Very exciting to see my article published in JESTA magazine for young string players!!
If I had a pound for every time someone comes up to me after a gig and says wistfully 'I wish I hadn't given up violin lessons as a teenager', I would be a very rich woman!
Going through phases of falling in and out of love with playing your instrument is totally normal. I wanted to share my own experience in the hopes it might help any young people having similar doubts about how music might fit into their lives. Please see below for the article text.
A Jack of All Trades is Master of None. ‘Rubbish!’ says Georgina Leach, ‘Variety is the spice of life’
The violinist, teacher and author of ground-breaking new tutor book series Dynamite Strings reflects on how nearly giving up music at fourteen set the scene for an unusual and rewarding career.
‘Can we get the house lights turned up for a minute?’
I had just walked onstage at Wembley to join blues artist Seasick Steve when he growled this request into the mic. Turning to me with a grin that was both warm and full of mischief, he added under his breath ‘I just wanted you to see how many people there actually are out there!’
Whilst the sight of twelve thousand brightly lit expectant faces didn’t exactly help to steady my nerves, it is a moment forever etched on my memory. If someone had told my teenage self I’d one day be standing on that stage playing alongside just one other musician, I’d have told them to get their head examined.
Starting Suzuki lessons at four, I blitzed my way through the grades and was awarded a music scholarship to a high profile secondary school. My new teacher was brilliant and I threw myself into the rich musical life there. However, at fourteen, I fell out of love with the violin.
It had suddenly occurred to me that I’d never chosen the violin: starting lessons was my parent’s idea. I’d always been ‘The Violin Girl’ who was wheeled out to perform in every school concert/open day/play and I’d never taken more than three days off practising in my life. Although I could objectively appreciate the beauty of the classical music I was studying, I just did not feel the connection to it I once did. When it came time to practise, it felt like a battle to even pick up my instrument. Eventually it got so bad I broke down in tears during my lesson: I didn’t want to play the violin anymore.
Fortunately, my teacher was kind and wise. We agreed to take the pressure off for a term by playing shorter, easier pieces. With spare time on my hands, I discovered new interests and broadened my group of friends. One of those friends, Tess (still a close friend) was a killer blues guitarist. She would play me songs she’d written herself and introduced me to Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Louis Armstrong, Pixies and Robert Johnson amongst others. The raw emotion and impulsive freedom of this music really spoke to me.
Tess’s love of music was infectious and she suggested we start writing together. We inhabited such different musical worlds, it had somehow never occurred to me before. When I came to the violin, it was for focused, goal-oriented practice so the concept of jamming purely for fun and with no particular outcome in mind, was totally alien. Tess taught me the pentatonic scale and how to solo over a chord sequence. To start with I felt really out of my depth, but my lovely friend was so encouraging and non-judgemental that I soon gained confidence and the door swung open to a whole new dimension of music-making. The worry and guilt about not wanting to play started to evaporate and my love for music came flooding back. I was finding my own identity on the violin.
Fast forward a few years and I was studying at the RNCM and Manchester University (Joint Course). By day I was immersed in the masters of the classical canon but by night, I haunted Matt and Phred’s jazz club and other indie venues in the city. I was fascinated and inspired by the musicians I found there – many of whom had had no formal training and yet played so inventively, instinctively and freely. I soon found myself being asked to get up on stage. It was uncomfortable at first to let go of getting things ‘right’, however the more I relaxed, listened and stayed in the moment, the more I surprised myself with the music that came intuitively flowing out.
After College, I threw myself into all sorts of projects, stepping outside of my comfort zone and learning from the more experienced musicians on the job. I was becoming a confident improviser and able flit between a refined classical tone, hillbilly scrape or breathy jazz sound as the music required. This versatility turned out to be an advantage and I started to get booked up! Touring the UK and Europe for the first time was incredibly exciting and a stint as the violinist in klezmer group Oi Va Voi took me to arena shows in Turkey and Greece. Playing for musical theatre star Ramin Karimloo led to performances in Tokyo and Canada whilst Seasick Steve also invited me to play the Royal Albert Hall and headline Latitude Festival. I was also presented with a gold record for my fiddle playing on one of Steve’s albums and have recorded with numerous other artists over the years.
The other strand of my career is in Music Education. A particularly memorable project saw successful MCs and beatboxers who had come up from tough inner-city estates mentoring local teenagers and helping them write their own music. The young people taking part had very difficult home lives and many had been in youth detention centres. My role was to add some strings to their tracks. It was extraordinary to see the positive effect writing music and collaborating had on these young people: their confidence and self-esteem improved visibly week by week. Excited by the transformative power of music, I trained as a Secondary Music teacher developing many new skills - drumming, singing, music production, conducting and playing bass and guitar. Standing up and presenting material in front of a class has helped with my confidence on stage too.
The project I am most excited about at the moment is my series of beginner violin books called Dynamite Strings. Violin Book 1 is out now and the pieces cover wide range of genres including blues, reggae, grunge rock and disco. I want to bust the preconception that string players can only play certain types of music. Improvising and playing different styles should be something we do from the start - not only is it great fun and good for musical development, but cultivates a respect for and openness to other cultures.
It’s taken me a lot of trial and error to find balance between my musical interests, but I can honestly say I love my own personal brand of portfolio career madness! There are hundreds of ways to include music in your life whether you decide to become a professional or play for the joy of it. It is also completely normal to have periods when you feel less enthusiasm for music. For me, taking a step back allowed me to discover the violin on my own terms and realise I was lucky enough to play one of the most versatile instruments on the planet (thanks Mum and Dad!).
My advice would be to get curious and don’t be afraid to try new things – you never know where it might lead you! As for the title of this article, not many people know that the other half of the saying is: ‘a Jack of all trades is master of none, but oftentimes better than master of one’.
You can catch Georgina playing this summer at Cropredy, Americana Fest and Broadstairs Folk Festivals. More information and ideas can be found at www.dynamitestringsmusic.com and www.georginaleach.co.uk