YES!! Interview with the incredible Valerie Vigoda!
April 14, 2015
I have been pretty pushy recently trying to up my interviewing game, and I have a few people who I have just been so incredibly impressed with, based partially on their obvious natural talent, and partially on the fact that they are just doing such cool things with the violin.
I've been sending out emails religiously to those people, and I was lucky to get in touch with Valerie Vigoda (who saw my email 3 months after I sent it...) and she agreed to answer my questions for all of you! I discovered Valerie when I was first getting into looping (more videos up soon, I hope), and this was the one that I realized how cool looping could actually look, ( and I'm saving up for that violin right now), because the minute someone shows up with a violin that looks like THAT (it's called a viper violin by the way), and then adds all the musical-singing-composing-songwriting stuff, it's seriously just awesomely mindblowing. just really REALLY awesome.
So, without any further ado, here's Valerie!
How did you get started playing the violin?
When I was 8 years old, I actually wanted to play the trumpet in school, but my front baby teeth had just come out and the teachers told me I couldn't play trumpet for a year, until my teeth came in. But I could play the violin RIGHT NOW! So I said yes, and I am extremely happy that I did. It would be awfully hard to sing and play the trumpet at the same time. :)
What do you think is the secret to what got you to continue playing the violin as a teenager in order to reach a professional level of playing? How do you help your students/advise students to get through the difficult intermediate period and what are some ideas you have for students, parents, and teachers to help students continue with their instruments?
A big part of my social life in high school was my string quartet. It was a very close-knit group of friends, and I think that really kept me going through those admittedly difficult years. So I advise people to play chamber music in addition to their regular individual lessons and orchestral playing...and these days I would also advise violinists to branch out stylistically, try playing in bands or stretching out musically in any way possible. I had numerous friends who grew up playing classical music and then dropped their instruments the minute they got to college and didn't HAVE to play anymore.
Can you tell us about your violin? Every day I see a different violin everywhere I look, but yours is especially awesome, it seems so versatile! When did you switch to the viper? And how do you think having the extra strings has changed the way you approach the violin?
I fell in love with the six-string Viper when I first saw a picture of Mark Wood playing in, I think, 1996. I had been struggling to sing and play simultaneously for quite a while, and I realized right away that the Viper would change my world.
Who are your greatest violin influences?
Itzhak Perlman, Mark Wood, Mark O'Connor, Christian Howes, Joe Deninzon, Todd Reynolds, RVSQ (Real Vocal String Quartet)
Can you walk us through a typical day in your life?
Well, it certainly varies, but here's an example of a working day:
Up at 5:30, get a cup of coffee and meditate for 20 min
6 AM wake up the kid (my 9-year-old son Mose)
6-8:30 breakfast and walk the kid to school
OR - if it's not my morning with him - go to a morning Bikram yoga class.
8:30 - 10:30 play and sing
10:30 - 12:30 writing (I work on a lot of musical theatre and other songwriting projects)
1 - 2:30 more work, either writing or practicing
2:45 go to pick up the kid
3 - 9 assorted errands, kid activities, dinner, emails, social media, etc.
And at some point, I try to do NOTHING for half an hour. This is often the hardest thing for me to accomplish!
It sure sounds like it!! How do you structure your practice time to get the most out of it?
This is definitely not set in stone - and I'm not great at diligent practicing when I don't have a deadline or performance coming up, but lately I've become more consistent.
Warmup 15 min: I warm up my voice and violin at the same time for about 10-15 min, doing various scales and arpeggios in harmony, and doing some bowing/chopping exercises.
Improvisation/Listening 30-45 min: I'm trying to become a better/more fluid improviser, and I do best when I have some structure to follow - so I'm making my way through Joe Deninzon's book "Plugging In" and "Discovering Rock Violin" by Chris Haigh. I've also spent some time on Christian Howes' online course. I feel like I am best when I'm not doing this entirely on my own - so I'm currently talking with the phenomenal, wonderfully relaxed shred guitar player Paul Gilbert about doing some coaching with me.
Over the past 10 years, with many deadlines, a child, and way too much to accomplish in too short a time, I found that I mostly stopped listening to music and finding inspiration from other musicians - I just focused my time on learning whatever I had to do for the next show or gig. And that is not the way to grow. So I'm glad you asked about this - because it's only very recently that I'm finally getting back to LISTENING more, and incorporating that into my practice time.
