Young fiddler finds her voice through instrument

Young fiddler finds her voice through instrument
Shira Ellisman plays her 150-year-old fiddle at her Encinitas home. Ellisman is one of a few fiddlers in San Diego County to play Texas-Style fiddle. Photo by Tony Cagala

ENCINITAS — While most teens her age have recording artists like Justin Bieber or Ariana Grande in their music playlists, Shira Ellisman’s playlist sounds quite a bit different.

The soon-to-be 16-year-old’s playlist reads more like a who’s who in the fiddle-playing world with artists like Terry Morris, Orville Burns and Jimmie Don Bates

In fact, the music on her phone is practically all fiddle.

“It’s really become something that I’m really passionate about,” said the young, but already accomplished fiddler.

Ellisman said her passions for the instrument were awakened only a couple of years ago, when she began learning Texas-Style fiddling. That style of play, one of the more unique but widely recognized forms of fiddle music, has helped Ellisman to compete in and win many fiddle contests around the country.

Last year, Ellisman won the Topanga and Santa Barbara fiddle contests, including wining her age division and Grand Championship at the Tehachapi fiddle contest.

Now, whenever she picks up her instrument, a 150-year-old fiddle that she’s had for the past five years, it’s taken on extra meaning for her.

“It’s basically my life,” Ellisman said. “It’s become my voice, in a way.”

Born in Israel (her name Shira means “song” in Hebrew), she began taking lessons at around the age of five. Her dad, Avery, was a musician on tour in a Country Western band and still picks up the fiddle or a guitar to play.

And when he does, it might be one of the few times that she actually listens to him, he joked.

By the time she was two, Ellisman had a fiddle in her hands. She didn’t know how to play it, she explained, but instead just “sawed” at the strings during jam sessions her dad would hold.

Avery said he never forced his children to take music lessons — music was simply always around and it just caught fire with her.

“It’s a nice thing to see in this day and age,” Avery said, appreciating also that it’s counter to the slew of electronics and gadgets that have come to consume other teens her age.

Despite not having too many fiddlers around San Diego County, let alone Texas-Style fiddlers  (Ellisman said she might be one of five Texas-Style fiddlers in the county), the San Dieguito Academy sophomore still learns songs and techniques the traditional way.

Some of her closest friends she meets up with only at contests or when she’s taking a lesson via Skype with Luke Price, a National Grand Fiddle Champion.

Her other source of learning: Listening to recordings that have been around for years.

“I just love listening to it,” she said, adding how she could listen to the same song played over and over again and hear something new every time.

It’s the variations, too, that really get her interest.

“It just amazes me how many variations that can come from one song and these songs have been around for generations.”

The fiddle culture is a social one. That’s how many of the songs get handed down, by one player teaching another. Avery likened it to the old game of telephone.

“It gets translated a little bit, but that’s encouraged — to create your own variations and to teach somebody your variations,” Avery said.

Hearing and recognizing those traditions and yet coming up with her own versions are what keep this music alive, Avery explained.

“It’s not just to replicate exactly how Mozart wrote or how he played it,” he said. “The level of playing that she’s doing is as complex and as challenging as pretty much almost any classical tune. The difference is, she’s doing it by ear. She doesn’t even read music.”

Still, Ellisman, a self-described “fiddle geek” with a sweatshirt to prove it, wants to keep moving forward and continue strengthening her playing skills, all the while hoping to win more contests, too. Next, the young fiddler will be competing in the 3rd annual Julian Fiddle and Pickin’ Contest, which begins June 4.

Until then, people can catch jam sessions the third Sunday of each month at noon at Club No. 2 in Village Park off of Mountain Vista between Glen Arbor and Willowsprings. Their next session is slated for April 17.

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