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Blow Your Nose If You Like the Music

An Unlikely Combo of Classical Violin Music and a Traditional Country Fair

by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio

Canada's Interior Provincial Exhibition in British Columbia is renowned for its prize-winning pigs, 10-gallon hats and cowboys being flung from the backs of snorting bulls.

Did I mention classical violin music?

In 2001 the IPE hosted the Festival of the Arts, an all classical, jazz and theatre venue in the heart of the fairgrounds. I'd honestly never been out to the fair before but was hired to emcee and play violin in the new event.

From the moment I pulled into the dusty parking lot full of pickups and horse trailers I knew I was in for an interesting five days. Dressed in a formal satin gown I entered Armstrong’s Centennial Hall as farmers and cowboys watched with curiosity and suspicion. Imagine a decked-out diva playing Mozart in the “Tumbleweed Saloon” and you get the picture. Though the carnies teased me that I’d "gotten lost on the way to the opera house" I smiled coyly: I had an ace up my sleeve.

In the past I’d gotten myself into all sorts of embarrassing gigs where the music did not suit the venue. As a relatively shy and inexperienced performer I was hired to play classical violin at the formal (and final) Royal Canadian Mounted Police Regimental Ball in Trail, BC in 1997. The evening consisted of over 100 less-than-sober Mounties and dignitaries who incessantly requested “Achy Breakie Heart,” a song I was certainly not prepared to play that night.

I was obligated by my contract to play all classical repetoire and it was with much effort I was able to sustain it to the end of my set. Just before packing up I surrendered to play a few fiddle tunes. The crowd went wild and I was thrown from background music to front and center entertainer, a place I was far to shy to want to be.

I left the party just as some resourceful officers at the nearest table discovered their wide-brim hats could also function as frisbees. I couldn’t have felt more out of place!

To keep everyone feeling comfortable in the concert hall each style of music has developed a distinct set of audience protocols.

For example, Jazz modus operandi requires we clap after the solos, whereas proper classical etiquette insists the audience hold applause until all the movements are completed. Folk and country music’s tradition has us clapping with the beat.

By stark contrast there was no clapping permitted in Baroque concerts held in churches during the 1600’s. Always looking for a way around the formality, Antonio Vivaldi’s inventive fans adapted a way of showing their appreciation for the music by shuffling their feet, coughing and blowing their noses loudly.

If stuffy clergy could bring themselves to blow their schnozzes in appreciation, I could modify my performance to make my classical music suit the audience. Along came a considerable challenge: I was invited to play British Columbia's wacky “Streetfest” alongside fire-swallowers, stilt-walkers and sultry female impersonators.

I couldn't be shy at this gig so I carefully developed a “circle show” that helped me fit into the zany antics while still doing what came naturally to me. Clad in an extravagant red sequined gown and combat boots I played the overstated role of “Virtuoso Violinist,” a direct poke at classical music’s stuffiness.

Keeping it simple I performed the same set of music I always played, but this time on my 5-string Zeta electric violin, and amused the audience with hilarious true stories about classical composers.

The result was an entertaining educational show that made classical music and it’s history accessible to people of all ages and music preferences. Analogous to protein-rich chocolate-coated ants, it was a sneaky way of making classical music more palatable! Disasters such as the infamous “Mountie Incident” would hopefully never happen again.

Though they squirmed in their seats at first, the farmers and cowboys at the IPE were pleasantly surprised to discover a hidden appreciation for classical music in each of my and other groups' performances. One such ensemble, the “Stoney String Quartet,” earned the audiences’ admiration and respect for their musicality and familiar backround.

The group of siblings played superb classical music in addition to working on their parents’ farm building barns, haying and processing poultry. It was amusing to imagine the nimble fingers that plucked out delightful melodies under the bright lights of the stage also plucked chickens back on the family farm.

Thanks to receptive audiences the IPE had a Jazz and Classical festival that year where showing appreciation for a great saxophone solo, a magnificent Shakespeare sonnet or a Mozart masterpiece meant yelling “YEE HA” at the top of your lungs!

It sure beat blowing your nose for five days.

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