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Joshua Bell's Virtuoso Reality

The violin master on 19th century rockstars, video-game addiction, and the virtues of a $100,000 bow.

Joshua Bell Brendan McDermid/Reuters

With his mop-top and boyish looks, Joshua Bell more resembles the fifth Beatle than a virtuoso to rival Itzhak Perlman and Jascha Heifetz. But the 44-year-old violinist has dazzled the classical world since before he was old enough to order a beer, touring as a soloist and selling millions of CDs—his latest release, due out January 9, is French Impressions, an album of French sonatas recorded with the acclaimed pianist Jeremy Denk. Along the way, Bell has picked up a Grammy, an Emmy, a Mercury Prize, and a coveted Gramophone Award. When composer John Corigliano accepted the best original score Oscar for The Red Violin in 1998, he credited Bell for playing it "like a god." Yet when we sat down to talk in a San Francisco hotel lobby the morning after a performance at Davies Symphony Hall, Bell—clad in jeans and T-shirt, and absent his $4 million Stradivarius—seemed disarmingly mortal.

Mother Jones: Last night's encore, the Yankee Doodle Variations, was like a Cirque du Soleil act!

Joshua Bell: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, I took it from a piece written in 1840 by Vieuxtemps, who after Paganini was sort of the Cirque du Soleil. Paganini took the violin to a level that had never been seen before. He was probably one of the most famous people in Europe. That was in the early 19th century, and back then we didn't have rock music but he was like a rockstar. One of the next ones was Vieuxtemps. He came to America for a tour when he was 20 years old, and heard the Yankee Doodle song and came home and wrote a set of variations on it. I took that piece and kind of rearranged it for myself and solo violin.

MJ: My friend, who is a really good violinist, called it "showy." How many pros could pull it off?

JB: Delivery is everything. Any student could play all of the notes. We like to categorize things into showy things and deep things, you know, and things that are high music—important music—and shallow music. And I think that's dangerous, because there's often a mix of both. For instance, Bruch [Violin Concerto No. 1], the main piece I played, is for me a very profound work. Because it's so lush and so emotional, some people think of it as being corny. They say that about Tchaikovsky's symphonies. If it happens to be popular to the common people, and accessible, it's often thought of as being not great. It's sort of an elitist thing. In art and music, particularly in the 20th century, there was a big period there where for something to be called profound you had to not be able to understand it.

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MJ: Is that still the case?

JB: I think it's swinging back a little bit. But composers say, "We have to reflect our times because we live in ugly times." This I think is the most hilarious thing in the world. We live in the least ugly time in history. If you look at back when Beethoven was writing, half the kids were dying, mothers were dying at childbirth, there were more wars going on then than there are now. People wrote the most beautiful things during the ugliest times. I get on a rant about this because I don't need to hear ugliness in music. That's where I go for beauty.

MJ: Do you write?

JB: A little bit. The cadenzas I write. I write arrangements. I'm sort of a wannabe composer. My last album, At Home With Friends, the most fun tracks I did were a few I wrote with Regina Spektor, where I just kind of took one of her songs and just made it into a violin and voice thing. Or "Eleanor Rigby"—of course the tune was written, but it was fun to take that and make it into sort of a fantasy piece.

MJ: Now in the old days, the cadenzas were improvised, right?

JB: In the very old days. I think even by the time it got to the 19th century, people were already writing, I mean, even Beethoven was already writing out the cadenzas because they were already getting more and more elaborate.

MJ: I gather your family was pretty musical.

JB: I grew up in a musical family, but nobody was a professional musician. I'm the middle child. I have two sisters—or three, actually—just in case she's reading. [Laughs.]

MJ: Was there any sibling musical rivalry?

JB: They were talented, but I very quickly was getting a lot of attention for the music and I think it was sort of enough. They pulled away and did their own, other things.

MJ: But you would play together.

JB: It was more like there was always someone practicing, or my mother playing the piano, or family gatherings like Christmas. We called them family musicales. All the cousins and everybody played something, one at a time mostly.

MJ: Were your childhood heroes athletes and rockstars, or great composers?

JB: It was both. I was really into sports growing up, playing tennis and basketball. My musical heroes started around the age of 11 when I went to a summer camp called Meadowmount; it's a famous summer camp in upstate New York where Itzhak Perlman and [Pinchas] Zuckerman and all those guys used to go. I went there at 11, and that kind of opened my eyes—that's where someone first gave me a tape of Jascha Heifetz, the greatest violinist of the 20th century. And I used to sneak, to listen to his cassette tape in bed after lights out. That was the first time I had a musical hero, and that I would listen just for the sake of pleasure. And my teacher became my hero, actually—Josef Gingold.

