How to Be A Rock Violinist
"Classical music is struggling to find a way to stay relevant in an increasingly rich, diverse and accessible musical world...[we should create] new artful reflections of our own time and place, music which appeals in a similar way as all the rest of our musical culture appeals, the way pop music and film scores and video scores appeal, by being interesting, understandable and emotional."
LS: In your opinion, what is the current state of classical music? Do you feel it needs a revamping of sorts? Is it an outdated art form?
TS: It seems to me that classical music is struggling to find a way to stay relevant in an increasingly rich, diverse and accessible musical world. Our classical music was not “classical” in the sense we are using it here, when it began. When it was first created, classical music was high brow popular music supported by the church and, later, the aristocracy. Folk music was made by non-professionals, but at some point a tradition developed of nobles who competed with one another to have great court musicians and composers in their court. These musicians and composers were creating artful music in the musical style of their day.
For the most part, what we are doing in now in the classical world is recreating European music from the 18th through 20th centuries. What they were doing back then, was quite different. They were creating new music of their time and place, not recreating other cultures’ historical music. That is a huge difference and is principally why our classical music is, by nature, less relevant to our current musical culture. It is a museum of music. The revamping that it needs is not a new way to market that museum of music. What it needs is more interest in creating art within our own musical culture, i.e. interest in and support of new contemporary composers. That is the only way it will become relevant.
LS: What direction do you see classical music taking in the next twenty years with respect to the Symphony model? What direction should it be taking?
TS: What I see happening is a somewhat superficial adoption of film scores and video game scores and other “pops” style programming in a hope to lure in younger or less classical listeners. This is helpful in that at least it acknowledges our contemporary culture and hopefully broadens their audience, but it hasn’t had a lot of success luring those new listeners into more traditional classical concerts. What it should be doing is finding a way to connect with that audience, which is the mainstream audience and not a necessarily classical audience, by creating new artful reflections of our own time and place, music which appeals in a similar way as all the rest of our musical culture appeals, the way pop music and film scores and video scores appeal, by being interesting, understandable and emotional.
LS: What role should collaboration whether musical or cross-disciplinary, take regarding the future of classical music? Any examples of groups/artists you can think of who seem to be doing this?
TS: Collaboration is always a wonderful way to find new things and there are dozens of examples everywhere you look, from Yo Yo Ma’s excursions into Bluegrass, deep dives into various ethnic music from China, India, etc. I think this is a very healthy way to broaden our musical horizons, to add oxygen into the musical pond, and is not at all foreign to some young people who are accustomed now to browsing through all sorts of unusual things on Youtube, ITunes or Spotify. A lot of collaborations, however, are born out of marketing strategies and may not bring much of anything new, but certainly some do.
LS: How has multimedia industry changed the way audiences perceive classical music?
TS: People are accustomed to watching music, so that’s no longer new, and it’s becoming almost common to see some sort of visual projection even at symphonic concerts. But it can still be very artistically rewarding. I think there is a real potential for great art here and this technology is changing very quickly and so there are many new possibilities. There is always the danger, however, of the visual overtaking the aural, because seeing tends to take priority over listening. It is very easy for music to become underscoring for the visual element. Music is a very good supporting player, as it has been in ballet and opera for centuries and now is for film, so it takes a lot of care to present these multi-media collaborations in ways which don’t relegate the music to the background.
LS: It seems more performers are becoming skilled jack of all trades rather than just solo artists. What are your thoughts towards this?
TS: Absolutely true. The model for performers these days requires social media as the heart of the marketing, a job that PR firms once did. Unless you are a fairly famous performer, you are probably doing the lion’s share of management yourself—-dealing with your own travel, doing some of your own booking, and your own marketing through social media, with occasional outsourcing to PR people for major performances or releases. Most artists have also developed good educational and outreach programs which they offer along with performances. This has become critical since many presenters (theaters, concert halls, etc) get their funding in large part by writing grants which require hiring artists who will do educational work along with the performance.
LS: What has been the public reaction and/or your experience of planting classical music in non-conventional venues? Or non-conventional music in typically classical venues?
TS: I have always been very bothered by the formality of classical performance. Very little else in our contemporary musical world is so formal. People like to get involved with their music, whether by dancing, singing along, being with friends, drinking or eating, etc. Obviously some of that is not appropriate for music which demands quiet and focused attention, but humans feel that natural tendency for being involved. Sometimes a casual setting allows people to hear classical music the same way they hear popular music.
