradition or heritage – a lot of what I do draws upon the old music my parents used to play. I borrow a lot of improv from those early strains, often not knowing which song I am stealing from. My musical influences are wide and varied, starting with my parents, with my sister, Ruth, who was a marvelous pianist and my music teacher, Stella Margaret Hopper. Later influences have been David Crosby whose voice is the most resonant I’ve ever heard, James Taylor who embodies the elegant simplicity I’ve mentioned, a German violinist, Ann Sophie Mutter, who is perfection on the violin, also David and Igor Oistrahk, father and son violinists whose lush tones helped me reach for my own lush approach to tonality. These influences are a fraction of all that have had an effect on me. I’m not bound to any one style of music, but to all music that is good.
Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?
Listen closely to and choose to love the sound you’re making and let it lead you into the emotional qualities of music. That’s a way to teach yourself how to improve. Never judge what you’re doing but know that the more you play the better it will sound, and don’t be afraid to practice. It may be hard to get around to practicing, but once you start, get lost in it and go for as long as you can.
Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?
I guess the question would be “Am I talented? Am I good enough?” The answer to that would be whether or not a person is truly drawn to music, not just to listen to but to play and keep at it until the question answers itself. I have one student who didn’t seem particularly talented, but he’s always been self-motivated and now is producing beautiful tone quality. He’s young yet and will develop the intonation necessary for what he wants to do, but he practices and has all the earmarks of a dedicated musician.
Thanks for that really inspiring insight, Lois! & all you readers: next week, from the Oregon East Symphony & the Wenches, flautist, piccoloist, & tin whistler Caty Clifton! & I've got my fingers crossed about a "mystery guest" the following week!