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October 1, 2022Stephen Laifer -
Calling Sandra Wong of Local 1000 (Nongeographic), one quickly realizes the cell phone connection is slightly dodgy. “I live up in the foothills outside of Boulder, Colorado,” says Wong. “I’m off grid on a Jeep road, and my place is solar powered.”
For some, this might be an inconvenience. For Wong, a violinist, it’s a very conscious choice, and she says her surroundings also directly impact her music making. “I thrive in the quiet, with no close human neighbors,” she explains. “When I’m on tour staying in hotels in big cities, it’s exciting, but not as much new music comes to me. Here, at home, I wake up to birdsong. Deer and moose are my neighbors. Nature is a constant inspiration.”
Remote life also suits the kind of music Wong is drawn to making—though that wasn’t always the case. She is an active freelancer in folk music and world music, but she says she actually got her start as a concert violinist.
“I grew up in a family of deep music lovers, but no musicians,” she remembers. “When I was six, in Upstate New York, my parents took me to see Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung. She played the Mendelssohn
Violin Concerto.” Wong says the experience completely changed her. “Every hair on my body stood up. I was totally absorbed, and I suddenly knew that’s what I was here to do.”
Wong says her musical studies had a very intense beginning. “Once I showed promise, it became pretty concentrated, hours a day.” She believes practicing so much as a child, sometimes in place of having normal childhood experiences, can have mixed results. “So many hours in the practice room meant I started to resent it.”
Things came to a head in her second year of a music education degree at Ithaca College. “I was starting to feel like a violin on legs,” she recalls. “I had no idea who I was outside of music and the structure it had imposed on me.”
On a whim, Wong took some fiddling lessons. Intrigued, she went to her first jam sessions. “There was an older guy on the fiddle, and with my formal background in violin, I immediately felt myself judging him on his posture and technique. But then he started to play a jig. There was so much joy in it that it moved me to tears,” she says.
Like her first time hearing the Mendelssohn concerto, Wong says she experienced another 180-degree turn. “I was hooked. I started to explore new musical styles, discovering a quality of being that came through exploration. I learned how music can be alive, how it can be about play, heart, and community.”
From there, everything changed for Wong. She started traveling to folk festivals. “The emptiness I had felt because of the rigidity disappeared,” she says. A trip to the Folk Alliance in Albuquerque, New Mexico, presented another discovery that she now incorporates into her music. “I had finished my ed degree and moved out to Santa Fe. A group of musicians from Scandinavia came to the festival. One player had an instrument called a nyckelharpa.”
A Swedish folk instrument dating back to the 12th century, the nyckelharpa has seen many variations through the centuries. “Some of the older instruments even had quarter tone keys. Along with the blue notes you hear in Swedish fiddling and singing, you become aware that we actually live in a small musical world,” says Wong.
Over the last 100 years, she says, the nyckelharpa has settled into being a chromatic instrument, combining keyed strings with bowing—but its evolution continues. “The sound has a natural resonance and depth that speaks to me. Some have compared it to a kind of cross between a bagpipe and a viola. It has a Renaissance feel.”
The turn to folk music also incidentally brought Wong to the AFM. “I met legendary folk musician John McCutcheon on a small plane on the way to a festival. He has been an inspiration, and is one of the founders of Local 1000. He talked to me about the benefits of being in the union, and I’ve been a member ever since.” Wong says unionization means we’re stronger together. “Regardless of genre, we are all dealing with similar issues. The AFM gives us a forum to share challenges on the professional front with an organization working to solve those problems.”
Wong maintains a rigorous live performing and touring schedule, playing violin and nyckelharpa with a wide variety of musicians in a dizzying array of genres from classical to jazz, folk, and world music. Through it all, she makes sure she keeps that openness and freedom that initially drew her to fiddling.
“The underlying focus for me is to always offer service to the music,” she says. “There’s an obvious immediacy to live performance, going with what is unfolding. Once that moment is over, it’s over.”
In between making music, Wong still uses her music ed degree and believes in the importance of passing on what one learns. In addition to private teaching and fiddle groups, she takes students to other countries to study.
“I like to think of music as the meeting place of art and math. It does amazing things for our brains, helping us to integrate information, stay creative, and hone physical coordination,” she adds that music also provides focus. “This is crucial in a world where there are so many distractions.”
Wong’s latest acquisition, a beautiful new violin bow, reminded her of the importance of giving back to nature. “I was at home working on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ violin piece, The Lark Ascending. I’m up here in the mountains, practicing while listening to the birds in the valley below me.” Wong says that she was hit by a moment of recognition: “The wood from the trees allowed me to make music with this bow. A human worked with the natural world to allow me to give voice to my music.”
With this in mind, she gives a portion of the proceeds from her work to environmental organizations. She also does benefit concerts for environmental groups and causes. Her most recent benefit was for Tindakan, a Colorado nonprofit that educates businesses and individuals on sustainability, conservation, biodiversity protection, animal welfare, wildlife preservation, and social justice initiatives.
“I look for organizations like this which are doing wonderful work,” says Wong. “The planet has taken care of me and enabled me to make music. Taking care of it in return is the least I can do.”