A few years ago, I was asked to teach intermediate violin and beginning improvisation in the continuing education department at the New School University in New York City.
Many of the adults who came to my classes had played violin in a high school orchestra, gave it up in college as they entered their various fields, and wanted to return to the instrument and make it a part of their lives once again. Oftentimes, folks told me that, as much as they love classical music, their interests range from jazz to folk, rock, R&B, and hip-hop, and they wanted to play the music they love.
Until recently, the education system for young string players has given little attention to fostering creativity and teaching improvisation. Though the timeless beauty of the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Stravinsky must be taught to every generation, I believe part of the reason so many young people quit playing, is because they don’t see the connection between their violin, viola, or cello and the music that is on their iPods. As a musical clinician in high schools, I see the faces of kids light up when they realize they can play any style of music on their instrument, be it hip-hop or heavy metal. This inspires them to keep playing and can even bring them back full circle to classical music, which is the foundation.
I see this same spark in adults that I have taught. If playing the violin, viola, or cello is part of your life, you may already play in a chamber group or community orchestra, but there are many avenues to explore that can inspire you, and you don’t have to live in a big city to take advantage of them.
Here are a few things you can do as a string player to expand your musical horizons:
1) Take some lessons on improvisation. I grew up in Cleveland at a time when there were no jazz violin teachers in town, but I didn’t let that stop me. Even if you live in a small town, you can find a guitarist, sax player, or pianist to teach you some basic things that you can apply to any instrument. If you just learn the pentatonic scale, blues scale, and the form of the blues, you can already wail over a wide variety of music. The blues is the foundation to 90% of popular Western music, and a major building block if your goal is to play jazz, bluegrass, or rock.
2) Play as much as you can. Conquer your fear by going to jam sessions around town. Try out some of the things you learn in your improv lesson, and accept the fact that you may not sound good right away. Just keep doing it! Get together with friends who play different instruments, throw a big party, jam and learn together.
3) Go electric. Playing violin through a microphone to be heard over a loud band just doesn’t cut it. Invest in a pickup or transducer. Companies like LR Baggs and Fishman manufacture inexpensive bridges that act as magnetic pickups connected to a quarter-inch cable jack, which is easily installed on an instrument, enabling it to connect to an amplifier or a PA system. There are also transducers, such as The Realist, which simply clip onto your bridge.
4) Buy electric. If you want to buy an instrument dedicated strictly to playing in an amplified setting, you need to get a solid body electric. These violins, cellos, and violas come in a wide variety of designs since the shape does not affect the sound of the instrument. They look incredible on stage! Manufacturers make four, five, six, and seven string electric violins. Having extra strings is great because you can write a string quartet and hear all four parts, or play low power chords in a rock band. Visit www.electricviolinshop.com to see some of the designs.
5) Invest in an amp. In the electric world, a good amplifier is a crucial part of your sound. Once you have electrified your instrument, go to any music store and spend an afternoon trying out every amp you can. I usually prefer guitar or bass amps for my violin, but don’t rule anything out and trust your ears.
6) Explore the world of effects pedals.The variety of pedals that exist will make your head spin. Multi-effects processors have hundreds of different sounds programmed into one device. It is a great way to introduce yourself to delay, wah, distortion—all the sounds that guitar players have used for years that many string players are now discovering for the first time.
7) Once you gain confidence, find a local band and see if they would like to add a violin, viola, or cello. So many bands in rock, pop, and hip hop are using strings that it’s becoming as common as seeing a guitar on the bandstand. DJs may invite electric violinists to accompany them at clubs.
Joe Deninzon (www.joedeninzon.com) is a violinist based in New York City who leads the band Stratospheerius, plays in the Sweet Plantain String Quartet, and has worked with artists like Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Aretha Franklin, Ritchie Blackmore, and Phoebe Snow.
Get the Gear for Electric Violin
Electric violins and amps are such a personal choice, that I would advise trying everything you can. Here are a few suggestions:
Transducers: If you have an acoustic violin, viola, or cello and want to invest in pickups or transducers to amplify your sound, I recommend the Realist (www.realistacoustic.com), which easily attaches to your bridge without the need to replace the bridge. Richard Barbera (www.barberatransducers.com) also makes excellent transducers used by many electric violin makers.
Pre Amp: On my acoustic, I use a transducer made by LR Baggs (www.lrbaggs.com), which was installed in place of my regular bridge. I combine this with an LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI. This acts as a buffer between my violin and the PA system or amplifier and warms up the sound with an EQ control.
Electric violin: For solid state electric violins, some of the well known companies are Yamaha, Wood (pictured), Jordan Electric Violins, NS, Skyinbow, and Zeta.
AMPS: For amps, the Roland AC60 and 120 do a great job of recreating a warm acoustic tone. The Roland Jazz Chorus is a classic used by many string players. If you are more of a rock player, I recommend amps made by Bugera, Tech 21, Mesa Boogie, Kustom, and Fender.
Multi Effect processor: To add sound effects experiment with TC Electronic Nova, Boss GT-10 or GT-100 series, DigiTech RP series, Zoom G3, or Line 6 Pocket Pod.