Some people just have wonderful names that fit their occupations, like a writer named Wright, a cop surnamed Law, a clothes maker named Taylor, or a violin maker named Wood.
That’s how it is with Trans-Siberian Orchestra member Mark Wood, an electronic violinist who makes his own line of violins. His father was a woodworker, and his father before him, and so on.
“Is that funny, man? Yeah, it’s true; my father’s side are woodworkers,” Wood says in a phone interview from his office on Long Island. “They had a huge workshop and they manufactured religious furniture for temples and churches around the world. I used to ride my bike down there, and when I was 10 I started making electric violins. I was the first one to build a solid-body electric violin.” He also has parlayed that innovation into several other different lines of electric string instruments, so that now his company (woodviolins.com) makes 50 different styles.
But Mark Wood also makes music, and he also likes to create opportunities for young musicians. So, as part of his “Electrify Your Strings” initiative, on Saturday, May 23, Wood will perform a show with members of Lawrence High’s band and orchestra. He will be accompanied by his band, the Mark Wood Experience. The band will also be spending Thursday and Friday with middle and high school students, teaching improvisation, composition as well as giving master classes in violin, viola, cello, and bass. “In this program we try to teach the students about self-expression, about improvising, and about incorporating American styles of music in their classical training.
“It’s not the traditional role for a touring rock and roll band,” he continues. “I’ve had a 30-year career touring the world. It’s time to give back and time to really empower and support the music programs in American schools. It’s not just New Jersey, it’s across America. It’s really growing very aggressively. It seems as if we’re the only professional musicians with clout and visibility who are doing this. It’s an honor and privilege for us to do it.”
There is a huge void in music education in this country, says Wood, and there needs to be more emphasis on the American musical heritage as well. “If you go somewhere, any country in the world, and you play a blues scale, or some jazz, you’re gonna get a huge crowd around you. We can’t forget where that came from, that this is such a deep part of our culture here in America. But we don’t celebrate this enough in our own country.”
The genesis for the events at the school came when Lee Neamand, orchestra director and music teacher at Lawrence High, met Wood at a seminar at the American String Teachers’ Association convention in Albuquerque last February. “While I was there, I met two amazing string players. One was Bobby Yang, and the other was Mark Wood,” says Neamand, who plays upright bass and flute professionally in jazz and classical ensembles. She invited Yang to her school last year, and she “wanted to take it to the next level.” Neamand knew about Wood’s program, and she invited him. “It was kind of like perfect timing.” The Lawrence Township Education Foundation, and Educational Testing Service, which will lodge the musicians at its convention center in Lawrence, contributed funding. About 200 students will participate, according to Neamand.
“I think the experience is very important,” says Neamand. “On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s probably a 20. It’s not every day that you get the chance to play with such an esteemed and well-known musician. It’s more than just the idea that they are going to play. The techniques they are going to play are going to take them to the next level musically. I don’t think they yet understand fully how important this experience is.”
Schools, at least nationally, are not emphasizing the arts as they should. But Neamand believes her district has supported the arts well. “The arts are thriving here,” she says. Neamand points out that Lawrence High’s arts programs have won several national awards.
Wood says his group has been teaching around the country for about a decade. “Last year we met with about 40,000 music students. It’s choir, band, and orchestra usually. I’m a string player, and we bring vocalist Laura Kaye (Wood’s bandmate and wife) to work with the choir. This one we’re doing in Lawrence is probably the biggest one we’ve been doing, so it’s really exciting.”
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is not from Siberia. It is not from Russia. There aren’t any members of the group whose ancestors are from Russia, let alone Siberia. “Our producer brought the name to the table. It had an exotic feel to it,” says Wood. “It took a couple of years for people to realize that we were not from Russia, we were from New York. We used to get a lot of older people coming and thinking they were going to hear Tchaikovsky and Beethoven from Russia, and we were far from that. The name sticks, and people remember it.”
Trans-Siberian is a rock orchestra, complete with on-stage effects and pyrotechnics, but with Wood as violin soloist and string music director, TSO is heavy on the classical influences. The band tends to go on the road beginning in November, because the vast majority of the songs in its repertoire have holiday themes. Each of the records from the orchestra, which was founded by producer Paul O’Neill, keyboardist Robert Kinkel, and composer Jon Oliva, has sold gold, platinum, or double platinum. The orchestra records with a full 60-piece orchestra, but although it travels with lots of parts, its live shows (split between two mirror bands — one for the East Coast and one for the West) are staffed by smaller groups.
Wood is a native of Port Washington, Long Island. His father, Paul, was a woodworker and sculptor, whose company made wood furniture for Henry Ford and actor Robert Young, among others. His mother, Jacqueline, was a concert pianist. “That is where I got all my integrity and creativity,” he says. “There is a lot of deep history with my family.” Jacqueline Wood, says her son, “had four boys in four years,” and all ended up being string players. “We were the first all-brother string quartet.” Wood played viola, and was surrounded by classical music as a youth. “But my mother, by mistake, bought me a record called ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ and when I heard that, that was it. That’s what I wanted to do.”
He says he began to explore jazz, rock, R&B, and other music, while still playing violin and viola. After studying with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, he received a scholarship to study at Juilliard, where he stayed for two years. His rock and jazz vibes made Wood leave the conservatory and try to build his technique. “I lived on the floor of my father’s art studio for five years, redoing and relearning how to play my instrument.” In American music, he explains, the creativity of the musician is at the forefront. In classical music, every musician has to play every note the same way. He also developed his teaching program, and began making solid-body electric violins.
‘About 13 years ago, the guitar player, Al Petrelli, called me up and asked me if I wanted to be a part of this,” says Wood. “I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ For a violin player, there aren’t many homes you can jump to. At the time, it seemed like a great idea, but we had no idea that this would grow to be as huge as it is now. We just finished a tour about three months ago, where we sold about a 1.3 million tickets. It was a massive, 12-bus, 27 semis, with 150 people. The first tour 12 years ago, we had one bus, one truck, and about 20 people. So it’s quite amazing, and we are quite proud of it.”
Of course, for a working musician, the touring may not always be great for family experiences. Wood usually travels with his wife, and his son Elijah, 13, often makes gigs as well. “I haven’t been home for Christmas in about 11 years. Around that time is my birthday, my wife’s birthday, my son’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, and even Halloween. None of those holidays even exists for me anymore.”
The Mark Wood Experience, Lawrence School District, Lawrence High School. Saturday, May 23, 7 p.m. Electric violinist from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in rock concert with Lawrence High musicians. $15. 609-671-5510..