What I Learned About the Coolest Mashup Ever: The Stroh Violin

During my many years as a musician, I spent all my time at the back of the orchestra. I wasn’t hidden behind the other players for lack of talent, but because I’m a trombonist. Trombone players, and all brass instrumentalists, play tucked away behind the strings. Not only that, for every one trombonist in the orchestra, there are about five times that many violins. The reason? Brass instruments are much louder than strings. Despite my very visceral knowledge of the sonic strength difference between brass and stringed instruments, I was still floored when I heard 99% Invisible tell the story of the Stroh violin.

99% Invisible is one of the best podcasts I’ve found for evoking a sense of wonder while exploring everyday technology, old and new. The most recent episode I enjoyed, Mini-Stories, was especially fun since it covered so many cool topics: sack cloth sewing culture, the diaspora of fauna via the Colosseum, and then the tidbit that totally tickled me, the Stroh violin.

Imagine a violin in which the traditional wooden body is replaced by a brass horn. Like a griffin or a hippogriff, the Stroh violin seems almost mythic as an unlikely mashup. A violin and a trumpet.

Why does such a weird and wonderful invention exist? We already have a tried and true way to make violins heard over trombones: hire a slew of violinists!

99% Invisible did a beautiful job recounting the origin of the Stroh violin. In short, during the very early days of the recording industry, primitive recording equipment detected sound via a big brass bell (think of an old-fashioned Victrola, only recording sound instead of playing it). Turns out these brass bell recorders did a spectacular job detecting brass instruments. Trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba were recorded with ease. Unfortunately brass bell recording technology wasn’t so great at picking up stringed instruments. Early innovators attempted all kinds of creative ways to solve this problem, one of which was the griffinesque Stroh violin.

The Stroh violin recorded so well that the technology spread to a variety of stringed instruments. There were Stroh cellos and violas, Stroh guitars, Stroh ukuleles and mandolins. I’m dying to explore an instrument museum and see them all!

Of course advances in recording technology rendered the Stroh violin mostly a museum curiosity. But as I surf YouTube to satisfy my new Stroh obsession, it’s clear that the unique sound of the Stroh hasn’t been entirely forgotten, and a few eclectic musicians still put the unique timber and tone of  these vintage wonders to interesting use today.

Two Nights, Three Bands

This week good things came in threes. I was lucky to attend concerts by three fantastic bands: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and Pink Martini with China Forbes.

The trombone player in me was thrilled that each band featured a trombonist playing his heart out!

Seeing three bands in as many days offered an unusual opportunity to notice how the different character of each band made them shine.

Our first evening we saw Trombone Shorty raise the audience to their feet with New Orleans-influenced, jazzy, brassy, hip-hop/funk.

Trombone Shorty’s live performance was all about dance and improv. From the first honk of the bari and tenor saxes, the musicians on stage started to dance, and never stopped. I spent their whole set on my feet, clapping and bopping in my best attempt at close quarters dancing. Trombone Shorty, himself, was an awesome performer, bursting with energy and raw joy. The Orleans Avenue band matched his energy. Each member’s improvisational performances felt celebratory and unique. Long, interactive jams created a live experience that carried the audience far beyond anything heard on recording.

Next, the Alabama band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, followed Trombone Shorty. They mixed funk with soul and took the night in a whole new direction.

Watching the roadies precisely cover, tape, and prepare the stage was a heads-up that this band knew how to orchestrate their performance. I couldn’t believe how tight the band was live. Every note and gesture had been choreographed and polished to perfection. The band programmed their set with great care, building the energy to a boil, and letting it simmer back down.  The audience became absorbed in their retro grooves and Paul Janeway’s stunning vocals.

Two days later we treated ourselves to an evening of Pink Martini. The size and enthusiasm of the crowd at the gates surprised us. We’ve loved the band since our days living in Italy, but had no idea Pink Martini was so popular in the U.S.

Pink Martini’s stage presence is exactly like their music: warm, encouraging, heart-felt, and with just the right touch of humor. Part of Pink Martini’s flair is getting excited about writing songs in different languages and cultural styles. Pink Martini brought audience participation to a whole new level, inviting Arabic, Turkish, and French audience members to jump up on stage and perform music that celebrated their native cultures.

China Forbes’ controlled vocal virtuosity has nothing left to prove. She gracefully stepped back from the spotlight time and again to feature fellow band members, which added so much texture and interest to the performance. To my delight, Robert Taylor’s Bolero trombone solo opened the concert. The most warmly tender, heart-rending performance of the whole concert came from conga percussionist, Miguel Bernal, singing “Yo Te Quiero Siempre.”

Joy, precision, and warm-heartedness. Lots of different emotions packed into two concerts. And two concerts is quite a lot in the space of three days! But these bands will be playing in my head, and on my home speakers, for months to come.

New Heart, Only a Heartbeat Away

During my teen years, when kids form deep attachments to their favorite bands, I was forming deep attachments to classical orchestral music. I bought every album I could find by my favorite trombone soloist. I told high school friends that, if I had to get married someday, it would be to trombonist, Christian Lindberg!

It wasn’t until I met the man I would actually marry, that I began to explore the world of music beyond the trombone. A critical step in my non-classical education was a trip to the music store. I trailed my future husband around the store, at a total loss what to pick. The selection of my first ever pop album came down to a choice between his suggestion of two artists: David Bowie, or Sheryl Crow.

I didn’t know much about either artist. My handsome guide was a Bowie fan, but I had seen the video to Sheryl Crow’s Everyday is a Winding Road, and really liked it. My hand reached out for the Sheryl Crow album, and the rest is history. Sheryl Crow went on to become the soundtrack to my grown-up life. If I look through my iTunes library, her albums C’mon C’mon and Wildflower have more tracks hearted on them than not.

This weekend, for the first time ever, I got to hear Sheryl Crow perform live, on the tour for her brand new album, Be Myself. She walked on stage playing that very first song I’d heard and liked, Everyday is a Winding Road.

The great thing about an album is that you can listen to it anytime: as a celebration, while you dry your tears, or just dancing around the house dusting. But live performance brings a whole new dimension to the music you love. I learned that the track Long Way Back was the later-in-life companion to Everyday is a Winding Road. Knowing that, I heard the music and lyrics in a whole new way. Every musician on stage was such a fantastic live performer. An awesome onstage dual guitar jam at the concert gave me a new favorite song: Heartbeat Away.

When I got home I couldn’t wait to heart the track in iTunes. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a live concert than to come home with a new favorite song, and a more personal and visceral connection music I already loved.