When violinist Joshua Bell plays Carnegie Hall next Sunday, it will mark the latest chapter in a career that's now spanned two decades, playing concerts all over the world. NY1’s Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1.
It’s hard to believe Joshua Bell, one of the premiere violinists in the world, has something in common with every kid trying to learn an instrument in school.
"I am not the most disciplined person in the world. I need a deadline — something that will scare me into practicing,” says Bell.
Whatever the method, it's working.
Bell spends an estimated 240 days a year on the road, so he calls New York both his home and vacation spot. I spoke with him during a rare break in his schedule at the legacy recording studio.
“It’s become my way of life, so when I have time off — two or three weeks off, if I ever get that, which is very rare — I actually start feeling strange and antsy that I'm in one place for that long. I've just adapted to this way of life,” says Bell.
For almost 25 years he's recorded and performed all over the world and he is at a level where he can pick and choose the music he plays.
“I really tend not play pieces that I don't really love,” says Bell. “It’s like a comedian telling a joke that he doesn't find funny. It’s not going to make anyone laugh if the comedian himself doesn't find the joke funny."
Bell says you have to develop your own relationship with a piece of music, especially a treasure that's been played thousands of times. He likens the process to another art form.
"Like an actor becomes Hamlet and he has to just become that character, the violinist, in this case in Tchaikovsky, you have to be inside this music and it relates to your personal experience,” says Bell. “It becomes a part of you and in the end you sort of own this piece and it will inevitably be different from anybody else's, if you approach it this honest way."
Then there's the pressure of premiering a new piece, like his latest CD, The Red Violin Concerto.
"People will look at mine as being the definitive recording because I worked with the composer,” says Bell. “That's a bit of a responsibility, because it was really just my take on it at this particular moment in time."
Bell has never been constrained by the limits that others might place on a classical musician. He's performed with Josh Groban, James Taylor, Sting, even toured with bluegrass musicians.
His place in pop culture is secure. He's the only artist ever featured in a Dennis the Menace comic strip and he's been named one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people.
But Bell's home is classical music, which has long dealt with the notion that its audience is graying.
“People having been saying this for the last 50 years — that the audience really seems to be quite old. So they must be 150 years old now, if it’s the same old people coming to the concerts,” jokes Bell.
Bell doesn't just talk about bringing classical music to younger generations, he's part of a program called “Education Through Music," visiting schools in Harlem and the Bronx.
“I have been in classrooms were they have no music at all and then these schools that are otherwise normal schools, but now have a music program and they all carry their violins around,” says Bell. “They have a totally different self-esteem and a curiosity. It was so great to see young people in grade school that might never even have heard of Bach, or Stradivarius, getting all excited about these things that they were learning in class and their own violins, because they all played."
Now his experience with kids is no longer limited to schools. During the interview, he told me that he'd just had a child three weeks before.
"My ex-girlfriend and I decided to have an conventional — we're not together as a couple any more, but we were close enough that we decided to have a child together and I really wanted to have that in my life and not wait too much longer. I’m turning 40 soon,” says Bell.
Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana was a balancing act for Bell and his parents. Treat him like a great young musical talent, or like a normal kid playing with his boomerang?
"My mother· talks about deciding whether she should tell me stop because I had my first big recital or just let me be a kid and, of course she let me do that,” says Bell. “And of course the boomerang came back and hit me in the head, and ended up in the hospital and almost didn't play the concert that night.”
Good thing he did, because the man who would become his teacher, Joseph Gingold, was there that night and took him on as a student. Bell grew up on a farm, but not in what we might see as a typical Midwest household.
His father Alan Bell was senior research scientist for the Kinsey Institute and wrote influential books about sex and homosexuality.
“I grew up in a pretty open environment,” says Bell. “Not to say I disclose much personal information to my parents about myself!”
It quickly became clear that Bell was a special talent, and he made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14. But at home, it was hardly sweet music. Bell says that in the school orchestra, he was made to sit in the back.
"I was the youngest and I was getting some certain accolades in town and for doing competitions and I think the teacher wanted to teach me humility and put me in the back,” says Bell. “You encounter a lot of that. There were some teachers that said, Îit’s so wonderful what you’re doing, traveling, it's a great education,’ and others who said, Îwhy should we let you out of class? We treat everyone the same.’ I think that's actually discouraging and does not help.”
After attending Indiana University while still in high school, Bell quickly rose to the top of the classical music world, where he's stayed, a status reflected in his violin, a 300-year-old multi-million dollar Stradivarius.
“There’s something very special in the overtones and the sound and the response and the way the depth of sound that's very hard to describe,” says Bell. “Every day I open up the case and see this work of art. It’s like having a Renoir painting.”
The violin is special. So, too, the hands playing it, but Bell says he's not completely neurotic about protecting them.
"I do play basketball. I've jammed every finger in basketball and actually walked onstage with crutches twice,” says Bell.
Not neurotic; just careful.
“I do not cut vegetables with knives or work with knives because I know too many people who have sliced off ends of fingers, which the ends are very important to me,” says Bell.
Bell long ago mastered the art of interpreting someone else's composition. Now his goal is to write compositions himself.
“I’m always fooling around with composing in my spare time, but I haven't had the nerve yet to really,” says Bell. “You’re quite exposed when you write your own music. You are really laying your soul out there for people to tear you down."
Bell is now a world away from the Indiana farm of his youth. He sells millions of CDs and packs concert halls around the world, and there is also the often unspoken but understood task, especially here in the United State, of trying to broaden the music's appeal.
“I think there's a huge audience out there that would love classical music — it just doesn't know where the entry point should be, you know,” says Bell. “And that's the audience classical musicians need to target, Îcause I think so many more people should be enjoying classical music as part of their diet. It’s like reading books and never reading Tolstoy and the greats and only reading popular and modern fiction, you know. You’re missing out on a lot."
— Budd Mishkin