As told to Greg Cahill
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players and organizations are supporting and keeping in touch with their audiences or students throughout the global coronavirus pandemic. Even as society reopens, virtual concerts and social-media outreach programs are a phenomenon that have kept performers in the public sphere, since concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely restricted.
Joe Deninson, hailed as the “Jimi Hendrix of the violin,” is bandleader of Stratospherius, a member of the Sweet Plantain String Quartet, a composer, singer, and author of Plugging In: A Guide to Gear and New Techniques for the 21st Century Violinist. He plays a seven-string electric violin—in 2015, he premiered his Concerto for Seven-String Violin and Orchestra with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra conducted by Douglas Droste. He holds bachelor’s degrees in violin performance and jazz violin from Indiana University and a master’s in jazz and commercial violin from Manhattan School of Music. As an educator, he has taught at Mark Wood’s Rock Orchestra Camp and other programs. He is quarantined with his family—his violinist wife, Yulia, and their two children—at their home in Dumont, New Jersey, about 20 minutes northwest of Manhattan.
Tell me about your daily routine.
We’ve been sleeping like rock stars! We go to bed at 2:30 AM and wake up around 10 AM. We have a leisurely breakfast and start the day around 11. Our daughter, Arianna, is 7 and plays violin and piano. Our son, Max, is 11 and plays piano. They usually start the day taking virtual lessons with my parents. My father, Vladimir, is a violinist and a 41-year member of the Cleveland Orchestra. My mother, Lyubov, is a piano teacher [she plays with Vladimir in the Severance Trio]. My wife and I both do virtual teaching and I have a home studio, so I’ll be working on recording projects during the day. Each day is different depending on what projects are coming up. In the summertime when we’re not working, we spend a lot of time in our backyard swimming in our pool, playing with the kids, grilling, working on the house, and gardening.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
We’ve learned to adapt and make the most of our situation. I always try to find the silver lining and work within whatever parameters life throws at me. My wife Yulia is a violinist with the New York Philharmonic and they are not returning until January at the soonest. We have both built up our virtual teaching studios and learned about video production and editing, having to record many quarantine videos. Yulia has also taken a virtual course on the stock market and has learned a great deal about investing. We have tried cooking new recipes. It’s an opportunity to learn something new, and also to spend more time with family than we normally would in our hectic lives.
What are your thoughts about how the pandemic has changed the string world, and what do you expect in the future?
I have always said that string players, and all musicians for that matter, should embrace technology. Set up a home studio and learn to record yourself, learn to teach virtually, learn to produce good quality videos, learn to edit, and write your own arrangements. A big part of my income has been remote recording. During this pandemic, when my live gigs disappeared, the recording work really saved me and I was grateful that I had developed those skills and built relationships with producers, composers, and jingle houses. For many of the musicians I know, this pandemic was a wake-up call to expand their skill sets.
How are you staying connected with your audience and students during the quarantine?
As it turns out, I have been doing at least one online performance per month since the pandemic started. Each performance was for a different presenter or organization: The Uncancelled Music Festival, Beat Route Radio from the UK, Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Music Festival, Music for the Soul (for New York–area medical workers of Local 802), the Grand Canyon (virtual) Music Festival, and as a guest for Brazilian pianist Luiz Simas’ weekly show. I have also been releasing new original music and new videos with my band, Stratospheerius.
How have you selected your internet programming?
Each situation is different. Usually it was people whom I had worked with in the past that were trying to keep their festivals running in the virtual world and reached out to me to perform.
What is the response like?
All the responses have been amazing and inspiring! Many people are in a dark place right now and deeply crave the therapeutic power of music. Even though I’m performing at home, it still feels cathartic to connect with people and feel that you are having a positive effect on their daily lives.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
Thank God we have social media to express our passions and concerns, to feel connected, to vent, to scream at the world. I have no idea how people survived without it during the Spanish flu! Yes, we are polarized politically, but we can choose to surround ourselves with friends in the virtual world that can be our support system.
What have you learned about your audience?
I’ve learned that my audience is open to whatever musical rabbit hole I want to take them down. I have played everything from Bach to jazz standards to King Crimson to Lizzo to Steve Vai to abstract original psychedelic electric-violin pieces. People just want to hear some live music played well and be taken on a journey out of their reality. Music is truly a healing force.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
All of my experiences have been good, and I’ve learned about software like OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) that allows for better sound quality. My only wish is that technology improves allowing multiple musicians in different locations to rehearse and perform virtually without any latency.
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
Absolutely! The Pandora’s box of live streaming has been opened. You can livestream any performance and get people to buy tickets no matter where they are in the world, as long as they have internet access. This can increase revenue for performers and presenters. Now that it’s virtually impossible to make money from recorded music due to the greedy practices of streaming services, like Spotify, live music and teaching is our primary source of income.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
Embrace technology! Do not be afraid of it. It takes a lot less time to learn Logic or Protools than it does to learn the violin. Also, don’t skimp. Investing in a good quality microphone and good software is like buying a good instrument. It will pay for itself in the long run.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen?
There are many things I like about teaching virtually. I would like to decrease my schlepping to physical gigs by at least 25 percent and replace it with more virtual teaching, recording, and performing. Over the summer, I have taught virtually at Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp, Julie Lyonn Lieberman’s “Strings Without Boundaries,” and Dwight Englewoods “360” Summer String program. Plus, I teach private students from all over the country on Stringmasters.com. Although I love the in-person experience, I actually felt like I was able to help each student with individual challenges more than I could have in a live classroom setting. I am excited about the fact that we are no longer limited to our physical location and can study anything with anyone on the planet!
How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the quarantine or limitations of the virus change your path?
I can’t wait to get back to playing live music. Nothing can replace this kinetic experience, but I definitely want to continue growing my online teaching, performing, and recording work on top of the live performances.
What projects are you working on?
My prog-rock band, Stratospheerius, is working on new music. We just released our new video for the song “Impostor!” On September 12, we will premier our new video and single, “Storm Surge,” during our virtual 8 PM performance at progstock.com. In late October, we plan on releasing another song. Also editing and mixing a live album, and writing new music for a new studio album. One of my big quarantine projects was proofreading over 200 original compositions and rock string arrangements for trio, quartet, and string orchestra that I have written and making them available for sale on sheetmusicplus.com. So far, I have about 75 up there, but plan to add many more.
Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?
Try to find the silver lining. Get out of your comfort zone and use this time as an opportunity to learn something new. Try to get inspired and create something. Great art can rise out of pain and sadness. Also, if you like someone’s music, don’t just stream it, buy it. Support your favorite artists on their bandcamp pages, Patreons, or download services. Stay positive and hopeful because without hope, you have nothing.
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