Diane Monroe: Bridging Diverse Musical Worlds
Monroe grew up in Philadelphia and began her violin studies in the public school system there, which at that time was a hot house of music, with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, among others, serving as teachers and coaches. She went through Oberlin and Michigan State colleges, then studying at Curtis and also doing tenure at the Marlboro Music Festival and Institute. Meanwhile, she had also been playing pops gigs on the side, and soon began performing with jazz groups locally and internationally.
As a result of these diverse experiences, Monroe's playing defies categorization, as she takes on challenges regardless of genre. She plays the jazz circuit with outstanding players like Tom Lawton, Tony Miceli, Jim Ridl, John Blake, and many others. She is constantly called upon to mentor up-and-coming musicians. She'll do classical performances of Bach or Mozart, and then get involved in projects involving African music, folk, and pops. Don Byron once quipped, in response to someone's question about whether he was playing "real" jazz, "God doesn't care if it's jazz or not!" Monroe would agree. This gives her playing unparalleled richness and exuberance. When she plays, she draws from an abundance of inner and outer resources.
AAJ: Let's start with the infamous Desert Island question. Which recordings would you take?
DM: Joni Mitchell's Blue (Reprise, 1971), Herbie Hancock's Gershwin's World (Verve, 1998), Mozart Divertimento String Trio in E-Flat (Columbia, 1975), with Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zuckerman, and Leonard Rose, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), Ella Fitzgeraldas many of her records as I can fitand Oscar Peterson et Joe Pass à Salle Pleyel (Pablo, 1975).
Early Musical Development and Influences
AAJ: OK, let's go back in time. What is your background, and what was your earliest exposures to music?
DM: When I was two years old, my grandfather died. Yet I somehow retained the memory of his guitar playing. When I was twelve, I picked up guitar, and when my grandmother heard me play, she started crying and said, "You sound just like Papa." My father had given me that guitar, and by then, I was already playing violin and piano. I picked it all up by ear. It felt great. My uncle loved Thelonious Monk and taught me a little of "Blue Monk" on the piano, although my fingers couldn't reach the sixths, so I had to play them with both hands. And he taught me a little boogie woogie. I was improvising well before I started classical lessons on piano at age four.
AAJ: Where did you grow up?
DM: In West Philadelphia.
AAJ: The home of many jazz greats.
DM: I was born and raised in West Philly and started classical lessons on piano at age four. In third grade (age eight), I started violin lessons at Harrington Elementary School, in a class with about five other violinists. A year later, I played the fiddle in Harrington school's orchestra. All the Philly schools I attended were the best for musicwe had stellar music teachers. The music was crackerjack, A-1. A number of Philadelphia Orchestra members pinch-hit at each of the schools. I had great training. Our Harrington elementary school orchestra was conducted by Shirley Curtis, who was very well known as an incredible bassoonist and teacher. Her husband was Sid Curtis, a violist in the Philadelphia Orchestra who often helped the string section there.
Amazingly all this took place in elementary school. Most of the child members of our orchestra are now placed in major orchestras around the country. The other day, I watched the San Francisco Symphony on TV, and there was one of the cellists from that kid's orchestra. That's how great it was. Then I went to Sayre Junior High School. Again, the best teachers. And then there were the All-City student orchestras, pooled from all the schools. They were stellar. I was also chosen to perform in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra conducted by the incredible Joe Primavera. This was the absolute finest student orchestra in the city. The alumni of these orchestras would go off to New York, Boston, whatever. In West Philly High School our theory classes and ear training were so advanced, that when in college, we had already learned most of what was being taught. My fellow violinist and good friend John Blake will tell you the same thing. I believe he went to Overbrook High School.
AAJ: What made you take up the violin as your main instrument?
