By David Templeton
“She’s classically trained.”
For decades, those iconic words, “classically trained,” have stood as a defining measure of musical accomplishment, a dividing line that succinctly separates players into two camps: those with classical training—those who’ve played classical music with some level of skill—and those without classical training. The unspoken message, of course, is that any form of education that is not classical training is more or less the same thing as having no training at all.
An accomplished Celtic fiddler who was apprenticed under another accomplished Celtic fiddler? Untrained. A bluegrass legend who somehow avoided ever learning a Mozart concerto? Untrained. A jazz violinist who knew from the beginning that they wanted only to play improvisational jazz, and pursued that kind of musical education wherever they could get it? Get ready to be labeled untrained.
“That whole ‘classically trained’ thing, I heard it all the time as a musician in New York,” says Scott Tixier, 32, the internationally acclaimed jazz violinist from Paris, France. Though Tixier did initially receive classical training at the Conservatoire de Paris, he began studying jazz and improvisation early on, seeking out his education through a series of jazz camps and master classes with some of the greatest living jazz players. At age 19, he moved to New York, where he admits it was a challenge, being one of the few dedicated jazz violinists in the area.
“When I first came here, I was kind of lost,” he says of that time 13 years ago. “I brought my education as a jazz violinist, but I was immediately lonely, because I was one of the only ones playing this music. It was very hard to find other jazz violinists, even in jazz clubs.”
Lacking other forms of jazz education on the violin, Tixier says he began hanging out with jazz saxophonists and jazz piano players, from whom he was able to continue his own education in a significant, if somewhat unconventional way.
Through it all, he became acutely aware of the limitations and prejudicial assumption put on musicians by the classically trained/untrained label.
“I think it’s a very big problem, one that is more about attitude and bad thinking,” says Tixier, who believes that things are shifting a bit, as the definition of “education” itself is now finally beginning to broaden. “The more I explore the scene,” he says, “the more I see classically educated players who have no education in improvisation, who are wanting to learn to improvise, and are turning to jazz violinists. At the same time, I see a lot of jazz players trying to merge into the classical world, to maybe play with an orchestra.
“And now some universities and conservatories are beginning to understand that perhaps different violin styles have something important to teach each other. Until now, improvisation has not been recognized by musical institutions as being important. But I think that is beginning to change.”
Case in point, Tixier has recently joined the faculty of the University of North Texas, as its first ever professor of Jazz Violin and Alternative Styles. The move is being made, slowly, at a number of other esteemed universities around the country and beyond. Natalie Padilla, who learned Texas-style fiddling from her mother, the acclaimed bluegrass fiddler Nancy Padilla, is now an instructor of Fiddle, Folk, and Bluegrass at the University of Northern Colorado. At the highly esteemed Carleton University, in Canada, Denis Lanctôt has been teaching fiddle students through the University’s post-secondary Fiddle Studies program. Berklee School of Music in Massachusetts, where violinist David Wallace is chair of the strings department, offers students a chance to gain an education at a high level, regardless of the style of music they wish to pursue.
For the University of North Texas, in Denton, Tixier’s appointment is a positive step forward in a number of ways.
“We’re excited about Scott Tixier joining our faculty for many reasons,” says John Murphy, chair of the division of jazz studies in the UNT College of Music. “He’s a brilliant improviser and a gifted teacher. Scott’s presence will enable us to accept upper strings students as jazz studies majors. He will enable our classical string students to gain experience with improvisation in a variety of styles. And he has much to contribute as an instructor for all of our jazz studies majors, not only the string players.”
Tixier says he plans to incorporate all of the lessons he learned earlier on as a young musician in France, where his first jazz teachers conveyed the importance of passion and hard work, regardless of which style of music a young player wanted to learn.
“I grew up in Paris,” Tixier says. “When I was 12 years old, I started going to an annual jazz camp in the South of France, where I met Stéphane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty and all those gypsy-jazz guys. In the program, there would be master classes with these amazing musicians. And I took a lot of inspiration from what I learned there. At UNT, I’m definitely using all of that background I had, learning to play jazz from these iconic players.”
For Tixier, who’s been teaching privately since shortly after he arrived in New York, the lack of any established higher-education text books for jazz violinists is not going to be a problem, as he’s been writing his own book for the last several years.
“There are many books about how to play jazz on other instruments, but I learned when I came to America that there were no books about how to play jazz violin. I was very frustrated and disappointed. There was so little for me to learn from, so I started writing my own book. As I began playing more, and recording, I would get questions from jazz students all over the place, so I would make those answers part of the book.”
For example, he eventually included a chapter on amplification. “In clubs, it’s very hard for musicians to find the right pick-up or to use an amp in the right way,” he says. “When you are amplified, you can’t use the same phrasing that you would use if you were not amplified. So the book will teach that as well.”
With a laugh, Tixier admits the book might never have been finished were it not for his new gig at UNT. “I realized this was the perfect opportunity for me to finish this book, finally, and to use it for the students,” he says. The finished book, which will include contributions from Jean-Luc Ponty and others, should be published by January 2019. He plans to use it immediately in his work teaching improvisational skills at UNT.
There are, of course, many styles that use improvisation, not just jazz music, Tixier says. “There is also Indian music, historic Irish music, and many other styles,” he points out. “In Europe, we have a different relationship with improvisation than violin players do in America. It’s grounded in Gypsy music and classical music from the Romantic era. In America, people who are doing improvisation are borrowing from fiddle music and bluegrass music and country music. What I’m going to bring to the program is the French and European influence.”
As it happens, Tixier admits that as a professor of jazz violin, he plans to include a certain amount of “classical training” in his curriculum. “Improvisation is based on a thorough understanding of music and your instrument,” he says. “For cello students, I encourage them to learn the Bach cello suites. Because to be a good improviser, you have to be very good at playing, and Bach really opens doors for any improviser. I think sometimes people come to improvisation with the feeling that it’s all about freedom. Which it is, but it is important not to forget that you also need some structure, and sometimes that can come from knowing the classical repertoire.
“Classical music,” Tixier adds, “does have good things to teach jazz—just like jazz has good things to teach classical music.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Strings magazine.