Sex and Violins
While the Pamela Stanley Band plays the bluegrass number "Orange Blossom Special," Randi Fishenfeld gears up for her solo. It's a recent Tuesday evening at O'Hara's in Fort Lauderdale, and the red-haired, green-eyed violinist, wrapped in a pair of leather pants, brings her crossbow-shaped instrument to her chin. She looks more like a rock star than a classically trained musician, especially when she works her bow through a furious series of notes, tackling everything from Klezmer music to honky-tonk to the theme from The Flintstones. As she often does during her solos, Fishenfeld lets out a banshee wail, flicks her tongue like Gene Simmons, and even aims a karate kick at her audience. At the song's end, the crowd gives Fishenfeld a suitably rowdy ovation, hooting and throwing napkins in the air.
"Randi brings a different texture to our music," admits Pamela Stanley, the band's leader, "because she comes from a classical background and hasn't had much training in jazz and blues. Classical isn't framed in chords like jazz and blues but relies on note-for-note reading. I'll ask her what key a song is in, and she'll say she doesn't know."
Fishenfeld is the furnace in the otherwise cool Pamela Stanley Band, which plays boogie-woogie, New Orleans honky-tonk, and smooth jazz ballads. Favoring tasteful, sleeveless, sequined dresses, Stanley could well be one of the Andrews Sisters on a USO tour. On stage she smiles, bobs her head as she sings, and shakes her hips ever so slightly. During Fishenfeld's solo on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," she marches in place, and she likes to make small talk with audience members, for whom she sometimes buys drinks. But while Stanley uses her girl-next-door quality to win over the crowd, Fishenfeld uses her steamy sexuality.
In her skimpy, black half-shirt and intimidating high-heeled boots, she strikes seductive poses on stage when not playing, occasionally twirling her violin bow like a lasso. But when Fishenfeld puts the bow to the strings, she gyrates her hips in a hard, slow grind.
Unsurprisingly, male audience members often introduce themselves after shows -- and they're usually not asking for violin lessons. "The audience sees me as something very sexual, and maybe I am extremely sexual," says the 36-year-old violinist, sitting outside of Tac "O" the Town in Hollywood, sipping a Thai beer on one of her rare weeknights off. "What makes someone sexual is tremendous passion. I think that most people are attracted to a person who is expressing from their innermost depths."
Fishenfeld embellishes her words by making dramatic faces, tightening her lips, contorting her features, bulging out her eyes. Whether on stage or off, she puts every emotion on display. It's hard to imagine this irrepressible woman working as a civil-litigation lawyer in Buffalo, New York, spending most of her time filing briefs and depositions. But just five years ago, that's exactly what she was doing.
"I was not pleasant to be around," she acknowledges. "I was very curt and intolerant as a lawyer. The characteristics that make a person effective as a lawyer, the way you pigeonhole and categorize things, are the same traits that make them socially defective. I made so much money as a lawyer, but the artistic side of me was totally gone. I didn't have time to touch my violin and be creative at all."
Fishenfeld's creativity is, at least to some degree, genetic. She's the daughter of a trumpet-playing father and painter mother. While attending elementary school in her native Long Island, Fishenfeld saw a performance of the New York Philharmonic and found herself drawn to the elegance of the violin. "I wanted to be a concert master, to tune the orchestra and sit in the first chair. I was impressed by the beauty of the sound, but it was a visual as well as auditory experience," she recalls. She took classical violin lessons throughout childhood and later discovered the flashier elements of jazz-fusion and progressive rock, thanks to an older brother whose record collection included such bands as Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Despite graduating magna cum laude from Vassar College, Fishenfeld spent most of her postcollege years working dead-end jobs like operating machinery at a box-making factory and working the cash register at a 7-Eleven. She says she was "lost and floating" at the time and suffering from more than just slacker malaise; she had bulimia, a disorder that had seized her in tenth grade and wasn't brought under control until just two years ago.
"I didn't do anything that required serious focus, because I wasn't capable of focusing on anything," she recalls. "It's a very time-consuming disease because you isolate a lot. And it takes your energy away because of the physical act of bingeing and purging. It leaves you completely drained. Your attention span goes to hell because you're so tired, and it knocks you out chemically because your blood-sugar levels are drastically changing from one minute to the next."
On the other hand, bulimia did offer Fishenfeld a unique perspective on life. "There are certain periods of time when nothing is in your head," she explains. "You're sort of floating, and it's easy to let your mind flow. If there is a song or something happening, you just go with it, and ride on the wave of what's happening. That was a positive effect, almost like being buzzed. You know how artists say that when you're stoned you can really write, you get real creative? I wasn't stoned on drugs, but I was definitely feeling an altered sense of consciousness. I was chemically altered because of what I was doing to my body."
After four aimless years, Fishenfeld finally began to feel capable of doing something productive. She enrolled in law school at NYU and after graduating was hired by a prestigious law firm in Buffalo. She laid her violin aside and remembers that much of the time she didn't even know where it was. She passed the bar, drew a fantastic salary -- and quickly burned herself out with long hours and uninspiring work.
Fishenfeld quit her firm and opened her own. She generated very few clients, but she picked up her violin again and was playing in a local band called Them JAZZBEARDS. The group played "eclectic gypsy jazz," according to Fishenfeld, and recorded a CD called Highballs, Lowbrows and Presbyterians. The group's low-key music, influenced by tango, jazz, and country, was a fixture in Buffalo's hipper nightclubs.
For many musicians there comes a point when the choice between the day job and the nightlife has to be made. Fishenfeld made hers after moving to South Florida and passing the Florida Bar exam in 1994. When she received the ten-page application to join the bar, she balked.
"They do this whole background check to see if you are worthy of being a lawyer, to see if you are ethically and legally correct," Fishenfeld says. "I didn't want to fill it out. I didn't want to have to remember everything from the time I started working. They wanted names, addresses, and phone numbers of every creditor, every job, every place I ever lived. It was too big, too annoying, and I just didn't like practicing law enough to fill out the damn application. Law was not making me a happy person. I was miserable. I was looking for any reason to quit practicing law."
Fishenfeld found her reason when she and a boyfriend went to see a local piano player, who happened to be Pamela Stanley. Fishenfeld's boyfriend gushed about her violin-playing to Stanley, who extended an invitation to sit in with the band the following weekend. That was more than three years ago, and Fishenfeld has been a featured player with Stanley's band ever since.
Though she admits that her late-night hours can be grueling and her salary isn't what it used to be, Fishenfeld wouldn't trade her current career for any other. "I'm so grateful," she gushes. "I'm grateful that my parents gave me lessons, that I have a place to play and get paid for it, grateful to the person who made the violin that I play. It's love. I am in love with it."
The Pamela Stanley Band performs at 9 p.m. every Tuesday at O'Hara's in Hollywood, 1903 Hollywood Blvd. Call 954-925-2555. The band also plays at 9:30 p.m. every Thursday at O'Hara's in Fort Lauderdale, 722 E. Las Olas Blvd. Call 954-524-1764.
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