Lately, my world is all abuzz over electric violins.
First, several of my students decided to buy electrics. Then, I met Mark Wood, inventor of the Viper violin, at the ASTA convention last month. And just this week, I saw Yamaha's Day of Jazz Violin, which impressed me with the various expressive capabilities of electrics.
Add to that another event that took place earlier this month, when Tom Metzler and Barbara Don held a demonstration of several kinds of electric stringed instruments at their store, Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif., where I'd recently seen their Cremonese violin exhibition.
This demonstration, called "Electrify Your Music!" brought together representatives and makers of electric fiddles (and I include cellos), including Jordan Electric Instruments; Yamaha Electric Instruments; Wood Violins; NS Design instruments by Ned Steinberger; Realist Electric Violins and Pickups by David Gage; VIVO2 Electric Violins by Ted Brewer; Zeta, Coda bows and more.
"More and more, people are asking us about these kinds of instruments," said Tom Metzler, to the 50-some people gathered in his violin shop for the demonstrations.
First up was John Jordan, creator of Jordan Electric Violins.
"Nobody can beat the beauty of his workmanship and the materials he uses," Metzler said.
Jordan uses a combination of various woods in his electrics, as well as various pickup systems.
"I don't believe there is any one definitive electric sound we should be looking for," Jordan said. "I'm really a woodworker; I'm trained as a violin maker. To me, when I pick it up, I want it to feel like a violin."
He said that his electric instruments have evolved over the years from the requests of his clients who have played them.
"Really picky people are really useful," Jordan said. The design for the violins "evolves over time because of really gifted players who want it a certain way."
Helping him demonstrate was violinist Ysanne Spevack, who owns the first electric Jordan built and has played in bands such as the Smashing Pumpkins and Elton John. Today she was demonstrating on an instrument that was to go to Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthews Band. To me it sounded a lot like an acoustic violin, just amplified.
Next up was Heather Mansell of Yamaha Electric Instruments.
Though many think of an electric instrument as a conduit for rock 'n' roll and amplified music, Yamaha's first electric violin, released in 1997, was actually called the "Silent Violin" (or "SV") It was conceived as an instrument for personal use in Japan, where dense living conditions can make practice difficult without disturbing neighbors. Practicing with earphones was one solution, and Yamaha sought to tap that market.
"It was not for professional playing," Mansell said, "It was for practicing."
The North American market had another demand: pump up the volume. So when Yamaha introduced its electric strings in North America, it re-designed the Silent Violin for amplification, adding models with a single pickup (SV130) or dual pickup (SV200) that sits under a removable bridge. Yamaha later created its "EV" (Electric Violin) series, with pickups that are individual for each string, creating a powerful signal that can be adjusted with on-board EQ, Mansell said.
"The EV series just took it another step further creating a fatter, edgier tone that some players prefer," Mansell said.
Yamaha continues to offer both "silent" and "electric" violins.
Yamaha's latest silent violin is the SV150 Silent Practice Plus, an instrument which comes with a control box that has a digital tuner, digital metronome and more than 20 digital sound effects, as well as a memory card for playing recordings.
"It's super light," Mansell said, because the electronics are in the control box instead of in the instrument. She demonstrated how it can sound like a large hall.
The memory card, with its recordings of accompaniments allows the practicer to play along with orchestra, or play with the band, right in his own living room, sort of like the Music Minus One recordings, but with a few advantages.
"You can slow it down and speed it up, and it won't change the pitch," Mansell said of the accompaniment recordings.
The card comes pre-loaded with tunes from a book, such as "Amazing Grace" and "Ave Maria." Yamaha's website also offers additional downloads, such as Suzuki Book 1 done in Calypso style, with solo parts taken out so that you can play along.
Later in the day, I tried the SV150, and though it felt a little heavy to me, it was indeed easy to play, with a nice quality to the tone. Mansell cued up "Amazing Grace" on the control box, and I played a little by ear, with a few attempts at improv. Somehow it's funner having it all come through one amp – having your sound go straight into the midst of all the accompaniment – than it is to play to a recording on the stereo or computer. I could see how this would make Suzuki review a bit more fun!
Unfortunately, none of the electric violin makers represented at the event makes fractional-sized electrics – the smaller-sized instruments that kids would use.
"It's very rare that anyone does," Mansell said. "Maybe that will change, but at this time, not many fractional electrics are being made."
Tom Metzler next introduced Wood Violins: "The first thing you notice about Mark is that he's got this long hair and he looks like a Rock 'n' Roller," Metzler said, "But he has a lot of interesting sides to him, and he's passionate about music education in the schools."
