Advanced Woodworking: Mark Wood
When Mark Wood was growing up, he hunkered down among the awls and power saws in his dad’s woodshop and patched together a Frankensteined piece of sculpture with a few violin strings on it and a pickup. Wood admits it was almost unplayable, but the fact that he made it through the operation without cutting his own fingers off gave him hope. He kept at it for years, determined to develop the viola and violin equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster – souped-up for amplification, stylish, and aesthetically detached from an instrument that hadn’t changed much in over 400 years.
He wanted to rock.
Since then, Wood’s become a world-renowned shredder on his electric violins, touring as an original member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, dueling with Steve Vai, and making big appearances onstage with Celine Dion, Lenny Kravitz, and Billy Joel. Throughout, he’s continued to develop his line of Wood Violins – wild instruments of up to seven strings in Flying V shapes with their own amps and wah-wah pedals are just a few of the exotic directions he’s gone. The company has grown into a far-reaching operation that services both pros and, more importantly, young musicians.
His “Electrify Your Strings” program, now in its tenth year, is the centerpiece of Wood’s career. The itinerary has him in at least two cities a week throughout the school year, and his collaborations with local dealers combined with huge performances with each school give overall profits to the local music program. The clinics hinge not only on schools’ willingness to open up to Wood’s flambouyant approach to music, but on the support of the communities as well. With Wood’s talents for turning kids into superheroes, the program has kickstarted thousands of students’ creative imaginations with its blend of classical, pop, metal, and above all, passion for self-expression.
Wood says that he expects that first violin he made as a kid to be hanging in the Smithsonian Institute someday and that he hopes to inspire kids across the country to strive for the same. “This isn’t about selling instruments or getting my music out there or anything like that,” he says. “It’s about changing kids’ lives.”
MMR had the chance to speak with Wood recently over the phone as he was on his way to catch yet another flight to an “Electrify Your Strings” event in South Carolina, and learned a lot about the continuing saga of what Wood calls “a life-changing experience.”
MMR: Tell us where this whole rock star approach to the string section came from.
My mom was a classical musician and she had four boys and we each played an instrument. We eventually became the first all-brother string quartet in the world. We toured around and I played viola. I’m a classically trained musician. But then of course my parents made the mistake of getting me a record called Sgt. Pepper’s. That changed everything.
The violin industry is very large. The violin, viola, cello, and double bass hadn’t changed in 400 years, until I came along. It’s astounding to think of. In our history of playing classical and fiddle music, have you ever seen anything but an acoustic instrument? It’s never changed.
In pop music, there have been incredibly exciting developments over the last 30, 40 years that have totally changed the landscape for instruments. The only thing that didn’t change was the string industry. So my daily challenge is to change how people think the way Hendrix did at Woodstock. The guitar was never thought of as the kind of lead instrument that Hendrix and Van Halen turned it into. It’s a billion dollar industry now.
MMR: Your approach to selling the instruments seems anchored in getting people excited about the music itself.
I think it’s important to note that Fender and Gibson do not sell guitars – it’s Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen who sell the guitars. It’s completely music-driven. What I’m trying to do is make sure that a musician and the music drives our instruments. That’s critical and that involves our educational program.
MMR: That involves developing a language for people to be interested in.
Exactly. Juilliard doesn’t teach that. No conservatory teaches string players to improvise or play anything other than European music. Which is fine – I love classical music – but America created not one style, not two styles, but half a dozen if not more integral styles of music: Jazz, rock’n’roll, hip-hop, blues, R&B… America has driven music culture for the last 80 years. James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, all the blues players who Keith Richards and the British musicians were influenced by, Elvis Presley – just think about the amount of music and revenue that America produced in the last 50 years. It’s amazing. Of course, that drove instrument sales. It was directly in line with who was big – in the ‘80s when we had The Cars and The Eurythmics, synthesizers were king and guitar took a back seat. Then all of a sudden you had Nirvana and Soundgarden and Pearl Jam with no keyboards and guitar sales went through the roof. Music drives everything.
When I do my in-stores – and I do two or three a week with our dealers – it’s always about the music. I try not to talk too much. I just play. I say, “Listen to this music.” Then we sell instruments. Boom – it’s that simple.
MMR: When did you decide you wanted to get into music education?
So here I am in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was hanging out with Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai – all my guitar heroes. And from that period on, most of my audience and fans were guitar fans. I would think, “Where are all the string players?” They had no clue what I was doing.
So I did a program at a school about ten years ago and it was life-changing for me to be around my people – string players – teaching them how to improvise and play my electric violin. We developed a rock orchestra where half the strings are electrical, doing my music and electric rock classical music. These kids were off-the-charts excited. This was the origin of Electrify Your Strings.
