Baxter Bell – Oakland, California

Baxter Bell – Oakland, California

My Fiddle Story – Baxter Bell

I started playing the violin before I knew any better! I was five at the time, and apparently, I had grown fond of the piano, as my grandmother had a baby grand in her living room, quite an extravagance for the wife of a barber in the early 1960s! I liked to sit on the piano bench with her as she played and she would have me hit a few high notes to play along with her. This led to my repeated requests of mom and dad to get us a piano for our house. Having neither the means nor the space, my mom embarked on an adventure of finding a violin teacher in Toledo, Ohio in 1965 willing to teach a 5-year-old. This was essentially unheard of in our town! She approached a teacher who offered classes to 4th and 5th graders and proposed just such an absurdity, and it did not initially look promising. However, this teacher just happened to be married to a music professor at the University of Toledo, who supposedly (perhaps aware of the introduction of Suzuki method in other parts of the US) encouraged his wife to give me a try. Predicting I would not last a month, she reluctantly agreed, with the promise from her husband that he would sit in on my lessons. Although I have no distinct memory of him actually being in the room, in retrospect, I now feel honored he was there. Mrs. Gunderson was an old-school classical teacher, prone to more brow beating and pointing out the negative in my young playing, and I recall more than one occasion when I was brought to tears for “not practicing enough this week” and the like. But I did really like, at 5, the prize at the end of my first recital: popsicles and ice cream for all us students! That got my attention (being kind of like my first paid gig), and I immediately asked my mom if I could hold my own “recital” outside our house, featuring the only song I knew- Mary Had a Little Lamb! She agreed, I rounded up all my little friends from the neighborhood, and following my brief but spirited performance, mom gladly dispensed the popsicles!

I continued to study violin with Mrs. Gunderson for the next 5 years, gradually acclimating to the unique challenges of a fretless instrument- I am so grateful that I did not know what frets were then, and therefore simply set my sights on learning the violin in blissful semi-ignorance. Not only were there recitals to prepare for 2 time a year, but I began to compete in String Instrument competitions and occasionally won some prize money! In 4th grade, I began studying with a new teacher, Miss Vashaw, who was newly back from some time in New York City, where she taught and wrote instructional books for violin. She was in her 60s at that time, and was not only an excellent violin teacher, but a great motivator, encouraging and bringing out the best in her students, and an extra “grandmother” to me, taking me under her wing and making me feel seen and heard. She also gave me my first rock ‘n roll album…one day after a lesson, we were looking through her large collection of classical albums and came upon the Beatles Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and seeing my curiosity and not missing a beat, she gave it to me- not loaned, but gifted!  Well, from the opening bars of the track “A Day in the Life”, my understanding of music was forever changed…and that great Orchestral section on that track seemed to say “Violins can Rock!” It would be a while before I experienced that literally, but the seed was planted.

Middle school and Junior High saw me forming a Trio with my cello playing brother Dave and our viola playing friend Dale, playing for my parent’s bridge clubs and holiday gathering, and making a little coin along the way. Sprinkled in among all our classical repertoire, there were a few more contemporary pieces, but they were still a rarity. Another personal musical milestone was playing in my first pit orchestra in 8th grade for a local high school production of “Tea for Two”, with my brother Dave and me making up the entire string section!  Upon entering high school myself, I joined the Toledo Youth Orchestral and auditioned into the 1st violin section, working my way into the second chair over a few years, and soloing with them in my junior year. I also recall the excitement of doing a short tour a towns a few hours away from Toledo during those years and the joy of participating in a good orchestral performance.

Despite the encouragement of Miss Vashaw that I consider studying music in college, I opted instead for pre-med- I loved science and biology and felt drawn to the idea of being a healer as a profession. But my violin went along for the ride, and came out at the holidays, for a talent show in Medical School, and other such occasions. My introduction to bluegrass and old timey music came years later during my Family Practice residency when I was actually living in the Blue grass state, in Covington, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. One of my mentors, Dr. Andy Baker, an obstetrician, also played banjo and enjoyed jamming to bluegrass tunes. Procuring a copy of the Fiddler’s Real Book, I joined him and a few other players at his actual off-the-grid log cabin on the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky to learn my first old timey tunes by candle light and fueled by Wild Turkey!

My next big shift in musical reality came from a patient of mine around my 37th turn around the sun. Lou kind of defies being pigeon-holed into a style of play, but he is a master guitarist, and what he turned me onto was improvising by ear. He also exposed me to experimental jazz, and other fringe trends that vastly expanded my understanding and tastes in music. Learning to play by ear meant all I needed to know was the key a tune was in, and I could find a way for my fiddle to sing along. This began a pretty continuous period of getting together with friends for casual jam sessions that include pop tunes, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass- all musical genres were welcome! Then, 3 summers ago, I finally got to join my guitar strumming, harmonica blowing, John-Cash sounding friend Kevin at the summer music camp he had already been to two summers running. The moment I walked into the cafeteria/greeting area that first time, I know I was home! The California Coastal Music Camp, no longer residing on the coast, has been around for over 20 years, and some of the campers have been coming for almost that long!!! Camp is welcoming to players of all levels and supports folk, blues, jazz, rock and roll, and more. It gave me an opportunity to dive into realms I had rarely visited: Celtic fiddle style, Mandolin, Django Gypsy Jazz ensemble, and this past summer, Katie’s Western Swing Fiddle! And probably not since my early days, I am playing on my own most days of the week. What a ride and what a joy this humble violin has provided!

