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MythBusters: The Violin is Just NOT COOL

3 min read
MythBusters:  The Violin is Just NOT COOL

“The violin is stupid! Nobody plays the violin anymore! I don’t want to play the violin! Violin is just not cool!”

The parent of every violin student has probably heard most, if not all of those lines. I’ve heard . . . No, I’ve USED every one of those lines.

I walked into the auditorium of a Fort Worth middle school and saw a man playing an instrument that looked vaguely familiar on the stage. The music was loud. The Led Zeppelin song being played had the kids bobbing their heads, clapping their hands and stomping their feet.

Mark Wood is a rock n roll violinist. He and his brothers toured the Northeast United States playing Beethoven string quartets when Mark was young. After high school Mark attended the Juilliard School of Music to study viola. He left when his teacher wouldn’t teach him to “play like Jimi Hendrix.”

Mark preaches a gospel of good technique, diligent practice, knowledge of basic music theory and having fun. And I don’t know anyone who would accuse Mark of not being cool. His group, the Trans Siberian Orchestra, has traveled the world and regularly sells out venues seating 12,000 people.

Mark says that violin is the “final frontier.” He points out that we’ve moved every family of instruments into the popular music spotlight except for orchestral strings. And his passion is to do for the violin what Leo Fender and his followers did for the guitar. And like Leo Fender, Mark has created his own instrument. The Viper is a radical self-supporting violin that is capable of playing anything from classic Paganini to, well, Jimi Hendrix!

And Mark is not alone.

Regina Carter is a jazz musician. Influenced by Stephan Grappelli, she was so devoted to jazz that she left the New England Conservatory (which had no jazz department) to study at Oakland University. There she learned by sitting in the brass section of the band and listening. Then she would transpose the saxophone parts she heard so she could play them on violin.

Barrage is a group of young musicians based in Canada. Their stage covers more variations of fiddle music than you can shake a stick at. And shake their bowsticks they do! And sing. And dance. And even tumble. And by the time they leave the stage the audience is clapping and stomping along with them.

More than a quarter of a century after fiddler Charlie Daniels and his band recorded The Devil Went Down to Georgia, the song can still get a crowd hooting and hollering! And the band just keeps on going strong with the master showman/fiddler at the helm. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to tell a bunch of good old Southern boys that what gets their fans so excited just ain’t cool!

Rachel Barton Pine is a phenomenon! A classical violinist, she is also a fan of heavy metal music. She’s even recorded an album of rock transposed for string quartet. Far from the stereotypical stuck-up classical violinist, she’s overcome more obstacles in her twenty-plus years than most people do in a lifetime. Now her pet projects include cataloging classical music written by Black composers and making sure through her Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation that talented young violinists don’t face the same economic challenges she did.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t find an un-cool human being in the bunch! And every one of them can give you a list of cool violinists that’s as long as their bow!

The problem is not the instrument. The problem is not the pedagogy. As long as good technique is taught it doesn’t really matter how we go about imparting that knowledge and skill set.

What does matter is the repertoire. (A 14-year old boy, when asked about Mark Wood’s music, told me, “Of course it’s cool – it’s rock!) What does matter is the mindset with which we approach the instrument and instruction – attitude. What does matter is the charisma and communication skills of the person promoting the instrument.

In summary, the proposition (the myth if you will) is:
The violin is just not cool.
As television’s Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman would say, “MYTH BUSTED.”

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