Ally Brown — Masterful Violinist on Taming Pain

Ally Brown

Ally Brown is a violinist from Syracuse, New York. Classically trained on violin and viola, she taught privately for over ten years before eventually shifting her focus to performance in more contemporary settings. She now focuses on developing her skills as an electric violinist and has played in rock, blues, and country bands in the Syracuse, New York region, as well as guest appearances for acoustic artists. She has also appeared as a featured or studio musician on albums by Mark Doyle, Mary Fahl, and Joe Altier.

Ally Brown uses the following gear:

  • Ned Steinberger Wav electric Violin
  • Viper fretted seven string electric Violin
  • Boss Katana Amplifiers
  • The Realist Pickups
  • Mooer Radar IR Response pedal
  • Effects Pedals from EHX and Boss

Chatting with Ally Brown

Chuck Schiele: You’re an accomplished violin player comfortable in the both the tradition and the anarchy regarding your stylistic approach to violin. Please tell us about your approach.

Ally Brown: For a long time, I struggled with developing an approach to playing “off the music stand,” as I call it. Coming from a traditional classical background, I felt lost without sheet music as a map. When I was first hired to play with bands, I would find a way to high jack the licks verbatim or hide behind chords and chops. I found it especially difficult when I started as an electric violinist in rock bands because there’s this identity crisis of “Ok, am I violinist right now? Or am I trying to be an electric guitar?”

Over time, as I began to gain understanding about improvisation and scale patterns, I became very comfortable with interpreting a song and weaving myself into it naturally. Now, instead of trying to steal the riffs, I just try to understand the basic style of the song – whether it be rock, blues, country, etc – and just find every nook and cranny a song can be enhanced with this instrument. Ever since I gained that level of confidence in my playing, I started to feel like a real musician, and not just a player.

Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?

Ally Brown:  Life as a musician means that I can perform this art, not just as a means of an entertainer, but as an interactive part of someone’s day. I stepped away from the classical world playing in quartets and symphonies because I felt so detached from the audience. Once I started playing more contemporary music and becoming a part of the music scene, I really got a taste for watching an entire crowd of people dance, bob along, or sing the songs back to us as we performed. It’s just as fulfilling for me to see people expressively enjoy the show as it is happening.

Chuck Schiele: Please tell us about the electric and rock style(s) of playing the violin.

Ally Brown

Ally Brown: As I mentioned before, I struggled with the identity crisis of an electric violin for some time before I realized – I can be both a violin and mimic an electric guitar, if needed. It’s all about what the song is calling for, and I have the freedom to make it my own. I have an ever growing pedal board, so I can have the right tools for the job in front of me. If I am playing in a band where the songs are pushing more towards the metal rock side, I find I can let the guitars do the heavy lifting, and let a more symphonic string sound weave through. I’ve always loved that juxtaposition of music together. But if I am playing something more along the lines of southern rock or blues, I’ll kick some distortion into my mix and have fun with the guitar players.

Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist or project?

Ally Brown: I love a challenge. If I am approached with a project that addresses a style I haven’t worked with before, or I am asked to advise on coordinating the string parts themselves, I am all in. And it’s not for any lack of interest with other projects that I’m associated with, but I have this obsession with growth through experience – if I recognize I can learn something new from a project or by working with an artist, I jump at the chance without even hesitating to think I might not be able to do it.

Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your violins, and the gear associated with them.

Ally Brown: If I’m doing a full night with a band, I will have two violins with me on stage – an acoustic and an electric. I use a Boss Katana Amp because it is versatile enough to use for both acoustic and electric instruments. For my acoustic violin, I use Realist pickups. My main electric violin is a seven string fretted Viper, which is a beast of an instrument. It harnesses around my shoulder and back so that it is supported hands-free.

Ally Brown

In addition to an array of effects pedals, I started playing around with an impulse response (IR) pedal earlier this year called the Mooer Radar, and I’m now convinced this is a must have for any amplified string player. The pedal is meant to act as a cabinet simulator for guitar players by imposing the frequency response of a real cabinet to your sound. However, string players began to play with these IR response pedals and created files for them that mimicked the frequency response of high end stringed instruments. The natural tone of an electric stringed instrument can sound flat and tinny, but with this pedal I can assign it a tone that mimics an acoustic violin, further augmenting the tones and effects I use throughout the night. Additionally, I can even just improve the tone of my acoustic instrument by utilizing the IR pedal through the pickup. It’s a really amazing piece of technology.

Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?

Ally Brown: Yes. I suffer from a condition called occipital neuralgia which has hindered my ability to perform as I was healing. This condition was brought on by my own poor posture while playing and physical factors in my neck. Because of the restrictions with performing this year as a result of COVID, I have actually suffered few attacks and my daily pains have subsided. It has given my neck and shoulder a break, and my nerves are not getting irritated from frequent performance. However, I am not in the clear. As I anticipate a return to performing on a regular basis, I fear a return to a hefty rehearsal schedule for new music may cause frequent flare ups and daily migraines again.

Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you take the stage?

Ally Brown: I try to focus on the audience when I am on stage, which sounds counter intuitive to some performers. I have never had an instinct to be nervous when performing, but I want to make sure I’m doing my job as an entertainer. The rehearsing and writing has been done. I’ve played the parts until I’m comfortable with them and I know how to dance my way out of something if I forgot a solo. Once I hit a stage, it’s no longer about me. It’s not even about the band. It’s about the audience.

Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you practice?

Ally Brown: I have limited time for practice because I have a number of things in my life I have to juggle, so my focus is “how do I learn something or brush up this technique in less time than I actually have?”. There are a number of techniques for learning difficult passages and even better technology for trying to learn songs by ear in a short amount of time. The Amazing Slow Downer app has become a main tool in my practice arsenal for learning covers and fiddle tunes.

If I am learning a new song, and I have only a few days to learn it in, I’ll either learn the cover or write a solo I like on day one and then chart it out. From there, I practice from the chart so that the tune feels organic under my fingers and I don’t have to wholly rely on improv for a song I’m not all that familiar with.

Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the violin and music in general?

Ally Brown: Do it, you won’t regret it. I think young performers are getting better now than when I was a kid.  The internet was still a novel thing when I was growing up and learning to play. Aside from classical pieces, my only other constant violin influence was my father’s Charlie Daniels Greatest Hits album. Now, with websites like Youtube offering the music of various young violinists and styles, and access to charts and tunes, tips and tricks, secrets and hacks – it’s seriously a great time to start learning an instrument. There is unlimited support.

Chuck Schiele: The importance and art of listening according to you—I’m listening…

Ally Brown:  Being a musician is a team sport, and actively listening to your group in rehearsal is how you create your playbook for the performance. I’m guilty of not listening at times and just steam rolling through a solo at full bore, but then I didn’t relay the emotion or energy of the song accurately. I was just flashy and loud. When that happens, I think the art of the song begins to suffer. It’s so much more than just making sure your intonation is accurate and timing precise. It’s looking at the song as a whole and figuring out how to arc your tune to create drama. It’s listening to each line and making sure it’s phrased carefully, because that’s where the emotion lies. It’s working out harmonies or dove tails of dual solos together, because it’s so impressive when two featured players just lock in with each other to create a moment. Listening to each other is key. When these points are achieved, I think something really special can happen musically.

Chuck Schiele: You have survived injury due to the ergonomics of violin playing. What have you learned that could be useful to other players?

Ally Brown: Listen to your body. Your body will never hesitate to tell you when something is wrong, and I ignored the red flags up until it was far too late. Occipital neuralgia will likely stay with me for the rest of my life, and it flares up when I agitate it in even the slightest way.

For string players, we really contort our bodies in unnatural ways to perform. I have such a long neck, I thought I was already doing all I can with a shoulder rest with tall legs, but it wasn’t enough. I was still tilting and twisting my neck too far to the left to make my setup work for me. My advice: make sure that you have a proper set up for your posture. Are you twisting your neck on your violin or viola? Is your cello adjusted properly to keep your spine straight while you play? There is a philosophy called the Alexander Technique that helps musicians and vocalists align their head, shoulder, and spine for optimal ergonomics and relaxation for performance. Believe it or not, it also improves your sound quality as well! I think every musician should adapt the Alexander Technique into their performance, as we use our bodies to play and need to understand how to avoid tension and injury. If you can’t devote time to the Alexander technique, at least make sure you are stretching before and after playing. Make sure any tension that you are feeling is stretched out of your muscles and take care of your body

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Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, producer, editorialist, artist, activist and music fan. He still plays every day.

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