Whose brain puts music from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony together with music with "Pirates of the Caribbean"? Or Stravinsky's "Firebird" with "Slumdog Millionaire"?
The answer: it all came from the mind of violinist Lisa Dondlinger.
"I started hearing melodies in my head simultaneously, melodies that kind of went together," said Dondlinger, a Los Angeles-based violinist and one-time Miss Iowa, who has played in both classical orchestras and pop shows, such as Céline Dion in Las Vegas. "For some reason, all of my life I always could hear classical music that might lend itself to a pop style, a rock style or dance." When she started hearing "Braveheart" together with "Jupiter" from "The Planets" by Holst, she realized she had a concept. That was the genesis of an album she released last summer, called Movies & the Masters - all mashups of classical music and film scores.
Of course, it takes some imagination, resourcefulness and yes, courage, to turn the music in your head into reality.
"I approached a composer/arranger friend of mine named Chad Rehmann, and he helped me with the bulk of the arrangements on this project," Dondlinger said. The trick was to make him hear what she was hearing. "I'd play him the part from 'Braveheart,' and tell him, 'I'm hearing 'Jupiter' from 'The Planets'...Sometimes he would be on board with me right away." And sometimes it took a little more convincing. "The one that I had to fight for the most, because I think it sounds weird when you tell someone, is 'Jai Ho' from Slumdog Millionaire with Stravinsky's 'Firebird.' I kept hearing it -- the minor melodies going together, and then when the major melodies open up -- I just kept hearing it. Finally I played it for him enough times that he got it, and then helped me make a brilliant arrangement of it." She also worked with arrangers Raul Ferrando, Herman Jackson and Natalie Cadét.
It's not surprising that Dondlinger finds a great many different musical styles colliding in her mind - her life has put her on a variety of different stages -- from classical orchestras to beauty pageants, studio recording sessions to hit shows in Las Vegas.
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Dondlinger sang her first solo when she was in preschool, as part of a rather comprehensive church music program. "We learned ear-training, solfege, harmonies - from a very early age," Dondlinger said. Then in the fourth grade, she started violin through a program at her public school in Iowa. "My parents didn't know anything about music, and so they basically just put me in group lessons in school," Dondlinger said. "Luckily the teacher told them, 'She's kind of learning faster than the others in the group, you should consider private lessons.' They listened to the teacher and started me in private lessons."
And how did she end up being Miss Iowa?
"That didn't happen until much later," Dondlinger said. "In fact, probably most people I knew from high school and undergrad were pretty shocked that I did it! I was very serious about academics; I was valedictorian at my high school, honors program...Everything was academics and serious violin."
Dondlinger became aware of the pageant circuit after winning a talent show in Iowa that happened to be televised. "After that, the (Miss America) pageant started calling me, asking if I would be interested," she said. "At first I said no, a number of times. I really didn't know anything about it, I just thought it was what you see on TV: people in bikinis..." she laughed.
That's when she learned that the Miss America Pageant was the largest scholarship organization in the world for women, and that it demanded a host of rigorous requirements: having strong interview skills, knowing about current events, doing extensive community service and having high academic standards -- as well as being physically fit. "Once I realized it was really a substantial thing, a lot of hard work -- that's when I got involved," she said.
Of course this was well before the recent troubling revelations about the Miss America Pageant's current leadership. For Dondlinger, her experience with the pageant proved to be positive and life-changing.
"It was a huge turning point for me in a lot of ways," she said. While her family, which included a number of farmers, hadn't really understood her goals as a classical musician, they did understand the Miss America Pageant. "So it brought us all much closer together."
It also put her on a slightly different career path.
"Up until that point, I was focused on orchestra: I wanted a full-time orchestra job, to teach in college, and that was it." After she became Miss Iowa, she not only performed as a violinist but she also started singing again, did a lot of public speaking and explored different styles of music. "I realized that I needed to connect with people more." She also gave presentations and master classes in schools and worked for a charitable organization spearheaded at the time by Colin Powell called America's Promise, for which she focused on providing more music programs for at-risk children.