A Juilliard-educated violist, Wood created electric violins with names like the "Viper," the "Stingray" and the "Cobra," with a whole new kind of geometry – let's call it an electric aesthetic.
Mark Wood couldn't make it to the event himself, so violinist Alyson Montez showed us the instruments. Montez met Wood when she was 15 years old and debating whether she really wanted to walk the path of a symphony musician.
"Mark had the weirdest violin – it sounded just like a guitar," Montez said of her first impressions. She fell in love with the electrics and taken her career more in that direction.
"His instruments have such a broad range – plus they look really cool!" Montez said. " I especially love the low tones on the Vipers." She said that when you play one of these instruments, you can take any role in the band: rhythm, lead, guitar, bass. "I actually once joined a band, and the guitarist quit!" she said, and everyone laughed.
Wood's instruments range from four to seven strings, and they can be purchased with frets – either raised or flat.
"In rock bands, it's pretty useful to have frets," Montez said. Often the volume gets so high, it's hard to hear your own playing. "When you don't hear anything, you can't tell what your pitch is."
Also, "with the frets, you are forced to have a lighter touch," Montez said. "So if you have a death grip, you won't have it long."
One feature of the Viper is that it straps on, allowing the neck and back to be free. Montez said that when she was younger, she had carpal tunnel syndrome, "I couldn't hold a pencil," she said, and practicing on the Viper helped her get back. The electric cellos also strap on – yes, you could play in the marching band with this instrument!
Cellist MaryAnne Steinberger demonstrated cellos by Ned Steinberger by NS Design. (And they are not related, the name is a coincidence). A musician who plays mostly classical and Baroque music, MaryAnne became interested in having a five-string cello after babysitting a vacationing friend's violoncello piccolo, a Baroque-era instrument with five strings.
"This was a versatile alternative," she said of the five-string electric cello by NS Design. She has used it mostly for Baroque playing, "I don't have any rock 'n' roller in me to discover," she said. "It's a very good practice instrument. I live the sound, and I've enjoyed plugging it in and recording for composers." She said that she has found she needed a bow with a lighter touch for the electric cello.
There were a few other violins – the Vivo2 Electric Violin by Ted Brewer, which is the same kind of violin Vanessa Mae plays. It has a headphone jack and was made of purple plastic and "if we get the right combination of buttons, it will flash while you play," Metzler said.
Metzler also talked about bows, adding that, "You can use any bow you want on an electric violin." One of the bows that some electric players have gravitated toward is the "Joule" model by Coda Bows, which has a longer hair length (even though the bow itself is standard-length).
Not much was said about Zeta electrics, though that did prompt a conversation about Midi systems, as Zeta was the first to adapt the technology.
One of the problems with Midi systems has been that the lower the pitch, the slower the Midi response, said cellist MaryAnne Steinberger, who also plays on a Zeta. Jordan said that the converter is the same as it was in 1984, and it takes two full wave cycles for the response. Now, the technology exists to do the same thing in just a quarter of a wave, and a system with that kind of technology may be available as early as next year's NAMM convention.
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On Sunday I dragged my sagging soul to Yamaha's Day of Jazz Violin -- and was I ever glad I did. After watching five energetic musicians strut their stuff on their electric violins, I was...well, jazzed!
"That was AWESOME," was my uncomplicated thought, as violinists Christian Howes, Mads Tolling, Charlie Bisharat, Lisa Haley and Antonio Pontarelli took their bows. Here are five people who have explored the medium of electric violin and discovered some of its unique secrets -- music you can make only on an electric.
For those of you who missed it (the whole session was webcast, live from Pasadena), I was there in the intimate audience of about 150 people, armed with the Flip. Unfortunately, these beautiful artists look rather ghostly in my amateur videos -- basically, their faces are featureless! But you certainly can hear them, and get a feel for their performance. And, better yet, Heather Mansell of Yamaha promises that the professionally-made performance video will be available on Yamaha's website within a few weeks. I'll try to remind you; it was well-worth seeing.
When I arrived at the Pasadena Jazz Institute (an appealing venue, which I hadn't been to, even though I live in Pasadena), I took one of the last seats near the stage, where I met Lizzie Lavin, 15, of El Cajon, Calif., and her mother, Cathy Lavin, who came to watch violinist Antonio Pontarelli, who Lizzie's teacher. Lizzie, who is studying both Suzuki and jazz, has been awaiting the arrival of her Viper electric violin since Christmas and will be attending the Mark O'Connor camp in June at UCLA, as well as Stanford University's Jazz Camp. Lest you think all the jazz and fiddle camps are in California, Jazz Violinist Christian Howes runs the Creative Strings Workshop this summer in Columbus Ohio, and Mark O'Connor also has camps in New York City and Tennessee.
