The students wore black T-shirts, the amps buzzed, a drum stood at the middle of the stage, and the set list consisted of music by Metallica, Jimi Hendrix and many others. You’d think they were gearing up for a rock concert rather than an orchestra performance.
Last week, about 280 Marana Unified School District high school and middle school students partook in “Strings on Fire,” a workshop by violin virtuoso Mark Wood during which students took a sidestep from playing the usual selections of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to play “Purple Haze,” “Live and Let Die” and “Enter Sandman.”
“Now I want to see you head-bang right into your music,” Wood said during the final rehearsal leading up to the students’ concert last Wednesday, Feb. 18. “This is Metallica we’re playing. We aren’t messing around here.”
The kids didn’t mess around.
During the high school and the middle school performances, they swayed back and forth. They shouted with their bows in the air. They took turns playing an electric violin.
One of those solo artists, Alexandra Tuggle, a first-chair senior at Mountain View High School, has been playing the violin since she was 4.
“It’s a really different experience for us,” Tuggle said. “We have always played classical music our whole lives.”
During the high school students’ portion of the performance, Tuggle got to strap into an electric violin and play alongside Wood during a rocking rendition of the Celtic-sounding song “Toss the Feathers.”
The two performers walked from one side of the stage to the other as they played. A couple of other students even came up and danced.
Mark Wood travels around the country teaching musical workshops for 30,000 to 50,000 students a year.
During his two-day workshops, like the one he ran in Marana, Wood gives students the opportunity to learn new techniques as well as to perfect others. He teaches students about showing a little attitude while on stage.
“The guitar has gone to Mars and back,” Wood said. “String playing is an uncharted territory.”
He recalled an old 1975 Saturday Night Live skit during which a quartet of dead musicians, carrying string instruments, just sits on stage not playing. Slowly, by the end of the skit, they end up falling over dead on each other. He said that is the image that a large part of society has of string players.
“You have 40 string players sitting alike, bowing alike, which is fine for a particular environment,” Wood said. “But you are looking for the cobwebs.”
Wood is the driving force behind the effort to change that image.
He plays in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra with his custom-made, seven-string electric violin called the “Viper,” which he offered to students to play during their performance last week.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra incorporates elements of rock, symphonic metal and heavy metal into classical music. The group’s shows, which usually consist of renditions of Christmas songs, include laser light shows and pyrotechnics.
Wood hopes to change both audience-members’ and musicians’ perspectives on orchestra music. He said orchestras occupy an environment that does not encourage self-expression.
Some students last week played purple or bright-green violins — subtle forms of self-expression. Wood encouraged students to toss their hair if they had grown it long and to not be afraid to get into the music they were playing. And any student who showed a little individuality during the rehearsal or performance received applause.
“We cheer the kids who are willing to take a risk,” Wood said, “and taking a risk is what life is all about.”
For information about Wood’s workshops, go online to www.electrifyyourstrings.com.