A Million Ways to Play
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A Million Ways to Play
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“Could the door to an American Classical music, once opened by such luminaries as Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, be re-opening with 21st-century American composers and musicians? With a new focus on eclecticism and world music within the sphere of classical music, a growing interest in American concert music that is informed by American string playing styles is posed to have a major impact on classical music today. Contemporary musicians and composers may have another chance to swing the door wide open on developing American arts music with a lasting influence. American music, perhaps with the violin, along with its relative cousins, is leading the way for innovation in classical music.  – Mark O’Connor, violinist, composer, and teacher.
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There is currently a movement sweeping this nation – a movement toward a new understanding of American music, in which American “classical” or art music borrows from, and mingles freely with, strains of jazz, swing, and bluegrass, becoming a truly unique melting pot of sounds and ideas.  Of course, this is not exactly a new concept; in fact, the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was one of the most vocal champions of this notion as far back as the 1890s.  He was so inspired by his encounters with African American spirituals and Native American folk music that he wrote them into some of his most famous works, including the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”).

Dvořák’s beliefs in the syncretism of folk music and art music served him just as well in the United States as it had already in his own homeland, where he took inspiration from Czech folk traditions.  The point he would undoubtedly make, and the one that violinist and composer Mark O’Connor wants to make today, is that the tools for a national musical identity are all around us.  Furthermore, believes Mr. O’Connor, string players are in a prime position to lead that charge, since they already participate actively in many of this country’s varied musical genres.  The key to the success of this new era in American music is fostering understanding between diverse groups of musicians.

Overcoming musical prejudice is a necessary first step in that direction.  Many classical violinists, for example, are quick to clarify that they are violinists and not “fiddlers,” fearing an association with bad posture and sloppy technique.  Proponents of other styles, on the other hand, often see classical musicians as stiff and boring, stubbornly clinging to the music of dead white guys.  These are stereotypes, of course - there are many technically polished fiddle players, just as there are many classical players who love to let loose and jam with friends, as well as many jazz musicians who truly love the works of those dead white guys!  Just imagine what kind of musicians America would produce if a vital part of their musical upbringing involved not just the technical mastery encouraged by classical music, but also the creative, improvisational skills required in jazz, and the freedom and fun found in fiddling.

American music needs people who are willing to intentionally blur the lines between categories, refusing convenient labels and restrictive boxes.  It needs players who love to learn new things and absorb all types of music, while working hard to achieve technical excellence on their instruments.  It also needs teachers who will explore different musical traditions in order to find music that is not only useful to their students’ development, but fun and exciting to play as well.  It needs composers, too – the Iveses and Gershwins of our time – who listen and translate and create, always keeping a finger on the artistic pulse of the nation.  Finally, this American music movement needs musicians who, despite their differences, are ultimately committed to one goal: creating something beautiful.

So, who is a musician?  Is it the orchestral veteran who expertly interprets the great works of Beethoven, Brahms, and Barber?  Is it the jazz player who finds freedom and individual expression through improvisation?  Is it the old-time fiddler who enjoys jamming on the front porch with friends long into the evening?  Or is it the student who learns the Lalo concerto with her private teacher and moonlights on electric cello with her rock band?  At Shar, we believe that all of these people are musicians.  We believe that, when it comes to playing a stringed instrument, there truly are “a million ways to play.”

- Phoebe Gelzer-Govatos, Violinist, Sheet Music Specialist and former SHAR Apprentice