But back to the performance! This evening, all the performers played on Yamaha electrics, and first up was Charlie Bisharat, a Grammy award-winner who played for the band Shadowfax, which is probably the first place I ever heard electric violin, back in college, back in...okay never mind! Charlie, playing a "pearl red" EV205, has the picture-perfect vibrato, hand position -- and he also knows what to do with an electric violin. I loved his bouncy step, positive vibe, and the way he interacts with the band -- you can see at the end of this video a little interchange with drummer Russ Miller. Incidentally, other members of the perfectly tight rhythm section were Jerry Watts on bass and Russell Ferrante on keyboard.
At 18, Antonio Pontarelli was the youngest of the group. He began with an arrangement of the Beatle's song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." I remember a music teacher once admonishing me not to tap my toe while playing -- hah! Pontarelli's entire body was a channel for rhythm, and it was very infectious -- toes were tapping everywhere, heads bobbing -- everyone's little video cameras were bouncing up and down. The dance is as much fun as the music, and I wondered how much is choreographed and how much is just spontaneous. His mad rock cadenzas definitely had some classical-leaning virtuoso material, including a rather Bach-Chaconne-ish one at the end of his second solo, Gershwin's "Summertime." (Pontarelli's fiddle: an amber EV205)
Lisa Haley, playing on an "ocean blue" Yamaha SV200 that she calls "Louie," sang in her deep, husky voice while playing in more of a fiddle style. I was totally impressed with this ability to multi-task, as I either play like an idiot or sound like an idiot when I try to do both at the same time. She seemed world-wise, with a no-nonsense competence you just take for granted. Of course she can sing, and accompany herself, and launch right into an improv solo!
After the show I asked Lisa how she manages to sing and play at the same time. "You have a bunch of your friends in a high school band say, 'We need you to sing,' and when you start to put down your violin they say, 'Oh no, now...'" she said. "It was pure peer pressure!" If I wanted to learn to do it, she advised me to play a scale until I'm so sick of it I can barely stand it, and then play the scale while singing a simple song, like "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
Mads Tolling, member of the Grammy Award-Winning Turtle Island Quartet and originally from Denmark, seemed to me the most hard-core jazzer of the bunch. He reeled everyone in with "The Chicken," which is first on the video below, and begins with the violin as percussion, a great effect only possible in quite this way on an electric. Mads closes his eyes and rides the band, he seems hyper-aware of the band and ready to take whatever wave comes. Keyboardist Ferrante was grinning ear-to-ear -- "JAM!" is what I wrote in my notes.
Christian Howes, who not only plays, composes and produces, but also teaches electric violin at Berklee, started with somewhat moodier music, and the elegant ending of his first song ("When She's Like Water," written for his wife), made man in front of me sighed audibly, "Ahhhhhh." Somehow Christian can grab as much attention with mellow playing as he can with the fancy stuff, and he does both with style. The short phrases in his second song ("Song for My Daughter,") seemed to speak -- literally, like a very direct form of speech. I found it both thrilling and masterful. Yes, I was having a great time! (BTW both Mads and Christian were playing on a Yamaha prototype electric violin from Japan, which is not yet available).
After this, all five violinists took the stage with this star-studded rhythm section and had one very fun jam, and you will just have to watch it on Yamaha's site when they post it!
What a thrill it was to see such skilled artists working in this medium, the electric violin, and using what is old, what is new and what is universal -- to make it speak!
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Ah, the YouTube Symphony...
First, I'd like to thank Caeli Smith for bringing us into the moment with her vlogs (BTW "vlog"="video blog"; "blog" = "web log.") Caeli, you did a fine job!
How successful was the YouTube Symphony?
Well, I wasn't there. But after reading blogs, watching vlogs, getting totally bogged....I have a few thoughts to offer.
The large news outlets seemed to offer somewhat differing opinions on the concert: Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times offered a tempered thumbs-up but Anne Midgette of the Washington Post panned the performance, blaming the orchestra's problems on the idea that "What's uncommon...is for an orchestra suddenly to materialize, its members appearing from around the world, or from out of the Internet, to land in a rehearsal room at Juilliard. By now, most people are familiar with YouTube; but it's something else again when the videos suddenly come to life."
