Meet Quest Maker Sarah Hotchkiss
Quest Makers are women in their 40s and beyond who've declared
"now it's my time," and then set off on their own journeys to realize their dreams. Every month a Quest Maker is featured in the FREE e-newsletter, Your Next Quest Chronicles. Click here to enjoy archived issues.
Quest Maker Sarah Hotchkiss
From empty nester musician
To creator of an orchestra
A classically trained violist Sarah put her music aside to raise her children. In her mid-30s, she picked it up again, playing in groups as well as moonlighting as a viola and violin teacher. Along the way, she discovered a passion for the fiddle (violin with an attitude!). Flooded with requests for lessons, she began teaching full time. She knew she wanted to create a place where beginning and intermediate level folk musicians could gain the practical experience to play in a band and that she was uniquely suited to make it happen. So at 43, she registered a trade name and sent out an email to her friends and students. Six weeks and 20 fiddlers later, the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra held its first rehearsal. Sarah's dream of a community where musicians come together to jam, have fun and share their love of traditional string music in all its styles, from French Canadian to Welsh, from Cajun to New England and beyond has come true.
Would you share a little of your background?
I was raised with music from the time I was very young, becoming a violist in the classical tradition. I went on to Crane Music School for my first two college years and graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in the Arts of the Elizabethan Era.
Once I started a family, though, I dropped music and the arts for a good long time except for Play Doh and finger painting with my children, plus a little puppet making on the side. When my children were young, I did home day care for several years and then worked as a youth counselor. My Woodbury Strings business had its beginning back in those days as it was first called “Greenstar Playhouse” which captured everything I did at that time: day care, puppet making, violin teaching.
In 1994 I separated from my first husband, and though I had been dabbling in music, including teaching a few violin students on the side, that's when I really began to make time for music again. By1998, I was getting so many calls requesting music lessons that I stopped working as a counselor and started teaching violin and viola full time.
That is also when I met Sarah Blair, a great Irish fiddler. We embarked on many years of teaching fiddle camps, which is when I got steeped in the world of fiddling and folk music and developed a great base knowledge of all the various styles. Now I play the fiddle and the banjo and rarely play classical music.
Click here to listen to Shoo Fly
In 2000 I met my now husband, John Mowad, who also is a fiddler and guitarist. Since then, there's been no looking back! We both teach music full time in our private studio, Woodbury Strings. We play in a few bands: Damn Yankee String Band, High-Low-Jack (when it is just the two of us), and Cariad (our Welsh traditional duo), as well as directing the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra and Sap Run Fiddlers. I'm also on the faculty of Northeast Heritage Music Camp where John joins me for my faculty performances.
Is there any difference between a fiddle and a violin?
There's a joke that a violin has strings and a fiddle has "straings." Or, you could say the difference is just attitude. Musicians do make changes to a violin to modify the kinds of strings they use or the shape of the bridge to suit their dominant style, but the instrument is the same.
What has been your quest?
Logo created by Tim Newcomb (a fiddler!) of Newcomb Studios
Creating the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra (VFO).
My motivation was a mother of retirement age and her adult daughter to whom I was giving beginner fiddle and violin lessons. I wanted to create an opportunity for musicians of mixed levels to work together, without the tension often felt between musicians when the levels aren't comfortably similar. I wanted a place where adults like them could learn in a fun way about rehearsing, putting together arrangements and performing at the beginning or intermediate level rather than waiting till one was advanced enough to do all these things publicly.
Back in my early years when I had been learning about being in and directing orchestras, I remember one of the teachers saying that a group is only as good as its least experienced player. In some of those settings, I'm sure there's some truth to that but I found that puzzling and discouraging. I felt like there must be a place where people of multi levels can play together and still put on a satisfying performance, both for them and for their listeners.
There are many places that you can go to have a jam session with other musicians, but fewer places within the traditional music setting, aside from camps and festivals, where beginning and intermediate level folk musicians can gain the practical experience they need, to play in a band. I felt there was a need for that locally on an ongoing basis. I wanted to formalize it a little bit.
