Player Spotlight ~ Cassandra Cleghorn ~
poet, professor, fiddler

Opus 575, “David” Guarneri del Gesù violin, 2006

Cassandra Cleghorn and 'David', Guarneri violin Opus 575“The first time I played ‘David’ I actually blushed.  The combination of sweet and dark, and that bit of edge, went straight to my heart.  I returned to the studio often, trying other instruments at home over the next few months, but I knew it was ‘David’ from the start.”

Cassandra grew up in a family of professional musicians—her step-father is a violist and conductor and her violist father and violinist step-mother just retired from the Cincinnati Symphony after more than 50 years of service.  “My father liked to wake me and my sister by playing his favorite recordings of Mahler scherzi.  Music of every sort—from Puccini to Papa John Creach—filled both my mother’s and my father’s houses.”   Cassandra started playing the violin at age 7 and performed regularly in orchestras until she went to college.  “At 18 I discovered Greek and became a classics major.  College led to grad school, which led in turn to my first teaching job.  Without ever making a conscious decision to stop playing I found myself in my late 30s, missing the violin terribly and wanting it back in my life.”  Importantly, she wanted to give her four children something like the immersive experience of music she had had.

Cassandra resumed the violin by learning to play by ear.  She attended Interplay Jazz workshops where she met Eugene Friesen, who teaches at Berklee and who is credited with helping to transform the repertoire and profile of the contemporary cello.  “The first thing Eugene did was to dismantle the music stand: ‘We won’t be needing this thing!’  It was all about learning to hear rather than read.  Eugene understood what it was like to be a ‘recovering classical musician.’” Cassandra also studied improvisation with Todd Reynolds, pioneering contemporary violinist.  “As much as I loved learning from Eugene and Todd, I knew that my technique was never going to be equal to the demands of jazz.  My ears had gotten big enough, but my fingers couldn’t keep up.”  

Opus 575, "David" Guarneri del GesùMeanwhile she was discovering the vibrant vernacular music of New England and French Canada.  Alden Robinson, an Irish fiddler from Maine and a student of Cassandra’s at Williams College, played her the opening track on Liz Carroll’s album, Lost in the Loop.  “I was sitting on the steps of Chapin Hall one sunny spring day.  I heard the first bars of ‘Sevens’ and I said to Alden, ‘That’s what I want to play!’”  Since then she has immersed herself in Irish, New England and French Canadian fiddling, attending sessions, dances and festivals in Western Massachusetts, Vermont, upstate New York and Quebec.  Cassandra has studied in workshop settings with Liz Carroll and with Quebecois fiddlers David Boulanger, Donna Hebert, Eric Favreau, Olivier Demers and Andre Brunet.   “For reasons I can’t explain the Quebecois tunes really move me—especially the airs tordus, or crooked tunes.  The rhythmic work is both powerful and subtle.  Right arm technique is key.”   She recommends the recordings and videos of Jean Cartignan, Louis “Pitou” Boudreault, Yvon Mimeau, Guy Bouchard and Lisa Ornstein. “The friendships I’ve made with players all over New England and Quebec are a source of joy—we speak the same musical language, with slightly different accents.”

As inspiring as are these musicians and traditions for Cassandra, she credits Doug Cox with providing the most exciting stimulus to her musical life.  “For the first two years after I resumed playing I was using a $200 instrument I had picked up at Downtown Sounds in Northampton.  Eugene Friesen finally told me it was time to find a real instrument.” Cassandra found her way to Doug’s studio on the recommendation of Friesen and Reynolds.  “The first time I played ‘David’ I actually blushed.  The combination of sweet and dark, and that bit of edge, went straight to my heart.  I returned to the studio often, trying other instruments at home over the next few months, but I knew it was ‘David’ from the start.”At first she struggled with the idea of playing music from outside the classical repertoire on so fine an instrument.  “Members of my family actually told me I was playing ‘the wrong kind of music,’ and that was a heavy burden to overcome.”  But the joy of playing David eloquently answered every objection.  “Every day as I bring this violin to my body and draw the bow, my heart soars.  At sessions people routinely ask about the violin, even as I’m just beginning to tune—it sparkles from across the room.  This is the instrument of a lifetime, a gift I cherish and try to honor by my playing.”

Cassandra’s dream of a music-filled house has come true.  Her children sing and play the guitar, piano and violin, and her partner, Jeffrey, plays the guitar, piano and clarinet.  Cassandra and Jeffrey play Celtic music together as a duo, often joined by musicians from the Berkshires and beyond.  “Playing this instrument—both in company and alone—brings me home to myself.”

Photo of of Cassandra by Deborah Brothers
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