For this fiddler, a tiny concert led to big things

Gaelynn Lea and Rachel Johnson
Gaelynn Lea Tressler works through several fiddle and violin pieces with her student Rachel Johnson on April 22 in preparation for an upcoming concert.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

Last Friday, in a brightly lit room with a beautiful view, a small woman with a violin worked through several pieces with one of her students.

Gaelynn Lea is busy these days. The Duluth fiddler recently won National Public Radio's Tiny Desk Contest, and as a result is now performing in cities across the country. She's using the exposure both to build her career and to raise awareness about issues for people with disabilities.

But she's also still teaching fiddle and violin in a studio on the fifth floor of the Dewitt Seitz Building in Duluth's Canal Park. Lea, who works with about 15 students a week, has been playing the violin since fifth grade.

"I originally wanted to play the cello, but it's too big because of my size," she explained. "So the teacher and I figured out how to play the violin like a cello. But I played classically all throughout high school."

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Lea and her violin are about the same height. She has a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly referred to as OI or brittle bone disease.

"My bones are actually not too fragile — like I've broken maybe 16 since I was born, which is actually a very low number for somebody with my disability," she said. "The biggest thing with my disability is that I broke a lot in utero, so my arms and legs are bent and my spine has a lot of scoliosis, so it makes it that I use a wheelchair."

Seeing Lea in her electric wheelchair or hearing about her brittle bone condition might inspire some people to feel pity for her. That would be a mistake. Lea has a full, rich life. She spent her childhood performing in her parents' musical theater company, as well as playing in orchestra and competing on the debate team. She graduated from college with a major in political science and a minor in psychology, and served as a volunteer in Americorps. Two years ago she married her longtime sweetheart.

Gaelynn Lea and Paul Tressler
Gaelynn Lea Tressler and her husband Paul Tressler have been married for two years, together for nine. Paul drives Gaelynn to and from her teaching studio and has taken some time off work to accompany her on her Tiny Desk tour. When asked what he loves most about Gaelynn, he responded, "Everything."
Marianne Combs | MPR News

And then there's her rising status as a musician.

A few years back, a band that Lea played in opened for local guitarist Charlie Parr. Lea joined him for a set on her fiddle. That weekend, he performed again at a farmers' market where she worked.

"So I secretly brought my violin, but I hid it, because I was like, 'I don't want to be that person' — you know?" she recalled. "It was silly, but I hid my violin. And he was playing, and he said, 'Hey, do you have your fiddle?' And I was like, 'Why, yes, I do have my fiddle."

Also at the farmers' market that day was Alan Sparhawk of the band Low. He was struck by Lea's ability to play by ear, something he says is relatively rare in a violinist. He invited her to work with him on a project, and soon their band Murder of Crows was born.

"A lot of times, we're just throwing fragments back and forth and playing very simple ideas," he said. "The ability to trust each other, that we're going to stay tethered and always hold that common thread sacred — it can be very freeing."

With Sparhawk's encouragement, Lea began writing her own song lyrics and experimenting with an effects pedal to loop melodies. Friends and students told her about NPR's Tiny Desk Contest, and encouraged her to submit a song.

"I looked it up and decided, 'OK, I should probably do that,' she said. "So we picked out a song, my friend helped me tape it, up in this studio where we are now — right before half-price wine night — we did it in about 45 minutes and I never thought, no clue, that I'd win."

But she did win. And now close to half a million people have seen her videotaped performance at the NPR's headquarters in Washington. The prize for winning also includes a national tour with stops in New York, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Petaluma, Calif.

"And I've never done that kind of thing before," she said. "I mean, I've played regionally, but this is definitely the first time I've done any kind of touring, and so I'm really excited. Because as a person with a disability it's a little bit more planning, it requires a travel companion. But I don't think it's impossible, and I think it's important for people to see it, too, to know that it is possible."

In addition to her musical career, Lea speaks regularly about issues affecting people with disabilities, from job discrimination to building accessibility. For this tour, NPR has paid for her husband Paul to join her. Otherwise, she'd have to take on a personal care attendant to accompany her, paid through her medical coverage.

"Because Paul is not allowed to be my personal care attendant," she said. "He's the one person on planet Earth that legally is not allowed to, is your spouse, which I think is very unfortunate. There are a lot of marriage penalties if you have a disability. I still feel it was worth getting married, but there are a lot of consequences."

When asked how her genetic disability has affected her musical career, Lea paused to think.

"That's the thing about disability," she said. "I don't really separate out what is disability and what's not, because it's just me.

"I do definitely feel like I'm supposed to be the way I am, because just the way everything has unfolded ... none of this would be happening in the way that it was if I didn't have a disability. Do I think that life would be different? Yes. And do I think that it might not even be as positive? In a weird way, like yeah."