“The prima donna assoluta of the saw.”
— Michael Tilson Thomas
When Caroline McCaskey took up her saw to play the violin solo from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld with the San Francisco Symphony, music critics and the maestro himself were moved by the level of artistry she achieved with an instrument more often found in the hardware store than in the concert hall. “A revelation,” proclaimed the critic for the San Francisco Performing Arts Examiner. And conductor Tilson Thomas declared her the prima donna assoluta of the instrument — in writing, with a Sharpie, on her saw.
Caroline is a classically trained violist, violinist, and composer, but from an early age she was drawn to the music-making possibilities and ethereal voice of the saw, and began playing at age 13. Her first saw came from Charlie Blacklock, “the dean of musical saw players.” He showed her how to hold the saw and produce a pitch, then said, “Now you know everything you need to know, so go home and practice.” So ended her first and only formal saw lesson. She did go home and practice, and later gladly accepted and put into use advice from other saw virtuosi including David Weiss (featured on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Morgan Cowin, the longtime guiding light of the International Musical Saw Association.
No one knows who first applied bow — or hammer — to a saw to make music rather than cut wood, but at least since the 19th century it has been a favorite novelty instrument, even played by the likes of Marlene Dietrich. The musical saw has been featured in vaudeville, in the movies, and, at least once, by Caroline, to impersonate ghosts for the benefit of a terrified troop of high schoolers at Girl Scout Camp.
Caroline won the International Musical Saw Competition in 2007 and returned as a judge in 2009. Her mastery of this unusual instrument has led not only to her solo performance in three concerts with the San Francisco Symphony, but also to being one of the featured guests on the revival of TV’s I’ve Got a Secret. She has also appeared as a soloist with many ensembles, and the Colorado Symphony.
For the past several years, she made her home in Colorado where she maintained a private studio with more than 20 violin and viola students. She was also Program Director of City Strings, run by Augustana Arts, which brings violin, viola, and cello lessons to more than 100 disadvantaged youth in the Denver metro area.
She is now happy to be back in her native California, where she is the Visual and Performing Arts Technician for the Berkeley Unified School District. She is a regular fiddle teacher at Fiddlekids, a day camp run by the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, and returns to Colorado annually to teach cello, musical saw and theremin at the Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp.
Caroline holds the B. Mus. in music composition from the University of the Pacific, and a master’s degree in viola performance and a certificate in Suzuki violin pedagogy from University of Denver. She plays a 28-inch tenor C Blacklock Special.