DM: We had all kind of instruments in my house: bongos, tambourines, what have you. I started on piano. Then, at age eight, I took a music aptitude test in school. I went to the principal's office to be assigned an instrument. All they had left was a clarinet and a violin. I couldn't play the clarinet because I was asthmatic and couldn't breathe properly for a wind instrument. Prior to that my mother had said, "You can play anything you'd like, but don't bring home a violin!" So I come home with the violin, and my mother says, "Oh my God!" But to this day she's been my biggest fan and has rarely missed one of my concerts. She was a pianist herself.
AAJ: Similarly, J.J. Johnson took up trombone because it was the only instrument the high school music department had left. Fate or chance? In both his case and yours, it was a great match. So, you were studying classical violin, apart from your other musical interests?
Bridging Classical, Pops and Jazz
DM: I played piano in my high school jazz band, but I was nervous about improvising. I could fill and do the chords really well, but I was already too tied up with the notes on the page to really allow myself to stretch out. We came in second at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (presently the Music Division of the University of the Arts) jazz band competition. Bassist Stanley Clarke was one of the judges, and also Arthur Webb, a beautiful jazz flutist.
AAJ: So you were doing two tracks in high school: classical violin and jazz piano.
DM: Right. Then I went to Oberlin College. Two years at Oberlin, undergrad, two years at PMA, where I got my bachelor's degree. Then, a year at Michigan State working on my master's degree. And then four years at Curtis Institute.
AAJ: So I take it this was all about classical music and the violin. What happened to all the jazz and pops during that time?
DM: Well, it was a side thing. I did it for fun and release, but I longed to do it more. Unfortunately, in order to play classical violin, I allowed myself to be convinced that I had to push my own musical voice aside to a large extent. I wanted to sound like the famous violinistsItzhak Pearlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, and so on. They were my role models, and that's what I set out to do. My favorite sounds were string quartets, and my ultimate model was Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet. And then I got into Curtis, and got accepted to the Marlboro Festival, and wow; it was getting exciting.
But I had a dilemma. I was unhappy. In every performance, I felt nervous and stiff, and I now know it was because I couldn't make the music that I knew I was really about. There was a split in me between one form of music and the other. But now I know that, and I've finally brought them together in my own mind. I've made the connection. I have the key (pun intended) to my own voice. The key is that whatever music comes from me is valid. And in my heart I don't need to label it anythingnot "classical," "jazz," "third stream," just music. I feel as if I'm on the threshold of new discoveries of how to put old experiences to work from long ago. The connection is very powerful. I can play the music simply because I know it deep inside me, I've internalized it. I can make a Schubert or Monk composition my own, just like internalizing a piece of music I've written myself.
When it comes to jazz, you really have to make it all up; you're not leavin' any notes behind. You're creating everything. And my greatest fear, early on, was to do just that, to improvise the whole piece. As I'll maybe explain later, due to being stifled, I had been satisfied with my riffs and fills, rhythms, etc. on the violin, but shied away from an entire solo. So I would hear Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass and Ella and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miles, and say to myself, "I can't really do thatit's really hard to do what they do." It was because I was already too steeped in reading the notes on the fiddle. But it's really that I was systematically taught not to improvise, but to be absolutely faithful to the notes on the page. I wanted it all written down, and didn't realize that I didn't need it all written down. But I don't want to create the impression that it's my teachers' fault. I take responsibility for my lack of understanding of who I was back then. As a violinist, I thought I was supposed to only cross the t's and dot the i's, so to speak.
AAJ: If all that is true, then how did you ever get yourself to improvise?
DM: Well, that's a good question. The other side of it is that I'm like a sponge, and I absorb everything. But I do have to watch my tendency to be over-analytical. So, the tunes I've been most comfortable with are of an avant-garde nature. They're free. First, I could only let go with these open-ended tunes. But later I realized that I was also incapable of learning the changes in an academic-type way. What works for me is my own way of studying and listening. My gift for improvising doesn't come from books or memorizing patterns, but I still have to study hard, hard, hard. Like in that Mozart Divertimento, I can hear the voices. I can hear the counterpoint. I could play it easily without music because I hear the counterpoint, and I love the music. It's a part of me. It gets integrated into my consciousness.