Part of my inspiration was the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra which has been around for decades. In my mind, I also wanted to feature Vermont fiddlers and composers' music and expose fiddlers to music from all the styles, so there would always be something for everyone. I think that the fiddle repertoire lends itself to a multi-level music making because there's a natural mentorship built into the whole world. Everybody helps everybody else out. When fiddlers get together, some people know the tune; others don't. Nobody minds if you play along what you can pick up while it is happening. It's all in the interest of jamming and having a good time and just making music and sharing what you know.
VFO at Billings Farm and Museum 25th anniversary Click here to listen to West Fork Gals,
At what point in your life did you decide to embark on your quest?
I was a recent empty nester and I needed to direct my grief somehow. When your children leave, it's a wonderful thing and you're very happy for them but it's painful and hard to adapt to as a parent. The VFO was a perfect thing to redirect my energy.
In the spring of 2003 I woke up in the middle of night and it just dawned on me that the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra was the answer so I went downstairs and I just paced floor for an hour. I realized that as much as I was resisting the idea of it, I knew that I was the one who needed to do it.
At the start up, there needed to be a certain combination of skills that I knew I had. You needed to be very organized, able to see the big picture and have a broad knowledge of both folk music and some of the places people might come from, , such as a classical background, for example.
Plus I just knew a lot of people and had been community organizing for years. I had a broad network already. There are others who thought of doing it, and a few who have come up with something similar, but to actually make it a reality the way I envisioned it, that's a huge undertaking.
It needed to be called the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra because I wanted it to be broad and way beyond me, and possibly the sort of thing every state would develop in time. I wanted to get it started but I didn't want it to stop when I stopped.
The next day I registered the trade name. Then I sent out an email. Six weeks later, we had our first rehearsal and 20 people came. For rural Vermont, that's a really good indication that what you've got is a really good idea. We had our first session and the rest is history.
The VFO performing in July, 2005 at the
How has it unfolded?
At the beginning, I just ran it out of Woodbury Strings but I wanted it to be a non-profit. Sharon Peck, who now owns Willow Moon Farm attended our first performance, signed up for fiddle lessons and joined the orchestra. She was instrumental, no pun intended, in helping us become a non-profit.
The orchestra has sessions in spring, summer and fall. We have multi level players from fiddlers in our first fiddle section who win trophies at contests to fiddlers in our 3rd and 4th fiddle section who are beginners—adults who have just started or who are taking it up again. We have fiddlers, cellists, guitars, mandolins, flutes, accordions, bass players, and banjo players from time to time. People sign up by session. We usually have about 25-30 players each session, but probably around 80 members. Performing is optional but most choose to participate.
About half of the time we learn tunes by ear in the traditional fashion. The other half of our repertoire is arrangements written specifically for the orchestra by my husband John, who also directs the rhythm section. He is very ingenious at putting together arrangements that keep the traditional sound of the music without sacrificing any of the stylistic elements. He will write multilevel parts so that everybody can manage all at once. VFO can play tunes that are at a danceable tempo that sound quite nice. We tend to get standing ovations when we perform our final concerts, which I think is remarkable given that so many people on stage are new to playing.
We are really proud that on several occasions somebody has come to a performance and, with no prior musical experience, will be on stage performing with us a year later.
Vermont Fiddle Orchestra, 2007
Has there been a moment when it all came together?
|Slattery and Stewart in performance|
Yes. Last December's performance we had Andy Stewart and Mary Jo Slattery play Cajun music with us. That particular concert I felt that my dream became fully realized, finally. In that concert, as in our others, we had the whole range from youngest children right on up to professional musicians playing. This time we had much more room and people were dancing all night.
To me it was the perfect combination. And it really worked. The orchestra sounded the best it had ever sounded. I was thrilled. I thought, "Yes this is it. It can be done."
How did you make time for your dream?
I had all this energy to channel because the children were away a lot of time once they had grown up. Like many Vermonters who moonlight to survive, I was used to working late nights and weekends and that is what I did to get the VFO going.
It would be nice to say that I made this dream come true while keeping a balance in my life. It would be more encouraging for others to know that you could try something like this without it consuming your life but the fact was it really did for a number of years. However, at the time if felt like my ministry, and there was no stopping me.
Of course, that was in the beginning. I think that's why I paced the floor when I got the idea. I no longer have to put that much time into it and I feel more comfortable putting myself first, because I feel confident that I have made a valuable contribution. Now I can step back and watch it happen without having to be the one to grease the wheels all the time.
