String players must embrace the vernacular of today’s popular music or risk being consigned to a bygone era, writes electric violinist Tracy Silverman

Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel Barton Pine plays a six-string electric violin

Few people welcome change, and only anarchists embrace paradigm shifts. So I don’t blame anyone for resisting the notion that string playing must evolve along with the rest of our musical culture or risk becoming extinct.

The average young person who is not a string player thinks of string and orchestral music (except for film scores) as old-fashioned and useful mostly to add production value to pop songs. Strings are not considered primary instruments in the popular music of our times, except in country and folk.

Guitars and keyboards join the bass and drums (or a computer version of these instruments) to create the rhythm section; saxophones and brass are the primary melodic instruments in jazz; the electric guitar defines rock; but strings have faded into the scenery of a bygone world – one that produced many classics of Western music, but nevertheless a bygone world.

Sometimes, what seems like a paradigm shift is just a turning point in what has actually been a steady march forwards.

Why did strings hold to the old guard? Probably because they were the primary instrument in most of those towering classics. Fashions and styles changed and strings became identified with the old world. Yes, there have been a few amazing jazz violinists through the years, but they are exceptions.

Strings never integrated into the evolving pop music spanning the jazz era to the present. For most of the 20th century, string pedagogy hunkered down with a 19th century technique and remained wedded to the worthy, demanding and somewhat anachronistic art of preserving those towering classics. But, as Marie Antoinette discovered, denial is not a great strategy.

Sometimes, what seems like a paradigm shift is just a turning point in what has actually been a steady march forwards. When I was at the Juilliard School in the late 1970s, there were students there who had never heard of the Beatles. But now, even the most conservative of conservatoires are populated with young people who are remarkably tuned in to all kinds of contemporary music, simply by virtue of being born and raised in an online world.

Young string players expect to participate, in some way, in the music of their generation. They listen to music online and are interested in what’s going on in clubs, pop concerts and recording studios. Artists such as violinist, singer and songwriter Andrew Bird and Finnish cello metal band Apocalyptica have opened the minds of young people to the idea of strings playing a primary role in pop music.


Finnish cello metal band Apocalyptica


In addition, young people now get messages from many sources about the importance of inclusion and acceptance which my generation could certainly have benefited from. This bodes well for the future – and as string players (young and old alike), we should imagine what an inclusive future of string playing could look like.

So what does it mean for us to evolve? It means that we should be able to play our pop music authentically, without a classical dialect. It means we should learn how to groove like a rhythm guitar, rock out like a lead guitar and swing like a saxophone. The most important thing when learning a new language is to listen to it being spoken, and the most important thing in learning to play in the pop idiom is to listen to pop music.

If you’re a teacher, ask your students what they listen to besides classical music, and find out what they like about it. Ask them to play it for you on their instrument. The younger the student, the easier it is for them to start learning a second language. Don’t worry: your students won’t forget their classical mother tongue.

Just as the classics of the past were written in the popular idioms of their time and place, so too will the classics of our time reflect the here and now. If we want strings to be included in the classics of tomorrow, we need to do what the string players of the past have done: speak the language of the popular musical culture.