At first, I cringed as 6-year-old CJ Neary rested a tiny fiddle on his shoulder and pinned it down with his dimpled chin.
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against violin music.
But in my experience, kindergarten-aged kids with string instruments yield “music” only in the loosest sense of the word. So when CJ lifted his bow, I braced for head-splitting squeaks and squawks.
Then he started to play.
Immediately, I relaxed.
It's tough to reconcile CJ's physical appearance with the sound of his music. He looks like a 6-year-old. But his music — no quotation marks needed — sounds much, much more mature. He hits each note with steady confidence. He even has rhythm.
Shortly after CJ was born, his parents, Tammy and Chris Neary, got their first inkling that he might have a special affinity for music.
As a newborn, he stared, rapt, as Chris practiced basic chords on an acoustic guitar.
As a baby, CJ wouldn't fall asleep unless he was listening to a special CD.
As a toddler, he demanded Tammy leave the radio dial alone when, flipping through stations in the car, she stumbled across jazz or classical music. CJ would sit and listen until the end of the song, even if they'd already arrived at their destination.
When he learned to speak, he began asking for a violin.
“I have been wanting to play since I was a baby. When I first heard 'Frère Jacques,'” he says, referring to a popular French nursery melody. “I wanted to play it.”
CJ started taking piano lessons at age 4. What he really wanted was to play the violin. But there was no violin instructor near the family's then-home in San Diego.
The Nearys moved to Bend six months later, and CJ switched instruments.
Now he studies under two local teachers, Joe Schulte and Miya Beckman. This summer, he attended a special string program at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Last month, he won first place in the 8-and-younger category of the Western Open Fiddle Championship, his first competition.
He was the first child to win by playing an original song in a competition noted for its strict adherence to tradition.
That's right. CJ also composes his own music.
“I have a bunch of songs in my head,” he says, “and they want to get out.”
At times, a tune will pop into his mind, fully formed. He runs to grab his violin and work out the tune until he has it memorized.
If he dawdles, he adds, “I'll forget it, and be like, 'Aw, my best song!'”
Sometimes CJ translates songs into paintings, visualizing each note as a different color and then painting what he hears.
CJ's parents encourage his music but are careful not to shower him with praise for being “gifted.” They believe he has some natural talent.
“But more than that,” Tammy says, “he is a determined kid.”
CJ, who is home-schooled, spends about two hours a day playing classical music, traditional fiddle, jazz and blues. This isn't required, he just enjoys it.
In the evenings, sometimes CJ jams with his dad, who plays the guitar. Tammy, with their 3-year-old daughter, dances. It's fun for everyone.
The way Tammy sees it, CJ's real luck lies not in natural musical ability but in having found a passion at such a young age.
“He just, like, has this love for it,” says Tammy. “And I feel like he's brought so much life into the family because of it.”