Bob Davis – Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Bob Davis – Guanacaste, Costa Rica


Wow. Daunting challenge. So to begin, I’ll relieve those of you who may read this, the mental exercise of determining my age. I’m 72…which underscores that it is never too late in your life to pick up your axe, and start making it put out tunes! Doesn’t matter if you strum it, squeeze it, pick it, bow it, blow it, tinkle its keys, slobber on its reed, bang on or beat on it, or any of the many more ways to let the music in your soul come to the fore. Let it OUT! In tune, sort of in tune, doesn’t matter!

Because Katie’s Musical Journey invitation established that vocals and playing instruments qualify equally, my journey began with vocals. To wit, as a seven year old American kid temporarily living in a British suburb of London, England. Me and my british mates in the days leading up the Christmas Eve would trek up and down our neighborhood street, knocking on neighbors’ front doors, offering our Christmas Carol vocals, for which we would be rewarded a few ‘pence each. Wow…a paid gig! When my mates got too cold to continue, my capitalistic, entrepreneurial spirit sprang forth and I soldiered on until the venue was exhausted. (And that, was pretty much, other than singing along with John Denver tunes on the drive to work, the end of my vocal career).

So, shortly thereafter, back living on the east coast as a short and stocky, very proper British-speaking 4th grader, I decided, here’s a good idea, “I’ll take up violin”. This did not go well…First, it quickly became clear I wasn’t a childhood prodigy; second, it required practicing every day, which apparently just didn’t work for me (you’ll see this pattern again later); third, none of my school mates, all of whom were striving to soon depose Mickey Mantle (major league baseball hero) were inclined toward picking up a violin. So, – actually I can’t any longer remember the end of the 4th grade violin era – moving on.

Next, while trying to navigate the travails of life as a still stocky short sixth grader, my Mother, in her arguably wise ways, decided that I was well suited to playing Accordion…not just a squeeze box that an 11 year old might play…no, a 128 button, full blown keyboard with at least 8,000 keys. An instrument housed in a box that took a crane assist while ascending the stairs to my music teacher’s second story studio. This was such a massive instrument that if you spread the bellows to their full extension, it would have required assistance from Arnold Schwarzenegger to compress. Like the violin, this did not go on long.

So, on to 12 or maybe 13 years old. Aaahhh, Electric Guitar! Got one for Christmas. A Silvertone electric two-pickup guitar, with amp, from Sears. In case you are trying to figure out timing, 1961. Now living in Panama City, Florida. Gonna be Elvis The 2nd. My Dad signed me up with a 950 year old guitar teacher (he was really good by the way). But dang, he wanted me to first practice these boring scales, and learn to read, of all things, musical notation. Nah, wanna be a Rock N’ Roll star…NOW! I suspect you’re getting the picture. Rock N’ Roll star didn’t pan out, guitar went to the back of the closet. Now 16-17 years old, living in Northern California (1963-1965). SURFIN USA!!! I’m all over that! Broke out that Silvertone, started playing with neighborhood buds, got better…not great… sorta practicing…and one of my buds kind of oversold our skills and song list, and the next thing I know, we’re on the stage of my High School doing a Friday night dance gig…wait, I’m the rhythm guy, why am I now playing lead???!!! It wasn’t pretty, and we weren’t invited back, not only for an encore that night, but ever! Guitar…back in the closet (wish Instill had that axe, it was really sweet).

Advance the clock about 40 years…no musical instruments touched during that time. Moved to the central coast of California. Big bluegrass fan. Hmmm, like the sound of mandolins. Bought one.  Don’t need no stinking lessons…I’ll teach myself. And did, sort of. Relearned how to sight read music, evolved to starting to step it up on Irish and bluegrass mandolin stuff…but that dang practicing thing – I just want to play like David Grisman or Sam Bush, NOW…kept getting in the way of my musical success.

A few years later, my wife and I took off as full time live aboard ocean-going  sailors on our 50’ sailboat.  My mandolin’s on board, sharing space with my wife and I in the forward bunk of our home, she blabbing something about “play the damn thing or lets use it as a dinghy paddle”.  By happenstance I got hooked into taking lessons in Puerta Vallarta at a mexican bar/night club owned by a very excellent gringo musician. Something sparked, I lit off, got serious, haven’t stopped playing and seriously practicing since. And several years later bought my first of now five fiddles (way up in the mountains of Mexico).  Fiddle became my passion. I’ve since been playing mando and more recently almost exclusively fiddle with fellow sailing musicians who come from across the world while sailing throughout the Caribbean and Pacific waters and coastlines of Centraland South America. My fellow musician’s skills range from rookies like me, to a retired 50-year long cellist who was at one time the lead cellist in the Washington DC symphony.

But, as as largely self-taught fiddler, I knew if I was ever going to play at a level that I seek, I needed instruction. By pure coincidence in 2019 I attended California Coastal Music Camp, and ended up in Katie’s Swing Fiddle class which brings us to today. When I signed up for the Camp, hoping to find help in simply getting help to better play my fiddle and saw that “Swing Fiddle” was the only option, I ended up spending five days in her class. That led to my becoming  Fiddle School student, for which my wife is eternally grateful…my cat-screeching Fiddle play is pretty much a thing of the past. I have a repertoire of pieces that I am able to play without having to endlessly repeat a phrase to nail it, and most of the time my notes are on key. Now…about that Rock N’ Roll Star part!

Cheers, Bob



Pin It on Pinterest