She continues later: "Music, it turns out, isn't a language universal enough that people can converse in it easily right off the bat. The orchestra sounded ragged, uneven, of wildly different quality. It sounded, in fact, like a lot of different people talking at one another in many different languages -- which is, of course, what it was."
Was that the problem?
I doubt it. It's hardly unusual, in the world of classical music, to assemble a group of musicians from every corner of the globe, to throw together something in four rehearsals or less. Even among children! What happens on the first day of a Suzuki Institute? A mass play-in. What happens every year at Aspen, for the first concert? Or any summer festival? How about gig orchestras? The "pick-up" orchestra is nothing new, and classical musicans tend to be a well-travelled set.
Is the YouTube symphony new evidence that music is NOT the universal language? Musicians can't converse easily together, in the language of music?
And yet, I give Midgette credit for being one of the few to bring her skepticism to the fore. If what she says doesn't quite ring true, it has the ring of honesty: She didn't like it. Her husband Greg Sandow, wrote about it, too, and about how it was almost impossible not to ride the tidal wave of enthusiasm generated by the positive publicity for this event. "But at the heart of all of this -- at its artistic heart, where the music lives -- something was hollow," Sandow wrote. "The playing wasn't wonderful. Nor was it, for the most part, scrappy or exciting, which could easily have made me love it, even if technically it wasn't so great."
Did anyone else have that feeling? Jeremy?
Technology doesn't change the way we make music. It may bring different people together, but it doesn't change what we need. The beauty of music, the transformative power of a symphony orchestra, comes from its ability to unify us.
We aren't videos, we are people. You can make a video mash-up, but you can't make people play together, live, with just an edit button. Sure, they found talent for this orchestra. But to create music with it, to create the kind of unity that communicates and moves us through music, one needs vision, leadership, and reasonable goals.
It seemed like a lot of music, slotted into an overbooked rehearsal schedule to which no professional musician would agree.
I'm guessing that less would have been more.
And yet, I love that YouTube funded and promoted a huge, ambitious orchestra program. How can I not love that YouTube chose to pour so many resources into an orchestra event, to pull together talented musicians from around the world, to celebrate classical music?
"I'm ready for more. It's like a drug, I need more of this," said violinist Ben Chan into his video camera during the YouTube Symphony Orchestra Concert, at intermission. There he was, in Carnegie Hall. He smiled. "Even though I hurt all over, I need more."
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British violinist Tasmin Little has faith in classical music – that the music itself needs no dressing up to appeal to people across a wide spectrum.
She's done her best to prove it, as well. In February 2008 she released an album of all solo violin works called The Naked Violin, in the form of a free download. Her idea was to bring violin music to an audience that might not otherwise find it accessible. To make it even more accessible, she created audio introductions to the pieces, and challenged people to download the music, get to know it well, and then write her if they still felt a barrier to enjoying classical music.
Her new album, Partners in Time, was conceived along the same lines, and though it is not free this time, Tasmin has created the same kinds of educational features on her website to lure the uninitiated – and also to offer insights for those of us who already love this music.
Tasmin, who is 43, has reached out in live performance as well. In addition to regular concertizing, she also has been performing monthly at schools, and even at prisons.
Tasmin, who plays a 1757 Guadagnini violin and also has the 'Regent' Stradivarius of 1708 on loan from the Royal Academy of Music, talked with Violinist.com last month while she was in Seattle to play the Elgar Violin Concerto. She spoke about her early days at the Menuhin School, about her Josh Bell-like busking experiment in London several years back, and about her new mission to bring classical music to the widest possible audience.
Laurie: Let me start at the very beginning: what made you want to start playing the violin?
Tasmin: Actually my route into playing the violin was slightly unusual, though I grew up with a concept of performing because my father (George Little) is an actor. He didn't do a "normal" job either! So my sister and I were taken off to the theatre regularly as a part of our childhood. My parents also loved classical music, so they used to play a lot of records, in the days when there were black vinyl records. My father was in a lot of musicals, so there was a lot of music in the house, of all different types.
When I was six, nearly seven, I was couped up in bed with chickenpox, and I was so incredibly bored. I knew some of my friends were learning recorder at school. so I asked my mom, would she be able to buy me a recorder and a book? Then I promised I wouldn't nag her any more to play games with me. So she bought me a recorder, and she bought me a book, and I actually taught myself to play the recorder and read music in a half an hour. I really loved it, and it was incredibly easy.