MJ: How'd you meet him?

JB: Well, I actually had my first lesson with him at that summer camp, where he would teach. I also grew up a mile away from him in Bloomington, and he was a legendary teacher teaching at Indiana University. So location was very on my side music-wise.

MJ: Most stories about child prodigies involve a really intense parent.

JB: Oh, I had intense parents. I mentioned Christmas, but I also have the stereotypical Jewish mother. They were very involved, particularly my mother. My father was a psychologist and workaholic, in a way, but also—different kind of relationship. If I got a bad review, he would be the one most affected by it. He was very intense. But my mother—

MJ: And she played piano?

JB: Yes, she accompanied me for awhile. She got very, very nervous when we would start playing a concert, so I stopped having her as my accompanist early on. [Laughs.]

MJ: I read that your parents fought to get you into first grade at age five, is that right?

JB: Yeah, they were always fighting for me to foster the things I was interested in. They taught me to read very young, and really fought for me to move up a grade. I wanted to as well. I was bored in the class.

When I was 12, that's when I went to college. All my friends were 20, 21, and I was 12. It didn't even occur to me that that was strange.

MJ: Was being the youngest in your class difficult?

JB: At the time, the school system said, "When he's 13 and the girls are 14, he won't be able to adjust socially" and all this stuff. It was all about the social adjustment and being like everybody else. The irony is that when I was 12, that's when I went to college. All my friends were 20, 21, and I was 12. It didn't even occur to me that that was strange. I wasn't involved in high school much; I never went to the prom—all my friends ended up being almost 10 years older than I was.

MJ: I started my daughter on violin at five, and it's a parenting balance. You started even earlier. What's the psychology of getting a four-year-old to practice?

JB: I have a three-year-old now, and twins too. He likes to pick up the violin for a second and then wants to do something else. I don't know how I will deal with that if I want to make him practice. Because you have to find the right balance. Kids need to be structured in some way, but you don't want to force something down their throats that they have no interest in.

MJ: They also often resist things their parents excel at.

JB: Yeah, yeah. I remember hating getting criticism from my mother in particular, especially if she's right—and I knew she was right. It would just drive me crazy.

MJ: What's your view of the Suzuki method?

JB: I think it's a good way to get kids interested young, and they play together, and it's a social thing. But I'm not sure I'm all that keen about learning only to play by ear. I think it's important to learn to read music right off the bat. I never took traditional, strict Suzuki lessons.

MJ: I gather your mentor wasn't strict.

JB: Quite the opposite. Gingold was exact opposite of the cliché, hard, strict teacher.

MJ: At your level, you'd sort of expect some intense Russian coach.

JB: Well, that's that old traditional Russian school, and that can be effective as well. Different kids respond to different teaching; there's not one way. His way was just through bombardment of kindness and joy. [Laughs.] What would be the opposite of shock and awe? Because of that, you just wanted to please him. He didn't spoon-feed his kids how to play every little thing. He was good teacher because he guided me but let me think for myself and learn for myself. He never answered the questions; he kind of asked more questions.

MJ: And made you want to excel?

JB: And also figure it out for myself. I think the figuring out process is a big part of learning. He also was a great violinist. There are some great teachers who have had great students, but they themselves can't play a note. I don't understand it, because the most I learned from my teacher was just hearing him play.

MJ: Well, you know the old cliché about teaching.

JB: That is a cliché, but if you're going to take tennis lessons, you want your tennis teacher to be able to hit the ball. [Laughs.] And Gingold would always play better than even his best students. In the master classes, they would play and they would sound good, and then he would get up and you'd go, "Ah, that what it's supposed to sound like."

MJ: Can you recall a moment when you kind of said, Wow, I'm really fuckin' good at this?

JB: [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, it wasn't quite like that. In kindergarten, before I went to first grade, I had just started the violin. A kid came in for show and tell and brought his violin and played. And, I was looking at everybody, from person to person, because it was so bad. I was like, "Does anybody realize how bad this is?" And everyone's like, "Oh, fantastic" and the teacher was saying, "Oh, it's so great." I remember being completely perplexed, because I had never really heard anyone else play, and it came rather quickly to me.

MJ: Did you ever perform at show and tell?

JB: At various points. But in middle school I was never put at the front of the orchestra. I mean, when our local orchestra went to the state level, I was chosen as the concert master of the state orchestra, yet in my own backyard I was always kind of put in the middle, which was kind of discouraging. I think that there's a fear in schools of singling kids out as excelling. I see that among other colleagues who were always sort of put in their place as a kid. I don't believe in that.

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