This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Black Violin's Kevin Marcus joins me to discuss the vulnerability required in finding your voice, bringing people together virtually through music and teaching.
FINDING YOUR VOICE
Anna Heflin: You begin each Black Violin masterclass with a freestyle session to encourage musicians at home to find their voice. Why is it important for string players to discover their musical voice from an early age?
Kevin Marcus: Finding your musical voice as a young string player will keep you from quitting the instrument. I was taught violin by learning the Suzuki books and then advancing to middle school orchestra, where we might play something cool like Star Wars, Danse Macabre or maybe West Side Story. Things got a little more challenging in high school with Tchaikovsky and Mozart Symphonies and in college you finally got to Shostakovich and Mahler. That whole time, I was just playing everyone else's music. That’s a problem with the way that we learn classical music.
AH: What did the process of finding your voice look like for you?
KM: We found our voice during college. I was a scholarship viola student and had a wonderful time studying with Chauncey Patterson of the Miami String Quartet at FIU. However, college just felt like a harder version of what I had been doing in high school. In orchestra, I felt kind of trapped because I was a scholarship student.
After finding the music computer lab, I was inspired by the idea of applying the concepts that I was learning in my music theory and history courses to making my own beats! Will and I started making beats left and right. I played in studio class and then went home and made beats using the tools that hip-hop guys were using. We got rappers and then played violin on the beats. It didn’t seem like anything at first but after a while that’s how we found our voice.
AH: In your music video for Showoff, you depict various individuals overcoming obstacles and thriving. Is the desire to inspire others to do their best a core part of Black Violin's mission?
KM: Presenting your music to the world is a vulnerable experience. The video and the idea of Showoff is to challenge people to show off their talents; the hardest part of doing that is the actual jump. When we normally do our Masterclass in person, we point at individuals and ask them to play anything they want in front of the whole class. Sometimes they can be awkward with it at first, but as they keep going they develop a voice and a sound that makes sense for them. I’ll ask the students afterwards, ‘How was that?’ and they’ll tell me that they were nervous at first but it was thrilling. That’s the point, you just have to jump first to show off what you got. This is how we encourage a different approach to learning the violin. If you make it yours, it will never be about your mother or your teacher and you will play the violin forever. The jump is vulnerable, but as we say in jump training: there are no wrong notes, only colorful notes. Everyone that you like creatively is letting go and showing them who they are, that’s why you like them. If you are coming from a true place, people will feel that.
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
AH: Musically, how does Black Violin bring people together? How do livestream concerts continue to bring people together virtually?
KM: Musically, we have a unified vibe. We are always trying to cast the widest net. We walk this tightrope of being classical and being hip-hop; we’re not too much of either. If you love Mozart you think ‘Wow, that Mozart is so beautiful!’. If you like Drake, that beat we put underneath it is what you’re vibing to. As humans, we all feel and interpret music and art in our own ways and it’s a beautiful thing. We focus on that unity and during this time of uncertainty it feels more important than ever to play our music and give people something that makes them feel good.
AH: After every online masterclass you open it up for a Q&A with your audience. Can you talk about the importance of accessibility in classical music?
KM: It’s important for us to be accessible to young artists because they’re the next version of us. We want to inspire forward thinkers in a way that transcends music. It’s all about how you approach what it is that you’re doing, which is a stronger and fuller message than just telling kids to practice the violin. We’re trying to show what is possible if you think differently about anything that you’re passionate about. That’s why we perform for 400,000 kids every year and have such a dedication to educational outreach. Our goal is to make every kid that sees us think, ‘Dang, I didn’t even think that was possible’.
Black Violin is led by classically trained string players Wil B. (viola) and Kev Marcus (violin). The band uses their unique blend of classical and hip hop music to overcome stereotypes while encouraging people of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds to join together to break down cultural barriers. Black Violin, alongside artists such as Yo Yo Ma and Elton John, recently joined with Turnaround Arts to bring arts education to struggling schools in underserved communities. Additionally, they were featured by ESPN as the official artist of the 2017 US Open and 2016 & 2017 Heisman Trophy Award ceremonies. They have been featured on The Tonight Show, Ellen, The Wendy Williams Show, NPR, and more. The group has collaborated creatively with artists such as Kanye West, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean and Alicia Keys. Their latest album Take The Stairs debuted as #1 on the Billboard Classical Chart, #7 on Billboard’s Top New Artist Chart, and #9 on the Billboard Hip Hop and R&B Chart.