AAJ: The "sponge" idea is one reason musicians need to listen a lot and get in there and just play with groups. They absorb so much. Now, with all the varieties of music you have studied and engaged in, do you think of yourself today as a jazz violinist or a violinist who plays jazz and other music?
DM: I think of myself as a musician who happens to express music on and off the page, using the violin as a primary instrument. Actually, if we go back in time, I once played the coffeehouse circuit in Philadelphia as a singer/songwriter/guitarist. This was around 1972. I have preserved the many live recordings from back then with my funky-folk band. In the evolution of my playing violin, I've gone through many changes. The real root of my creative skills in improv began on other instruments, but I was stifled on the violin by my own response to what we call classical training. Yet when I did those coffee house gigs, I was free and open rhythmically and melodically, with a lot of improvisation. With that persona, I felt I could do anything. I could always play way off the page when I wanted to.
By contrast, I spent a total of nine years in college majoring in violin, studying with about six different teachers. And in the last four years of that, I was in one of the greatest music schools in the country, the Curtis Institute, here in Philadelphia. I studied with the finest teacher, Ivan Galamian, who taught Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, and all those famous violinists. I was rigorously trained in the tradition of reading and interpreting music in the classical way. I was steeped in chamber music and all of the classical literature for violin. So, my violin training and my guitar/ singing/songwriting, jazz piano, were initially at opposite poles.
AAJ: While you were at Curtis, you were playing at coffee houses? Was the faculty OK with that?
DM: Yes, all my friends did and the school did, too. I played at their Christmas Party one time. A propos of this, I also played once at the Canteen at the Marlboro Music Festival, just for a few listening friends. It's the Marlboro Festival's Sixtieth Anniversary this year, a huge deal for all who participated. Many of my mentors studied, taught, and played there: Felix Galimir, Julius Levine, and the cellist Mischa Schneider, the Guarneri String Quartet. I was there for three summers.
So that training and background in classical music, and the other funky stuff, were equally a part of my life, but I never was able to connect the dots. When I was younger, my violin playing was never as free as my guitar or piano playing or my singing. In a sense, the spontaneous playing that brought me to the music in the first place wasn't present in my classical training. When I look back, I think that if I had enough confidence as a young black woman, I think I would have abandoned the printed page of music, way before I actually did. The timing was such that my parents thought that it would be a hard life for me to become a folk-rock-jazz musician, which I could've easily done before graduating, and encouraged me to go the academic route. My dream has always been to play all kinds of music, definitely including classical and chamber music, but I want to be much freer in my expression.
AAJ: You're saying you've evolved quite a bit beyond your early days doing pops on the one hand and aspiring to be a classical violinist on the other. It sounds like a struggle, but you overcame the split.
DM: It was a big struggle.
AAJ: You had to bring two musical sides of yourself together. A lot of the players are never able to confront that split. They can do one or the otherclassical or jazz, strict adherence to the notes on the page versus spontaneous improvisationbut they can't do both equally well.
Also, the violin and its repertoire are technically more difficult to master than most of the jazz instruments like the saxophone or trumpet. Do you know whether Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and those other pioneering jazz violinists went through the classical training as you did? To be a fine jazz violinist, how necessary is it to go through the classical training and repertoire?
DM: That's a great question. Let's see. Jean-Luc Ponty was classically trained and spent some time performing in a major symphony orchestra after graduating from the Paris Conservatory. Stuff Smith took a few "classical" lessons at the encouragement of his father. Eddie South was a child prodigy, classically trained and wished to make a career performing music in the Western European tradition, but could not enter the mainstream because of racism. Ray Nance studied classical violin repertoire [Nance was the trumpet player in Duke Ellington's band, famous for his solo on "Take the 'A' Train"]. Joe Venuti was trained "classically." Stéphane Grapelli was classically trained.
