UpClose: Joshua Bell

Mike Lawson • Features • December 1, 2009

The Sheer Joy of Music Making

Photo by Alain Barker.Acclaimed as one of the great violinists of our time, Joshua Bell has performed with major symphonies in revered concert halls around the world, and his recordings have topped the classical music charts. Bell plays one of the finest musical instruments on the planet – the Gibson ex Huberman, a violin crafted in 1713 by Stradivari himself and currently valued at almost four million dollars – yet, he eschews a white tie and tails in favor of more contemporary clothing. There is a need, he says, to change certain perceptions about classical music, so as to ensure that it remains “a part of the diet of young people.”

With the concept of opening up the doors of the classical genre in mind, Joshua Bell’s latest release, Joshua Bell At Home With Friends, features collaborations with numerous high profile artists, including Chris Botti, Sting, Josh Groban, and Regina Spektor, who represent a wide spectrum of musical genres. 

In a recent conversation with SBO, Bell recalls the “sheer joy of music making” that was transferred to him by his childhood teacher, the late Josef Gingold, and speaks of the need for all children to be exposed to the possibilities that music provides, a goal he works towards through the New York City-based charity, Education Through Music.


School Band & Orchestra:  Neither of your parents were professional musicians, yet you were raised in a musical household?

Joshua Bell:  My parents were very musical. My mom was quite an accomplished pianist, but amateur. My father had a violin and loved the violin, but was self-taught. He was a singer as a child and he sang for a long time and loved music. Also my cousins and my sisters – basically everyone in my family – played music.


SBO:  So you were just drawn to it as a child?

JB:  Yeah, I was really drawn to it at a very early age. I certainly heard my mother playing a lot in the house as a kid and I guess you could say that I was just a musical kid. As the story goes – I can barely remember this! – I used to collect rubber bands of various sizes from around the house and string them on my dresser drawers, and then open the drawers different amounts to play tunes on them. That was when I was three or four years old, so my parents chose to get me a violin. I don’t even remember that decision, they just got me a violin and started having me take lessons, and I just took to it.


SBO:  But you went to public school. As an accomplished player at a very young age, what was your experience like playing in the school orchestras?

JB:  I participated in the middle school orchestra, but the teacher never put me in the front of the orchestra for some reason. I think she wanted to give other students a chance. Our town didn’t have a youth orchestra outside of the school at the time, though I think since then it has gotten better.

I had such a strong musical curriculum outside of school, though, so I was fortunate. I know that for a lot of children, their only real opportunities for participating in music happens in the school, which is why it’s so important to make sure that we have music programs in the schools. 


SBO:  For sure. While you clearly took right to the violin and made remarkable progress – including a professional debut while barely a teenager – you were also able to participate in other activities. Would you talk about finding that healthy balance?

JB:  That balance is really important. My parents felt it was important to let me be a kid and let me do other things, not just make it music-music-music about everything. I had a lot of interest in sports – I played tennis and basketball – and I certainly went through a phase of playing way too many video games. Well, maybe too many, maybe not. It was good to have other distractions, as well, because it kept music as something that I wanted to do. I wasn’t forced to practice six hours a day, and I think it’s important to have a well rounded life. So I’m appreciative that my parents let me be a kid as much as possible.


SBO:  You also began your musical studies at Indiana University at a very early age. How did that opportunity arise?

JB:  I found a way through my school. Well, it’s my parents really, and a matter of them being really strong advocates for their child. They’re psychologists, and I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but they were very active in making sure that I had what I needed. And it wasn’t easy. Starting when I was five years old, they fought to put me in first grade instead of kindergarten because I was bored the first week of school. They fought the school system to get me a grade ahead, and that had never been done in our community before – there were very strict rules about that – and then when I was 12 they made a deal where I would split my time between the high school and Indiana University.In that way, my life was a little unusual. Because music was my passion, my closest friends were at the university. It have seemed a little bit strange from the outside – at least looking back at it; in many of the pictures I’m 13 and all my friends are 18 to 22 – but at the time it felt very natural. We shared the same passions.

So in the afternoons I’d go over to Indiana University to study and to practice and take my lessons and music theory in things like that. 


SBO: When did you become interested in music education?

JB:  Really, in my early 20s, or since my career started, something I often did – and something that was often asked of me – when I would be playing with an orchestra and we’d go into a local community, was that they would have educational outreach programs and I’d be asked to talk to a class. So I had started getting comfortable going into a classroom and talking for an hour, playing, and enjoying the interaction with the kids. Lately, the last 10 years, I have seen many of these programs disappearing.

One of the organizations I’m involved with is called “Education Through Music,” and they are doing some really great things with getting music programs into schools that previously didn’t have any music at all. Unfortunately, too often music and arts programs are threatened with cuts or do get cut, and so I like to do what I can to encourage local communities wherever I go to make sure that they keep the music in the schools. I’ve seen what a difference it makes. 

Many of the kids in these schools are really underprivileged. Education Through Music tends to focus on low economic areas, and it’s amazing what the music programs do for these kids – it raises their whole perspective. I notice a big difference walking into a school that has a music program versus walking into one that doesn’t; there is just a huge difference in the children’s self esteem and how they work together. Music helps them on so many different levels.

When I was approached by Education Through Music and they showed me what there were doing, I was very impressed. The first time they took me to a classroom it was to an inner-city school up in the Bronx. I’ve gone to a lot of schools, but they had done something extraordinary: they had prepared the kids for months for my arrival, and the kids all new my records and they had posters up on the walls. When I walked into the school, they treated me like the Beatles. I’ve had my share of walking into a school and trying to explain to kids who I was and get them interested from scratch, and these kids were already prepped in such a way that it was so exciting for me – these kids treated classical music as something really cool. I realized that there’s no reason why classical musicians can’t be heroes for kids, just like rock musicians, rappers, and sports stars. 


