The director of STEM learning is in tune with the music of Cape Breton
Music and science have been twin passions for Sandy Eix since her teens. Now director of STEM learning at Science World in Vancouver, she studied piano and played in the orchestra for high school musicals in her hometown of Oakville, Ontario. Her love of science led to degrees in physics: a BSc from Waterloo, followed by an MSc and a PhD from SFU. In 1998, as Eix was finishing her doctorate while also working at Science World as science learning lead, she woke up one day with an urge to learn Cape Breton–style fiddle music.
“I found myself going from effectively having two full-time jobs to only having one, so I had time to think about what other things I might want to learn,” Eix recalls. “I’m not quite sure where that came from, except that at the time there was a popular resurgence of that style of music, so you heard a lot of Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac and the Rankins.” Because of the island’s isolated location, Cape Breton music remains similar to what Scottish settlers played when they arrived there in the early 1800s.
Eix owns two fiddles. She explains that the romantic answer to the difference between a violin and a fiddle is that the former sings and the latter dances. “It’s the same instrument,” she says. “It’s just how you play it, really, and what tradition you decide you’re attached to.”
Last year she commissioned Powell River violin maker Laura Wallace to make an instrument for her. Eix has small hands, and although the size variation in a standard violin isn’t huge, “because your fingers have to be so accurate, even a millimetre one way or the other can make a big difference in how comfortable something is to play,” she points out. Eix and Wallace settled on a standard violin with dimensions as small as possible and made from B.C. big leaf maple and Sitka spruce. “The cool bit for me as a scientist is that she sent me photos and let me see the process from being just a block of wood into a musical instrument,” Eix notes.
Her piano background meant she could pick up tunes by ear pretty easily, but Eix found that making a nice sound with the violin was a steep learning curve, which she is still on. “Playing not very well came pretty quickly,” she confides. “Playing very well is still a work in progress.”
Eix takes music lessons every chance she gets. “Musicians come through town and will give workshops,” she says. “With folk music, you pay your $30, you show up at the workshop, and it doesn’t really matter if you’re brilliantly good at it or just a fun-loving amateur. You can take lessons from the best folks in the world.” She’s attended the Buddy MacMaster fiddle camp at Cape Breton’s Celtic Colours music festival, and the past three summers she and her daughter, Elise, went to the Fiddleworks family camp on Salt Spring Island.
Vancouver doesn’t have a large Cape Breton fiddling community, so Eix plays with a couple of groups that create other kinds of music. The West Coast Fiddleheads put on concerts and perform at seniors residences and community events. And recently Eix joined a “ragtag band” that accompanies English country dancing, which she describes as what you see in Jane Austen film adaptations and completely unlike Cape Breton dancing and music. “The joy of making music is when you can make it with other people,” she says. “I can’t always indulge my first passion, but it’s a lot of fun to play.”
Science World marks its 30th anniversary in May, and Sandy Eix has been there almost from the start. In 1996, she became science learning lead while still at SFU, and she’s been inventing exhibits, programs and shows ever since. As director of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning since 2016, Eix recently worked with teachers and kids on learning about coding, robots and computational thinking. She’s also launching a tinkering space where people can use their science knowledge and artistic skills. A new exhibit, A Mirror Maze: Numbers in Nature, combines art, science and math.