Face to Face with Joel from Kennedy Violins

Today, we are continuing our “Face to Face” series by featuring the man, the myth, the legend: Joel Kennedy.

Joel is the Founder and President of Kennedy Violins.  He has played viola and violin for over thirty years. He attended the Eastman School of Music in New York, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in viola performance and completed graduate studies in education there as well. Joel has played professionally in orchestras all around the United States and has students attending top conservatories in the U.S. and abroad. He is currently a violist in the Portland Opera here in Portland, Oregon.

Recently, Joel took some time to answer a few questions about his life and his time with Kennedy Violins.

1. How long have you worked at Kennedy Violins?

I officially began Kennedy Violins December of 2000.  However, as a stringed teacher, I had been providing instruments to my students and friends for years before that.

2. What is your favorite thing about working at Kennedy Violins and why?

My favorite aspect of working at Kennedy Violins is having the opportunity to effect change.  As the person who is in charge of “steering the ship”, I am able to use the influence of Kennedy Violins in a positive way that not only affects the local market but the national one as well.  For a long time, I have seen how the stereotypical elitist nature of classical music has left many people in our culture out in the cold when it comes to having access to bowed stringed instruments.  Working at Kennedy Violins has served as a vehicle for changing this pervasive dynamic in our society.

Joel and one of his students.
Joel and one of his students.

3. What is your favorite instrument/product that Kennedy Violins carries and why?

This is a tough question because every brand we carry represents what we feel is the best instrument in that price range.  I’d have to say that the Ricard Bunnel is my favorite because its low cost gets the most kids involved in classical music.  It’s the best starting point, for a kid, if you’re new to a stringed instrument.

4. What is your favorite band/musician/composer?

My favorite composer is Shostakovich.  There are many composers music that I have enjoyed for many years but the depth and genius of Shostakovich gets to me every time.

5. If you didn’t play the viola, which instrument would you play?

If I could do it all over again, I’d choose the piano or the cello.  I think the cello has the most compelling singing voice of all the bowed stringed instruments and the piano is the complete vehicle in which to experience the full complexity of what a composer was able to create.

6. Which musician (alive or dead) do you wish you could play with?

I’d love to play with Beethoven.  I’d sit down at the piano with him and say “do we really NEED to put a repeat there?..”

7. What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming year?

As usual, it’s very exciting at Kennedy Violins currently because it is a time of great change.  With the revamping of our web site, the introduction of new workshop instruments, like David Yale (you can see these new violins by clicking here), and the new retail store in Vancouver, WA.  I can’t to see how it’ll all turns out in the coming year!

8. What is something interesting that we don’t already know about you?

Most people don’t know that I like to auto race.  I have two racing licenses.  One with the SCCA and the other is with the ICSCC.

Kennedy Violin's Racecar
Joel’s race car. Sponsored by Kennedy Violins, of course! 🙂

9. What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working at Kennedy Violins?

I like to spend time with my wife and two girls and auto race.

How Young is Too Young?

As a violin teacher, with a pretty good size studio, I think the question I get the most is, “At what age should I start my child?”  There are several responses that I could have with this question, but I will go with the two that I feel most strongly about.

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First, what is best for your child?  In this day and age it is not uncommon for a child to have an extra activity every day.  From soccer to acting class kids’ schedules can be crazy.  If you want them to play an instrument, not have to practice with them, and just have fun, then starting in 5th or 6th grade is probably the best option.  At that age, kids can be pretty self-driven and if they like the instrument will practice.  You may need to be flexible, however,  because your child will probably want to switch as they get exposed to different instruments.  For a child to try violin one year and cello the next is great, but as a parent can be frustrating.

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Second, what is best for you as the parent?  If you want to start your child on violin at the age of three, that’s awesome, but realize you will have to be very dedicated.  Practicing with the child every day, enduring tantrums when practice gets difficult, and having a slow and steady approach to learning the instrument.  I love it when a young child gets a grasp on music early.  The students I have that started at the age of three or four have a way better understanding of music then a child that starts in 5th or 6th grade.  They have been around music longer, appreciate it, and see music almost as a second language.  It is a beautiful thing, however, it is not an easy thing to accomplish as a parent.  If you are not the type of parent that wants to dedicate yourself to learning the violin and practicing with your child every day then hold off on starting them young.  It will cause you more grief than joy.  So, unless you are a bit of a “tiger mom” it may not be best for you.

