Electronic-instrument makers bet big on the alt-styles movement
It’s not hard to understand how violinist, educator, and stringed-instrument manufacturer Mark Wood can transform a school auditorium full of earnest young string students into a thrashing mosh pit of metal mania. Wood’s mirrored shades, shoulder-length hair, and sleek, candy-colored electric violins can’t hurt his rapport with teens. Nor can the rock cred he’s accumulated touring the world with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and collaborating with such rock and rap stars as Steve Vai and Kanye West, respectively.

But energy and enthusiasm might be the true keys to success for Wood, who is part of a coalition of manufacturers (including the influential Yamaha Music Corp.) clinicians, professional players, and string teachers who are spearheading the alt-styles movement.

That passion comes through clearly as Wood discusses working with educators across America to shake up string instruction, putting kids accustomed to acoustic instruments and Bach and Beethoven to work on electric violins with compositions by Ozzy Osbourne and the Foo Fighters. “We go to string teachers and empower them to integrate 21st-century concepts into their teaching: technology, American styles, and improvisation,” Wood says. “We’re not replacing the wonderful old pedagogy based in the 18th century. We’re augmenting it.”

Call it “alternative styles” or “eclectic strings,” but there’s no denying the impact of the much-debated, decades-old campaign to change what some characterize as string education’s myopic focus on classical music. A little over a decade after the American String Teachers Association gave its blessing to alt-styles, it’s also clear that electric-instrument makers, clinicians, and string teachers are playing a key role in the crusade to change string-music classrooms.

A high-profile alt-styles proponent, Wood estimates that he’s reached more than 100,000 students over the 15 years he’s run his Electrify Your Strings program in schools. Yet the changes he and other alt-styles advocates have sparked haven’t gone nearly far enough, Wood feels. “The situation is catastrophic,” he says. “We’re at a severe disadvantage because of the public’s perception that string playing is attached to classical music and orchestra.”

Wood has an almost evangelical passion for string education, and schools across the country have benefited from money he’s raised for their orchestra programs. But the Wood Violins founder is also a shrewd businessman whose electric instruments have found their way into the hands of such high-profile artists as Lady Gaga’s violinist Judy Kang.

Wood could sell more of his distinctive products—more Vipers, Stingrays, Sabres, and Cobras—if more young people were playing stringed instruments and alternative styles.

“The technology that I have developed is an offshoot of my advocacy,” Wood says. “But the string industry is really challenged by the fact that kids are just not that interested in the violin.”

Building a Market

Wood is hardly the only businessman supporting the quest to build the alternative-styles movement.

“There’s a wonderful reciprocal relationship between innovative string instrument makers and innovative string players and educators,” says violinist Julie Lyonn Lieberman, a longtime alt-styles crusader and artistic director of the Strings without Boundaries education program.

That relationship dates back at least to the 1980s, when the amp-making company Theta helped underwrite Lieberman’s “The Talking Violin,” a groundbreaking National Public Radio series that explored the violin’s role in Delta blues and other American styles.

Not all alternative styles require amplification, of course. But the movement’s success has clearly increased the marketability of electric instruments.

Yamaha has placed hundreds of electric string quartets into schools around the country over the past ten years, according to Ken Dattmore, the company’s strings marketing manager. When Yamaha’s first electric Silent Violin model hit the American market in 1998, the company figured it was selling a practice instrument—something you could plug headphones into and play without annoying the neighbors.

“Then people started plugging it into an amplifier to see how loud they could make it, which is kind of an American way to do things,” Dattmore says with a chuckle. “If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have realized the potential.”

The company reoriented its Silent stringed-instrument product line (which includes violas, cellos, and basses) for performance and saw strong demand. It’s been one of Yamaha’s fastest-growing markets since 2005, according to Dattmore. “In every product, there’s a saturation point, but I think we’re very far from it here,” he says. “We’re in a big ramp-up, and where that stops is anybody’s guess.”

But Yamaha’s marketing aims to goose that demand, and school outreach events are key. For those events, Dattmore teams up with professional musicians to visit schools and work with students and teachers, answering questions about electric instruments and alternative styles. At night, there’s a concert. Yamaha donates an electric instrument as a door prize that attendees can win for their school.

These events typically cost the company about $5,000 a pop. “But that’s part of Yamaha’s philosophy,” Dattmore says. “If it’s something that will pay off down the road, we see no reason to worry about the expense. It’s an investment.”

That investment is wide ranging. When Yamaha first rolled out its string quartet for the education market, arrangements for electric quartets were virtually nonexistent. So the company commissioned arrangements from composer Sandy Feldstein. “With this market, first you build it and then you sell to it,” Dattmore says. “And that’s where working with our artists is important. They’re the biggest promoters.”

