Written by Dave Gil de Rubio, Dgilderubio@antonnews.com Friday, 08 February 2013 00:00
When you first see Mark Wood, the last thing you’d expect to learn is that he’s a classically trained master of the violin. Or that he studied at Juilliard under iconic iconoclast Leonard Bernstein. In fact, it’s easy to mistake the native Long Islander for a rock star, rather than someone who’s played Carnegie Hall (he has). Between his lanky build, wild head of hair and his line of outrageously designed handmade violins called Vipers, it’s no wonder that Wood has been labelled the Jimi Hendrix of violin.
But for as much as the luthier/composer/instrumentalist likes to rock out, his true passion is trying to pull music education into the 21st century.
“When I went to Juilliard, my bow arm wound up being a great byproduct of my training there, but the heart of my music was really shaped when I heard Jimi Hendrix, Duanne Allman, Frank Zappa and all these incredible musicians,” Wood recalled at his Port Washington workshop and studio. “I love Beethoven and Mozart, and that European experience is very valuable. But ultimately, America has produced a half dozen styles of music. Yet you’d be shocked at how little that’s integrated into our educational system.”
“Kids want to rock and play different styles of music,” he said. “That’s one way we teach diversity and break down walls between cultures. It’s a win-win situation. But 99 percent of the teachers out there are not trained to implement American music.”
Rather than just gripe about these shortcomings, the Emmy Award-winning composer has become a music-education advocate through his Electrify Your Strings! (EYS) program, which he started in 1999. A curriculum focused on accelerated learning through technology, EYS is coming to the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts when Wood takes the stage there on Feb. 10. The show will include the Mark Wood Experience (featuring wife Laura Kaye on vocals and son Elijah on drums) performing alongside the LIU Post Orchestra and Long Island Sound Vocal Jazz Ensemble.
Leading up to the concert, Wood will hold a two-day workshop for about 100 student musicians from around the Island who’ll participate in the show, playing music by Led Zeppelin, Rush, The Beatles and Wood originals. Having done this around the country and internationally, Wood sees the Tilles show as a kind of homecoming.
“This is a very special event centered on Long Island to celebrate Long Island’s contributions to music and music education,” he said. “It’s my home and I feel that it’s important to put a lot of effort into shining a spotlight onto these great teachers and schools that do support music education.”
“Kids are coming from all over the Island—Hempstead High School, JFK Middle School in Bethpage, Robert Moses School in Babylon and Westbury High School, just to name a few,” he said.
The product of a creative home, Wood and his three brothers (two who play violin and one who plays cello) were encouraged by father Paul, a painter, and their concert pianist mother Jacqueline. The future music educator first picked up a viola at age 12, eventually earning a full scholarship to The Juilliard School. Despite his skill at playing Mozart, Stravinsky and Beethoven, Wood quit Juilliard after two years when his tradition-bound teacher refused to teach him Jimi Hendrix. And while he would later co-found the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) and go on to share stages with Celine Dion, Paul McCartney and Billy Joel, this inflexible pedagogy left him with a bitter taste.
“There’s no way you can make a living playing just classical music, yet schools such as Juillard and the Eastman School of Music continue to pump out endlessly-trained musicians,” he said. “The New York Times recently reported that fewer than 25 percent of Juilliard graduates end up making a living playing classical music. That is shameful. We love classical music, but when you have people who commit their lives and careers to something, you have to be really, really honest and tell them that if they don’t integrate Americana, improvising and the ability to understand how music functions on its most basic terms, they’re never going to survive.”
With this kind of honesty in mind, Wood has not only been spreading the gospel of the EYS program for more than a decade, but in the past three years he’s also founded the Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp. Held annually on the third week of July in Kansas City, the camp is “a center for people who are really not just fiddlers and not just classical violin players, but people who are interested in the 21st-century concepts of music,” he said.
Helping out are fellow musicians Rachel Barton Pine and Tracy Silverman of the Turtle Island String Quartet. And while he finds success as an in-demand sideman and relishes the major role he played as part of TSO, working with kids is what really fires him up.
“I get more out of seeing kids who are very withdrawn and who never really stood up in class, but then come out next to me and play their instruments with tremendous confidence and empowerment, and having them change their lives,” Wood said. “I can’t do that onstage in front of a crowd in Madison Square Garden, but I can go to schools and get that incredible reaction for me and these children. We’ve had cases of kids who were suicidal, manic-depressive and had emotional issues, yet when we come, all that disappears.”
“There are emails from parents saying how their kids may not have done well in school, but all of a sudden they’re committed after working with me,” Wood smiled. “Goddamn, how great is that?”
The Mark Wood Experience will be performing at the Tilles Center with the LIU Post Orchestra and Long Island Sound Vocal Jazz Ensemble on Sunday, Feb. 10, at 3 p.m. For details, call 516-299-3100 or visit www.tillescenter.org.