Last night's show was held on the front porch of a camp in the middle of a vegetable farm and mostly seemed to attract people who were related to one another, or had known each other their entire lives, or had once picked vegetables on this farm. But after our band finished our second set, a man I'd never seen before came up to me. He told me that he was from New York and had once gone to see Joshua Bell play, and he said that's what my playing sounded like.
This is strange on a few levels--not least because this man was from somewhere other than Sangerville, Maine. The Joshua Bell of whom he speaks is a top-tier, internationally feted violinist with considerable technical prowess. I was performing with a four-piece local acoustic band and spent most of the show playing simple, long-bow notes in first position. And when I say simple, I mean A A A A A A A G# A A A A A. . . . You get the idea.
Thus, his comparison could have nothing to do with complexity. What I think he must have remembered from Bell's performance is what I call "the big tone." This sound is, to some degree, dependent on instrument quality, but Bell's violin is at least $100,000 better than mine. So I think the comparison must have been triggered by bow control.
Bow control is a primary differential in the subtleties of sound. Without a bow, a violin is pinched and dull, the least resonant of the plucked instruments. With a bow, a single, unamplified violin can fill a concert hall. Yet in a band of singers, the violin is a mostly a support instrument rather than the lead voice, so I have had to learn to focus on tonal color rather than melody. When I play A A A A A A G# A A A A A, every A has to count, has to speak, has to pull some emotional string, but it can't overwhelm the singer or gobble attention.
"Gobble attention" more or less describes the career path of a solo violinist. It's Joshua Bell's job to gobble attention. It's also his job to make every sound count, to feel the shifting, fluid, pressured movement of the bow on the strings. Somewhere in our tasks we overlap; and to someone listening, that link was apparent.
People are always asking me, "Do you play fiddle or violin?" Mostly I tell them that the name choice depends on the style of music I'm playing. But that's not really true. Even when I'm playing fiddle tunes, I'm playing the violin. Those are the skills I learned, and those are the skills I'm stuck with. The big tone is part of that toolbox, and I'm grateful to my bandmates for not trying to wean me away from that sound but working instead to use it productively in the group. That's not always been the case: I've been in situations in which other musicians complained that I didn't sound like a "real fiddler"--in other words, that I don't have that thin, rustling, slightly shrill, brushy bow sound that equals fiddler in their minds. It seemed uppity, somehow, to use the bow as anything more than a simple noise producer.
I like that old-timey style, and sometimes I wish it were mine. But it's not my sound, and it can never be mine. I have to do the best with the voice I have to work with.