"It was a great year, and it really changed everything for me," Dondlinger said. After that year, "I thought I wanted to go back and play in orchestras," she said. "So I took some auditions and won some jobs. Then it just hit me: That wasn't what I wanted to do any more."
Instead of taking any of those jobs, "I moved to Los Angeles, not knowing anyone," she said. "I went to the Henry Mancini Institute, which was a summer program we had here at the time (it closed in 2006). The Mancini Institute opened my eyes to the film-scoring world, to improvisation, to all different styles of playing and really embracing those styles. I just decided I would try to make a go of it here."
And she has had some rather glamorous opportunities in LA -- besides playing as a violinist in classical orchestras, she also has performed as as soloist or concertmaster on shows such as the Grammys, American Idol, The Voice, The Tonight Show, The American Music Awards, The Ellen Show, The Latin Grammy Awards, X Factor, Rising Star and Home for the Holidays. She's also played for The Academy Awards, The Emmy Awards, Dancing with the Stars, Penny Dreadful and Luke Cage and on soundtracks for movies such as Passengers, Finding Dory and The Jungle Book.
In recent years she has performed with superstar vocalist Céline Dion -- an experience that Dondlinger found especially inspiring.
"What an opportunity for me, to learn from the best of the best!" said Dondlinger, who worked on Dion's Las Vegas show on and off for four years. "There's just nobody better. Every night, she could have made a CD out of her live performance. Here is an artist who's had a career over 20 years, singing some of the same songs for 20 years -- yet every single time she stepped on that stage, she knew that there was probably somebody in that audience for whom it was their first time ever, seeing her live. She brought everything she had."
"I think performers can lose sight of that sometimes, when they're thinking about what they want to do," Dondlinger said. "As a performer, you need to be thinking: What can I give to an audience? How can I best connect with this audience and make this the best experience for them? That is such a valuable lesson, a lesson that I learned from watching her. She gave 100 percent every single night, whether she felt like it, vocally or mentally or emotionally, she was there. That's how you get to the top, you have to give that every time."
For Dondlinger, her extensive work in the pop music world has helped her free her own creative spirit.
"When I was going to school at Indiana University, I certainly was a classical music snob: if it wasn't exactly how the composer originally wrote it, then why are you even doing this? Just really snobby!" Dondlinger said. After learning so many other styles and becoming comfortable with them, "I realized: I want to incorporate that in my own projects, to be more free."
"That's the point in life where I am right now: wanting to be as creative as I can," she said. "I think that's where the (Movies & the Masters) album came from, just hearing these beautiful melodies, but then trying to present them in a way that an audience hadn't heard before."
And it's not just film music, she's also made arrangements of other songs that dominate her brain-space. For example:
Serious life-long Iowa Hawkeyes fan!
But back to her recent project with film and classical music; she plans to perform her music from Movies & the Masters in a live show setting, a setting which would put the violin front-and-center. So that begs the question: can the violinist really be the star of the show?
"There have been a few violinists who have broken out in that way: Lindsey Stirling; David Garrett, who is a huge star in Europe. Vanessa Mae was one of the original crossover violinists."
As someone who started as a singer and who spent a year as Miss Iowa, Dondlinger is more accustomed to the routine that goes along with interacting with an audience. She envisions a show in which local groups and choirs are invited to participate, and audience members are singing and dancing along to the music. "I'm going to be talking to the audience between pieces, getting them involved. We have ideas for the visuals, lighting, videos, the whole component you would see in any other live show, it just happens to be that the instrumentalist might be the forefront, which I think super exciting and cool. "
"I think it's fun too because when I was growing up, quite honestly, there was no one was doing exactly what I'm doing now," she said. "I saw people playing in orchestras, doing chamber music, teaching and all these wonderful things. But I knew there was something else I wanted to do; I just didn't know what it was.
"I think it's cool now that young people have people they can look up to -- people who are doing these kinds of things, breaking the box open of what the violin can do," Dondlinger said. "I've had the opportunity to play with hip-hop artists, rock artists and country artists - any style of music, you can do it! It's an exciting time for the instrument because it's wide open: whatever you choose to do, you can make it happen."
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For more information, click here to visit Lisa Dondlinger's website.
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