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Picking up the violin

By on March 23, 2020 in Arts with 0 Comments
Violinist and Wenatchee Symphony concertmaster Michelle Vaughn plays whenever and wherever she can; here she’s found a sunny spot in her backyard forest. Photo by Mike Irwin

‘The violin is my job, it’s my hobby, it’s the way I volunteer…’

By Susan Lagsdin

Michelle Vaughn was 11, giddy about the orchestra recruitment assembly at her elementary school, where she’d heard junior high students ably playing the Pink Panther theme song.

She wanted in. No problem.

When her mom came to her room one day with, “I’m going to the store to buy your instrument. A cello’s too big. Do you want a viola or a violin?” the choice was easy. Since the fearless fifth grader hadn’t heard of the former, she chose the latter.

Now the girl-grown-up, Michelle is frank about the instrument’s role in her life. “The violin is my job, it’s my hobby, it’s the way I volunteer, the way I challenge myself.”

With a hard-won master’s degree in performance and pedagogy from Central Washington University, she plays first violin for the Wenatchee Valley Symphony for its four or five concerts a year. That means an infrequent but intense rehearsal calendar, maybe 15 weeks a year of late nights, many more hours at home preparing and practicing.

She also serves as the symphony’s concertmaster, so she must be familiar with every part, every note of the score and then every nuance conductor Nick Caoile brings to the piece. 

During the week, she teaches violin in four of Wenatchee School District’s elementary schools.

Michelle’s played the violin for most of her life, minus one mentally excruciating month of enforced hiatus. Over-extending her arm while practicing Tchaikovsky too strenuously in grad school lead to pain and numbness of her whole left side.

“The awkward setup of this instrument is awful from the body’s perspective,” she said. “I do a lot of preventative work to keep injuries at bay.” But with that work at Central, she feels, “I saw huge growth. It prepared me for everything I’m doing now.”

Four years ago, she and her husband Kevin moved to Wenatchee and purchased from his parents the remodeled Crawford Avenue home he grew up in. 

Now, Michelle the violinist is also Michelle the mother of two toddlers. It’s a family choice she values, but it means creatively pilfering and plotting time to play music. 

She and Kevin are making it work; they’ve sectioned off, visually if not audibly, the end of the long living room of the home, and Michelle keeps her music stand and drawers and files of musical literature in that dedicated space. It abuts the kitchen and an appropriately toy-scattered family room, a symbol of her full and fruitful life.

She has finally approximated her past schedule (playing daily up to three to four hours) this last year after the initial baby-care interlude, but still yearns for time to delve into music that she’s not practicing for public performance.

Michelle displayed carefully-stored pages of some Bach dance scores written expressly for the unaccompanied violin, including a copy of his own hand’s notations. “I would play them just for myself; they’d only have to be ‘presentable,’ not perfect,” she said.

What symphonic music would she wish not to play, ever? A quick answer. “Sousa. It’s repetitive, loud. It grates me in an illogical way.” 

And, if world law made only one composer playable? “Ahhh…” she smiled. “Brahms. Violinists love him… the music is so lush. He makes you work the instrument in really satisfying ways.”

Michelle would like to meet with four or five other instrumentalists to play chamber music (literally living-room music) but says it’s hard to pull people together. 

She generally doesn’t listen to classical selections at home, except, she said, whatever recorded version Caoile prefers of what the symphony is playing next. But she admits she’ll sometimes ramp up her ’90s teen tunes just to rock out around the house.

And, though she’s declared her children can go their own ways in the arts… or not, she does take them to a weekly Music Together class (“Kind of a ‘Mommy and Me’ for music lovers,” she said.) “We sing songs, we beat on drums. It’s exhausting.”

Musically? Critically? “No — no … nothing like that,” she said. “Sometimes when we’re dancing around, I have to hold them — and that’s 80 pounds of kids in my arms.”

It’s a full and becoming-balanced life with some gardening in their huge, landscaped triple-sized lot — a new venture for her — plus cooking and baking, which she’s already good at. 

She’s a veteran violinist. And a mom. Michelle at 34 is pleased to be bringing maturity to her music and harmony to her household. 

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