SBO:  Take me inside a classroom visit. What types of things do you do?

JB:  Basically just be an inspiration and show the students how music affects me. I’ll go back to the same schools so that I can see some of the same students a few times and hopefully have some of my enthusiasm for music rub off. I also want to show that I’m a normal guy, that I play sports and video games, and break the stereotype that classical music is something stuffy – for old men with beards. That’s basically what I do. The people at Education Through Music do most of the work – they have a really dedicated staff. I try to raise money for them, too, through benefit concerts. It’s a great program.


SBO:  Let’s talk about that general perception of classical music these days. Are you trying to reinvent its image, or what would you like to see change in young people’s perception of what this art form is all about?

JB:  Classical music is still classical music. It’s not that it needs to be reinvented, but certain perceptions need to change. We need to make sure that it’s a part of the diet of young people. Especially in today’s age where you have the iPods and you can stick all kinds of random stuff on there, there’s no reason why a young kid in high school can’t have jazz and rap and pop and a Beethoven symphony – and be excited about all of it. 

The same is true with literature – kids are still reading Shakespeare and Tolstoy, as well as modern fiction, and it’s important to see how everything comes from the classics. I don’t think it needs to be completely reinvented, although in the way that it is presented, sometimes I think we need to go with the times on certain things, even like dress – I abandoned the white tie and tails because it felt really archaic. That has nothing to do with the music at all, but it helps with the perception. 

There are places [that understand this], like, for instance, the Proms in London at the Royal Albert Hall, where I play pretty much every summer. There are about eight thousand seats and they put on these concerts every night and fill the place with young people that wait in lines that go down the street in order to get into the promenade, where they’re standing at the bottom section like at a rock concert. People like to go where they feel comfortable and where their peers are, and here they are going to listen to serious classical concerts – not pops, not just Star Wars themes and things like that; real classical concerts – and they love it. It makes me realize that one of the things that keeps the younger people away is the feeling that [classical music] isn’t embracing to young people. 

A lot of orchestras are thinking about different ways to present it without cheapening the music. You don’t have to cut it or add drumbeats; there’s a lot that can be done without selling out on the music.


SBO:  Speaking of the perception of classical music, that experiment that you participated in where you posed as a busker in a Washington D.C. metro station was fascinating. Would you mind talking about that experience for a moment?

JB:  Yes, that. It sort of blew up into something that I never expected. It was almost three years ago and it’s been haunting me ever since!  [laughs]


SBO:  “Haunting?”

JB:  It just was talked about so much, which in some ways is a good thing. Gene Weingarten asked me to go into this metro station to see what the public reaction would be to someone who is established as a concert artist going into a place like that and playing where one wouldn’t expect – to see if people would stop, how they would react, or even if they would react at all. It turned out pretty much how I expected; for the most part, people walked by or ran by and didn’t really take the time to listen. A few did, and it was interesting to see who did. Gene followed up, asking people why they did or did not stop, and the article made people think about context and perception. For me it was something that was fun and different, so I volunteered to do it. 


SBO:  To think that you could’ve been playing that night in front of thousands of people, but didn’t draw that much attention playing for free in a crowded metro station is mind-boggling. Shifting gears for a moment, you have a new release coming out called “Joshua Bell At Home With Friends.”

JB:  You talk about getting young people interested in classical music, doing projects like this, where I play with musicians from other genres, helps in some ways, I find. From doing things with artists in other fields, I find a lot of people coming backstage at my concerts saying that they were introduced to me through someone else, like Josh Groban, for instance. I get a lot of his fans saying that they’d never heard of me or that they’d never seen a classical concert in their life, and now they’re following my stuff and that of other classical musicians. A lot of times, people just don’t know the right entryway, they don’t know where to start.

So this album is a collection of performances with various friends that I’ve met over the past 25 years of my concert life. I brought them together – it’s a real eclectic mish-mash of things – and it’s supposed to reflect my ideal musical soiree, which I do hold in my house, although I’ve never had all of these people together at one time. I like to have intimate casual house concerts at my home, and this album reflects that.


SBO:  This raises the theme of music drawing people together and creating a social context?

JB:  Well, it’s certainly fun for the musicians to do that sort of thing. It’s also fun for the audience. I do classical performances in my house and a lot of my friends don’t know anything about classical music because I have a lot of friends outside of that world. They have been to my concerts at Carnegie Hall and those types of places on occasion, but when they come into my house and see these house concerts, they’re much more enthralled. They get the visceral nature of it and come right up close to the music. It’s a fun way to bring people together, and a lot of the great chamber music was written for that setting: Schubert, Mendelsohn, et cetera. That’s the way people used to enjoy music, in their own homes, in the 19th century. 


SBO:  What do you find to be the most rewarding element of working with students?

JB:  The most rewarding is when I feel like I’ve inspired a kid to make music his or her life. It’s certainly happened on occasion that people will say that I was their inspiration. When you see that sparking an interest or see the light bulb go off in a young person’s head, that’s certainly very rewarding. I’ve had that for me when I was kid from various people, most importantly Josef Gingold. Without him, I don’t know what direction my life would have gone in. He just made me want to be a musician. It’s rewarding to be on the other side of the equation. Also, you learn from teaching. It is kind of cliché, but there is so much you can learn from your students. But I’m not a big teacher yet. I’m still busy traveling and performing – but someday I’d like to do more.


SBO:  Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for music educators out there?

JB:  It’s important that music is fun for kids. Concentrate on the joy of music making. Sure it’s a skill and it takes hard work to learn, but it should always be fun. That’s something that my teacher passed on to me: the sheer joy of making music.  



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