Mixing strings with rock ‘n’ roll

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Mixing strings with rock ‘n’ roll
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By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

With skin-tight black pants, a fitted silk shirt and brown hair down to his shoulders, the enigmatic Mark Wood delivered a dose of rock ‘n’ roll to 370 Alexandria City Public Schools orchestra students at the Hammond Middle School gymnasium last week.

The Juilliard-trained musician bucks the conventional image of a classically trained violinist. His seven-string electric Viper was shaped more like a Klingon starship than a violin.

Wood, who was an original member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and has played with the likes of Billy Joel and Lenny Kravitz, was invited to conduct his Electrify Your Strings workshop with ACPS orchestra students, culminating in a rock concert for a parent-packed gymnasium.

The two-day program had to be cut short due to last week’s snowstorm, but with limited time, Wood still managed to pump up the students. The energy in the gym was palpable.

“In three hours, I had to inspire them to understand that it’s not the black dots on those pages,” Wood said. “In fact, let’s remove the music and they scream in horror. Forget this music, look at me in the eye and start playing!

“They had no idea what I was talking about. I said music making is a language. When you talk to your friends and you make eye contact with somebody, you’re trying to express something that’s important to you. You have eye contact and you hope that they respond.”

Hammond’s orchestra director, Veronica Jackson, said traditional classical music can often seem esoteric for students.

“The alternative style of music that [Wood] brings with the EYS program gives the students a sense of familiarity since its music that they are more familiar with,” Jackson said. “… Mark and his Electrify Your Strings program give the students an opportunity to explore popular music.

“It gives the students a sense of pride and definitely boosts self-esteem … I have worked with Mark and the EYS program on four other occasions and I love working with him. He is an experienced educator who brings wonderful ideas that orchestra teachers can use in their classrooms every day. He is truly inspirational.”

Orchestra students, crowded around a table, were eager to share their opinions of Wood and his program.

“I think it’s really cool we can play rock ‘n’ roll,” said Anne Belevetz, a violinist from Lyles Crouch. “I thought it was just really supposed to be slow and you couldn’t do anything, but now we’re in this rock concert with this famous electrical guitar player.”

Annika Eelkema, a fourth grader at Lyles Crouch, was most excited about incorporating movement into her playing.

“We get to move around with the music, we’re not staying still, it’s not serious, you get to move around and have fun with it,” she said. “You get to move your bows. It’s really cool. For our last song … it’s so cool. We’re going to be playing the D string really, really fast and then we’re going to jump up.”

Wood’s enthusiasm for music education is apparent. But he fears that school systems across the country undervalue the arts.

“Mastering of something in the creative arts is what truly defines people as much as the sciences, the academic world and sports,” Wood said. “It’s all on the same level. The educational system set up in this country is not level. We can’t just meekly defend it; we have to fight tooth and nail just to get the kind of respect and obvious notice.”

Having been raised in a family of classically trained string players, Wood described himself as a rebellious student at the prestigious Julliard School.

“I hear Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, the blues and jazz, and I’m thinking: ‘What’s going on over there?’” he said. “My teachers said, ‘Don’t even look over there, Mark. That’s the dirty American world. You are a sophisticated, well-trained, suit and tie …’ My teacher nearly threw me out the window when I said I wanted to play Eddie Van Halen.”

After leaving Julliard, Wood felt he had to revamp his playing style because he wanted to play American music.

“The last 25 years I’ve observed what is the most powerful and beautiful thing about America and it’s not our politics. It’s our music,” he said. “We have Duke Ellington, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Scott Joplin and the blues. All these musical styles, jazz, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll and country music all came from America superseding everything Vienna could have offered us in the 1700s on every level. So, we’re experiencing a revolution these last 80 years in America of our music, it’s our best export.”

Wood’s message to students is to use music as their voice and a way to boost their confidence. He wants them to connect with their music.

“That’s going to help them stand up in class, up to a friend who may not be able to stand up for themselves, and additionally it feeds into their academic work,” he said. “[We’re] still behind 200 years in the teaching of music and we’re still defending that to everyone in the world because nobody is putting energy into that. They’re putting a lot of energy into teaching for the test, and that’s creating robotic kids.”

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