By Robert Kidd
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Maybe he’s living inside a familiar Hollywood script: boy finds love, loses love, survives sobering wakeup call and regains love. Substitute ‘violin’ for ‘love’ and St. John Fraser is playing the lead.
On most weekends, this red-haired whirlwind can be seen playing red-hot fiddle tunes in the Sacramento Celtic rock band One Eyed Reilly. Watching him perform, it’s hard to believe Fraser’s sobering wakeup call came in the form of a cancerous brain tumor detected four years ago.
Fraser is currently a project data specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District’s programs and projects management division, and has worked at the district for 12 years. He has also worked in the district’s computer support group and in the human resources office.
“On Aug. 4, 2009, I was diagnosed with a six centimeter mass in my brain that turned out to be cancerous,” said Fraser. “They cut it out on Aug. 8 and I was back home Aug. 10.”
The quick discovery and removal was just the start of a new life challenge.
“Anyone who’s had a moment like that – where every aspect of your life does a 180 – they know that’s a very hard day to deal with,” said Fraser. “You get that slap to the face and realize you’ve been allowing a lot of things that ultimately really don’t matter to get hold of you and who you are.
“It does help you shed a lot of the silliness our everyday lives get caught up in,” said Fraser.
Growing up in Missouri, Fraser and his family held season tickets for the St. Louis Symphony, which is how St. John first fell in love with the violin.
“I had silly-little-kid logic and somehow thought that only old people were allowed to play the violin,” Fraser laughed. He began piano lessons at age five, then transferred to a new school and met a fellow classmate who played – the violin.
Fraser took up violin and continued lessons on both instruments until he was nine. His parents realized he was “practicing so much that I had no other life,” said Fraser, and they asked him to pick one. When Fraser began violin lessons, it may have been a foregone conclusion by his mother that he would become a concert violinist.
“My mother, Verity Ludgate-Fraser, was an educator – she was absolutely brilliant in the classroom,” said Fraser. “Students returned for years and years to thank her for how she had made them fall in love with learning.” Fraser’s father, William Meacham, is a retired school administrator – so the importance of serious education was never lost on the youthful musician.
Silvian Iticovici, second associate concertmaster with the St. Louis Symphony, was young Fraser’s violin instructor from 1982 to 1988. “Silvian was a terrifying and wonderful individual to learn from,” said Fraser. “He was brutal with comments on your playing, but I respected him tremendously.”
Fraser remembers one particular week when he was “butting heads with Mom” and hadn’t been practicing. “We drove an hour and a half to the lesson and I started playing. Maybe 10 minutes in, Silvian said ‘You’re wasting my time and your mother’s time. I won’t charge her for this lesson. Leave.’
“I don’t know which had me more scared at that point – Silvian, or the fact that I had an hour and half drive back home with my mother,” joked Fraser. “Needless to say, I practiced very hard for my next lesson.”
But by the time he reached early adulthood, the love seemed to diminish for Fraser.
“After I turned 20, I felt I didn’t want to be a classical soloist,” he said. “It had become a battle and it wasn’t fun anymore – I had lost my love for playing.
“For 17 years, I pretty much walked away from music,” said Fraser. “Oh, I’d pick up a random instrument from time to time, but not in a serious manner. And I didn’t have a lot of musical friends for quite a while.”
After moving to Sacramento in 2001 and starting work as a student at the Corps, Fraser became friends with Adrian Baxmeyer, another Corps newcomer.
“Adrian was picking up on the bass about then and I thought maybe I could get involved again,” said Fraser. “I was feeling the need to be creative again.”
Because of the “mental baggage” tied to the violin, Fraser picked up the mandolin, instead. The two instruments are tuned the same. Fraser and Baxmeyer played in a band called Cabbage for Kraut.
“During that time, I began to notice I was having problems and my whole left side would go into paralysis,” said Fraser. “It was getting really frustrating, but I hadn’t yet told anyone about it and I had to quit the band.”
After the tumor was detected and removed, Fraser was on medical leave from work for almost a year.
“I had a very clear decision to make and two choices,” said Fraser. “I could totally succumb to the fear in an endless bottomless pit or I could make this the most positive experience of my life and find the good in it.
“Whether I had another 30 minutes, 30 days or 30 years, I decided I would begin to fully appreciate everything that I have,” said Fraser. “All the way down to the simplest things – being able to wake up, go out and get a cup of coffee – and it made me realize just how much I love music.
“Ultimately, none of us know our expiration date,” said Fraser. “The difference for me now is that the illusion has been stripped away.”
Work also provided support.
“I count myself as very fortunate that I have a supportive Corps family,” said Fraser. “I love the people here and the opportunities I’ve had.”
Nowadays, he’s playing fiddle – not violin – with One Eyed Reilly. It’s the same instrument, but with an attitude that’s wildly different from his childhood of classical violin training. Fraser, Baxmeyer and a third Sacramento Corps member, Rick Meagher, play Celtic-inspired rock, Americana and roots music in One Eyed Reilly.
“My one true love has always been the violin and this last couple of years has been an emotionally powerful time for me,” Fraser said. “I’ve fallen back in love with my original love and am relearning the instrument in a whole new style.”
st. john fraser