"She took us to so many places and made us all better people through her soulful music, quiet charisma, deep strength, and unwavering ethical convictions."
The next 3 years (2009-2011) was full of ups and downs. While we knew we were dealing with a life-threatening illness and things were not improving, we did have some great memories in between the medical appointments and tests. This was the period when Hannah learned to play the violin/fiddle.
Hannah became one of the best young fiddle players in the state of West Virginia and would go on to win many ribbons in competitions. More importantly, through music, Hannah found her first real friends outside of family.
It started by accident, sort of. I had met up with some friends from high school that invited me to jam with them at a local farm. I played guitar. I asked what kind of music they played and the answer was “old-time.” I didn’t know old-time from bluegrass or Celtic at the time. I had played a lot of Beatles and classical music up to this point. I was a little unsure about this “new” genre of music, but I was excited to reconnect with old friends and make new friends. I had been away from Beckley for 12 of the past 14 years and it was nice to reconnect.
We played at the farm every week until it got too cold. Then I invited the group to my garage, where I had a heater. Hannah would come out to the garage and listen. One of the musicians, Jackie, found out we had a bowed Psaltery and invited Hannah out to play with us. Jackie gave her a quick lesson and then Hannah took off from there. Jackie, and my friend Stephanie were both fiddle players. Hannah began playing her psaltery like a fiddle. One night Jackie said, “Girl, you need to get a fiddle.”
Hannah was inspired by both Jackie and Stephanie. She would become close friends with both of them.
I remember buying her first fiddle. It was a ¾ size instrument. I tried to lower her expectations. It had taken me years to get decent at guitar. I just assumed it would take her years to get good at fiddle. She proved me wrong. Eight weeks later she was playing in jam circles at the world’s largest old-time festival and keeping up with seasoned musicians.
Hannah loved the music. She loved the people. She loved the festivals. It was an exciting new world for her. In between festivals, we continued to jam every Thursday night for many years. Hannah took lessons, but mostly played by ear. She became competent in old-time, Celtic, bluegrass, classical, and much more. Her ear amazed me. Even more, her depth of playing reached to places I had never been in my being. Its as if the pain of her suffering, her loneliness, and her hope for a better life all met at a crossroads deep within her soul and expressed itself in melodies, harmonies, and double stops on her instrument.
After Hannah passed away, her friend Jackie eloquently posted this about Hannah:
“Some years ago, a young fiddle student came into my life. But she was only my student for a short time, then she quickly became my teacher. She didn't just teach me about fiddle. She taught me about life. Faith. She taught me what it takes to be a truly good human being. Fly high Hannah Snuffer; you will be missed.”
Hannah would go on to have many teachers. Ben Casto, a tremendous local Celtic and classical player, helped fine tune her craft. She took lessons and workshops from Bobby Tayler, the world-renowned old-time player who once said that Hannah was his favorite young fiddle player in the country. Hannah loved Ben and Bobby both.
She had other good musician friends, like Brian Bell, Matt Blankenship, Ron Campbell, Robin Kessinger, and many others. There were nights when we were playing together in which Hannah would just take off and do something unusual or unexpected with us. She took us to so many places and made us all better people through her soulful music, quiet charisma, deep strength, and unwavering ethical convictions.
Perhaps Hannah’s most important teacher, Hunter Walker, also became her best friend. They cooked together, played together, performed together, and just hung out as friends. Hunter is an all-around outstanding musician, known mostly for being among the best mountain dulcimer players on the planet. He has won countless competitions and performed with clawhammer banjo, mandolin, and guitar. Hunter made this post about a year after her passing:
“My goodness, my dear friend. You still burn so bright that I can hear you every time I cook, play certain tunes, or go to the grocery store.
We had such a bond! The only thing that prevents my sadness sometimes is that most folks never get to meet a human as special as you were to me. Those of us who were privileged to know you still don’t understand all of your “magic.”
We love you. Still do. Always will. Thanks again for everything.”
Hannah also taught a lot of students at the School or Harmony and Beckley Art Center until she was just too sick to teach any more. She impacted a lot of lives. Although her life was short, it was by no means without purpose. We can ask "why?" in regards to her illness and short life all we want. We may get no answers in this lifetime. But we know that her life had value and continues to inspire.
Looking back, I realize that it was no accident that I started jamming with some old friends and then invited them to the garage to play through the winter. I cannot imagine Hannah’s life without music. In her short life, she intensely lived through her music. I wish that I had recorded more. Her best performances were by far the ones with a small circle of friends while I had a guitar (not a camera) in hand. These are memories I will carry with me forever. I cannot wait to play music with her again. I hope that there are fiddles in heaven.