SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — If fate had different plans for Elke Baker, today she would be pouring over chemical equations, not sheet music.
This weekend, Baker will be a featured performer and teacher at the Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat in Shepherdstown. The three-day event kicks off Friday night with a concert, followed by two days of workshops and jam sessions.
Baker said she was introduced to the violin when she was 7 years old through a school music program.
She doesn’t know what drew her to the violin, but she said, “at that age it was a matter of thinking it was fun or interesting.”
Baker, 42, continued to balance music and academic studies in high school, but when it came time to select a major in college, she decided on biochemistry.
Music as her career choice was a “gradual evolution,” she said.
“In college, in addition to playing classical music that I had (done) since I was 7, I started playing fiddle music,” she said during a telephone interview from her home in Glenelg, Md., a small town east of Frederick, Md.
She started playing Scottish fiddle music at first, then was asked to join a Scottish dance band. Soon she found herself playing paying gigs.
“At that time I still wasn’t thinking ‘Oh, I’ll be a professional musician,’ but I started meeting people who were,” Baker said.
Even with her sights set on graduate school, she increased her musical involvement.
“It gradually took over and eventually, I realized, ‘Oh, I actually have a full-time job doing this,’” she said.
Her fiddle playing has landed on her on a slew of stages in the United States including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and Eagle Tavern in New York. It also took her to exotic locations such as Japan, where she said Scottish music is widely popular, and a St. Patrick’s Day gig in West Africa.
And in 1995, Baker was named the U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion.
Scottish music, she explains, is just one style of Celtic music.
“It includes slow, listening pieces and dance pieces,” she explained. “It’s percussive. It’s got a lot of driving rhythms that makes you feel like dancing.”
And Scottish music, she said, is a root music of American fiddle styles.
“If you’re familiar with Scottish music, you can hear its influence in Appalachian fiddle music,” she said. “And other styles have descended from that Appalachian fiddle music, such as bluegrass.”
Baker, who has been teaching at the Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat since its first event nearly 10 years ago, said she tries to make sure all of her students learn one or two pieces of music really well.
“(I hope they learn) something that hopefully captures their interest enough that they want to look further into it,” she said, “and hopefully, by the end of my couple of hours that I spend with any particular student, that they have some ideas to try out at home.”
One of her favorite tunes to teach is an old Scottish song called “Tail Toddle,” which loosely means “wagging tail.”
“My take-home lesson for students with that (song) is that even though it’s very brief and very simple, there is so much more to it than just meets the eye. There’s a lot of depth.”
As a mother of three — ages 4 to 9 — and married to an engineer, Baker said she doesn’t travel as much as she used to. However, she makes time for the Fiddle Retreat.
She said she hopes that musicians get a chance to connect with other musicians.
“That’s one of the big benefits of a weekend like this,” she said. “A lot of people play by themselves and don’t have anyone to practice with. This Fiddle Retreat is a chance to connect with other musicians with similar interests and get excited about doing the music.”
As for those who aren’t musicians, but love to hear a good fiddle?
“I hope that they get a chance to experience more than one style of fiddle music and understand what a range of music can be made on this instrument,” she said.
If you go ...
WHAT: Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat concert
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13; followed by a jam
WHERE: Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, 100 W. Washington St., Shepherdstown, W.Va.
COST: Admission costs $8 to $15.
CONTACT: Call 304-263-2531, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.fiddleretreat.info.