“My story is about what people can achieve when those around them make the most basic effort to accommodate disabilities. I wasn’t propped up. I was only given a chance to try.”
– Gaelynn Lea
Gaelynn Lea was 10 years old when a live orchestra came to play at her school in Duluth. Though it is likely many of her classmates barely avoided going comatose from boredom, Gaelynn was spellbound by the harmony of the strings.
It would soon come to light that Gaelynn has a preternatural ability to appreciate music. The following year she received her class’s only perfect score on a music listening test, so her teacher encouraged her to pick up an instrument.
The only question was how. Gaelynn has a physical disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. She has never walked, and her arms and legs are bent from the fractures she endured in utero. Grasping a violin the traditional way quickly proved impossible to Gaelynn, but her music teacher believed in a way around it.
“Even the children’s violins were too big to bring to my neck,” said Gaelynn. “I tried the cello, but I couldn’t get the bow down to where it needed to be. Eventually one of us came up with the idea that maybe I could play a violin like a cello. The angle of my hand meant I could hold the bow like a bass player, and attaching the violin to my foot kept it from slipping away. Once we had developed that technique, I was learning to play violin right alongside the other kids.
“Singing came a lot later to me. In my musical family we would all sing around the house, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until I formed a folk duo with a friend. I originally only backed up his harmonies, until one day when he told me I really had to take the lead on at least one song. I picked ‘Little Boxes’ by Malvina Reynolds.
“It was very scary for me at first, but I ended up getting hooked to the adrenaline. Singing isn’t like playing the violin. There’s something much more vulnerable about it. Singing is baring your soul.”
At this point during our conversation Gaelynn paused to console me about my own singing, which I confessed sounds like the noises a cat might make after it has inhaled too much campfire smoke. She explained that the voice is like any muscle, and must be exercised to become beautiful. I accepted this, suspecting that Gaelynn is too humble to admit voices like hers aren’t solely the reward for practice. Her ‘ethereal mezzo-soprano,’ as NPR once called it, could only be the work of nature. The way which Gaelynn modulates her voice like a heartsore whip-poor-will does indeed come from her soul.
“In 2016 two of my fiddle students told me about NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest,” Gaelynn continued. “Any musician could enter by uploading a performance to YouTube, and the winner would be invited to perform in NPR’s live concert series. I said ‘Why not?’ I had my friend record me performing my original song ‘Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun’ on her phone and I posted it.
“A month later NPR called. They told me over 6,000 videos had been submitted from across the country, and I had won.
“That was a big deal for me, to say the least. I went from never having played outside of Minnesota to flying around the country to perform. In the middle of our travels my husband Paul and I decided that we would continue touring together, which we did until coronavirus happened.
“I’ve taken this break from touring as an opportunity to finally finish writing my book. It’s a memoir and collection of essays on living with a disability and the need for greater accessibility in the arts, both topics I often cover in my other line of work as a public speaker. But I don’t want to get rusty, either, which is why I’m currently giving live virtual performances with a new special guest every Sunday at 2pm.”
If I could have you do one thing upon finishing this article, it would be to punch “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” into YouTube and prepare to feel pure, haunting melancholy for the next four and a half minutes. Afterward you may visit violinscratches.com to learn more about Gaelynn Lea, her projects, and her passion.
By David Scheller