I practice with Spotify and YouTube open on the computer, so I can listen and play along with all kinds of people. How lucky we are to live in this digital age when we have such a wealth of music at our fingertips!
Repertoire 1 hour +: (right now working on the musical ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME, and my JUST GETTING GOOD live-looping songs) I go through the music I'm working on, and do a lot of slow practice with a metronome. I love gradually increasing the tempo and getting something to move from the cognitive/thinking area of my brain to the muscle memory place. It happens almost imperceptibly, and I feel like the metronome really helps.
I'm sure that people are constantly asking you how to get to where you are professionally. What advise do you give them and are there any online resources (such as violinlikethat.com for pop songs) that you suggest? What are a few of your go-to resources?
I would say that my best advice is, create your own vehicle - if you can write something for yourself to perform (pop songs, a musical, your own unique version of something already well-known), and then put yourself out there doing it, then you'll start to develop a reputation. I started writing songs, put a band together and then began gigging around New York City - and that led directly to my being asked to audition for Cyndi Lauper's band, which raised my profile and led to a bunch of other opportunities. In the world of theatre, our band GrooveLily wanted to travel less, and do more performances in one place for weeks at a time instead of one-nighters - so we collaborated with a playwright to create our own musical (STRIKING 12). That show has been a springboard for us as writers, and has led to a bunch of other opportunities in that realm (such as the musical I’m involved in both writing and performing right now, ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME, which features a character who is an electric-violin-wielding composer). In my opinion, the creator holds the power - so if you can create your own “thing,” whatever that is, then you won’t be subject to the whims of others to allow you to do your art.
You seem like a complete superstar, and I'm in awe of your myriad talents. I know this is probably a cliche, but how do you structure your time to balance your life with your family (I stalked you enough to pick up that you have a son)? I'm a mom of two and the idea of touring just seems so unbelievably daunting, as well as having the brainpower to also explore creatively all the time. Tell me the secret to encouraging yourself to grow creatively while balancing all the pressures of adult life
You are too kind! Thank you so much. I'm actually not doing a lot of touring right now - I agree that it is quite daunting and that the needs of a kid (stability, routine) do not go well with the chaos of road life. What I do is the occasional run of a musical (where, for example, I'll go for a month and my son can come visit and even be home-schooled during the day for a few weeks - we pre-arrange this with the teachers), and mostly one-offs or very short trips for concerts. I'm lucky to have a great support system at home, with more than just the two parents - we have grandma, a housemate, and a wonderful supportive little community. For artists, it really does take a village!
Well that's a little bit relieving to hear. Knowing other people with the struggle of an artists life makes it easier for everyone to handle! What is your favorite violin memory?
Two come to mind:
1 - quite long ago: I vividly remember a moment on the Cyndi Lauper tour, when I took a solo on "Time After Time" for a crowd of about 20,000 people - and I absolutely STOPPED THINKING about what I was doing and instead just sort of let it flow...it ended up being something quite beautiful, and this amazing wave of cheering just washed over me, from all those thousands of people, this giant crowd of humanity connecting with me through music. It was ephemeral, and incredibly powerful, and a feeling like no other.
2 - very recently, in recording JUST GETTING GOOD (watch it HERE), which is my solo live-looping project: hearing the room filled with nothing but layer upon layer of my violin, sounding like a big enveloping pop chamber orchestra, was an incredibly powerful feeling, and totally different from the Cyndi Lauper arena experience. The intimacy of that reminded me so much of the warm feeling of playing chamber music, which I grew up doing - and made me feel like I could transmit that feeling and that power to audiences everywhere, with nothing but me, my instrument and some amazing technology. It felt transformative - like this is the perfect time to be alive and to be a musician.
I think I spend a lot of time chasing both these feelings, and it’s why I keep playing music.
What is your main source of income as a musician?
My main source of income right now is songwriting - for musical theatre and film. This may change as I ramp up with both the ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME musical, and the JUST GETTING GOOD performances, over the coming year. I hope so!
Do you consistently play with any groups?
Not at the moment. I'm sort of re-emerging after a long hiatus. Ask me in a couple of years! :)
I WILL! I certainly relate to that feeling...It seems to me that you have a lot of broadway influences in your writing style. What do you think are your main influences?
Absolutely right. I love songwriters with a theatrical/storytelling bent, those who care deeply about the power of lyrics - grew up listening to Billy Joel and Shawn Colvin and James Taylor and Stephen Sondheim...
