Written by Chris Boyle Thursday, 21 November 2013 00:00
When you picture a high school music recital, images that come to mind are tight rows of students wielding stringed instruments, their brows furrowed in deep concentration and seriousness while they adhere strictly to a rendition of a famous work by one of the classical masters.
What you don’t think of are multi-colored lights, smoke machines, and the energy and freedom that only a marriage of classical music and heavy metal can produce. That is the sensibility that Mark Wood is trying to bring to today’s young musicians; when it comes to creativity, music is indeed a blank slate screaming for experimentation and expression.
Mark Wood is a famed electric violinist whose Electrify Your Strings program currently visits about 100 schools a year. It helps expand the horizons of student musicians by teaching them classic rock and heavy metal songs that culminate in a public concert when the kids get to show off their new-found diversity.
Electrify Your Strings’ goal, Wood says, is to promote musical education for kids, teachers, and schools.
“We started it about 15 years ago. I was invited to work with some high school kids, and I had never really thought about music education before,” he said. “But the moment I spoke to the kids about empowering yourself through music, I saw an opportunity for artists like myself to truly get to the epicenter of the most important part of education —the arts.”
This is the third year in a row that Electrify Your Strings is gracing Westbury High’s halls. While Wood works with the students in the orchestra and band, his wife, singer Laura Kaye, works with the members of the choir to help round out
the complete package the program achieves on the night of the concert.
“I believe that life is the concert, and the concert is life,” he said. “We have to put together a concert that not only is a good quality musical performance and mastery of the notes, but is also engaging with emotion and personality. You have to stand up and create a connection between one human being to another with expression. That’s the power of art, and that’s the power of Electrify Your Strings.”
At any given school that Wood and his wife visit, the first day typically consists of training and exercises in an attempt to get the kids to open themselves up to new experiences and develop trust; the following lessons focus on the music leading up to the concert, at which Wood, his wife, and his son Elijah, who plays drums, participate with the kids, along with other musicians from Wood’s entourage.
Songs in their set included tunes by Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Ozzy Osbourne, Sly and the Family Stone, and many more.
Nadine Schalk, Orchestra Director of Westbury High School, said that Mark Wood’s Electrify Your Strings program is a vital resource for any child interested in expanding their musical horizons.
“The students absolutely loved it the first year I brought Mark in. He just ignited their passion, including students that had been waning,” she said. “It just helps them to connect with the music a little bit more. They understand why they need to study the classics, but now they understand the need to rock out as well. There’s an additional avenue with their instruments that they have never thought of.”
Christopher Bracho, a senior at Westbury High, was one of the featured violin players in the concert, getting to shine with a solo of his very own during a performance of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
“Working with Mark (was) a really good experience. He brings out the wonder and awe that music is supposed to bring out in people,” he said. “I feel like when you only stick to a classical repertoire, it gets a little boring, but with Mark Wood, you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s surprise after surprise, and it’s really fun.”
Born, raised, and currently living in Port Washington, Wood grew up with a concert pianist mother and father who built furniture; as a result of this unique parentage, he said, he ended up building his first electric violin at the tender age of 10. Soon, Wood found himself in a touring string quartet with his brothers, and eventually attended Juliard on a full scholarship as a viola player at the age of 15. He says he was well on his way to a promising career in classical music, until one day an innocent gift from his parents changed it all.
“They bought me an album called ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ and that changed everything,” he said. “Then I heard Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix, all of these untrained artists who were creating the most important music in history. I left Juliard to pursue music where I felt I really could make an impact as an artist. I re-trained myself and built electric violins around that technique.”
Wood is one of the founding members of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a famed progressive rock band whose style combines classical, orchestral, hard rock and heavy metal elements. Wood remained with the group until 2009. He has also enjoyed collaborations with music stars such as Billy Joel and Kanye West, in addition to a rewarding solo career. He also owns Wood Violins, a successful company based out of Huntington that manufactures electric stringed instruments.
At the concert, Wood donated one of his own electric violins as a raffle prize. Between that and admission sales, he said each Electrify Your Strings concert generates an average of $3,000, with every cent going right back into the school’s music program, many of which are tragically facing cuts due to budgetary issues, he said.
“With schools facing cuts in state aid, one of the first areas they tend to trim is in the arts,” he said. “We’re dealing with a really difficult situation right now, and parents can not be passive. They can not accept an administrator that just writes off their kids’ music programs. They have to fight for it.”
Despite his many successes in the music field, Wood said that being able to positively touch the life of a child is the true reward for all of his efforts; it’s something he intends to continue doing for as long as he can rock.
“The real gift is to see the kid who is withdrawn or really struggling in school to open up and find themselves and empower their sense of confidence,” Wood said. “Music brings people together. It creates wonderful diversity and brings cultures together, and equally important is connecting with administrators and teachers and allowing them to witness what the arts can do for kids, and not to compromise the importance of that in their school.”