Whenever Tracy Silverman takes the stage, the feeling is electric. His unique, custom-made violin literally is, too.
The Juilliard-trained virtuoso and unpretentious teacher will perform side by side with high school and junior-high students from Rock Island and Davenport in a special concert on Friday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. at Rock Island High School.
He conducted a workshop for Washington Jr. High, Edison Jr. High, and Rock Island High School orchestra students at school on Wednesday, Feb. 22. Silverman — who made his professional debut as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony at 13 — continues workshops and rehearsals today and Friday.
Performing on custom-made instruments which he designs himself, Silverman’s eclectic career has taken him to the world’s foremost concert halls to work with many leading symphonies and conductors.
Sharing his music through teaching, Silverman is an in-demand clinician and on the string faculty of Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
“He’s the best electric violinist on the planet,” Matt Manweiler, a violinist and an orchestra director for the Rock Island-Milan School District, said Wednesday, noting he’s been a fan of Silverman for 20 years. “I was a student at workshops he taught in San Diego, at a big conference.”
He’s the first such visiting artist for Rocky and other local schools since violinist Jesus Florido in February 2020, made possible with generous financial support from the Rock Island-Milan Education Foundation, Manweiler said.
Previous guest artists have included Turtle Island String Quartet (in which Silverman was former first violin) and violinists Christian Howes and Mark Wood.
Strumming on a 6-string
Silverman is notable not only for his development and use of the electric six-string violin but also for what he terms “progressive string playing” and “strum bowing,” an evolution of classical string playing that embraces contemporary popular idioms such as rock, jazz, and hip-hop. Silverman’s original works have been performed by orchestras and chamber music groups internationally.
A longtime proponent of string education, Silverman is a leader in the progressive string community and the host of The Greater Groove: The Future of Strings podcast. His Strum Bowing method has been adopted by players and teachers all over the world. He’s the author of The Strum Bowing Method: How to Groove on Strings, and The Rhythm String Player: Strum Bowing in Action, as well as several etude books and online courses on his Strum Bowing Groove Academy,
Silverman coined the term “strum-bowing” to teach “string players how to groove,” he said Wednesday. “It’s basically copying guitar players. It applies to everything from funk, jazz, hip-hop, to rock.”
“We’ve been branching out to different diverse styles of music and strum-bowing provides a foundation to help us teach rhythm and groove to students,” Manweiler said. “That goes to a lot of different styles.”
“Tracy’s work has actually been present in my teaching for many, many years, in these different styles,” he said. “I think it’s reachable for students…They connect with it very quickly.”
That kind of bowing enhances traditional classical playing, such as with syncopated rhythms, Manweiler said.
“A lot of string players have a bad reputation of not having good rhythm when it comes to contemporary styles,” Silverman said.
He’s developed books and online courses about it, and does similar workshops at about 30 schools nationwide each year.
300 student players Friday
The Feb. 24 concert will feature 300 student musicians in a variety of ensembes – not only from Rocky, but Davenport Central, plus Sudlow Intermediate in Davenport and Edison and Washington Junior High schools in Rock Island.
Some students involved have done the workshops with both Howes and Florido.
Rock Island freshman Fedora Noya, who’s played violin since 6th grade, enjoyed doing the February 2020 workshop and concert with Jesus Florido, which she called “amazing” and “overwhelming.” She’s looking forward to working with Silverman, doing more “fast-paced music” with strum bowing.
The orchestra has been rehearsing for the concert since December.
“It definitely gives you exposure to other genres of music,” said senior Jordan Murray, who plays viola and upright bass. “It’s all the same basis of bowing.”
He’s looking forward to learning new music, and strum bowing on the bass, which is new to him. “It’s really cool to get into a different environment, playing with kids from other schools and seeing how they play.”
Silverman designed his six-string electric violin itself, which can sound the ranges of lower viola and cello, creating a mini-orchestra in one instrument, Manweiler said. Traditional violins have four strings.
“It’s all about teaching string players how to sound authentic playing contemporary music,” Silverman said. The concert will include blues, funk, Latin and some of his original pieces.
“I’m showing them how to approach this in a non-classical way,” he said. “It’s unusual for string players to get the training in non-classical, so that’s what I’m here for.”
Loving the energy
Silverman really treasures the students’ energy and open minds.
“It’s a willingness to try stuff, and for a lot of kids, they appreciate that somebody is taking the time – it’s not just me, it’s their teachers, that they’re taking the time to teach the music they’re interested in.”
“When people become professionals and have played for 20, 30 years, they have a very set way of doing things and it’s much harder to get more experienced string players to change their habits,” he said. “But with kids, it’s a little bit easier. They are also much more familiar with popular music.”
“I think it’s really important that string players can do more than just the classical repertoire – which is wonderful, don’t get me wrong,” Silverman said of stalwarts like Bach and Beethoven. “It’s important, if you want to be employable as a string player, to do different things.”
Players often work freelance, playing weddings and other events where they have to perform non-classical, he noted.
Silverman gets inspired himself working with students and sometimes learns from them, helping to tweak his training.
“It’s a wonderful exchange,” he said. “I learn things that I take for granted and they know. I need to define what I’m teaching them clearly. Not everyone has the same background about the music.”
Teaching arts is ‘critical’
Silverman said that teaching music (and all the arts) is “critical” for kids today.
“Because it’s all about storytelling — when kids leave school with an understanding of how to not just tell their own story, but how to understand other stories and appreciate that,” he said. “What happens is the arts doesn’t happen in STEM subjects, which are also very important.”
“Math and science doesn’t teach you empathy; it doesn’t teach how to walk in someone else’s shoes, or live somebody else’s experience,” Silverman said. “We’re really discovering in this world, how critical that element is. The world that we live in, how important it is to understand other people’s experience, not just tunnel vision to our version of the world.
“That’s what the arts show us — whether you’re looking at the world through Picasso’s eyes or hearing it through Tchaikovsky’s ears — we’re learning to live through somebody else’s experiences,” he said.
Music also teaches teamwork and collaboration, as sports does.
“If anyone participated in a high school musical or an orchestra, that’s exactly the same kind of teamwork and camaraderie,” Silverman said. “To not be selfish, to be a team player — all those things exist in the arts, as much as they do in sports.”
“Everyone has a voice and that voice is valid, no matter where you are, you have a voice that’s worth sharing,” Manweiler said. A teacher like Silverman helps students find and improve that voice, to “tell better stories,” he said. “It’s an inspiration and the fire that encourages people.”
Tickets to the concert will be $15, available at the door, 1400 25th Ave., Rock Island. For more information on Silverman, visit his website HERE.