September 16, 2008 at 8:27 PMWhat is it like to be in a Rock 'n' Roll band, to tour the country, to play for thousands upon thousands of screaming fans?
When my fellow symphony violinist friend, Melissa Reiner, told me that she'd be spending her summer on tour with the outrageously popular Jonas Brothers, I jumped at the chance to get the inside scoop on what it's really like to live the pop music life. Since she started life as a classical musician, I talked with her about her background, how she broke into the pop scene, and about what it was like to tour with the JBs.
Laurie Niles: Where are you originally from, and how old were you when you began playing the violin?
Melissa Reiner: I'm originally from San Francisco and began studying the violin at the age of 2 1/2, when my parents moved our family to a small town in Northern California called Eureka. I later attended boarding school outside of San Francisco (for my last two years of high school) so I
could study with a violin teacher at the San Francisco conservatory.
Laurie: Where did you study violin? Does a classical training have any value for someone wanting to go into pop music? Is it in any way a detriment?
Melissa: I began serious studies of the violin as a 14-year old student of Dorothy DeLay at the Aspen Summer Music Festival, and 3 summers as a DeLay student at Aspen (during high school) made me realize that I needed a high-powered teacher all year long, which led me to study with Isador
Tinkelman (in San Francisco) during high school, and then on to the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University for my bachelor of music degree.
For a string player, classical training is absolutely essential to play any kind of music well, especially pop music, which needs to sound and look effortless the first time one performs with a band. Only a solid classical background can give a string player a beautiful tone and perfect intonation. It also instills confidence when faced with sight-reading or having to improvise a part on the spot: if I ever get nervous in a pop setting, I remind myself that if I can sight-read Mahler symphonies and perform the Prokofiev concertos, then I can handle anything a pop star can throw at me!
The only detriment to classical training is that it can make us snobby and narrow-minded about the value of pop music or the talent of pop stars. Yes, there are plenty of poor musicians taking over the radio airwaves, but there are also plenty of fantastic musicians and song-writers. It is possible to have as much fun performing professional pop/rock music as it is to perform professional classical
music. They are two different genres, and do not need to be compared - simply enjoyed! I recently played a sold-out show outside of Cleveland (with the Jonas Brothers) at the Blossom Festival, on the very same stage where I performed with the Cleveland Orchestra 12 years ago, and I was just as happy and proud of my part in the performance with the JBs as I was back in my strictly classical days.
Laurie: What drew you to pop music?
Melissa: I first started actively listening to non-classical music with my fellow Aspen students as a teenager, and the first band I really loved was U2. I began to realize that pop/rock music is just as powerful and moving (to me personally) as classical music; it is a completely different experience. But I didn't ever think that I would perform non-classical music professionally until I moved to Los Angeles after college and discovered that there were many entertaining and lucrative jobs in the pop/rock genre, and it helped to have interest and knowledge in a genre outside of classical music.
Laurie: When did you start playing for pop bands, and what bands have you played for?
Melissa: I first started playing for pop bands at some point after moving to Los Angeles in 1998, and I am happy to say that I have performed/recorded with too many popular bands to list them all here! But here is an eclectic sampling of bands/singers on my resume: Christina Aguilera, David Lee Roth, Mariah Carey, NSYNC, Dishwalla, Justin Timberlake, Destiny's Child, and Priscilla Ahn.
Laurie: How did you land this particular gig?
Melissa: The Jonas Brothers' agent is an old friend of mine, and when the JB's manager asked their agent to recommend female string players for their summer tour, he recommended me. The JBs checked out my website, liked what they saw (it's quite comprehensive, with sound clips, pictures and credits) and hired me to be the lead violinist and string contractor. It's been an incredible experience, both professionally and personally.
Laurie: Does having string back-up change the sound of the Jonas Brothers? Why did they want strings?
Melissa: I think the JBs wanted to try something completely new for this tour, which is their first headlining arena tour; the concerts have all been sold out and the audiences are between 13,000-30,000. They definitely wanted to add a unique sound and look for such a huge tour, but it was
an experiment for them. They had never toured with girls in their band, and had never toured with string players at all. I am happy to say that they are so pleased with our playing and positive attitude that they decided to have us play a little bit of classical music in the show so the strings could be featured on their own! We gave them a couple of accessible and flashy classical options to choose from, and they picked an excerpt from the third movement of Vivaldi's "Summer", which we played towards the end of the show. After we played, the JBs asked the audience if any of them played stringed instruments and told them to keep practicing so they can sound like us someday. I hope that the thought of someday performing with the Jonas Brothers is inspiring some young girls out there to practice!
