Coveralls and a tuxedo — symphony cellist has a second life on the farm

Victor Pipkin says his donkeys are very curious about his music — although they appear to be a bit indifferent to the haunting strains of “Nina” by Italian baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. The cellist plays two pieces and gives a tour of his farm near Onoway in a new video by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
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A lot of people who live on farms have off-farm jobs. But very few of those off-farm jobs involve wearing a tuxedo.

However, cellist Victor Pipkin opted for his work coveralls and boots for a video of a solo mini-concert performed on his hobby farm near Onoway.

Since the pandemic hit, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has created more than two dozen videos of performances by orchestra members. But Pipkin’s is the only one that features an assortment of lambs, cows, chickens, ducks, and other livestock.

The video features Pipkin performing two haunting solo cello pieces (recorded in a field with a corral for a background), overlaid with scenes from the farm as the 30-year ESO veteran speaks about bottle-feeding at 2 a.m., making chevre from goat’s milk, and the muscovy duck that had to be shipped out after it “terrorized” his nine-year-old son by chasing him around the yard.

It all started when the Pipkin family got some rabbits and started breeding them. The rabbits were in the living room, and then they moved to the deck. After purchasing some chickens, it was decided that it was time to buy a farm.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling to get out of the car and there’s this peace and quiet and tranquility we have here.” – Victor Pipkin. photo: Supplied

“About eight years ago, my wife and I decided that moving out to the farm would be really good for the kids and for us, to get back to the land and let our kids see where their food comes from,” said Pipkin, who trained in Victoria, France and the U.S. before joining the ESO.

It’s an hour commute for concerts and practices, but the lifestyle on the farm makes it worthwhile, he said.

“Even after a late night in the city, I drive home and get out of my car and walk around and check on the animals, check on everything, make sure everything’s functioning properly and everybody’s healthy,” Pipkin says in the video. “It’s just a wonderful feeling to get out of the car and there’s this peace and quiet and tranquility we have here.”

He currently has one goat, eight sheep, four cows, a dozen chickens, two pigs, a dozen rabbits, two horses, two ponies, two donkeys and a few dogs and cats. Pipkin didn’t grow up on a farm and his career — he’s been playing the cello since he was 15 — means he always had to live near a sizable city with an orchestra.

But even though he had no farm background, he had worked a variety of other jobs, knew how to use machinery and enjoyed manual labour.

When asked about the biggest learning curve on the farm, Pipkin replied, “Remember to build your fences before you buy your animals,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know how many times my neighbour called and said, ‘Your animal is over here.’

“But in all honesty, managing everything is what the curve is all about — maintaining a professional life as a musician, and as a dad and a husband.”

His wife works as a nurse, but also helps with the animal husbandry.

He said one of the most challenging things about his life as a farmer was learning how to keep the animals healthy, and be able to recognize illness.

For some time, the family ran a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, but eventually stopped because of time demands.

“The CSA meant the summer was booked solid,” he said. “We had a lot of customers. It was rewarding to know that we were feeding people near where they live.”

But he’s still able to share some of the farm with non-farmers, sometimes bringing fresh-laid eggs for his orchestra colleagues — and occasionally one of his animals.

“Sometimes I bring a bottle baby goat or lamb to a rehearsal,” he said. “They just love it.”

There’s a never-ending number of chores but Victor Pipkin says his hobby farm is a labour of love. photo: Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

And every once in a while he runs into a farmer friend while wearing his tuxedo — and gets asked if he is going to a funeral.

“I tell them, no, I’m just going to work,” he said.

He’s also been known to show up at the symphony with farm coveralls over his tuxedo.

“If I’m lazy or don’t get out of bed in time, or have to take a nap and there’s an urgent chore that needs to be taken care of and I need to be dressed up, I just make do.”

During the spring and summer, he was also able to hold socially distanced cello lessons in the field for his students.

“It was very distracting for the little kids that came over,” he said. “There was a donkey leaning over my shoulder. The animals are very interested in the music making that goes on outdoors.”

As a result, Pipkin usually practises in the house. The sheep are the most interested in him, and will follow him around baaing for food any time they see him, which means he can’t really practise when they’re around.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Pipkin didn’t have any symphony shows or rehearsals, and used that extra time to fix and change things on his farm.

“I’m pretty good at buckling down and doing what needs to be done,” he said.

The video of Pipkin’s performance (and all the ESO virtual concerts) can be found at www.winspearcentre.com (click on the Virtual tab and scroll down to his concert, which was posted on Oct. 22) or go to www.youtube.ca and search for ‘eso pipkin.’

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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