So I thought it would be lovely to play another instrument. At the same time, we had just met a young piano student who had just graduated, so my sister and I took piano lessons. By this time, I also was getting very interested in the violin. When at last I picked up the violin, I just knew instantly that that was the instrument that I loved. I made very quick progress on 15 minutes a week, which was all that you were supposed to get at the school. But after three months I was playing in my first concert, and then about six months later my teacher said, "Look, you really need to go to a specialist music school." So I auditioned for the Yehudi Menuhin School and I got in. I'd been learning just over a year, and I went.
Laurie: How old were you, then, when you went to the Menuhin school?
Tasmin: I was just eight. It was quite young, bearing in mind that it's a boarding school. I effectively left home at age eight. But it was a very small school as well. At the time that I arrived, there were only 35 pupils, ranging from age eight to 18. I had only about three people who were actually my age in the whole school, which was a bit bizarre. It was a wonderful education, a fantastic atmosphere in the school. It was more like a family, really, but it was a big adjustment, having been in a large primary school in the heart of London. Suddenly I was right in the middle of nowhere, in this stunningly beautiful countryside, with lots and lots of fantastic, young players.
Laurie: Did you see much of Menuhin, then?
Tasmin: He was amazing. He was very active, still performing at that point – this was 1973. He was playing, he was conducting, he was doing all sorts of things. Bearing in mind the fact that he probably spend only about 40 days in England in one year, he would spend three of them down at the school. He would come at least three times a year, and he would hear every one of us.
Laurie: I've always been curious about that school.
Tasmin: It's a wonderful school. There were so many not-very-nice rumors that used to go about, like what a hothouse it was, and how we were drilled like little machines, and how people were not really given proper academics education, and so what you got were these robots who just can play fantastically well... nothing could be further from the truth. The moment I arrived at the school, the two words that were sort of the mantra were "chamber music," and the first thing that happened was that you were put in a quartet and made to listen to everybody when you played. That was just the whole ethos of the school: the idea of being a listening musician.
I have to say, I meet quite a lot of musicians who don't listen!
Listening is the number one, most crucial element when you are making music with other people. How can you possibly make sense of anything if you're working in a vacuum? Then the performance is in fact nothing to do with the music, or even anything to do with anybody that's listening. It's your own little private world. That's very far from what I believe.
Laurie: It's obvious that that's far from what you believe, because you're really reaching out. You've gone to great lengths, actually, putting something out like The Naked Violin, which not only was offered as a free download, but also had all kinds of educational audio introductions on the website... What brought you to this idea, of doing these downloads for free?
Tasmin: Various things. It wasn't that I just woke up one day and thought, "Ah, I'm going to do that," it was an evolving process. For many years I have believed that anybody can enjoy classical music, despite the fact that at various points politicians have said, 'Oh no, classical music is for a middle-class, white audience.' Personally, I find that kind of statement insulting – insulting to everybody, actually. But also, it's just not true. So for years I've felt that I would like to do something to make music more widely available, to shake off something of the stuffy image – but not at the expense of the music.
I don't disagree with crossover; or quartets such as Bond, dressing up; or Vanessa-Mae doing her stuff – I'm not against that in any way. But I do feel that there is a very strong case to be made for reaching out to a diverse audience and playing classical music, unadulterated – not given a beat, and not dressed up in some other way to distract people from the music. Because when people do other things with the music, it's saying, "We don't think you're really going to enjoy the music as it is, so we'll do something else so that you don't really have to concentrate on the music." I don't want to do that myself.
A few things happened during 2007 that gradually led me to put out "The Naked Violin" download: You will remember when Josh Bell did the busking...The Independent Newspaper in England said, 'Ah this was an interesting experiment, would you come and do the same thing? We're curious to see whether the same thing would happen.' It was actually not any more successful than Josh's attempt, certainly from a monetary point of view! Which is fine, because that wasn't the aim of the game.
Laurie: Where did you do it?
Tasmin: I did it in the smelliest, most disgusting place! By Waterloo Station, in London: there were pigeons flying around, bird poo everywhere, it was really nasty and cold, and dingy. Most people just want to get out of that tunnel and back into the daylight. So it would take quite a lot to stop somebody, to make them want to stand there – and breath the aromas! (she laughs)
What happened was that I was absolutely surprised and shocked by the people that didn't want to listen, and the people that did want to listen. It was like a concert hall, turned on its head. Of all the people that would probably pay vast sums of money to go regularly to concerts – nobody even looked at me. They just walked straight on past. But the people that were so curious and interested were the young people. Also, there was some building going on nearby, I think at the Festival Hall, and a lot of the workmen stopped. British workmen are quite funny sometimes. They'd throw a line at me, in a very lighthearted fashion, it was great.