Laurie: What did you look for when you were hiring other string players for this tour by the Jonas Brothers? Did you want a certain educational background? I know that it's a bit of casting call as well as an audition, how flexible could you be in the "look"? What non-violin abilities did these performers need to have?
Melissa: When I was hired to be the leader as well as the contractor, I was pleased to be able to hire friends for a really great job, but also nervous since I needed to keep my employers happy by hiring the right girls for the job. There were a lot of factors in my decision-making process, but the most important thing to me was their musical ability. Every single girl I hired has conservatory training and three of them attended my alma mater, Peabody. It was imperative to me that I hire girls who have impeccable intonation and technique, because with a crowd of 20,000 screaming girls, it can be very hard to hear yourself hit the right notes, therefore my players need to be people who are confident that they can play beautifully and accurately under somewhat adverse circumstances!
The other factors were looks (this is pop music after all) and flexible, considerate personalities. When you are spending 10 weeks traveling around the country in a tour bus with eight girls, every single person needs to be nice, or it can be a very uncomfortable tour. We are eight girls out of 15 people on stage, and there are about 100 people total involved in the tour this summer (lights, sound, catering, wardrobe, etc.), so there is no room for diva-ish behavior. It is also important to remember that we are there to support and literally "back up" the JBs; the show is about them, not us, and the audience is there to see THEM. So I needed to hire girls that were willing to play their best, but also be willing to participate in other ways, like having fun onstage, even when we are not playing on a song. Performing pop music is about putting on a show, not just playing well. The boys helped to make it a positive experience every night because they are so talented and enthusiastic and HAPPY, which is infectious. The JBs and their band perform at an incredibly high level, yet manage to enjoy themselves, so we did too. Plus it's easy to want to play well when there are 20,000 people screaming their approval!
As for a "look", I picked seven other girls that I think are beautiful, and they happen to be a really diverse-looking group. I did have to submit my choices to the JBs and their management, and I was pleased that they agreed with me. I had to keep the look as young and hip as possible, since the JBs are all under 21, and their band is really young as well. Socially we have integrated very well and it is a true family atmosphere - we all eat meals together and play card games, wiffleball, etc...It's essential to hire girls that are able to have fun both onstage and off, and if you look at our Facebook page or any Youtube videos from the concerts, I think you can see that we are having a wonderful time doing our job, and we really like hanging out together too!
Laurie: What is the craziest thing that happened on the Jonas Tour? How about the most gratifying?
Melissa: Well, there were a few crazy incidents and many gratifying things, but I will try to narrow it down. The "Burnin' Up" tour involved 15 performers and about 85 other people making it happen every night (lights, sound, wardrobe, crew, catering, etc.), so when putting on a show of that magnitude, one must allow for a couple of crazy nights. Surprisingly there were very, very few problems: no one was injured and almost no equipment was damaged (no stringed instruments were harmed, thank God). For me, the craziest incident occurred in Woodstock, New York, when a giant metallic "Jonas Brothers" logo (which was illuminated with flames every night during the last song) accidentally set off the sprinkler system on stage! This was not the fault of our crew, but apparently due to one of the local stagehands forgetting to de-activate the sprinkler system for that night. As soon as we string players felt a drop of what we assumed to be rain, we dashed offstage to protect our instruments. Then of course we realized that it was a sprinkler system, as there was a mass exodus by everyone on stage! Luckily it was the very end of the show, so the audience only missed out on one encore, and unbelievably, considering all of the keyboards, drum sets and other musical accoutrements on stage, very little equipment was damaged.
In terms of general craziness, the Jonas Brothers fans reach unprecedented levels of screaming and fan intensity. Our tour buses were chased by girls in cars, and legions of fans seemed to discover every single hotel in which we stayed. I have a feeling that it goes beyond even Beatlemania!
The most gratifying thing was the high level of appreciation between the Jonas Brothers and the entire crew. The entire Jonas family is incredibly gracious, genuine and thoughtful, and they make a real effort to surround themselves with like-minded people. The tour truly had a family atmosphere and it was a joy to be a part of it...It felt less like work and more like a summer festival on wheels. All of the eight string players had done many tours before with a wide variety of different artists and ensembles, and we all agreed that this tour was comprised of an unusually easy-going and cool group of people! The Jonas Brothers deserve all the success in the world.