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I started the violin at the age of three.  There has never been a day, in my adulthood, that I have regretted starting the violin at such a young age.  It is why I love teaching younger students so much.  By the way, all of the children’s pictures in this post are students of mine.

Starting children young can be very rewarding.  My mom was an amazing, dedicated woman and she said there was nothing more rewarding then seeing her children come alive while playing music.  My mother also came up with the best quitting rule when it came to music.  If we ever came to our mom and said that we wanted to quit she always said that was just fine and we would mark the calendar for 6 months from the time that we asked to quit.  If 6 months later we still wanted to quit the instrument, we were allowed to do so.  You would be amazed at how often quitting an instrument is associated with an upcoming performance, current frustration with a technique, or just pure laziness. Often, after 6 months, we would not even remember wanting to quit.  I still use this rule with my own students.  It works brilliantly.  In ten years of teaching I have only had one student quit.

In closing, a child is never to young to begin to experience music. Singing to and with your child, playing music for your child, and being intentional about learning different instruments and their sounds can go a long way towards teaching your child to appreciate music. Music is not so much a talent but a gift and like all art, should be deeply appreciated.

I would start by watching the “Goat Rodeo” sessions on YouTube with your child. Totally entertaining and lively. They will love them.  You can click here to see what I’m talking about. 🙂

Face to Face with Elizabeth from Kennedy Violins

We are all musicians and teachers here at Kennedy Violins, so when you call or come to the store, we are happy to talk with you about which instrument to buy or explain repairs to you and, we will gladly give you music lessons and host concerts, but we don’t often get to talk about much else.  Which is why we decided to start the Face to Face series on our blog.  This will give you a chance to better know each unique individual at Kennedy Violins.

Today, we will kick off the series with our most recent additions, Elizabeth Knopp!

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Elizabeth is a certified Suzuki teacher for violin books 1-10, viola 1-3. She plays first violin in the High Strung String Quartet, was Concertmaster for two years with the Oregon Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and has played with the Vancouver Symphony, and Willamette Falls Symphony.

Recently, Elizabeth took some time to tell us more about herself and her time here at Kennedy Violins.

1. How long have you worked at Kennedy Violins?

About two months! I first visited Kennedy Violins in March of 2013. I fell in love with the shop the minute I walked in.

2. What is your favorite thing about working at Kennedy Violins and why?

Trying all the different violins! I can’t believe it’s part of my job to play hundreds of violins and sell the best ones to our costumers.

3. What is your favorite instrument/product that Kennedy Violins carries and why?

The David Yale violins are excellent. The sound and ease of playing is superb! I also really like the Henner Violas. Such deep clear tones it brings a huge smile to my face.

4. What is your favorite band/musician/composer?

Mumford & Sons. Good music and stellar lyrics.

5. If you didn’t play the violin, which instrument would you play?

A lap harp! I took lessons for about six months on the harp and have never felt so close to heaven. I plan to play the harp once I retire and have more time to practice.

6. Which musician (alive or dead) do you wish you could play with?

Chris Thile…. He’s just so talented and handsome. Check out the “Goat Rodeo Sessions” on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

7. What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming year?

GETTING MARRIED!!! Friday, August 2nd is the big day!

8. What is something interesting that we don’t already know about you?

I’ve traveled to 14 countries: England, Netherlands, France, Romania, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.

9. What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working at Kennedy Violins?

Drinking coffee with my True Love, Jason.

We will feature one of our team members each week in our Face to Face series.  Check back next week to meet another team member of Kennedy Violins.

Making Music at M.I.T.C.H. Charter School

Every once in awhile, there is a collective sigh at Kennedy Violins when we hear of yet another school orchestra program being cut.  A few months ago, however, we were thrilled to get a call from Cami Galloway of the band, Virginia Real.  She was in need of violins to use for a workshop at a school that wanted to START a string program for their students.  We were thrilled to know that there were still schools out there that recognize the value of music. So, when Cami asked if we could provide the violins for the workshop, we didn’t have to think twice-of course we would!

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The members of Virginia Real

Over the next several weeks, we worked with Dee Grothe, the coordinating teacher for the workshop at M.I.T.C.H. Charter School.  There would be 78 students participating in the 3-Day workshop!  Wow!  She described how the hope was that the workshop with Cami would ignite an interest in the students and that an official strings class would begin in the fall.

