The rockin’ violinist Bobby Yang laughed when the quote was read to him.
“I would rather be a prison guard,” he once said, “than a member of a symphony orchestra.”
He didn’t deny saying it. “Oh no!,” he says. “I guess I was feeling sort of rebellious. I was trying to make a point, I guess. It would be really tough for me to enjoy the life of playing in an orchestra full time. A lot of my colleagues do it, and I respect the hell out of them. It’s a lot of work, the sound’s beautiful, and the repertoire is amazing, but it doesn’t fit my soloistic personality.”
Bobby Yang is a true American original, a rock violinist who hangs out with Kevin Costner (and plays in his band), but who has recorded two rock CDs and has covered as much Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Rush, Van Halen, Charlie Daniels, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Michael Jackson as he has Paganini, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.
Yang is a fascinating combination of wild-haired, wild-eyed rock star and precise classical music technician. He started playing violin at age five, but also began dreaming of being a rock musician at the same age. When he discusses his inspirations, he speaks about rock-and-roll guitarists a lot more than he does classical violinists.
“I think of a sound that might have been made by Slash, or Jimmy Page, or Jimi Hendrix, and I do the techniques that I have learned, the French, Russian, the American schools of soloistic violin playing, and devise these ways to create these disastrous rock and roll sounds,” he says. “While others are reaching their foot out to change pedals, and change their sound, I’ve already changed my sound.”
He will be spending a couple of days giving master classes and rehearsing with the members of the Lawrence High School symphony orchestra, culminating in a concert open to the public on Friday, December 17, at Lawrence High.
The last time Yang made an appearnce at Lawrence High, he says, “we had a great time performing with their orchestra.” Lee Neamand, the school’s orchestra director and a bassist and flautist, had met Yang at a convention a couple of years ago and invited him and his group, the Unrivaled Players, to come perform and offer master classes at the school. This year will take a similar format.
Yang, 31, was born in Houghton, Michigan, on the Keweenaw Peninsula in the state’s Upper Peninsula. His father was a researcher in materials science at Michigan Technological University, known as Michigan Tech. His mother stayed at home, raising Yang, an older sister, and two younger sisters.
While Yang’s parents, of Taiwanese background, were not intensely musical themselves, they insisted that their children all play music. “I had private lessons in violin and piano. It was decidedly against my will — I was forced to practice every day on each instrument, and as I got older, the time I was required to spend on each instrument grew. It was a pretty tough childhood. Every single day I had to practice or do my homework before I could do anything else, like play sports or hang with friends.”
Yang’s sisters played music too, although he says that “when it was time for them to decide what they wanted to do at 15 or 16, I wanted to keep playing the violin, and they wanted to go a more academic route.” Now, of Yang’s three sisters, one is a scientist with a doctorate from MIT, one has an MBA, and the other works as a banker.
Yang, on the other hand, stuck with it, and whether he wanted to or not as a kid, he developed a passion for music. “Growing up, kind of in the boonies, you think of careers, but you don’t think of playing the violin in a rock-and-roll style as a career,” he says. “Only in America, I like to say.”
By the time he was in high school, he was entering and winning competitions and spending his summers playing violin at elite music schools/camps such as the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. “I went there my first (music camp) summer,” he says. “It’s like a big-box kind of experience. I then spent two summers at the Meadowmount School of Music (famous alum: Itzhak Perlman) in upstate New York and after that to the Aspen Music Festival.
“It was (at the camps and festivals) that I started being part of a network of friends who were playing music seriously, some from around the world,” Yang continues. “At that time I had developed a passion for what I was doing, having been involved in it intensely for 10 years.”
Yang earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he began with a focus on engineering but moved to music, the violin specifically, after a semester. “It was really frustrating,” says Yang. “So I came home with a letter saying that I would still get my full scholarship if I switched to violin, and my parents were fine with that.”
At Michigan Yang studied under professor Paul Kantor, who received his master’s degree in music from Juilliard and who was chairman of the string department. “You really live and breathe music,” Yang says. “Staying competitive, keeping up with your colleagues and peers requires six to eight hours of practice every day. And the most important part of your education was what you received from your professor.”
Yang still speaks very highly of Kantor, a frequent competition judge who recently moved from Michigan to a distinguished professorship at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “He is probably one of the top, one of the most well-known (violin teachers) in the world,” says Yang. “He still performs, but his focus is on teaching. His specialty is adapting to the style of each of his students. It’s fair to say that he doesn’t have one teaching style — if he has 20 students during a semester, he has 20 different teaching styles.”
Yang stayed with Kantor for five years, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violin from Michigan. But he never stopped hearing rock music in his head. And he never stopped playing it. By the time he left college, Yang had determined that he would be playing his acoustic violin — never an electric — and that he would be doing it with rock.
“It really becomes an extension of my heart, the inside of what I am feeling during the music,” he says. “I don’t use any effects. I have been offered the chance to use this electronic violin or that gadget, but in the moment, in the performance, it just ends up getting in the way. After 10,000 hours of practicing violin acoustically in a classical format, and also in a rock format, anything else just detracts from what I am doing. Nothing compares with an acoustic instrument. Even a few ounces of difference will affect my attitude toward it.”
Yang’s group follows the jam-band format. He never plays the same song the same way, the group disdains sheet music, and they have no problem reworking songs to the point that they’re unrecognizable to all but the most eagle-eared cognoscenti.
After long stints in Atlanta and Colorado, Yang now lives in a condo high above Las Vegas with his wife, Misti, who also handles his publicity. Why Vegas? “It fits the lifestyle I have, the lifestyle of a working musician,” he says. “Most places I live, when I come home late at night or even early in the morning, I can’t go out to eat or even to the store to get something. Here, I can go anywhere, have Italian, Thai, Indian, whatever, at any time. This town’s always open.”
Bobby Yang in Concert, Friday, December 17, 7 p.m., Lawrence High School, 2525 Princeton Pike, Lawrence. Yang has been called the rock star of the acoustic violin. This concert culminated a two-day residency with master classes with the Lawrence High Orchestra. 609-671-5510.