What helped you stay on your quest’s path?
| Sarah and John playing
with the VFO in July, 2005
While I started it, my husband and I have done this together. John has been so helpful all along the way. He has been a tremendous support. We wouldn't be what we are at all without him. The orchestra members have been so enthusiastic about it and so many people have stepped up to help when help was needed, that it has inspired me to keep going, especially when the economy tanked. People helping out, sharing the vision and affirming that it should go on; not just the people who play in the orchestra, but people come to the performances—that is what has motivated me to persist. I have never forgotten one concertgoer said "Don't stop this. Just don’t ever stop this."
Another thing that has helped me, and the group, is that I make it a point to try to keep the "big picture" in the forefront of my mind and to be able to communicate well with everyone about that.
Looking back, what's one thing you wish you had known as you set off on your journey?
I wish I had known at that point in my life how to take better care of myself. I've really only made that a priority in this past year. I am talking about just general health things: putting myself as a priority, making sure I am getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, getting enough time for rest and relaxation so that I have a better balance in my life. I didn't know how to do that then. I found this year, because I am putting my health first, the other stuff falls into place much more easily. If I had realized how easy that would have been back then it would have saved me a lot of aggravation.
What is an essential quality that you'd tell women to pack for their own path?
Women should trust in their intuition more and go with it. I have almost always been sorry when I didn't trust that gut feeling I often have.
When I have gone wrong it's because I am too worried about pleasing somebody instead of asking myself, “what do I want to have happen?” and then having that be the thing that drives me instead. I do believe it is important to consider with graciousness others needs and thoughts, but try not to let it eat you up if they disagree with you or feel that you have failed them in some way. Use it as an opportunity to grow.
One of the things I always say to new members on their first night with the VFO is that if there is anything I do that they don't like or understand, they should tell me. All the changes that have been made to make things work better are because I have gotten feedback or criticism from members. I also tell them with such a mixed group it is really hard to meet everyone's needs all the time. If they like it 70% of the time, that is great!
Can you describe how you dealt with any obstacles on your adventure?
Some of the obstacles that we face are ones any non-profit organization that relies on volunteers faces: trying to maintain and have everything done that needs to be done in a timely fashion or to just survive financially and to be clear on our goals. We fall into the frustration of: "This needs to be done and who is going to do it?"
We have applied for some grants that we haven't been able to obtain, so we've had some financial difficulties. I think we have come up with a better scenario in recent years for being in the black at the end of a session and we are really proud that we have done so in the last several sessions, despite the economy. Some of it is trial and error and learning from our mistakes. We're still in the phase of deciding what everybody's role is. I would like at some point to formalize what aspects are working and which aren't, so that we can share that with others so they don't have to reinvent the wheel in the event that they’d like to replicate our group in their area.
What changes has the VFO brought to your life?
Aside from fine tuning my teaching skills (you know as a teacher you always learn as much or more than your students!), I think one of the big things it has done for me professionally is to make me comfortable taking center stage. Because I am the director, I have pretty much had to be the emcee. If you had asked me in high school if I would ever be doing that I would have said: "Absolutely not ever!" I still wouldn't be willing to say it is my favorite thing but at least I feel OK now about being a public figure in that way.
I have also developed a whole new set of skills of working with multi level abilities and needs and I have a much broader understanding of how to work with adults, which is very different form working with children.
One sweet thing that means a lot to me is that both my children have become involved. My son plays the guitar and he played with us for one session and will probably play with us again this fall. My daughter is a budding filmmaker and she has been videotaping our performances as of late. They both have been a part of it and it means a great deal to me.
Because my husband and do this together, it has really broadened our range of possibilities together. I don't think he could ever have imagined that he would be composing, editing, arranging and leading groups. It's been exciting to watch him expand his skills. It makes it more fun for both of us as professionals and as life partners.
What's been the secret to reaching your goals?
Believing in myself from the beginning of the project, and tremendous patience. Over the years I have also learned to trust my intuition more and more, especially now that I have all these years of experience to pair with my intuition.