As far as bringing non-classical music into the concert hall, I’m all for it, for two reasons. First, because most concert halls cannot survive on classical music alone. The Nashville Symphony, owns their concert hall and it almost made them go broke until they realized they needed to book the hall on nights it wasn’t being used for performances. This not only allows the symphony to stay more solvent, but serves the second reason, which is to make the concert hall more approachable for a non-classical audience. If a rock fan sees a rock concert in a concert hall they may be less intimidated by it and return for Classical music. But this only works when the hall is not a single use kind of orchestra hall. The reason is, a concert hall’s acoustics are typically super live and reverberant and if they are not able to convert themselves through some sound controlling, they are virtually useless for amplified music.
LS: You pioneered a new musical instrument- the 6 stringed violin. How did you do this and what inspired you to build this instrument?
TS: I wanted to sound more like an electric guitar because that is the instrument that all my friends loved. The electric guitar is one of the primary instruments of our culture. The violin was the primary melodic instrument of much of European classical music. But in our current American musical culture, the violin has been replaced. It was replaced first by the saxophone in Jazz and even more completely by the electric guitar in Rock.
As a white boy raised in the 1970’s surrounded by rock and roll, I wanted to speak in the musical language of my friends, which was the sound of the electric guitar. So, I added two lower strings to reach the bottom of the guitar range and found pedals and amps that would make my electric violin sound like my guitar heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page, etc. I started building some of the first electric 6-string violins with Mark Wood in the early 1980’s and have designed dozens of instruments over the years which I have either built myself or had guitar makers build for me. It is a work in progress with many years of research and development in terms of the pickups, the strings, the wood, the strap and other support designs, amps, pedals, etc etc.
LS: What pedals are on your pedalboard? Favorite companies?
TS: I am constantly changing things and have thousands of dollars worth of gear that I no longer use. About two years ago I switched from hardware pedals to all virtual effects and amps run on a laptop, using a digital interface and midi foot controllers. But after spending many, many thousands of dollars and months of time developing a system that works well, I have opted for a super simple rig which is based on a single cheap multi-effects pedal. This is more reliable than some computer and easily replaceable on the road should disaster strike, which it often does. Just a few years ago, multi-effects pedals like this just didn’t sound good, but now they can pack so much amazing digital power into a low-priced pedal that it’s completely competitive with much bulkier more expensive options. It’s somewhat limited in the options and the tone is not quite as good, but for touring it seems to be a better choice. The one piece of gear that I cannot live without, however, is my Boomerang loop pedal, which is vital to my solo performances.
LS: Describe your approach and view towards music education. As a teacher and performer, what do feel is lacking in students of music conservatory?
TS: It’s remarkable how little many classical students know about the pop music of their own culture. And this is terribly detrimental to the idea of exposing classical music to the wider public. Since much of my educational work is directly involved with teaching string players how to play Jazz, Rock and Pop, I focus on teaching students how to play their instruments in a less classical way. I use the analogy of taking an operatically trained singer and teaching them new stylistic ways of using their voices so they don’t sound ridiculous singing a pop song. Classical music has a tradition of all of these things which are stylistically correct for 18th or 19th century music, but these stylistic traditions aren’t appropriate for our contemporary pop music.
Ultimately, conservatories have an obligation to prepare musicians for more than just the historical styles of Classical music. While it is important to teach historical styles so that musicians can work within the classical music industry, I am opposed to the idea of this being the only instruction since I think it is the principal reason that classical music is not integrating easily into our mainstream musical culture.
LS: What steps should millennials be taking now to keep interest for classical music afloat?
TS: The first step for young people is to broaden their musical horizons by finding classical playlists on Spotify etc. This familiarity will lead them to going to concerts. Many decent sized cities are already presenting classical music in less traditional spaces such as bars and coffee shops and this is a perfect place for young people to get into Classical music, especially when the programming is creative and involves things like collaborations with dance, video or mashes up classical music with other styles. But the real connecting point for young people should ultimately be in the creation of new contemporary classical music—- music not of old relics from the European culture of the 18th or 19th century, but genuine reflections of our own time and place. This is just a step away from some art rock and more experimental pop bands, where the emphasis is not on commerciality but on creativity and artistry. Surely there is a young audience for music which is essentially art pop music.