All had exposure to the Western European tradition, because that's what was being taught at the time. Yet these artists were able to spontaneously create the music as they went along in our "jazz" tradition. I always put "classical" and "jazz" and other types of music in quotes because I think it limits not only our perspective, but our understanding of what music actually is. I do think these violinists all clearly embraced, but also transcended the jazz tradition. I think all true artists transcend the limitations of mere labels for an art form. The great jazz violinists absorbed everything and it wasn't jazz versus classical.
I believe that music is music. If you are a great improviser, you absorb everything. Everything is contained in, and makes up our musical palette. Ella Fitzgerald didn't go to a so-called formal music conservatory, but while working within the jazz idiom, I feel that she absorbed and expressed the music of our collective cultural world history. I believe that this is what makes a musician appeal to all people of all walks of life. The countless great artists such as Miles Davis, Max Roach, Paul Robeson, Pablo Casals, Leontyne Price, Bill Evans, Vladimir Horowitz, Oscar Peterson, and so on. And, of course, Art Tatum; Horowitz praised Art Tatum.
You know the famous story. According to Oscar Peterson, in a conversation with André Previn, Horowitz went over to Tatum's house to play Tatum's version of "Tea for Two," which Horowitz had painstakingly transcribed, note-for-note. Then, Tatum sat down and played totally new variations of "Tea for Two" for the next 45 minutes, until Horowitz stopped him, and said, "When did you learn those?" And Tatum said, "Just now." [Laughter] It's not about classical versus jazz. If you got it, you got it. If it's right, the audience knows it immediately.
So if you're really talented, whether you lean towards jazz, classical, or whatever, you're going to find the right "key" for you, which expresses many cultural sounds, whether you're directly aware of it or not.. And what's most important is creating the music in the now. If I can pick up a Brahms Sonata and play it and sound spontaneous and alive, and bring it to life because I have internalized it, that is just as vital to me as mastering improvisational lines on a Coltrane or Charlie Parker melody.
AAJ: Either way, you've got to internalize the music, make it your own. But only a limited number of otherwise excellent musicians can get that kind of flow, which allows them to play in various idioms like classical and jazz and rock. So there's a separatism and prejudice that occurs.
Moving into Jazz
AAJ: For the moment, let's focus on your jazz playing more specifically. Which jazz musicians have had the greatest influence on your jazz playing?
DM: Well, among vocalistsand I've been strongly influenced by vocalistsSarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. I was exposed to a lot of popular older music early on. Billy Eckstine. Nat "King" Cole. Frank Sinatra. My mother's favorite was Tony Bennett. Singing influenced me a lot, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, James Brown. Blues singers/players like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. My Mom actually knew Brownie McGee. All that music came out of spiritual music, which in turn really came out of Africa. The call-and-response music. I was in an all-girl conga band when I was 14 years old. So all these different sounds and ways of expressing music inform how I feel and play the music on the violin.
And, of course, when you're talking jazz, you're talking Miles Davis, Max Roach. I've worked with Max, but prior to that, I was lucky to know his music so well by listening in my basement as a child, that I could tell who was Max, versus who was Art Blakey, and so on. It was an exciting thing to be able to play with those phrases I worshipped in my own house. But Miles was my hero. His sound went right through me. My guitar heroes were Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian. Among pianists, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock are my favorites.
AAJ: It's interesting, because you're not following the "script." One would expect you to say, "I spent five years listening to all of Stéphane Grapelli's recordings..."
DM: I was never exposed to solo violin music when I was very young, only large symphonic sounds. In my teens, I began listening to solo violin and chamber music literature. But jazz violin was added later. And probably the first jazz violinist I listened to was Stéphane Grapelli. I loved it immediately because it was so different, meaning that he was improvising, spontaneously composing, and not playing Western European repertoire. He integrated and internalized his music, and I was drawn to that. Then I heard Stuff Smith, and realized something even more different---that he was reinventing the sound and expression on the instrument. Joe Venuti grew up in Philly, and he was the oldest of this group of greats. He was amazing. Eddie South was another virtuoso, and contributed much life energy, and developed his own style of music-making which interweaved what he knew best including Western European and many forms of 'gypsy' music, which he used as a jumping off point in his mastery of improvisation.
