Bronwen Beecher became the fiddle preacher thanks to a crowded room and some enthusiastic journalists. And alcohol.
“I was at Piper Down,” she said. “I used to play there quite a bit, and Dave the owner had me booked to play, just me and my fiddle. He said, ‘What do you want to be called?’ And this was afternoon or evening, and I’m sure I had already had four beers or so, and I said, ‘Just call me Bronwen Beecher the fiddle creature.’ He misheard it and wrote it as Bronwen Beecher the fiddle preacher, and it went into the papers like that.”
When another newspaper picked up the misheard moniker, Beecher, who is also an out lesbian, knew that the name was going to stick; today it even graces her Web site. And yet, the name is so fitting that you’d never guess it resulted from a loud pub and drunkenness. Beecher’s violin playing, powerful lyrics and soulful voice have captivated audiences across the West for years. She is also a popular local performer, appearing regularly at the Utah Pride Festival, the Utah Pride Center’s Café Marmalade and a number of other locations across the state. As many of her fans will testify, her fiddle can, indeed, preach when it wants to.
“When I start playing a Celtic fiddle tune, I can feel a change in the audience,” she said. “It makes people’s blood boil. There’s this certain element to it, a certain remembering that we all have in common with any kind of traditional music that I can only describe a magical. I can’t think of any other explain it.”
Beecher has worked for decades to perfect that magic. At age seven she, like many children across the nation, began taking violin lessons.
“But I’m told I was drawn to the violin at four,” she remembered, noting that she took a shine to the instrument when she heard someone playing it in the church she attended while growing up in Utah. “Apparently I was just mystified, but the local violin teacher wouldn’t start teaching kids until age seven, so I had to wait a few years.”
Although Beecher had days, as all children do, when she did not want to practice, she said the instrument has been a part of her life ever since. Such is often the case, she notes, for violin players with classical training.
“I talk to a lot of guitar players who are all, ‘Yeah I was like 16 when I started, and I took a summer off and got back to it,’ but it’s not like that for classical violin. I don’t remember taking more than a week off,” she said. “It’s a difficult instrument. It takes a long time to start sounding OK. My adult students ask me how long it will take them to sound good, and I tell them, ‘oh, about four years, depending on how much you practice.’”
Although she left the state to study music at New Orleans’ Loyola University, Beecher eventually returned to Salt Lake City, where she has been a part of the local music scene ever since. And while her training may be classical, she isn’t the kind of musician to limit herself strictly to Tchaikovsky and Handel. Over the years, she has experimented with a number of musical styles, including goth, rock, bluegrass, Celtic music and that often amoeba-like genre known as “alternative.” And when it comes to music that she enjoys playing, Beecher says she likes the dramatic, the theatrical and the multi-layered.
“You know if you’re a classical musician you don’t have a lot of cool points unless you’re a traveling soloist or a virtuoso, so playing in a rock band is always a nice place to start for the sheer cool points,” Beecher joked. But all kidding aside, she said she has enjoyed playing in a number of musically diverse bands, including the much-loved Celtic rock group the Salty Frogs (which disbanded in 2008) and Luna Picasso Project, a quartet that rivaled the painter of the same name in ingenuity and experimentation. Project consisted of Beecher on violin, a drummer, a cellist and a soprano who would play and drastically re-arranged compositions by classical and baroque composers — such as a piece by Mozart or Bach where the soprano would sing a part written for another violin, or where the cellist would use a tool called an octave pedal to play his instrument a full pitch lower than the instrument normally allows.
“I developed [Luna Picasso Project] to do something interesting instrumentally, but also use the skills I had learned [in] imitating other instruments and filling out sound with other classical instruments,” Beecher explained. “We did a lot of parties, corporate stuff when they wanted something edgy. We were able to do more classical stuff but also more hip and groovy stuff.” Their repertoire, she added, covered everything from Mozart to Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” and sadly disbanded after a year when the soprano moved away. Beecher, however, hinted that the project may be revived because the singer has returned.
Then again, Beecher is involved in so many bands and projects that fans of Luna Picasso may have to wait. Most obviously, there’s her self-titled band, which dabbles in a “danceable” mix of big rock instrumentation, traditional Celtic beats and more modern music influences like Mariachi.
“I’ve been doing a lot of singer/songwriter and guitar stuff,” she said of the past few years. “That was a fascination and a passion for me, and now I’m coming back to violin and fiddle and hiring guitar players and building a sound around that. It’s kind of like a coming home for me.”
That isn’t the only project, either. There’s Shanahy, a more traditional Celtic band complete with bagpipes; Stonecircle a “new agey, Celticy” band reminiscent of the work of Loreena McKennitt and a “wild Gypsy party at Stonehenge;” and Purdy Mouth, which Beecher calls “blue rock grass.”
When not on stage preaching with her fiddle, Beecher can often be found in the yoga studio. After being introduced to the physical and spiritual practice by D’ana Baptiste of Centered City Yoga, Beecher said she began doing yoga five days a week, dropped 20 pounds and experienced “a lot of psychological benefits.”
Recently she has also become a certified yoga instructor and a practitioner of Forrest Yoga, a vigorous form of the discipline developed by Ana Forrest, with whom Beecher studied in San Francisco (an experience she dubs “the Navy Seals of yoga training”).
“She’s very intense,” Beecher said of Forrest. “But what really appealed to me about Forrest Yoga is it has a really big healing element; emotional issues or physical issues or whatever spiritual issues. It has a lot of focus on what’s relevant to our bodies and our emotional problems today without a lot of the woo woo traditional yoga stuff. It’s just been one of those things that I got a passion for and dove into whole heartedly and suddenly I’m teaching it.”
Whether making people’s blood boil with her fiddle, teaching adults how to go from OK to great on the violin or showing a class of eager students how to hold a downward-facing dog pose, Beecher’s schedule is certainly a busy one. This month, you can hear her play a brown bag concert with Shanahy at Washington Square in Salt Lake City, and another concert in Heber City the following night. She also plays at Café Marmalade on the last Saturday of every month. For more information about Beecher’s music and lessons, visit bronwenbeecher.com.