Our team of luthiers worked for weeks to professionally set-up all the instruments that would be needed.  Then, a few days before the workshop started, our customer service team went to M.I.T.C.H. Charter School and sized each student so that they could have the proper violin and they got to take home their violins that day!  So, by the time the Cami and the Virginia Real band showed up, they students were eager and ready to go!

By all accounts, the workshop was a huge success!  By the end of the three day workshop, the students performed “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” and “Shortenin’ Bread.”  Many students expressed an interest wanting to continue and are going to get private lessons this summer!  According to Cami Galloway, “M.I.T.C.H. is truly showing innovation and the teachers, Dee Grothe, Dianne Wright and Kelly Shelton have corroborated together to help bring the band across the country to provide this opportunity for their students.”  We think that when school starts again in the Fall, M.I.T.C.H. Charter School will have no problem getting a string program up and running.

Students participating in the string workshop
Students participating in the string workshop

Cami Galloway and Virginia Real have done workshops like this across the country.  If you are interested in having them lead a workshop at your school or organization, you can contact them at varealband@gmail.com.

Making It Your Own: The Interpretation of Music

As a musical artist, you have the right to perform music however you please! (Photo by Ivan McClellan)
As a musical artist, you have the right to perform music however you please! (Photo by Ivan McClellan)

Here in our new Kennedy Violins location, we’ve opened a new studio for private lessons with local teachers in the area. Students are coming in with sheets of music and saying, in one way or another, “Show me how to play this.”

As the student learns the piece, it begins to take form, becoming something completely unique. But how do you take a sheet of music and bring it to life with your own interpretation?

A “RIGHT” WAY?
If you’ve ever studied the Bach Cello Suites in depth, you probably noticed that there are quite a few opinions and options as far as how to play them stylistically. I’ve sat in masterclasses observing arguments over bowing patterns and embellishments and whether or not playing a single eighth note as a harmonic is kosher.

So who’s right when it comes to all this?

  • bowings
  • fingerings
  • tempo
  • articulation
  • embellishments
  • phrasing

Answer: Everyone.

BUT! At the same time, why would we have opinions in the first place?

CREATIVE LICENSE
As a musician and performer, you are an artist. You are someone who takes a medium (your instrument) and creates something with it. The act of creation is a power and a right you have claim to as an individual artist. You have a style of your own that no one can replicate. With that said, what about influences like . . .

HISTORICAL CONTEXT
When I’m teaching students, I often tell them to look at the dates at the top of the page next to the composer’s name. Then we discuss that musical era and the characteristics of music played at that time.

Maybe you’ve had a talking to about the difference between a Baroque trill and a Classical trill (Baroque starts on the note above the note and trills down while classical starts on the note on the staff and trills up). Maybe you’ve studied music history and various composers and their stylistic characteristics. Are these stylistic prescriptions valid?

Answer: Yes.

As a performer of today playing music written hundreds of years ago, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Your performance becomes a combination of two historical moments: then and now. The composer who wrote the piece couldn’t escape the influence of his or her surroundings hundreds of years ago or a few days ago.

However, you can’t read the composers mind because he’s probably dead or lives far away or something. And you also can’t escape the current influence of the your modern relationship with music, the current techniques you’ve learned, or even the modern materials, design, and sound of your instrument. It is almost impossible to remove yourself from the influences of your historical circumstances or your teacher’s instruction.

As you approach a piece, maybe you’ve reflected on what the composer intended the piece to sound like with specific tempo markings, phrasing, and melodic elements. However, while a piece of Bach is distinctly Baroque (i.e. laden with characteristics of the Baroque era), you are certainly entitled to your own interpretation!

MAKING IT YOUR OWN
Your interpretation of a piece of music might be to

  • play the piece as “historically correct” as possible with absolute dedication to the composer’s markings and style of that time period. For example, with that Bach, you might play with little to no vibrato, those Baroque trills, dynamics as marked and little variation in the tempo.

OR

  • play the piece with a complete modern, post-modern, post-post modern, or twisted interpretation with completely unique tempos, instrumentation, phrasing, etc. You could play a piece of Bach on a synthesizer with each note lasting forty-seven seconds each whilst tap-dancing with a Carmen-Miranda-style fruit hat on your head. Your audience might walk away, bored to tears or totally offended, but you can revel in your own genius.

OR

  • do something in between.

And is any way better than the other way? Not really, no. In the end, you are the artist and the performer who can and will take a piece of music and make it completely your own simply by taking it into your own hands. So enjoy the creative process. That’s what it’s all about!