Ray Nance was an angel, and could soothe anyone's soul. I recognize the important legacy within the so-called jazz violin world, but I also feel that the legacy of music goes beyond the sounds of only one instrument, or one type of art form. All the jazz violinists I mentioned seem to have played more than just the violin. For instance, Jean-Luc played saxophone, Ray Nance played trumpet, sang, and danced, Stuff sang, etc. They, as were and are all great jazz musicians, influenced by all kinds of music, which we tend to forever put in categories.
AAJ: You don't match the stereotype. But some of the great ones came along a similar path to yours. Miles had significant classical trumpet training and attended Juilliard for a year. Charlie Parker listened to classical music often and borrowed from Stravinsky and other composers.
DM: I feel grateful to walk a path similar to theirs. Now, in developing an unaccompanied solo violin voice, I'm going back to my approach to the guitar, the way my Grandfather played. I also have a cousin on my Grandmother's side, Howard Carroll, who played guitar in a similar manner, and in the '50s and '60s he played for the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds (who were, by the way featured in the new movie, Rejoice and Shout!). He used to come over to our house and play the old popular songs, jazz ballads, hymns and spirituals for us when I was a kid. Such an amazing musician. It's like the way Joe Pass could play a melody and virtually accompany himself, and it's all there.
AAJ: So, in effect, you're comping for yourself.
DM: Exactly. And that is really different than playing with an ensemble. Currently, I have a jazz quartet with Tony Miceli on vibraphone, Tony Marino on bass, and Todd Isler, a percussionist from New York, both a hand drummer and trap drummer. We're about to do a gig at the Philadelphia Art Museum and one in Reading, PA, at bassist Gerald Veasley's club there.
Jazz Groups and Cohorts
AAJ: That's a great group of musicians.
DM: Yes, that's for sure. What connects me most directly to jazz, as far as audiences are concerned, was my time with Max Roach and then my four plus year membership with the String Trio of New York. I've been fortunate to play with musicians as fine as Max Roach, Odean Pope, Cecil Bridgewater, Tyrone Brown, whom were all members of the Max Roach Double Quartet. I was friends with Max's daughter Maxine, as we were students at Oberlin, and she asked me to join the string quartet of Max Roach's Double Quartet. We toured the US and other parts of the world as the Uptown String Quartet, the string quartet portion of Max Roach's Double Quartet, for a total of about 15 years. The strings played a role similar to what a horn section's role would be in a big band. Max's original Double Quartet began in 1980, then in 1981 I joined for one year as second violin, then after returning from teaching at Oberlin, I became first violinist in 1986, for the run.
AAJ: Now, Max Roach is a prime example of the remarkable musicians with whom you've surrounded yourself. There's violinist John Blake, of course, your close friend with whom you've performed many times. Tony Miceli, one of the most incredible vibraphonists, teaches at Curtis, is a mentor to many, and can go anywhere on vibes. The YouTube video of you and him doing Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras" (movement #5, originally written for soprano and eight cellos) is a sheer wonder. And then I was surprised to find out that you recorded with the singer, Melody Gardot, who herself is a musical phenomenon.
DM: That was on her debut CD Worrisome Heart (Verve, 2008), which put Melody on the charts. Glenn Barrett of Morningstar Studios calls on a few of us from time to timepianist Tom Lawton, guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, trumpeter Stan Slotter, saxophonist Ron Kerber, and others to improvise around various aspiring singer/songwriters. The jazz-folk thing that Melody doeswe were also doing that style in the 1960s and' 70s with my folk band. This band included great jazz soloist friends here in Philly, bassist Steve Beskrone and recorder player Joel Levine. On one occasion, pianist Uri Caine sat in. Those three amazing musicians played together frequently in the jazz clubs around town, and I felt fortunate when they worked with me.
