Featured Artist of the Month
May - Dixon's Violin
Albums: From the Forest (2018), Nonsense Night (2018), Jade Dragon (2012), and Desert Trip (2010)
By Sue Clements
His name is Dixon. The way he describes it is like this. “It’s just Dixon, no last name needed, me as a person = Dixon, whereas me as a musical entity = Dixon’s Violin.”
He was raised in Flint. Dixon has lived In Lansing, Dearborn and now in Ann Arbor.
Dixon has been playing the violin for over 40 years but never intended it as a career.
He’s a truly remarkable man, simple and straightforward. He looks at peace and at ease up on the stage. Dixon is soft spoken (listen to one of his four TED Talks) but shares a powerful message. He puts his music out there, as an opportunity. Hoping you’ll take a moment to stop, listen, connect with your own journey and acknowledge all of the mess and joy that’s part of being human.
I was able to connect with Dixon and ask him a few questions. Here’s part of our conversation as well as my two cents.
SC: Did you choose the violin or was it chosen for you?
D: I started playing the violin when I was 10 – I was very lucky that my elementary school had a string program at the time (they don't any longer). Our teacher asked the class if any of us were interested in being part of the program, and I raised my hand without really thinking about it too much – I was curious, but it wasn't a burning desire. My parents supported me, and they made me a deal: if I promised to practice every day for an hour, then they'd buy me a (student) violin. I agreed. (...) I really enjoyed the feeling of playing music. I also felt pride when I was getting recognition from others for my ability – which had little to do with any innate talent. Everyone, including me, sounds awful at the violin at first – I just practiced more than most. I like to say that anyone can play the violin, the trick is that the first two years suck :) After that, it starts to sound good, but most people give up too soon. Keep at it!
SC: Were you always an experimenter? Did you do a lot of messing around on the violin?
D: I was terrified of experimenting! I learned in a very traditional classical style where there was a right way and a wrong way to play. There were rules, and I followed them. The goal was to be perfect, to never make a mistake. While this helped with my technique, this is otherwise a horrible energetic approach :) It wasn't until after my life change that I realized that it's OK to make mistakes. No one is perfect, and if you make mistakes, you'll still be OK. You'll learn from these mistakes, and they can make you even stronger. So now, I invite everyone (including me) to get out of our comfort zones and try something new!
SC: Dixon has played in various orchestras, including the Midland Symphony. My question – What did the transition look like, from the Symphony to Dixon’s Violin?
D: I never intended to be a musician. My main focus in life was technology. I was a geek – OK, I'm still a geek :) I was playing classical violin as a hobby, while I got Bachelor's and Master's degrees in computer science, a patent in virtual reality, and embarked on a 20-year career in data visualization. I was "successful". And yet there was a little voice in my head telling me something was missing. At 35 years old, I went to my first festival, and it opened my world. I saw so many people there that were expressing themselves, feeling, flowing...and I wasn't. (...) So I started to pay attention to my feelings, to be bold and express myself, to experiment. Musically, this meant trying to improvise – for the first time after playing the violin for 25 years! It was scary, since there's no instructions, no rules, no notes written down. Just listening deeply to my feelings and learning that mistakes are just part of the process.
SC: Tell me about your first Dixon’s Violin performance?
D: At this point, I started experimenting and improvising wherever I could. I was living in Lansing where I was a director of technology at a couple of startup companies, but in the evenings and weekends I would sit in with bands – anybody that would have me. Jazz bands, rock, funk, electronic music, klezmer, gypsy-jazz – you name it, I was trying it. I learned so much from other musicians who couldn't read a note of music and yet they were amazing! After a while I started to do some solo pieces, perhaps at an open-mic night somewhere. I love how supportive open-mics are. (...) Later, on weekends I would drive to Detroit and participate in some crazy variety show or avant-garde art exhibition. I was starting to find my style, my voice, my own sound. When I realized I could share this with others and together we could have a deeply moving, even transformative, experience...that's when I realized I needed to quit the corporate world and do this full time. That was 11 years ago, and I haven't looked back.
SC: Can you explain looping to me?
D: When I was sitting in with bands my violin wasn't loud enough to compete with the drummer. I switched from an acoustic violin to an electric violin simply to be amplified easily. But then I noticed something about my guitar-player friends: they were using their feet! They have all these toys on the floor: foot pedals that make the guitar sound different, or foot pedals for looping. I wondered: could I plug my electric violin into those same toys? Yes, you can! So now I could give my violin sound effects when I wanted, and I could do looping. Live looping is a process where I tap a button with my foot, and the device starts to record what I'm playing. I tap again, and the device now plays back what I just played, over and over as a loop. I can tap again to start a second layer of sound, and then a third or fourth layer (think back to singing layers of "row row row your boat" with your friends as a kid). I can add as many layers as I want, and play overtop them for an amazingly full sonic experience. After many years (and upgrades) of guitar pedals, I eventually realized no devices existed that fully did what I wanted them to do, so I scrapped them all and created my own system. I now play a 5-string electric violin through a laptop, and I wrote thousands of lines of code myself to make it do what I want it to do onstage – did I mention I'm a geek?
SC: Have you had times when you’re playing and think oh boy, what am I going to do with this? Can you share about any of that?
D: Generally, if I'm not feeling it, neither is the audience – so I take a breath and think to myself: what do I want to play, for me? Not "what would they like?", but what would really delight me in this moment? When I'm feeling good about what I'm doing, people tend to pick up on that. It still amazes me how we humans can resonate with each other.
SC: I’m always struck by the mournful sounds that can come from a violin. They’re so beautiful. Have you ever played for a funeral?
D: The violin is an amazingly expressive instrument. Part of the magic is the bow, which maintains contact with the string for a long time – as opposed to plucking a guitar, for example, where you're in contact with the string for only a fraction of a second. With the violin, I can play a single note that starts with one emotion, changes to another, and finishes elsewhere – and that's just a single note! I've played a funeral or two, over a hundred weddings, baby showers, someone just told me they were playing my music in the room while they were giving birth – how cool!
SC: What would you like our readers to know about your music?
D: When people hear my music, they often assume I'm using pre-recorded backing tracks, but everything I play is live. While sometimes my music is sweet and gentle, it can also be haunting, intense, and other-wordly, and yet every sound you hear is coming from the violin. I'm just playing with the waveform as it comes through. And it is always different. I am often improvising songs from scratch, trying to listen deeply to my own feelings, and I encourage others to do the same.
SC: What do you see when you’re up there on stage and look out at the audience? How does that impact your playing?
D: I have to balance how much I look at an audience. On the one hand, it feels so good to look out and see so many smiling faces, to know what I'm doing is really moving people. But I can't get too distracted – I have to remember I'm still playing! I'm doing a LOT of things at the same time, playing the violin with two hands, using my feet to control dozens of buttons on the floor, crafting where the music is going next, so I have to pay attention to myself and what I'm doing. But I can't get too self-absorbed, either – I have to remember I'm a human in a room full of other humans and it's wonderful to see each other.
Dixon shares that we all have the power to choose, We are capable of doing anything we set our minds to. He shares this verbally, but also musically. He encourages his listeners to find the strength in being truly ourselves.
I know that music, especially when listened to as a part of a group or community, is somehow experienced as a part of that whole. With Dixon’s music, there is also an invitation to stop and follow your own journey. That is my experience anyway. I encourage you to listen to his music, find somewhere near you that he is playing live and see where his music takes you. He’s scheduled to perform in Lowell at LowellArts September 24th. Mark your calendars. You won’t want to miss it!