Laurie: What surprised you most about doing this tour?
Melissa: As an addendum to the above question, the most surprising thing about the tour was the incredibly positive and supportive atmosphere! I thought that we would have fun, but it exceeded all of my expectations. Even after 10 weeks, it was still really fun to put on the same show with the same people. The high level of talent and enthusiasm on stage was very infectious, so even if I had low energy on a certain day, it was very easy to be inspired by the other performers and rise to the occasion.
Laurie: Is it easier to play a pops concert than a classical one? A loaded question, I know!
Melissa: This is an interesting question, since one must consider the definition of "easier." I think that performing as a soloist is always going to be demanding and difficult, whether in a violin concerto, an opera aria, or a "pop" song. Obviously, there is an extremely high level of talent and focus required to sing or play ANYTHING perfectly/accurately, especially night after night. There are many celebrated performers in every genre who have given terrible performances due to stress, illness, lack of preparation, etc. We have all seen famous violinists fall short of expectations. It is also a matter of the audience, how discriminating it is, why they attended the concert (Are they fans? Do they know the music? How good are their ears?), etc. Some audiences are more critical than others, which may make a concert more daunting for the soloist.
When performing in a section, whether playing a Prokofiev symphony or a Sheryl Crow song (she took an orchestra on the road), it is of course easier to "get away" with things, like playing wrong notes or spacing out. However, there are a lot more visual cues when performing pop music, because the audience expects a complete spectacle. If you look grumpy or slovenly during a pop concert, more people will notice. During classical concerts, one is almost supposed to look grumpy, since classical music is "serious." So I suppose my opinion is that there are different challenges for pop vs. classical performances. Technically, it is harder to play the Brahms violin concerto than to play a solo "lick" in a pop song. However, I think there are more requirements when playing a pop song, like smiling and connecting with the audience. "Easier" is really a matter of personality and what one feels comfortable doing on stage. And of course how prepared one is!
Laurie: What has been the biggest adjustment for you as a player, in going from classical music to pop?
Melissa: The biggest adjustment is not to take myself too seriously, without letting my abilities suffer. Being relaxed in the studio or on stage does NOT mean playing out of tune or being unprepared. There is a much more social and supportive environment on a lot of pop gigs, but it is just as important to be completely professional in all aspects, the way I am on my classical gigs. In my 10 years of playing pop gigs in Los Angeles (or on tour), I have seen people fired for being late, or not playing well, just the way they would be at a symphony gig. I continue to practice and perform classical music, because that is the best way to keep my technique up for any gig. In fact my first solo classical album is available on iTunes this month (it's called "Great Love Constant Thought" and features music by Piazzolla, Korngold and Dvorak). I am happy to say that some interesting classical music that I have recorded in the past (like Ysaye sonatas) has helped me to get pop gigs. Most great and open-minded musicians are impressed by good playing in any genre.
The other adjustment is being flexible, which is also almost as important as good technique. The most important things that I learned post-conservatory are: being able to improvise (not like Miles Davis, just the ability to come up with parts on the fly), which is basically knowing how to work without sheet music, and generally being able to communicate with musicians who are fantastic but may not have the same classical training as you. I also discovered how to write songs and arrange strings for other song-writers, which is something that I had thought was beyond me during my conservatory training. Then I realized that I didn't have to aspire to be Beethoven, just more like my first favorite band, U2. Not that I would ever compare myself to U2 - but I know if I ever got hired to play with them, I would know how to do the job well, and love doing it! Isn't that why we all wanted to become musicians in the first place - because we loved to play music and happened to be good at it? I want to continue to play both pop and classical music at the highest level possible, and have a good time while I'm at it. I'm honored to add bands like the Jonas Brothers to my resume... and it's been a fantastic summer.
I must say, however, I do not like the Jonas Brothers. It's all opinion however, and I know many people love them. But congrats to Melissa!
Crate of prunes on the way.
