February 24, 2010 at 7:49 AM
In some ways, playing the violin is simply playing the violin, whether you play classical, jazz or folk.
"One of the things that's really similar is technique," said 16-year-old Sam Weiser, talking over the phone in late January. "I certainly try to keep it similar. People seem to think fiddle players have terrible technique. I feel like it's important for me to incorporate all the classical technique – a good tone and a nice, good-looking posture -- into the fiddle playing."
Sam should know. In addition to studying both classical and jazz violin at the Manhattan School, last week he released a CD called Sam I Am, which includes an eclectic mix of jams and songs written by Carlos Santana, Eddie Vedder and Mark O'Connor, as well as four compositions written by the album's producer Sonia Rutstein, who also sings on the album.
As a stand-out young fiddler at the Mark O'Connor String Camp two years ago, Sam won the year-long use of the Daniel Pearl violin, created by luthier Jonathan Cooper in memory of the Wall Street Journal reporter who was slain in 2002 by Pakistani terrorists. All the proceeds from Sam's new album will go to the Daniel Pearl Foundation, as well as to FODFest – the "Friends of Danny Festival."
The album has a little jazz, a little folk, a little Latin – just about everything but classical. That's not to say Sam doesn't like classical, he does. He plays in his public school orchestra in Connecticut and has served as the concertmaster of the Norwalk Youth Symphony, among others. He also plays viola; in fact on his MySpace page he lists his instruments as: violin, 5ing Wood Viper electric violin, 2009 artisan-made Jonathon Cooper 5ing viola, David Segal viola, mandolin, guitar.
As the first student to study both classical and jazz violin simultaneously at the Manhattan School's PreCollege Division, Sam also is helping blaze a new path for violinists who seek to study alternative styles seriously. He studies classical violin with Patinka Kopec.
"Saturdays are a long day," Sam said. "The pre-college program is a Saturday program, then I'm in the public school for regular school," Sam said. "I'm not the only violin player in the jazz program, but I am the first to be doing both classical and jazz."
The big difference, when it comes to classical vs. jazz and folk traditions, lies in the initial approach to the music. "So much of fiddle music is traditional, and so little of it is written down. It's 100 percent by ear," Sam said. "Learning a fiddle tune means hearing someone else play it 12 times, and then making them play it slow 12 times, then slowly catching on."
When it comes to jazz, "the violin is still a very touchy subject, there are still a lot of people who don't like the sound of a violin in jazz," Sam said. "They say it's not meant for jazz; horns are meant for jazz. But I ignore it. If I get my chops good enough to be able to play with them, they're not going to complain. I use it as motivation to continue practicing.
Do you have to find a new sound for jazz on the violin, or imitate other instruments?
"I don't think I need to find a new sound," Sam said. "I guess I do sometimes try to imitate, but that's usually when I'm doing something like transcribing. When I'm transcribing someone, I feel like it's really important to try to get their sound. Sometimes it's not what they play, but how they play it, that makes it so great, or so unique. As far as sound goes, that goes back to my classical technique: I want the sound to sound good. I don't want it to be raspy, I want it to be a full, rich tone."
Somehow, Sam has explored a lot of territory for a teenager. How is it possible?
For one, he started rather early. "I've been playing the violin for almost 13 years," he said.
Sam was two when he fell in love with the girl next door's violin playing.
"She was in the fourth-grade orchestra at school. She came over and played the violin for me, and I loved it," Sam said. "I guess I loved the sound." When he was about three, his mother got him his first violin, he said.
Sam started violin with the Suzuki method and "at our Suzuki school, once every six months or so, a fiddle player – first it was Stacy Phillips – would come and teach us one or two fiddle tunes. They were very basic," Sam said. "I just kind of liked it. My mom did some research and we found the Mark O'Connor String Camp. I was nine years old at my first Mark camp. That was just unbelievable. It was really my first exposure to alternative styles, beyond a very basic look. It was such an eye-opening experience, just to learn that there were so many other styles out there for violin, besides classical."
It was at the Mark O'Connor camp that Sam was awarded the Daniel Pearl violin to use for a year. Though that violin has been passed to another student, the connection he made with Daniel Pearl's legacy was life-changing, and the message has stuck. One event that became important to Sam was the festival Danny's friends created in his honor, "FODFest.".
"It is a little tour that is run by Todd Mack, who was one of Danny's best friends," Sam said. "It's a great tour, with different musicians for every show, and it supports the message that Danny believed in, which is that music is a universal language. People can be connected through music; it can serve as a means of communication for people who would otherwise be unable to communicate because of language barriers."
FODFest also is where he met Sonia Rutstein ("SONiA"), who would later become the producer of his first album.
"I met her two years ago at FODFest, and at that point the whole album was really barely even an idea, it was a conversation here and there between my mom and me," Sam said. "We talked to Sonia about it, and she was totally on-board with the idea and absolutely wanted to make it happen. It was great because she put it together really quickly."
I asked Sam what he might have missed, had he gone the straight classical route.
"Flexibility, being able to think in such a creative way," Sam said. "In classical, there's no leeway, as to what notes you're going to play. You're going to play the notes that the composer wrote next. In that way, I'd feel a little bit more constricted, I'd feel like there was less way for me to creatively voice my ideas."
"For example, I was just playing Mozart. That stuff has been played a million times, and there aren't that many things that haven't been done. Whereas, in a piece of jazz, no two improvisations are going to be the same. So I guess I would have missed out on that, being able to be that creative."
Is it possible for a person to improve their improv? How?
"I think it's just listening. I feel like listening is so monumentally important, and it's something that I didn't really learn until maybe a year ago," Sam said. Listening gives a person a larger repertoire of songs, as well as a bigger vocabulary for improvising, he said. "Just hearing it enough and transcribing more solos leads to more things being engraved in your fingers and more things starting to come naturally when you improvise."
"Transcribing is definitely important because, like I said, it gets the licks in your fingers," Sam said. "Even if it doesn't instantly pop into your head, you can think more chordally, rather than just listening by ear, playing what you feel. You can think little bit more analytically: I know I can play this lick, and I know it fits over this chord; I'm going to play this lick. "
"I remember, one of my first jazz lessons that I ever took. My teacher told me that jazz is as much creative input as it is feeling a lick that you heard from somewhere else," Sam said. "Everyone takes licks from people, it's the way to practice: transcribing, along with putting the notes into your fingers. It also makes your ear more accustomed to the sound and more accustomed to the tempo, and maybe more accustomed to the really weird array of chords."
What's next for Sam?
"I definitely want to go to college, and I definitely want to go to an academic college as well as a conservatory," Sam said. "partially to keep my options open, but partially just so I feel educated. I definitely want to go into music, but I don't know if I really see myself performing. As fun as it is, and as much as I like it, the more I'm getting immersed into the world of music, the more I'm realizing how many jobs within music I could do, beyond just being a performer. I feel like that's really interesting. "
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