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Musician to make stop to sing, promote disability rights

November 10, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Never discount the value of a good music teacher.

Music for fiddle player and Tiny Desk Contest winner Gaelynn Lea might have been a foregone conclusion if she’d just been an average kid growing up in the Midwest.

Lea, who performs Sunday at Elk City Records on Washington Street in Charleston, said, “My family is pretty musical. My mom is the choir director at her church. My dad is a player and they had a dinner theater. So, I grew up around music.”

The influence to perform was there, but Lea wasn’t average.

Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, Lea’s physical growth was arrested. Her limbs developed twisted and shortened. She gets around with the help of her husband, Paul Tressler, and a motorized wheelchair.

“We’re a team,” Lea said. “He doesn’t perform, but we travel together.”

Becoming a musician wasn’t anything Lea was really all that interested in until the fourth grade, when an orchestra came to her school in Duluth, Minnesota.

“I loved the way the strings sounded and knew I wanted to do it the next year in the fifth grade,” Lea said.

In order for her to get into the school orchestra, she had to pass a musical listening test.

“I was the only student to get a perfect score that year,” she said.

Lea’s disability presented some challenges to playing.

“My arms are bent and short,” the singer/songwriter said.

But the music teacher was willing to work with her to find a suitable instrument. Lea said she was really lucky that the teacher said, “I don’t know how this is going to work, but let’s try.”

Others might have given up on her, Lea said. This teacher, though, was open-minded and they tried different instruments until they came up with a violin that Lea could play like a cello or an upright bass.

“I’ve been doing it for 24 years,” she said.

Through middle school and high school, she mostly played with public school orchestras, though occasionally took private lessons her parents arranged by bartering tickets to their dinner theater with local musicians.

Still, she said, she probably wouldn’t have had a musical education without the public schools and an environment of inclusiveness.

After high school, she studied political science in college, intending to eventually become a lawyer and disability rights advocate. But she kept playing.

“I got into fiddle music,” Lea said. “Eventually, through a fiddle jam, I met Andy Gable and formed a band.”

Then she met Alan Sparhawk of the Minnesota-based indie rock band Low. He invited her to come and jam with him at a farmer’s market in Duluth.

The two hit it off and Sparhawk said he wanted to work with her on a project.

Lea got a looping pedal, which allowed her to live-record segments of her own music and then play them back as she played other segments, creating a layered sound.

Sparhawk and Lea created a group called A Murder of Crows and released a record together in 2012.

Not long after that, Lea began pursuing music full-time. She played locally, toured some in the Midwest with the help of her husband, and taught fiddle lessons to about a dozen students.

Then in 2016, a friend told her about NPR’s “Tiny Desk Contest,” an off-shoot of the popular “Tiny Desk Concert” program.

She and the friend recorded a video of Lea’s song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” and then uploaded the video for the contest.

A month later, Lea was checking her email between fiddle lessons and saw a note from an NPR representative who wanted to talk to her.

“I didn’t think I’d won,” she said. “I thought I was maybe a finalist.”

But Lea had won. Her prize was a four-city tour backed by NPR and tons of exposure.

“Then I started getting calls to do more show and speaking gigs,” she said.

Lea performed and talked about justice, inclusion and artistic access for people like her, the disabled.

The schedule has been kind of crazy since then. She and Paul spend much of their time on the road and they’ve been all over the country and to Europe.

“I love the travel,” she said. “But I could never afford it before. Winning has really opened up a lot of opportunities for us.”

Currently, Lea is performing in the U.S. again, in support of her latest record, “Learning How To Stay.”

The tour winds down in mid-December and Lea would like to take a little bit of a rest before going back out, maybe work on a book and new music.

“But when we’re home, we’re mostly just catching up with friends and family,” she said.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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