In Conversation with Canadian Fiddler Shari Ulrich
Music, motherhood, fiddles and other important stuff.
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
Juno Award-winning singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Shari Ulrich and I have “bumped” into each other several times this past few months. In true musician's spirit I've worn several hats in our dealings.
Our first meeting was of a business nature. She emailed when her violin bow broke and she was seeking to purchase a carbon fibre model from my violin shop. Incidentally she loved it and has written an awesome testimonial on my website.
I then contacted Shari under the auspices of the Shuswap Violin Society, a non-profit group I founded which provided scholarships, instruments and other support to local string players. Shari was asked to accept an Honourary Lifetime Membership with our group and graciously accepted, adding “Well how can a girl turn that down?!?!? I would be honoured!”
Soon after I learned the Folk Music Society was hosting a “Songwriter's Cafe” where Shari was joined by John Mann (Spirit of the West), Norman Foote and Babe Gurr. I would finally have the opportunity to meet her in person and don my freelance writer's hat.
After a riveting and highly entertaining concert Shari and I chatted about music, motherhood, fiddles and other important stuff.
Rhiannon Nachbaur : What was your motivation or a goal you had in mind when you first started playing violin? Had you seen a concert and been inspired or was it simply out of the blue?
Shari Ulrich: I grew up in the US - in Northern California where music was a program in the schools. In Grade 3 we were asked what instrument we wanted to play and given a little demonstration. My girlfriends and I all chose violin so we could be in the class together... very typical young girl motivation.
RN: That's interesting, my violin beginnings were almost exactly the same: a school orchestra program in San Diego, California. Now.. to dig out some dirt on you. Did your mother ever have to nag you to practice? Or was music just your special thing you were always dedicated to?
SU: Practicing was ALWAYS my nemesis - even today, though I recall doing LOTS of it. And yes, from time to time my mother said the same thing to me that I hear myself saying to my daughter - "There's no point in paying for lessons if you're not going to practice". (Which of course is TRUE). But in fact, my mother didn't nag me - nor do I nag my daughter - but neither could resist that remark. Later, in my early 20's, I had a period of earnest study for a few years.
RN: Regarding “young girl motivations,” I know my violin practice was neglected when I had a boyfriend. Did boys ever get in the way of your music?
SU: Ha! No, I'd say boys have always been a great asset to my music because I've virtually always had partners who were musicians! But in my teenage years I don't recall it being a conflict.
RN: So when did you first decide to become a professional musician or did it just happen?
SU: I came to Canada when I was about 19 - searching for what I was supposed to do with my life - my calling. Then I started playing with other musicians - doing this thing that had always been SO second nature to me that I never thought of it as a career. THEN the light went on and I realized MUSIC was MY THING.
RN: Were there ever times when you didn't think you had what it would take to become a professional musician?
SU: No - I've always known it to my core. But there have certainly been times that I felt under educated and not a good enough sight reader to be a TRUE professional musician, like my partner Bill is, who can sight read and play anything. I have my limitations. But my imagination doesn't.
RN: What do you do to overcome musical “slumps?”
SU: My slumps have been more getting weary of pushing the rock up the hill, because being a musician means creating your life every single day. And I had a vision for myself that entailed my music reaching a wider audience than it has because as I got older, my opportunities for industry support diminished. But knowing to my soul that music is what I'm meant to create and play and breathe has never taken a dip.
RN: Who was your biggest motivation, violin-wise, when you grew up?
SU: Hmm... I guess Stephan Grappelli though I couldn't play that style - Itzhak Perlman, hmmm... I can't say that I had a role model who inspired me.
RN: They're two of my idols too, and really lofty ones at that! The Juno Award in 1981 for Most Promising Female Artist, did you expect that?
SU: I couldn't say I "expected" it, but I certainly hoped it would happen. Winning is always a thrilling experience no matter what it is.
RN: What went through your mind as you accepted it?
SU: How cool it was that Bob and Doug McKenzie presented it! How badly I didn't want to screw up my speech.
RN: What did that award help you accomplish in years to come, or was it not a big deal to you?
SU: Yes it was a big deal, and looks great in the bio. It enhances opportunities but doesn't guarantee anything.
RN: You said motherhood was a challenge to balance with your career in the early days of infanthood and childhood. How did you balance it all and what helped you through those years raising your daughter?
SU: I took Julia everywhere with me - and started touring again when she was 6 weeks old - and worked more in that year than I ever had. It really bonded us. So it didn't effect my work life, but the focus of being a mother is utterly compelling and consuming - there is a choiceless-ness about it.
But I think what is impossible to hang on to is the creative drive that comes from time alone, which is never the same after having a child. The alone time is what drives my creativity, and after a child comes, even if you steal an hour here or there, it is just that - stolen time between duties rather than open ended stream of consciousness uninterrupted time.
Her Dad was a HUGE asset to it all working though. I was/is a fantastic parent and he was totally capable of being the stay at home guy the odd time that I didn't take her - 3, 4, 5 days at a time. He was amazing.
RN: Julia plays violin and has to study with another teacher and sometimes I think teaching my own son to play violin isn't a good idea. Why do you think children have to study with someone other than a parent?
SU: Oh, I wouldn't characterize it as "has to". I just knew that it wouldn't be good for our relationship - or for her opportunity to learn. And we have one of, I think, the best violin teachers on Bowen Island - Alison Nixon.
So I was happy to have her study with someone so great and not have the extra load of seeing her through learning an instrument. Plus, knowing how to play doesn't mean you're a great teacher, and I don't think I would have been a good teacher.
RN: If Julia or anyone else you know and care for wanted a life as a professional musician, what would your advice to them be?
SU: Do it because you LOVE it. Have a clean ego. Think of the audience as your ally. I know someone who doesn't actually like to perform because it triggers his insecurity - he feels resentment of the audience - that they are judging him - and who are they to judge him! That's unfortunate.
Be honest and authentic with your unique voice. Don't let "the industry" determine whether you have a career.
RN: Do you think it's possible to make a good living in gigging, or would you encourage such an individual to also consider teaching or another job as backup?
SU: I think it's good to surrender to it. Which means accepting that there is no real security, but having faith that your talent will provide for you. But teaching is a good back up income to have.
RN: Is it a life only select individuals have what it takes to make it work?
SU: Hmmm....I'd say so, yes.
RN: You've been teaching a Lyrics Course at UBC. How's that working out?
SU: I LOVE it. I love the kids - the process - and having my first regular paycheck!
RN: Are you considering settling down as a Prof someday and leaving the life of a traveling musician?
SU: I would never want to leave performing live, and couldn't imagine that ever being necessary. But I'd love to keep doing this job for awhile! I can't see myself ever really settling for just one path.
RN: Finally, tell me about your violin or violins.
SU: It's a German violin that I picked up in Victoria when my childhood one was stolen on route to my first Valdy and the Hometown Band gig in Victoria - it had been given to me by a Great Aunt when I'd won a smalls scholarship in Grade 7. It broke my heart, and I still search for it in stores.
For many years I played a white Barcus Berry electric. Regular body, but it sounded pretty grim acoustically. Then I went back to my "real" violin when I realized how much better it sounded.
RN: What would your dream violin sound like?
SU: Hmmm - like the one I play. My dream would be more about my own playing and tone. My dream would be to be a better player and be able to make any violin sound heartbreakingly beautiful.
RN: Shari, you're so great! Thank you for being an inspiration to so many and for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I hope we see each other again soon.