AAJ: So it came naturally to do that recording, because you anticipated aspects of Gardot's and related approaches by a couple of decades. Getting back to your cohort, violinist John Blake, when and how have the two of you worked together?
DM: We did the African violin project that John conceived. It was fabulous. It just took us from the West African music to the present, with the riti violin from Gambia, and the gogi or goge from Senegal. John brought this historical tradition forward, and it was really beautiful. It's a proud, wonderful musical collaboration, with Sumi Tonooka and John's sister, Charlotte Blake Alston, and Doc Gibbs. It's a program we continue to offer for live performance under John's auspices. One of the most memorable was the one we did at Montgomery County Community College.
AAJ: I've heard recordings of traditional African drumming, and the rhythm, going back centuries, anticipated the jazz syncopation by eons.
DM: In fact, the banjo and guitar are right out of Africa. The African kora is the equivalent or progenitor of the guitar. It sort of sounds like a flamenco guitar when played in the old tradition. All the string instruments have versions from almost every country or culture in the world. It's mind-blowing.
AAJ: The instruments disseminate over the planet just like the music does.
DM: The violin evolved in many countries, not just in Western Europe. There are equivalent origins in India, Asia, Africa, and more.
AAJ: The so-called Eurocentric view of music causes us to forget these rich connections. Let's talk about another of your associates, vibraphonist Tony Miceli. He told me he's doing some new projects with you, and there are some wonderful video samples of your duets on YouTube. What's up?
DM: There are a few musicians I work with now, including pianists Tom Lawton and Jim Ridl, and bassist Steve Beskrone. We latched on to each other, and I've learned so much from each of them. And Tony Miceli admires both of them, too. The keyboard literally allows the pianists to orchestrate. Now at first, I was thinking of the vibraphone as a keyboard instrument as well, but it's not a full keyboard! It's more like the violinyou have to work within much more severe limits than the piano. You only have four mallets as opposed to ten fingers, and you have only three octaves. So the coordination and playing have to be different from the piano, and so Tony and I are literally teaching each other how to play our respective instruments better.
We're learning to compensate for the limitations I mentioned and do as a duo some of the things that a full keyboard can do. So I'm learning to do more chordal things, double stops and triple stops, and harmonies. And we're learning how to comp for each other. Or, let me say that I'm learning and he's only enhancing what he already knows. And playing duets challenges us also to be our own rhythm section, doing what the bass and drums would do in a group.
Tony hears a lot harmonically, and I hear a lot linearly, and it really works out great to put the two together. So what's evolving is a combination of a strong harmonic side with a strong contrapuntal development. I feel we're coming from a very meaningful place, and a blending of styles. And it's expanding my understanding of jazz improvisation. I'm learning to be freer in my playing. My repertoire is expanding. So the duo format actually helps me bring more to our quartet. We're doing a concert at the Mohonk resort in the Catskills. We'll be doing a gig in Reading, PA, one at Chris' Jazz Café in Philly, and another at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tony and I have quite an active collaboration right now.
AAJ: You do a lot of so-called crossover work with classical players. Of course, all jazz includes classical elements. But you've worked with string quartets doing jazz-related performances. Tell us about the work you've done, bridging the gap between classical and jazz approaches.
DM: After the Uptown Quartet broke up in 1997, I got involved with the String Trio of New York. The latter allowed me to bring out my own voice more than the Quartet. I spend the next couple of years with the String Trio, which I left in 2000 to be on my own. I wanted, noI needed to develop my individuality. But I still work with various groups, like Relache [An innovative Philadelphia based group], for instance; I wrote a six-minute score for an animated film, premiered live with the group in 2003.