It was clear that out of the stuffy -- or perceived-stuffy -- environment of the classical concert hall, many people that you wouldn't associate with going to concerts will listen to classical music. I thought, okay, this has got something to do with the environment, that people don't feel comfortable going into a classical concert hall, never mind the expense.
So many young children listened – there were two ladies who walked past, and their young children wanted to watch, but they were being hurried away. I presumed that the mother didn't want to give any money, or maybe they had a train to catch, because we were by a train station. Anyway, they literally had to pick one of these children up and carry her away. She wanted to watch me. It was a fascinating experience, it just made me re-think this whole problem that people have often spoken about in classical music: How do we get these audiences? What is it that is preventing very young people from coming into the concert hall?
I was thinking quite a lot about that during the year. Then later on in the year, I was playing a fantastic program of totally solo violin works: the Bach G minor sonata, the Paul Patterson, the Bartok Solo Sonata and the Ysaye Ballade. The responses I was getting to this program were unbelievable. Music such as the Bartok Solo Sonata – which some people might consider very difficult listening – was generating this incredible response. Everybody just adored the program. Everywhere I went, this program really seemed to have an effect on people.
So I began to put the two ideas together: of wanting to reach people and wanting to play unadorned, wonderful violin music. I wanted to put out a range of very different violin music, instead of doing what is done most of the time on CDs, bracketing works of only one particular style, or just one composer.
So the idea was born: I thought, I will record this, and I will make it available as a download – and let's see whether anyone is interested in this kind of classical music, once it's taken away from the usual environment. And the response was quite phenomenal. I was amazed. I was getting 20,000 hits a day on my website. Within literally a couple of weeks I'd had 250,000 visitors from all over the world on my website, and right now we're currently marching toward half a million.
And the letters! These letters were so moving, some of them.
Laurie: I wondered what kinds of things people wrote to you, because I know that you had a three-step challenge, asking people to download and listen, then write to you about what they think and whether they still felt any barriers to wanting to go to classical music concerts or buy a CD...
Tasmin: People did write, they wrote from all over the world, quite often not in English. I speak some languages, so most of the time I could understand what people were writing -- but sometimes I couldn't!
Two of the letters I loved the most came from the States. One was from a guy who introduced himself as a 50s-plus rock 'n' roller. He said, 'I never thought I would ever listen to, or love, any other music than rock 'n' roll.' He said, "I've never been interested in classical music, but your playing and your music makes me want to throw away my whole rock 'n' roll collection and replace it with classical CDs."
Tasmin: I was so thrilled, obviously, when I got that. And I got a really brilliant mash note from a five-year-old boy, here in the States, and he said, 'I loved your download. I loved the Bach, but the Patterson is great, the Patterson is way gooder!'
I was so thrilled about that letter, first of all, because of the age of the boy; but also because of the fact that we are so boring and stuck in our ways when we make assumptions about what children will want to listen to. So often people think, Mozart's for children, and sure, Mozart is for children, but so is contemporary music. In a sense, children have got this amazing, open mind, and they don't feel that they have to provide a particular response, they just respond. So I love that letter.
Then another that moved me considerably came from a man in Nantong, China. He wrote to say, 'You've got no idea of the value of the gift you have given. In China, we've got no credit cards, so we can't order anything off the Internet.' Of course you and I, we wouldn't even think about that, it's so taken for granted, that you get on the Internet, you order something online, you give a credit card, and that's how transactions are done. So I was absolutely touched by his letter. He said that the opportunity to listen to world-class classical music was so limited for him, and therefore he deeply appreciated my download.
So that's just a small flavor of the hundreds of letters that I received. It was genuinely moving, and I still get letters.
Tasmin: People now are so interested in the Internet, and that was another reason why I wanted to provide, with my new recording, these facilities for people to explore classical music. I've spent a long time writing these introductions which are on the site, and I've also recorded them, so that people can listen to the introductions – for example, if somebody is visually impaired. You can read them and listen, or you can just listen, or you can just read. There are tons of musical examples as well.
Laurie: So your new CD, is not free, like "The Naked Violin" was, right?
Tasmin: This one is not free, but what I have done, in addition to making this listening facility available on my site; I recorded a bonus track for download, for people who do buy the CD. I know that it's a leap for people: one moment I'm saying okay, here, have a download, and now I'm saying you've got to pay for it. It's not sustainable to continue to put music out permanently for free. But it's an invitation.
