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Sparking interest in strings

Before picking up her violin bow to play Metallica's "Enter Sandman", Rebecca Rotunno pulled the pink hood with the black-and-white striped ears back on her head.

Rotunno listened closely to electric violinist Mark Wood as she prepared for Saturday night's "Orchestra Rocks!" concert at Kenmore East High School.

During Friday morning's rehearsal, the Kenmore East sophomore started feeling dizzy and shaky. She came very close to a full-blown panic attack.

Would she screw up and ruin the song for everyone?

For the past few weeks, Rotunno and fellow orchestra members have been practicing AC/DC's "You Shook Me" and Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven" in preparation for the arrival of rock violinist Wood.

Now Wood stood before them in full-blown, old-school rocker style: black hair past his shoulders, skinny black pants as snug as tights, a loose purple cowboy shirt and a jagged letter-M pendant.

"Are you guys ready to rock the school like it's never been rocked before?" Wood asked.

"Yes," the student musicians on the auditorium stage quietly murmured.

Then, egged on by him, they responded more energetically.

Wood, who helped found the Trans-Siberian Orchestra 12 years ago, spends the holiday season touring the country playing electric rock Christmas shows. He spends seven months a year visiting about three schools a week to inspire kids to play stringed instruments.

This past week, he spent two days at Kenmore East to perform, rehearse with an orchestra made up of a select group of middle and high school students, and give a morning talk to a delighted audience of about 500 Ken-Ton string students in Grades 4 through 12.

The kids were alternately rapt and wiggling, raising hands.

Wood made his electric Viper violin -- jutting from his shoulder like a shiny, spiked V -- sound like a guitar, a burp and a wailing dolphin.

When one girl knew he was playing Edgar White's "Frankenstein," Wood gave her a T-shirt.

Some students who brought their instruments riffed with him. Several got to try out the Viper.

It felt "freaky and weird," said Julia Kiefer, 9. But, said the fourth-grader, "it was really fun."

Wood explained to the audience how he succeeded as a violist-turned-violin rocker -- with hours of daily practice. He told them that he left the classical-oriented Juilliard School so he could better learn the rock style that fascinated him. He advised students to daydream and to follow up on those dreams, just as he did when he built an electric violin as a kid.

"I'm so proud of everyone in this room," Wood said. "It is such an important part of your life to pursue something creative."

After Wood's talk, students rushed up to him to autograph their sheet music, and he described his current mission.

At 50, his dreams have come true. Now he wants to help young musicians make theirs happen and advocate for stringed instruments themselves.

Electrified, Wood said, they can attract new fans.

"The bleak side is the orchestra will be museums in 10 years," he said. "In our culture right now, it's the perfect time to be part of a new way. . . . We welcome everybody from the tattooed kid to the prim and proper girl."

Orchestra teacher Gail Bauser listened Friday morning with a pleased look on her face. After hearing rave reviews of Wood's Electrify Your Strings! program from a friend, she researched and arranged for Wood's visit.

"The more I read, the more I thought, 'I have got to meet this guy,' " she said.

Bauser landed the last of Wood's available 2009 orchestra workshops, and his fee was paid by the school district. Ticket sales were slow until Wood arrived. But once the electric rock sound leaked out, word spread, and the concert, which also featured the Kenmore East choir, was a near sellout.

Wood's coaching included lessons for the many serious and studious-looking orchestra students in how to loosen up for rock:

Let your hair loose and out of pony tails, he told them.

"By tomorrow night, have it all out. As freaky as you can," he said.

One young cellist promptly unfurled hers.

Move your bodies like ticking clock pendulums, he said.

Students swayed, tapped and bobbed their heads.

"We are not musicians, we are communicators," said Wood, who had the music stands lowered so orchestra members could make better audience eye contact.

A student-designed light show flashed behind them with purple, pink and spinning pinwheels when Wood played the pounding beat of "Enter Sandman" with hair flying. The student orchestra backed him up, sounding, said one cellist, louder than ever before.

At her seat in the last row of second violins, Rotunno tentatively tapped her foot. Her sheet music for Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" was newly marked -- one spot for vigorous "head banging," another for lifting the bow toward the ceiling to finish, just as Wood said.

Rotunno had messed up one song; her bow slipped, and she played a whole measure of wrong notes. But she didn't get as upset as she normally might have.

Watching Wood's enthusiasm and good cheer -- nothing seemed to upset him -- was making her think differently about music. By the end of the rehearsal, Rotunno relaxed. She had found her comfort zone. She was looking forward to playing Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" at the big concert.

Until she heard Wood play, Rotunno hadn't realized how beautiful electric instruments could sound.

Friday morning she finally, and firmly, decided not to quit violin again as she had twice before in her school career.

"I'm going to go through the 12th grade playing," she said, "and I'm going to keep playing after."


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