I've also worked as a soloist with the Network for New Music, and with Orchestra 2001 here in Philadelphia. I have a duo with a classical pianist Michal Schmidt and we're doing contemporary works by Robert Capanna, who was the director of the Settlement School and a composer, as well as by Philip Maneval, who is affiliated with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. We'll be premiering their pieces at Curtis Hall next year. Also, I'll be premiering a Roberto Pace piece for piano quartet, and an improvised piece of my own, which we'll be doing at the Settlement School. My main emphasis these days, however, is on my solo jazz work, including the duo and quartet with Tony Miceli.
A Unique Approach to Teaching and Mentorship
AAJ: You're a sought after teacher and mentor. So when you instruct a fine musician, what do you try to infuse in him or her?
DM: I try to get to know their own playing totally. I want to instill in them that they need to breathe. You have to use your breath even with a non-wind instrument. Our emotions, our bodies, and spirit are all connected. I'll be doing a series of master classes in my home which is aimed at that idea. The focus is on having movement in music, sort of my own version of "Eurythmics," a way of teaching developed by Emile Jaques Dalcroze, combining music with movement. Some years ago I studied with an extraordinary musician, Inda Howland, who danced, painted the music, grunted and groaned to illustrate how music movesebbs and flows. Karen Tuttle, the incredible coach and viola teacher I studied violin with, passed on an extraordinary legacy, as to always allow yourself to breathe through the phrases you make, approach music from a reflexive place, and not from a static one. And I want to help bridge the gap between different types of music.
I have a student who is a fabulous violinist from the Eastman School of Music. Having graduated, he's now in a great string quartet in New York. And he also improvises very well, and is in various bands. So when he came to study with me, he played some Bach. It was really stiff and just wasn't free. So I asked him to show me his improvising, and then I saw him move. With the Bach, there was none of that movement. So he started to understand how he could get into his own mind with the Bach as when he would improvise. And then he realized that Bach himself improvised. So it became a different piece for him.
AAJ: That's wonderful! You facilitated a metamorphosis of his playing.
DM: Similarly, I got the technique from my violin teachers, but I got the feel of the music from the singers and other musicians who could improvise and go with the flow.
AAJ: And you learn to use your whole body rather than just the bowing and fingering.
DM: And not just playing the printed page. Lots of violinists only want to play fast, loud, and accurately. We are often encouraged to focus only or mostly on technique rather than expression. But that's not what it's all about. It's about, "What are you trying to say and communicate to the listener?"
Life and Spirituality
AAJ: What do you do when you're not doing music?
DM: Good question. I love to walkI take a lot of walks. I also meditate and do some Yoga.
AAJ: Finally, and related to that, how do you understand your spirituality and the meaning of life?
DM: I believe that life is music. And that music is spirit. Music is vibration. Scientists have found that everything in our bodies and in the universe is in a constant state of vibrating. I think that's a foundation for understanding what music is really about. We are music. Music is life. I seek to make music from the inside out. At least that's the ideal. I also eat potato chips and go to the movies [laughter].
AAJ: That's like that Zen quotation: "Before enlightennment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."
DM: That's food for life to me. When you hear a great work of music, you're changed. It's transformative.
Melody Gardot, Worrisome Heart (Verve, 2008)
Monaco Orchestra, Dances and Fables (Domilo, 2007)
Oregon String Quartet, And All That Jazz (Koch, 2006)
Adam Unsworth Ensemble, Excerpt This! (Unsworth, 2006)
String Trio of New York, Faze PhourA Twenty Year Retrospective (Black Saint, 1999)
Chestnut Brass Company of Philadelphia, The Music of Francis Johnson (Musical Heritage, 1999)
Uptown String Quartet, Max Roach Presents The Uptown String Quartet (Philips, 1989)
Max Roach Double Quartet, Bright Moments (Soul Note, 1987)
Pages 1, 3: Peter Checchia
Pages 2, 4: Robin Holland
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Diane Monroe