MMR: And now you’re ten years into the program.
In the last ten years, we’ve reached over 10,000 students and teachers from the Juilliard level all the way down to kindergarten. Everybody. We’ve generated over a million dollars to string programs and music education around the country. What we do is we go into a school district like Houston, and I was just in Cincinnati the last two days, and we work with the teachers and our dealers.
MMR: How are the programs prepared?
The first thing we do is make sure the choir director and band director are on-target with music, which we send out about three months ahead of time. I arrive, we have two days to put on a concert, which is usually in a theater of around 3,000 capacity. Sometimes we’re actually doing arenas – this Friday I’m in an arena with 800 young musicians. All the profits go to the music program. That’s critical.
It’s very important to bring in dealers and local commerce to music education, so we have the local dealer raffle off one of my instruments. They come onstage with me and are a sponsor and highly visible. They have a booth out in the lobby or the auditorium with all our products that they sell. It’s a win-win for everybody. After the ticket sales going to the teachers and music programs, the raffles generate $2-$3,000 per school. So in other words, the school may walk away with $10 to $15,000 in their pockets for instrument purchases through that dealer, scholarships, support for private lessons – everything.
MMR: This is important news for dealers involved in school programs as well, right?
For some of these dealers, 80 percent of their revenue is via schools. If the school programs get cut or compromised, their revenue is cut. We have mom and pop stores and major chain stores come in and everybody walks home on cloud nine. Teachers know what retailers deal with our instruments and some dealers sponsor additional money to help bring my band and me out to do these workshops, and everybody’s working together. The community comes in and pays the ticket prices and the raffles – we’re all working together.
Dealers’ banners go up and we celebrate the commerce of the music industry. I’m not in any way shy about, “Oh, people are making money off of this.” No. If people are losing their jobs and their businesses because you’re not going to their store, that is equally obscene to me and should not be pushed aside just because it’s capitalism. I really believe in telling these kids – “Go buy this stuff! Go to a music store and buy a pedal! Get distortion, get echo, buy an electric violin – participate in the industry because if the industry is flourishing, it will develop cool stuff for you to play.” It’s that simple.
When the baby boomer parents are in the audience and they hear us do “Stairway to Heaven” and “Crazy Train” and Foo Fighters and my music – they’re on their feet dancing and screaming. Our kids are joyous – they’re not serious, zombie, uptight string players behind music stands. Enough with that! That’s killing us. We’re living in a culture that’s so visual that when people go to a concert, they don’t want to see a half-asleep string player sitting behind a music stand – they want to feel connected.
Every note has to go right to the listener’s heart. Not one dead note is allowed in my orchestra. So I rehearse them. “Let me hear a living note. Let me hear a dead note.” I show them the difference between a beautiful, loving, living, spirited note, and totally dead notes. Unfortunately, music ed tends to be overwhelmed with technique and scales and they don’t have time to talk about the most important part of music, which is the emotion and the spirit of it. In two days, these kids turn into superheroes.
MMR: At the same time, you’re not trying to start a culture war against classical music.
We never want to get into the argument of, “This music is better than that.” I play Bach every day and Mozart, exactly the way Mozart wants it, then I kick my distortion pedal on and my wah-wah pedal and I do “Purple Haze.” I say, “Mozart used the same F# as Ozzy Osbourne, man!” The challenge of classical music is that they’ve always stuck their noses up at anything but classical music. American music was dirty and a wild animal. But as I tell these string teachers – and I’m on the board of the American String Teachers Association and I am embraced by the Old School – American music is equally as important as Mozart because it’s our language. How wonderful it is for these kids to explore their language.
It was a real struggle when I was developing my career – I was like the AntiChrist to a lot of people. Now I’m more like Batman. I’m going in there an empowering these teachers and they’re so excited and relieved – not just that they have their job for the next couple of years, but that they have money.
MMR: A lot of these kids are statistically not going to go on to become regular performers of music – what’s in it in the long run for those students?
I can show the kids that you can do anything. I hardly graduated high school. I never went to college. I went to Juilliard and that’s it – no academics, completely self-made, and I want to let these kids know that with hard work and determination, they can be the next Steve Jobs. They can be the next President of the United States. Look what I have done! I say that creativity should never just be music or art or social studies or technology. It’s anything and everything. Not every kid is going to become a professional musician, but if a kid can say, “Oh my God, if Mark can do that, I think I’m going to design the next whatever.”
There’s a Steve Jobs quote that we use that ends, “The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” It sums up my life and my philosophy – they may look at me as crazy, but I really do think I can change the world.