What are your goals and dreams with your violin playing? Do you feel like you are taking active steps to be where you want to be in ten years?
My goal is to feel like a truly holistic musician - and to me what that means is to be just as comfortable using my ears and being improvisatory/present/spontaneous as I am using my eyes to read music, which is what I grew up doing. I think I am like many classically-trained musicians in that there is some deep-seated fear of improv that I continue to work to overcome. I think this is a lifelong process, and includes the skill of forgiving yourself *instantly* if you perceive that you’ve made a “mistake.”
I continue to take active steps toward this goal - and these steps include not only the musical ones like practicing improvising, but also nonmusical ones like meditating and taking improv (theatre) classes, and being more present/spontaneous/grounded in all aspects of my life.
Do you mind thinking back to ten years ago and tell us a few of the things that helped you to get where you are today? And maybe some advice about things you would have done differently in your career if you could do over?
Persistence, persistence, persistence. Passion and hope without expectation. Stepping directly into your fears.
Spend the early part of your day being creative, and then do promotion/emails/business stuff later on, after you’ve used your best energy on what’s most important. (This one has taken me a long time to learn, and I wish I had done this differently long ago!)
How long do you think that it took you to really have a strong rapport with the violin and really feel comfortable with the instrument? I'm making the assumption that you studied violin classically, so when did you start experimenting with different genres and techniques, and where did you learn them?
I studied classically since I was eight years old. When I switched to electric (a much heavier instrument with a much wider neck to accommodate the six strings), it took almost a year for me not to have shoulder pain; but after that year, the Viper started to feel really comfortable to me, almost like an extension of my body.
It was within my band GrooveLily that I started to play differently - with a trio of keyboard, violin and drums there is lots of sonic room available (I could take up the space normally given to a guitar player), and so using distortion, wah-wah sounds and delay made violin parts sound bigger/wider/more-guitarish in many cases.
Also, the six strings made it easier to write songs *on the violin*, which I had never done before. Using rolling arpeggios as an accompaniment to vocals is a lovely way to use the instrument (check out Thaw/Irish Lullaby HERE!)
Orchestras are closing down right and left. I, as a freelance orchestral player am seeing that much of the work is turning towards "gigging" shows, where we play concerts that don't use the traditional repertoire on a more and more consistent basis. What do you see the future of classical music looking like?
I think that although what you describe is certainly accurate, the future of classical music is very bright. People are realizing the value of the sheer act of learning/making music - and somehow classical instruments have become cooler in our culture than they used to be. The ascent of places like Le Poisson Rouge, where it’s just as cool to go see Kishi Bashi or Zoe Keating as it is to go to Eighties Night or see the hottest new singer/songwriter - and ALL THESE TYPES OF MUSIC are happening in the same venue! - this means to me that we are moving toward a more holistic view of music, in which people can be more openminded and inclusive about what kinds of sounds they like. Classical music doesn’t have to be something rarefied or removed.
On a similar note, what do you think will be different about violin playing in ten years? In twenty? What different tools do you think that musicians and teachers will have to gain in order to compete in today's competitive market?
Technology, technology, technology. I think that there is a (legitimate) fear among violin players of being replaced by technology (as in Broadway pit orchestras, for instance) - but I also think that the future for musicians who EMBRACE technology is full of potential, vast and expanding as time goes on. Learning how to use effects, pedals, looping, etc. and to teach the next generation in conjunction with the tools and sounds they are interested in - this is crucial and so exciting to me.
My son is 9 years old - and one way he is learning music, just for fun on the iPad playing around with a program called “Auxy,” cultivates a very modular, arrangement-centric way of thinking about the way music is put together. Combining this with the beautiful tradition of music that has come before - I believe this will create a whole new generation of “instrumentalists” who think and create with not only their violins or guitars, but also with the computer programs themselves (such as Ableton Live or Auxy…) as the instruments they play. If these new musicians are steeped in a legacy of rich musical history as well as the excitement of what they can do with the new technology available - well, I can’t wait to hear.
Thank you so much for all of your answers! I look forward to hearing much more from you in the future, and you can bet that we'll check back with you in a few years to see how the world has changed with your help musically. Rock on!!
PS: If you thought that Valerie's Viper violin was the coolest violin you've ever seen and want to try one for yourself, here's a link to get it on amazon (and if you try it out, let me know how it goes!!):