Wood eager to electrify Shawano’s strings

Professional musician seeks to keep orchestras alive
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Photo courtesy of Mark Wood Mark Wood, shown performing in another concert, will be working with students from Shawano Community Middle School and Shawano Community High School next week before performing two concerts with them. Wood travels to schools all over the United States, helping them to re-energize their orchestra programs.

Shawano Community High School’s orchestra brings classical music to life several times a year for local audiences, but strings programs are dwindling among America’s schools.

Mark Wood, one of the founding members of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, is working to change that through the Electrify Your Strings program. He performs dozens of workshops every year in schools across the United States, which puts him constantly on the road.

This causes him sometimes to forget his bearings, as he had to ascertain that Shawano was in Wisconsin before proceeding with an interview with The Shawano Leader on Monday.

“I’ve just got back from California and Florida, and I don’t know where I am,” Wood said in a phone conversation from New York.

Several of his workshops over the years have been in Wisconsin schools, but this will be his first time in Shawano, something he said he looks forward to — not just because of the change in scenery, but because it gives him a chance to instill in young people the joy of music.

“I think what’s important is what we’re losing, especially in our strings programs and our orchestras,” Wood said. “The orchestra experience for 400 years has been wonderful and incredibly important.”

Wood has been classically trained at the Juilliard School, but his philosophy is that orchestras need to find a way to get a 21st-century feel if they want to survive. It was that belief that helped him to found the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a group that uses electric instruments to provide fresh life to such classical compositions as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“The magic ingredient to empower a student, a school, a community with music is performance, or we put on a CD and listen to Beethoven for the 100th time,” Wood said. “We don’t need to see it live. Why do we need to see it live? Oh, they’re going to light the viola section on fire? That I’ll go see.”

Wood said he has been described as “the great disruptor” with his musical style, and he thinks that it’s necessary to disrupt the status quo to reverse the trend of schools cutting music and other performing arts programs.

“When I come into a school, we remove the music stands. We remove the barrier from the performer to the audience,” Wood said. “We are all facing the audience; it is not the traditional horseshoe of a traditional orchestra.”

In Wood’s world, there is no conductor directing the flow of the music. He prefers musicians to use their ears to keep up with the beat, and he said it can be done with any size orchestra — noting a recent workshop he did in Texas with a group of 400 students.

“I tell the kids, ‘I don’t want to see you rehearse. You look like you’re rehearsing. I want your performance face on right now,’” Wood said. “It’s pretty much the same face on both, but we need to stand up. We need to face the audience. It’s a whole new experience that fascinates me.”

Wood’s style of music performance allows for creativity and improvisation, which he feels are necessary to keep music programs relevant.

“Otherwise, we’re just going to continue to be antiquated and shrinking,” Wood said.

Less than 18 percent of schools in the United States have strings programs, Wood said, and he heard an alarming statistic that in the next 10 to 20 years, there will be no motivation among young people to master a musical instrument.

“In the 1970s, almost every school had an orchestra program,” Wood said. “We’re dealing with a very interesting moment, a paradigm shift.”

With the ability to touch a button on a computer to make a melody, there will be little reason for people to pick up the instruments themselves to make music, Wood said. But he hopes that by showing schools how to be innovative with their music programs, that trend could be curtailed.

“What motivates a kid to play music is seeing a person who is a master at it, right in front of their faces,” Wood said.

ONLINE

Find out more about Mark Wood and his Electrify Your Strings program at www.markwoodmusic.com.