I'm not a forefront person; I'm a sidelines person, watching and observing. As a teacher, being able to observe what individuals are experiencing and then adjust accordingly puts me in a better position for working with a group that has a wide variety of needs, levels and interests to meet those needs simultaneously.
Recently, my husband ran into one of my students and John found himself describing me in this way: "There's no one softer and there's no one tougher." It was a sweet and memorable moment because it's as if he knows me better than I know myself.
”Soft and tough” is a winning combination in teaching. I can create a safe and friendly environment that people trust, especially if they are feeling self conscious about their ability. My resilience and strength create a confidence in what I do, both for me and my students. I think when you are doing the kind of work that I'm doing, it's a good recipe for leadership, especially when you combine that with good intuition and observational skills.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
There isn't a specific piece of advice. My husband, my son and my daughter are usually the people I go to for advice and for ideas. The three of them have been so helpful. When they give me their thoughts and advice, I trust it 100% and often act on it to good effect. Also, using the input from VFO members has been extremely important to the success of the group.
Is there a particular quote, a movie, a book or a person that has sustained you?
Aside from the support from my husband and children, what has sustained me throughout my life and what is with me when I teach and do what I do is what I think of as my “Mount Rushmore” of women:
My mother: she is the inspiration for my strength, resilience, and for all my teaching. What I have learned, I mostly learned from her. She is a fabulous teacher, still doing it at 81 years of age.
My godmother: she was an early childhood professor and also my kindergarten teacher, who gave me love and guidance. I also learned some teaching skills from her.
My surrogate grandmother: we had a tender and special relationship that helps define who I am. She was sweet, kind, gentle, and loving and we shared many precious times together.
My first string teacher: she was the sweetest, most gracious person, and she supported me in every way. I loved her dearly. The gentleness and patience that she taught with is with me in every class or lesson that I teach. She taught me to love music the most.
A surrogate mother in my college years: she possessed great wisdom and for stepped in to help me deal with some of life's most difficult issues.
My aunt: her support and friendship in my adult years has gotten me through many hard times.
|Young Gifted and Black|
Aretha Franklin: her music from the Young Gifted and Black album saved my soul when there was no-one available to talk to. During my darkest years following my divorce and before I met my second husband, I would dance and exercise to her album late at night when I was alone and my children were with their father. The strength in her voice, and the inspiring lyrics on all the songs in the album kept me going.
This all sounds very dramatic. But the fact is, these women were just doing what they do, and because of it, I have been able to pass on a little or a lot of each of them to the next generation. A few of my students are already mentoring others and I can see their influence on younger children already. Just knowing that makes me feel sometimes that I do enough, and I am so grateful that I had such pillars in my early years.
Do you have a new quest around the corner?
I want to focus more on my work with young children and their families. Of all the things I do, that is what I love and do best. I'd like to fine tune my pedagogy so that I can share it with others, perhaps through my website.
I am also trying to make that balance in my life really happen where I have adequate rest and time for myself. The next step for me is to pass the torch on to someone else to direct the VFO. I am about to resign from the board because I plan to spend the next year behaving as if I am just the artistic director who wouldn’t normally sit on the board. I am aware that if I do this, some decisions may get made that I might not like, but I have to start letting go if this group is going to survive beyond me.
If I can focus specifically on what I want to do now, I think I will be able to have more time to relax and enjoy my family and leisure which is something I have never been able to do fully.
Also there's a lot of banjo playing in my future!
Is there anything else you’d like to tell me that we haven’t covered?
|Click here to enjoy a Welch medley
John on guitar, Sarah on fiddle
This past spring I got back into playing my Welsh fiddle repertoire and I put together a tune teaching CD to give more people access to some Welsh tunes.
We also put together a concert of Welsh fiddle music where I was a soloist with the VFO. They loved the Welsh tunes so much. As soloist, what happened for me was that for the first time I found myself in the music. Up until this point, the music I have been doing has mostly involved my adapting to others interests and needs. This was the first time I felt like I was making decisions about how the music would go and everyone was adapting to me. It was a self-defining moment musically and I am excited it happened. I hope to experience more of that in the future now that I have gotten a taste of it.
If you would like to get in touch with Sarah, you can send her an email, call her at 802.223.8945 or visit her website, Woodbury Strings or at the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra website. Below are upcoming events: