Saving Music Education, One School At A Time

Violinist Mark Wood shows kids it's ok to bend the rules.

steps into a high school auditorium, his patented electric violin in hand. The kids know immediately: this is no ordinary music lesson.

These students have never heard Vivaldi performed on electric violin. And chances are they haven't heard Jimi Hendrix played on violin either. But Wood, with his black rock-star hair and warm smile, dazzles them, as he delivers lessons typically untaught in school.

He's there to show them that you needn't play by the rules. And Wood, a Port Washington resident, would know. The Emmy winning musician – he’s graced the stage with Billy Joel and Celine Dione – and for many years, was string master of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, has banked on rule-bending.

A self-described Julliard drop-out, Wood traded in the classical-orchestra track to “innovate the violin into the 21st century,” he said. “I made a huge left turn where no one still to this day does rock violin the way I do it.”

Now, Wood doesn’t simply teach music. He aims to save music education. In the process, in schools nationwide, he may be saving the arts.

“Giving back is an important part of our responsibility,” Wood said. “It’s been an eye-opening experience for me to find the thirst and hunger from the teachers, schools and students.”

Wood, through his “Electrify Your Strings” program, travels to 60-plus schools annually. This last decade, he’s worked with more than 100,000 students, raising upward of $1 million towards music education programs.

Depending on the district, Wood and sometimes his band visit a school, providing workshops and rehearsals, culminating in performances that generate revenue for the district through ticket sales and program sponsorships.

“All the profits from ticket sales go back to the school,” he said. Wood also raffles off a violin that he builds through his Port Washington-based company Wood Violins, generating another $2,000-to-$3,000. D'addario Strings donates $1,000 worth of strings to the schools. The local instrument dealer typically also provides support.

That multi-level backing has fueled Mountain View High School in Tucson, Arizona – a school Wood visited three times.

“Students love to create music with Mark,” said Terry Alexander, the school’s orchestra director. “They love the idea of performing alongside an accomplished player.”

Programs can range from $3,000-$10,000, but often are backed by benefactors and education foundations, Wood said. The investment pays back in spades, with profits allowing districts to provide instruments and scholarships. And when a community invests in the arts, decision-makers are less likely to cut programs, even in tough economic times.

Just ask Alexander.

“Our administration and school board were looking at ways to save money," she said. "After the huge success of Mark’s program and the loud voice of students and parents they wouldn’t think of cutting music. It has given us a voice of importance that otherwise we would not have had.”

In the process, Wood aims to nurture creativity. His concert-pianist mother was “determined to have a string quartet with her kids,” he said, adding that his childhood was all music all the time. That drive and passion remains with Wood, who strives to encourage students nationwide, regardless of whether they want to become musicians.

“Being able to provide revenue for a school music program is certainly very important,” Wood noted. “But equally important is motivating and inspiring and changing a kid's life who may be not as popular in school, not quite having the confidence, not knowing how to interact with the world once they leave school.”

Working with Wood was “life-changing” for Alec Damiano, currently a journalism and mass communications major at Arizona State University.

He's a great example of pursuing your dreams even when no one else believes in you," Damiano said. "He's been a hero to me.”

Editor's Note: This person has been featured as a Greatest Person of The Day on Huffington Post. The story will appear on Huffington Post Friday. 

Peter Nelson March 17, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Can't wait to see Mark in Saratoga Springs, NY in a few weeks.
Lisa Hamsmith March 18, 2012 at 05:59 AM
Mark Wood's Electrify Your Strings program is truly amazing! My son's high school in Parker Colorado has been lucky to participate twice in the past few years. Get ready folks... the experience will truly light a fire in your young musicians!
Linda Bean March 19, 2012 at 05:23 PM
Mark Wood's Electrify Your Strings program was as inspiring to me as a teacher as it was to our students. What he is giving to music education programs and the youth across America is priceless.
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