Need an escape from bad news and politics? Try fiddlin’ in the forest – Lookout Santa Cruz

From where I sit, there is nothing wrong with fiddling your life away.

The first time I heard about the Fiddle Extravaganza was about a year ago at a dinner party in Corralitos, where I was enjoying the midsummer evening and trying to listen in on other people’s conversation.

I was surrounded by friends of many years and engaged in talk about how to grow really succulent tomatoes. But I was catching snippets of enthusiastic talk from another bubble about small stringed instruments. I don’t recall the solution to the tomato issue, but I would imagine it has to do with good soil and lots of sun. I have never been able to coax even one delicious, juicy red orb to grow in my often-foggy Aptos yard.

In August, while gathered once again with the same folks in the same place (it has become a tradition), the same conversations began. Since I failed at tomatoes, I decided to park myself next to the friends who were once again talking about the upcoming Fiddle Extravaganza to see what I might learn.

My friend Nora Boothby was seated next to me. She would actually be performing at the next concert to be held at DeLaveaga Park on a Friday evening on Sept. 1. What, I wanted to know, is it? And how did you get involved?

In 2019, at the age of 68, Nora began taking fiddle lessons. Then, through an ad in Good Times, she discovered the Valley of the Moon concerts and she and her husband, John, began attending them, enjoying the music and the camaraderie.

“I had no idea that I could participate until we were at one of the concerts, and I spoke to a woman in line for the restroom whose husband was playing in the concert — and he had never touched a violin before going to the camp,” she said. “I loved the joyfulness of the playing and the music … so John gave me a week at fiddle camp.”

She was speaking of Valley of the Moon fiddle camp, originally held in Sonoma County but now taking place every August under the redwoods in Boulder Creek at the YMCA’s Camp Campbell. The fiddle concert is held at the end of the weeklong camp and features adults and kids.

Nora Boothby, a recent fiddle convert.

Nora Boothby, a recent fiddle convert.

(Via Claudia Sternbach)

“The crazy thing is we learn these tunes by ear only, no music,” explained Nora. “Typically, new people at camp, especially if they have never learned by ear before, spend the first few days thinking maybe they should go home and it’s all too much, but by the end of the week they’ve adjusted to the pace and accepted the encouragement of the people around them.”

And those highly skilled musicians are able to carry the beginners along on the lush river of sound.

I decided then and there that I wanted to go. To experience this “thing” I had been hearing about but couldn’t quite imagine. My husband, Michael, was on board as well.

It’s a take-your-own-picnic kind of occasion so, the day of the concert, my first outing was to Sunnyside Produce in Soquel to purchase really great tomatoes grown by folks who know how. I planned on building one of my favorite summer sandwiches, sliced tomato with mayo and a pinch of sea salt on lightly toasted ciabatta rolls. Throw in some chips and a few Tate’s chocolate chip cookies and we were good to go.

Driving up to DeLaveaga Park, I inhaled the scent of eucalyptus. We were just one night past the supermoon, so the promise of a supremely romantic glow hung between us.

Nora would be playing, along with many others led by one of Scotland’s most popular musicians and keeper of fiddling traditions, Alasdair Fraser. Fraser was joined by the Valley of the Moon Orchestra as well as various soloists. There were well over 100 musicians on the outdoor stage for the one-night-only performance and what looked to be a sold-out crowd of fiddleheads enjoying brought-from-home picnics as the sun began to set and the fiddlers, cellists and guitar players began to fill the stage.

But mostly it was about the fiddles. The glorious fiddles. Who knew that such a small instrument could provide such an abundance of joy, both for the musicians and the audience.

And then came the cellos. While the fiddle players sat quietly, the cello players created a deep and mournful sound which moved me to tears. I had gone from foot tapping and clapping to sobbing silently, a lump in my throat the size of a boulder. I thought of the people I miss. The people I loved.

Later I asked Nora what it felt like to sit on the stage surrounded by the sounds of fiddles on a moonlit night.

“Exhilarating! This was my third year, and each time I can do a little more — which of course makes it that much more fun,” she said. “There’s a lot of learning to go with the flow and not get too stressed about not being able to play everything, especially up to speed. You can participate at your own level. It’s all a process.”

Like life.

Many of the musicians were the same age as Nora or older. Some were beginners who desired to learn a new skill even as their fingers may be a little stiffer and their hair a bit whiter.

According to, “New research suggests that learning real-world skills in an environment similar to what college undergrads experience has the potential to produce long-lasting cognitive improvements in older adults.”

Claudia Sternbach's view during this month's Fiddle Extravaganza at DeLaveaga Park.

Here, under the stars, was proof of that medical opinion.

I have such admiration for Nora as well as the other musicians who — no matter their age or ability — decide to take the challenge to pick up a fiddle and learn to pluck out a tune. And then to celebrate with a rousing moonlit concert under the stars. How marvelous.

Gazing up at the heavens as the concert was winding down, I didn’t want it to end.

I had just experienced a total break from the reality of the world — from fires and earthquakes, floods and politics. From our country’s great divide. The squabbling back and forth. I had no idea what political beliefs anyone in the audience held when it came to guns or books (although I can guess), but we all were unanimous when it came to showing appreciation for the music. A standing ovation and enthusiastic applause made that obvious.

Music had brought us together. I felt cleansed. I slept soundly.

I can’t wait to go next year.

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