I feel that it's so important that musicians continue to find ways of engaging people, of reaching out, of being imaginative in the works that they program and record, and then finding ways of capturing people's imaginations. I'm hoping that the little five-year-old boy is going to go and listen to this CD and say, "Wow, that's great as well," and that he'll find something he'll think is "way gooder" than Bach, or perhaps on this one the Bach will be "way gooder" than everything else...When you reach into different areas and you explore different ways, I think people really respond.
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At first glance, the question Violinist.com reader Timothy Weston posted January 20 looked like hundreds of other similar questions we get on Violinist.com: How do I find my first violin, on a budget? How can I learn to play, with no access to a teacher? How might the weather where I live affect the violin?
Except this was different. The weather he was talking about: extreme temperatures and humidity, plus sand. Lots of sand. You see, what U.S. soldier Timothy Weston was really asking was: "How can I get started on the violin, in the middle of a war zone?"
The idea of playing the violin didn't come completely out of the blue for Timothy, who has been serving in Iraq since September, his wife Carissa said.
"He really likes classical music," she said. "When he was younger, he would drive down the street with an eight-inch Mohawk, blaring Mozart."
Carissa and Timothy met in early 2006. He joined the army in June of that year, and they were married in October, after which they moved to an Army base in Alaska.
Timothy had been talking for several years about playing an instrument, trying to decide which one, Carissa said. He grew curious about the violin when he met a soldier in his unit whose wife played the violin.
"Once he gets something in his head that he wants to do, he does it," Carissa said. "He was researching on every website about the violin." During one of their long-distance conversations, he mentioned that he'd like to buy a violin, and that violins eBay ranged from $40 to $400.
It seemed like a lot. "Unfortunately military income is not good," Carissa said. She gave him a budget of $200, and told him to be wary of eBay, to do the best he could to get a quality instrument.
When he posted on Violinist.com, "he was basically trying to get advice on what he could buy for what I had budgeted him," she said.
It didn't take long for V.com members to notice Timothy's post.
"Thank you for serving in Iraq," said V.com member Valerie VanOsdale, "I hope you will be able to come home soon. I'll be wishing you my best for safety and good health."
One post later, David Burgess offered to chip in $50 to help Timothy get a violin, and that got the ball rolling. People started offering to donate: $20 here, $10 there.
"I was a Military Policeman in Vietnam," said Joe Fischer. "Count me in for a 10 spot....I live on $614 per month, else I'd give more."
V.com member Ihnsouk Guim offered to donate her daughter's violin, a William Lewis and son, along with a Freistat case and a Glasser bow. V.com member Ken McKay set up a Paypal button for taking donations.
Within one day, plans were well in the works, with Burgess coordinating the efforts. Guim would send his violin, and luthier and former Marine, Peter Lynch, agreed to donate any work that was needed to set up the violin.
And the ball just kept rolling: Bowmaker Josh Henry donated a carbon fiber bow. McKay procured a Suspensionair case, and Elinor Estepa donated a Kun shoulder rest, Salchow rosin, a set of Evah Pirazzi strings, the book "Essential Elements for Strings", and a practice mute. Al Ku sent Wohlfahrt and scores, and I sent some method books.
Weston was amazed. He called me, then wrote to me the day after his first post: "I would just like to find out how I could get some of your members recognized. I am not sure if you are aware of how my first discussion post went, it took a turn that I never expected... "
Well, Weston did receive his violin, around the beginning of March.
"The violin has arrived," Weston wrote to me on March 7. " I have had it for just over a week. I have thrown myself into learning how to play. I would love to send you a picture of myself and my violin though the Internet here is really slow, and our personal Internet hasn't come online yet...Thank you so much for, everything. I will most definitely post any questions that I have."
Just a month and a half into his deployment, Weston's unit came under mortar fire and lost two soldiers, with 10 others suffering minor injuries.
"He was 20 feet away when it happened," Carissa said. As a driver, he was not permitted to exit his vehicle.
It's hard to talk about these kinds of things when they happen, Carissa said, but "if he wants to talk about his violin, I listen all day long," she said. "I think it gives him a piece of home, a peace of mind."
The good news is that in the next few weeks, Weston should be coming home to his in-laws place in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (near Cincinnati) for an R and R break. He'll be fully loaded down: he plans to take his fiddle on leave with him, and to take a few lessons from a music director at church. They may even trek up to Ann Arbor to see Burgess.
Despite the fact that she is in constant contact with Timothy, "I can't fathom what they go through," Carissa said. "But I know that when he's been playing his violin or reading about it, he's really excited when he talks about it with me. I appreciate what he does, but I didn't expect the rest of America feels that way. This has been wonderful."
