West Columbia teenager Ella Thomas is somewhat of a whiz with a violin in her hand. Whether she's playing classical with the South Carolina Youth Philharmonic, bluegrass with the band Palmetto Blue or gospel with her family band, her skill with a fiddle and bow last year earned her the title South Carolina Junior Old-Time Fiddle Champion.
Ella began playing when she was four, and prefers Old Time and bluegrass music if she had to choose. She enjoys meeting people from different parts of the country at fiddle conventions. "And they could be from, like, Oregon, and you know the same tune. Plus it's really good just to know about the heritage and be able to share that and keep on old traditions."
Even though the whole Thomas family is musical, Ella's mother Marylin is still mystified by Ella's ability to easily pick up music she's never heard before, without sheet music. Usually it's one listen and she's got it. "That, to me, is amazing. It's just not something I can even understand."
Ella's teacher, Kristin Harris, said her classical training improves her bluegrass playing and vice versa. It came in handy once on stage. "I remember a performance that Ella did when she was playing a movement of a Vivaldi concerto and had a little memory slip, and she improvised her way back, and no one in the audience knew. And she kinda sold it partially because she's used to performing and making up her own music in front of people."
Ella has begun writing music, and like a typical young person, she has adapted technology to the task. She said she writes songs on her cell phone: "I write out the lyrics on a little memo pad, that's just an app you get on your phone. And then I record the tune that's in my head on my phone...so then I can go back and access it later, and then teach it to someone else."
Both her mother and her teacher hope Ella will continue on a musical path, for enjoyment if not for a career. Harris said the versatility she's developing now will serve her well in the future.