Tradition Stays Strong

Not everyone agrees that alternative styles or electric bowed-stringed instruments represent string education’s future. Even a onetime alt-styles backer has doubts. “I don’t think teachers are discouraging it, but I don’t know that there’s as much enthusiasm as there was ten years ago when it was new and exciting,” says cellist David Littrell, a Kansas State University music professor. Littrell was president of ASTA when the organization embraced alt-styles. “It infused a lot of excitement into what was then a stodgy institution,” he says with a chuckle. But he tried alt-styles in his own classrooms with mixed results.

“The kids really loved classical music,” he says. “They knew there was a depth to it, rather than playing cheesy popular arrangements. Down deep, kids know what’s good and they want to play it.”

And what about Littrell’s own electric cello?

“The motherboard died, and I haven’t had it fixed because there’s really no place to play it,” he explains.

Still, Littrell loves some popular music and acknowledges it keeps some students engaged. “I’m very happy when kids get involved in that kind of stuff,” he says. “What’s acceptable to classical teachers has broadened over the past ten years. Music teachers are not the stuffed shirts they used to be.”

But in an affable way, Littrell pushes back hard against the idea that going electric and embracing other styles is the only way to preserve strings education in the face of changing tastes. “I’ve been reading articles about the death of classical music since the 1960s,” Littrell says. “I’m not too worried.”

Just back from a state music conference, he talks about the students he met there. “There’s a lot of interest, at an incredibly talented level,” Littrell says. “Kids understand what quality is. There’s a reason why Mozart and Bach are still around. There’s a depth to that music that still touches people 200 years later.”

Blind Spots

String education is flourishing, according to Bob Phillips, current president of ASTA, which estimates that the number of school programs and students are at record highs. ASTA’s commitment to alt-styles remains strong, says Phillips, himself an expert at integrating folk fiddling and jazz into the string orchestra. But he points to changes in American schools—especially an increased focus on testing—that pose new challenges for creative teachers. Some music educators believe that alt-styles is discussed less frequently these days because the movement’s core concepts have become so accepted that labels are less necessary.

But music education must go much further, says Christian Howes.

The 42-year-old Suzuki-trained violinist and Yamaha clinician is now one of America’s best-known jazz violinists, but his classical training nurtured a talent that saw him soloing with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra at 16.

“I still love classical music,” he says. “But from the time I’ve spent outside that world, I know there’s just so much joy you can get out of music if you develop additional skills and knowledge.”

Howes had an epiphany while playing with a rock band as a teenager, teaming up with kids who’d taken a few guitar or bass lessons. “They knew maybe three chords, but they just started making their own music,” he recalls. “They seemed to have a mechanical understanding of the music that I as a highly trained classical musician did not have. There’s something really wrong with that.”

Howes has worked with Yamaha as a clinician for more than 16 years. In school visits and at his annual summer workshop, he focuses on teaching composition and improvisation, an understanding of music’s construction, and a variety of styles. And he’s passionate about the need to discuss education reform in a sophisticated and substantive way.

“There are deficits, blind spots in the classical-music curriculum,” Howes says. “They’re not just extra little things. They’re not some little toy in a cereal box. They are central to music.”

Howes is out to address those deficits in a variety of ways—and he’s receiving considerable backing from Yamaha. The company is sponsoring three-month trial subscriptions for some educators to Howes’ Creative Strings Academy, an online program that teaches players how to improvise, recognize chord progressions by ear, and play jazz and other styles. “I think we have made progress, definitely,” Howes says. “We’re moving in the right direction. But I’m passionate about providing concrete solutions.”

The Way Forward

If alt-styles advocates have one thing in common, it might be candor. Robert Anderson is a case in point.

The 36-year-old jazz violinist has taught strings for more than a decade in schools and other settings. He co-founded String Project Los Angeles, which aims to encourage creativity in young musicians.

“Teaching improv or having jazz lessons or teaching kids how to play the D7 chord on a viola—all that takes time and it’s hard to do in an orchestra setting,” Anderson says. “I think the problem is that we’re hoping this movement will take hold in a setting where it’s not really easy for it to work.”

A clinician for Yamaha, Anderson has visited schools across the country to teach alternative styles to educators and students. But he’s frank about the challenges of bringing creative strings and electronic instruments into the classroom. “I’m saying ‘You can do it’ to a Texas teacher I just met,” he says ruefully. “And usually there’s a desire there. But then they have to find the money and figure out how to implement it.”

That might be why Anderson sounds both frustrated and sympathetic when he talks about school programs that mix in a few pop songs and think they’ve addressed the problem. “If a student connects to their instrument through a Britney Spears arrangement, well, there’s a little connection that wouldn’t have existed otherwise,” Anderson says. “Especially at the younger ages, I think it’s OK. But I think a lot of people confuse that with true alternative strings.”

The biggest alt-styles progress, Anderson says, is happening outside the school day: in after-school programs, and summer camps.

Slow but steady progress at the university level also offers hope. As Julie Lyonn Lieberman notes, the Berklee College of Music’s jazz strings program has grown from a handful of students to 170 players today.

“I think strings are climbing out of a pedagogical hole they’ve been in for 150 years,” Anderson says. “And there are some amazing players and educators working to do that. But it’s an uphill battle.” n

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