"When you live on an Army base, you kind of lose sight of the fact that people outside the Army appreciate what you do," Carissa said. "I was in tears, seeing how much people were willing to do, – I couldn't even come up with the words to say thank you."
So allow me to say thank you to all who donated money, instruments, music and services and more in this effort: David Burgess, Peter Lynch, Ihnsouk Guim, Ken McKay, Josh Henry, Elinor Estepa, Robert MacPherson, Kevin Kelly, Francis Roux, Smiley Hsu, Ann Miller, Christopher Norton, Conrad Thomas, Joseph Fisher, Laura Zmolk, Rea-ann Heinrich, Gabrien Schaff, Sharon Katzmann, Sharelle Taylor, Bart Meijer, Al Ku, and a number of anonymous donors and helpers.
After the purchases and mailing expenses, we were left with a $223 surplus in donations. After taking in suggestions and doing some research and consulting with David Burgess, I propose that we send this money to Operation Happy Note. This is a small charity, started in 2005 by Steve and Barb Baker of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, after their son was deployed to Iraq. They sent a guitar to their son, then one to his buddy, and since then have set up a charitable organization and website and that accepts both requests for instruments from soldiers and donations (monetary and instruments) from the public.
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It happened again, the ghost in the Gagliano awakened to have a word with me.
I was called to play a funeral, something which, by its nature, is always a last-minute affair. The deceased was Hungarian, with a penchant for Gypsy music.
“Play whatever you want, but if you can find something Hungarian, or gypsy-ish...” was the request from his daughter.
Hmmmm. I started leafing through music. Zigeunerweisen seemed a little showy for a funeral, not to mention I haven't played it for 500 years. No, I don't have a lot of gypsy music right at the tips of my fingers, to be honest. Hungarian? Okay, here's this easy version of Brahms “Hungarian Dances,” but it's pretty peppy. Bartok? Ahhh, the Rumanian Folk Dances... I smiled. Hungarian, yes. But for a funeral? Doubtful. Still, I'll get it out. I pulled out a half-dozen pieces, many that were fairly borderline, others simply seemed like good pieces for a funeral. I'd test them out.
When the Rumanian Folk Dances came up, I turned to the one that was in my head, the beautiful Buciumeana. As I was playing it, I immediately concluded that it's just a bit too spooky and out-there for a funeral, unless it was directly requested, which it was not. NEXT....
“Oh no, not NEXT. We're finishing,” said my violin. “I'm curious.”
Okay, so my violin didn't speak, not really. But it didn't stop. Nor did I stop. My violin did not want me to stop.
I wondered, where was this fiddle in 1915, when Bartok wrote this piece? I know my violin spent some time in a state of disrepair, but I don't know when it happened, nor for how long its face was smashed before it was restored. Had it known this piece? Or was this the first time?
The violin seemed curious.
“Go on, play the next movement, I want to know,” it said. It wanted me to play it quite fast, with no break whatever. All the way through to the end of the last dance, in a mad frenzy.
“Back to the beginning, let's hear the first dance,” said my violin. I obeyed, but by now, the violin no longer seemed curious. It was downright bossy. It seemed to be telling me how to play the piece. Heady here, delicate there. Do you feel the funny hesitations, the asymmetry in the “Braul”? More!
Oh you do NOT mean me to play “Pe Loc,” not with all those hideous harmonics, I said to my violin, without exactly speaking. For heaven's sake, I just had gum surgery a few weeks ago, give me a break. NO!
“Oh yes you will play the harmonics,” said my violin to me, also telepathically. “And loudly. You'll go there, get inside every single one, bring it out, you will not hide!”
And then again, the “Buciumeana.”
I shook my head. Thanks for the lesson, I thought, looking at my violin -- so much older than me, so filled with the wisdom of the world. How long did it stand in the forest, as a tree? And in whose hands did it play, whose music, in the last 200 years? Where did it spend the world wars? In which churches did it sing? In what halls, homes, studios? Who loved it? Who abused it?
How did it ever fall into my hands, how can it be mine? Yet, it is mine, but only for my life. My violin may live longer.
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I just finished reading all of your Yehudi Menuhin stories, thoughts and quotations, and I feel as though I've been around the world and back -- in a time machine.
First things first, I chose a winner, at random, from those who submitted their comments: congratulations to Don Sullivan of Cleveland, Ohio, who will be receiving a copy of Yehudi Menuhin's hardbound book, The Violin, which was re-published in March.
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More entries: March 2009
Our interview with Sarah Chang is one of more than two dozen in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which also features talks with Joshua Bell, Maxim Vengerov, and David Garrett, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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