When Phyllis was five years old, a traveling instrument salesman came to their door. Her father turned to her and asked, “Would you like to play the violin?”
“Yes!” she answered, never dreaming how that would affect the rest of her life.
Phyllis was later told that she was tone deaf as a young child, but when she received her (child-size) violin, she picked it up and began to learn right away, never wanting to put it down. Her mother would have to tell her things like, “Put the violin down and go out and play,” because otherwise all she would ever have done was play her new instrument.
She always said that her life was changed from that time on. Here is part of Psalm 139 (from the New King James Bible) that she liked to quote, that she felt described her life. Even though she didn’t know Jesus for a long time after she began playing her first violin, she felt that God had patterned her life, even then, to be what it was as she grew, matured, and continued to play the instrument He had chosen for her.
“…You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them?
When 10 years old (after having taken both classroom and individual violin lessons for five years), Phyllis, her sisters, and a couple of other children formed a band called The Rainbow Kiddies. They played for all sorts of local events, and at one of the local radio stations where Lawrence Welk and his band were playing every morning. Their trumpet player (a boy the same age as Phyllis) was asked to play with Welk’s band one day! Afterwards, that day, the band gave the youngsters a tour of their own bus, and discussed with them the pros and cons of being a traveling band.
The Rainbow Kiddies traveled around the Dakotas and played “back-to-back” with several other “big time bands” during those years, as well. They even played for a church revival once (though they knew next-to-nothing about Jesus or church music).
Because Phyllis, her sisters, and the other band members were very closely chaperoned by their parents, they were not allowed to see any of the seamier part of life as a traveling musician. When Phyllis’ father discovered that the music teacher who had been sponsoring them was stealing from them and was being involved in shady business practices, he refused to allow his children to be involved with that man any longer, so the Rainbow Kiddies disbanded.
At that point, Phyllis’ older sister Elwynne decided to start her own band. They actually ended up being in two different bands that were quite successful. In fact, another band leader (an adult) got so disgruntled because their bands were have better success than his own group, that he informed their father Elmer’s employer that Elmer was working somewhere else on the side. Even though Elmer never made any money from helping his girls with their bands, the Post Office told him he’d have to quit working with the bands because he wasn’t allowed to “moonlight.” Since the girls were never allowed to travel with the band without their parents, that was the end of their traveling band life. After that, Phyllis and her sisters were involved only in school band activities.
In school, Phyllis was short, and she had only had private violin lessons. The music director wouldn’t even allow her to try out for first chair. It wasn’t long, though, until he discovered that she was actually the best violinist in the orchestra. After that time, she played first chair until she graduated from high school, even though her feet never reached the floor.
Phyllis continued to play in bands as well as being a solo violinist, all her life. In the 1990s she played here in the Dakotas and Minnesota, with a group called The Alexandria Opry, with which she was billed as Gramma Phyl and Her Fiddle. It was during that time that Phyllis began to be interested in a new type of music to her–bluegrass.
She had never played much “fiddling music” before that, though she had played some classical, some jazz, some country, and much swing (her favorite style before then). After she discovered bluegrass, though, she never looked back. That became her favorite style, ever.
Phyllis also learned to play the piano at a very young age, and electronic keyboards over the years. After moving to Alaska as a young married woman with a growing family, she played both piano and violin with many groups in Valdez. She always told the story of the family dog “singing” with her when she fiddled. While living there, she learned to play most of the little bit of classical music that she knew, from records. She also learned the first part of The Hot Canary, from some sheet music she purchased in Anchorage, even though she said she had never learned things that the rest of the music called for. Her children all loved The Hot Canary better than all her other songs.
After a while, Phyllis developed her own style of what she called “rambling.” Her ramblings were simply medleys that Phyllis arranged, with songs from her growing up years, those she learned in later years, and the Christian songs she learned after coming to the Lord Jesus Christ. She often would play her “ramblings” for background music at dinners and other social events. Sometimes she would ramble on the keyboard, sometimes on her autoharp, and often on her violin.
While she was living once again in South Dakota, in the 1990s, Phyllis heard about Shoji Tabuchi, a now-famous violinist who has his own concert hall in Branson, Missouri. Shoji’s personal style was (and is) very like what Phyllis had developed in her own life as a musician by then. She began to correspond with him, and they shared their music back and forth.
One Christmas she was privileged to take a Christmas bus tour with a church group, to the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre in Branson. When they arrived, the whole group was shown to a completely different section of seating than they had expected–in the loges. As the show began, a troop of skaters passed in front of them, all carrying single red roses, which they deposited in Phyllis’ lap. She had shared with Shoji, previously, that her husband Frank had always given her a single red rose on their anniversary, before he passed away in 1973.
Not only was Phyllis honored in this way during that concert, but Shoji did something he had never done before (and evidently not since then, either). He called Phyllis up on stage, introduced her to the audience, and told them all what an encouragement she had been to him over the past couple of years. He then told her that she was to take whatever she wanted from his sale tables after the concert. She was so overwhelmed, that she only picked a single DVD to take home with her. Phyllis always considered that experience to be the high point of her musical career. If you ever heard Phyllis play, and if you ever hear Shoji play, you will understand why she loved his music so much.
When Phyllis reached 84 years of age, she played her violin one last time, then her violin was passed for safekeeping to her daughter Cindi.
I’ve uploaded the video we took of that event, on my YouTube channel. You can find it here:
She continued to play keyboard for several years after that, until she was nearly 87, when her fingers would no longer work the way they should, and she had to give it up. Phyllis continued to love music, though, even though she couldn’t hear well. One of the things she really loved, was for her family to get together and sing the old silly songs of childhood, as well as other songs learned throughout the years and many family gatherings.
Mom passed away on July 10, 2014–exactly three months before her 91st birthday. It had been her hope that others would get together, not to mourn her passing, but to have a big picnic, and to remember her love of music, family, and friends. So that’s what we did. We know she went with God, and that she continues to make lovely music with Him and His angels, for all eternity.