Last Look

Starving artist

By Ann Marie Calhoun (Music, Biology ’01)
Ann Marie Calhoun

Calhoun.
Photo by Stephanie Gross.

I was three years old when my parents took me to a music shop and a tiny violin in the display case captivated me. My mother, a classically trained pianist, signed me up for violin lessons. My father, a bluegrass banjo player, couldn’t wait for me to learn some fiddle tunes. After I learned my first minuet, my father taught me how to play “Turkey in the Straw.” I delighted in the contrast of musical styles, and I began supplementing my formal training in the classical violin with fiddle lessons from my father.

In high school, my formal training in classical violin intensified when I was awarded a fellowship with the National Symphony Orchestra. I missed school to attend rehearsals at the Kennedy Center, performed in master classes taught by internationally recognized soloists, competed at the top levels and was expected to practice heavily for private lessons. My fiddling days seemed like they were over. The NSO was grooming me for a conservatory education, but I was unsure about devoting my life to one kind of music. I had tasted musical diversity earlier in life, and I wanted a college that would broaden me both musically and academically. Everyone was surprised when I decided to attend U.Va. I wasn’t going to drop music, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I began working toward a premedicine degree, majoring in biology. I also peppered my schedule with music classes and hoped that my time at U.Va. would give me answers about my relationship with music.

I began to realize my musical calling my second year at college. I moved out of the dorms and was responsible for paying rent and buying food for the first time in my life. I needed money, and I took every gig that I could find. I played in a quartet for Chapel weddings, played electric violin with fraternity rock bands, recorded commercial music and joined a bluegrass band, Walker’s Run. As I began to network with local musicians and explore different musical styles, I was able to get more and more paying jobs. I was no longer a starving artist, but I was still hungry for different flavors and textures of music. I wanted to eat off of everyone’s plate, and U.Va. offered me a smorgasbord.

I started studying jazz with John D’earth and experienced the exhilaration that comes with improvisation. I practiced improvising with my bluegrass band and even started an independent study to explore bluegrass music in performance. I began taking every music class that would fit into my schedule. I had to ask special permission from the dean to take more than the allowed number of credits almost every semester. I changed my major in biology to a double major in music and biology.

As I prepared to graduate, I wondered how I would use both my science and my music degrees. I found a perfect fit at Woodberry Forest School, a private school where I would teach science and direct the strings program. The location of the school allowed me to retain ties with the Charlottesville musical community, and my summer break allowed me to tour with my new bluegrass band, Old School Freight Train.

Old School Freight Train took off during my first year as a school teacher. We were recognized in competition, played at festivals and were invited to showcase at the International Bluegrass Music Association Conference. When we were offered a recording contract by Ricky Skaggs, I was faced with a tough decision. If I signed the contract, the tour schedule would clash with my teaching job. I agonized over the decision and eventually decided to quit the band.

A few years later, I am still teaching. I reconnected with John D’earth and occasionally play with him in a band called High Society. I began doing more recording work and played on four tracks of the new Dave Matthews Band album, “Stand Up.” This summer I received a grant from the U.S. embassy to tour in Italy and Tunisia with a renowned oud — Middle Eastern lute — player. Next year I’ll play the violin in an independent film about the Civil War. Recently I was invited to audition for the band Jethro Tull as a solo violinist.

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would have been had I gone to a music conservatory. U.Va. helped open my eyes to a bigger musical world, and I can honestly say that I have never been more satisfied as a musician.