If I would have to present a list to someone myself of people who play their kind of music well with no classical training, in order to prove how incorrect the statement is, it would be hopeless anyway. I just mention it because so very narrow-minded, not to be mean to Melissa, who I like and who seems like a good sport. And I realize I'm not famous, so feel free to ignore this :) However I have driven a Porsche, if that gives me any weight :)
As for the violin, might someone be able to get to that level by studying another genre really well? Maybe. But I doubt I'd take the chance, when it comes to hiring a violinist for professional work. Buri, you can take it all with a lot of prunes, but you have a classical education. But maybe you are talking about other instruments, where it tends to be a bit easier.
In utter, total contrast, the sound of U2, who she mentions, is the sound of something practically the opposite of classical training. If U2 took five years off and went to conservatory, or if Woody Guthrie studied opera, it um, wouldn't be for the best.
This is an interesting interview. I wonder why the string players are referred to as "girls". Are they legally minors? Melissa Reiner seems old enough to vote, so I was just curious.
Also, I really don't want to get into the Pop vs. Classical "snobby and narrow minded" argument, but I think it is interesting that as a contractor, Reiner ended up hiring youngish looking females. (Women? Girls?)
In a show like this, it's not just an audition, it's a casting call...Showbiz, baby. ;) The JBs specifically wanted a "girl" string section to balance out their very young (they are 16, 19 and 20, if I have that right) "boy band." The string players are in their 20s and 30s, but they definitely are sporting a girlish look.
Maybe thats what's wrong with our classical music scene. Too many old and lumpy musicians and not enough young attractive females.
Allow me to quote Joshua Bell:
If I might begin a slight rant about one of the problems I find -- even on websites like Violinist.com....
They make comments like, "This person sucks." If one says someone plays something well, the idea that you need to trash someone else. Of course, you have your favorite. But I think it's really important for young people to open their minds to other ways of playing and other ways of appreciating music.
I find that it's sort of a novice mistake. I find it even more among complete amateurs, who are not even in music at all. They've grown up with their one recording of a piece. They'll complain to me, "Oh, I heard this opera sung by this person. And oh, it's terrible, because it should be this way." Because this is the way they view that piece.
They're not able to open up their minds and enjoy it on the terms that the person is presenting it – as a performance. I'm guilty as much as anybody. But if you can unblock yourself and try to get inside an interpretation of someone that may be eccentric, or listen to an old Mischa Elman, without saying, "Oh God, those gross slides. Listen to the tasteless stuff." If you can try to get beyond that, and really see the poetry that's underneath it -- it's a different sound. There's room for a lot of ways of playing. That's what makes it so rich and interesting in the musical world.
I'm not a professional musician, but I've met many over the course of my life. And I don't see pros on message boards trashing other professionals. But, unfortunately, I do read too many amateurs and poseurs who aren't willing to do what Joshua asks -- and open their minds to other styles of performance, and even forms of music -- and instead get snarky about pros who are making a living, exploring their craft and bringing live music to thousands.
I think what Melissa's doing with her career is cool. And I'm excited that Laurie's interviewing people like her, in addition to Josh and Rachel and Hilary. I hope other readers are, too.
The interviews are very interesting, but realize what what Josh Bell says or what other interviewees say is not automatically better than what anybody else says. Many people who read this know precisely what's going on in the heads of classical musicians, and in the heads of musicians who play some other kinds of music as well, not just me.
I think its a fabulous interview. I really appreciate the honesty and candor. My open mind about pop music says "successful marketing". And success includes keeping it young, keeping it sexy, and keeping it easy. Good marketing is always "narrow" and pop music is no exception.
I just don't think that classical musicians are narrow minded. The have the most breadth in the technique, the most depth in the education and are the go-to players when one wants a performance to sound professional. The local rock-a-billy church calls in the professional strings for the Easter cantata when they want to go uptown.
I don't think that it is narrow minded to point out the narrow mindedness of pop culture -- primarily its' audience but very cynically its' purveyors.
I do think that its a but narrow minded to call down critics of pop culture. None of us a going to make it go away. We are all happy that it pays some folks a living. But my admiration for it can go no further.
Peace everyone. :)
It occured to me that just as a performer on that side of the screen doesn't like someone on this side of the screen saying they can't play, then they might return the favor and not say everybody on this side of the screen (the near 100% who don't play classical) can't play :D I thought of that while trying to figure out the close sarcasm tag....
But really, non-classical players aren't much bothered by that kind of statement. It would get shrugged off. I think the reason I don't shrug it off like them is because I carry some parts of classical mindset baggage into other kinds of music. Not a great thing to do. Far better to just ignore it and do your own thing in your own world.
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