Michigan Band The Moxie Strings Help Students Look Beyond Classical Music

Dec 11, 2015

The Moxie Strings teaching at Waverly Middle School in Lansing
Credit Robbie Feinberg/WMUK

On December 11th, the Michigan trio The Moxie Strings will bring their unique style of music to The Livery in Benton Harbor. The band's music is broadly Celtic rock, but it's also experimental, combining together classical, bluegrass and and Americana to create a unique sound, equal parts gentle and spirited. But if you had met the band's violinist, Diana Ladio, and its cellist, Alison Lynn, a decade ago, you would have never guessed they'd end up making this kind of music.


Back then, Ladio and Lynn were still in college. And they really only knew classical music – sonatas and symphonies, not rock. But everything changed when Ladio met Lynn.

It was at a summer camp for music educators, of all places. Before this camp, Ladio had played a little Celtic music, and she was looking for ways to somehow play more. So when when she saw Lynn carrying around an electric cello, she saw an opportunity to pull away from the classical world a little bit.

"You are a musician. You’re as much a musician as DJ’s, as much a musician electric guitarist, keys players, a lot of the people playing whatever music you’re really into. Just know you are holding an instrument that’s just as much a part of that.”

  “When I met [Lynn] and she had an electric instrument, that was the sign I needed that maybe she was ready to branch out of the classical world as well," Ladio says. "It was a good match. I would play some fiddle tunes, she would just play some rhythms, and then that was just the spark. And it grew. It's come a long way since then.”

The two started out just fooling around with a few melodies at camp. But after they left, they kept playing together. And that fooling around turned into three or four real fiddle tunes. All this was happening as Lynn and Ladio were still in college, learning classical musical. But the two spent their weekends crafting songs and performing at bars. Ladio says it turned into a weird kind of double life.

"As we were finishing our last years of college, we had started playing these gigs as a band on the side. We would roll in from a weekend, everyone else would have been in the practice room and we had been on stage at the bar! And it was a little, it was different! And we had to prioritize for a time. Then as soon as we had graduated, and got our performance degrees, it was our real opportunity to start shifting so that the fiddle styles and what we were doing outside the classical world could start to take charge and start be our focus." 

And once the two did graduate, they found a way to connect their two worlds. They combined the educational skills they learned in college with the Celtic rock they were playing at bars. It all turned into a unique, hands-on educational clinic that the two brought to local schools. The mission behind it: to teach kids the lesson they learned years ago – that string instruments aren’t just for orchestras.

On a recent afternoon, Lynn and Ladio have brought the clinic to Waverly Middle School, near Lansing. The two stand in the school’s auditorium, looking over about 40 eighth-grade orchestra students with instruments in hand.

“The idea of today is for you guys to start thinking of the instrument you’re holding as not just an orchestral instrument. But as a music instrument in general," Ladio tells the students. "You are a musician. You’re as much a musician as DJ’s, as much a musician electric guitarist, keys players, a lot of the people playing whatever music you’re really into. Just know you are holding an instrument that’s just as much a part of that.”

The way that the two get this message across is unlike any music lesson I’ve seen. Instead of lecturing the kids or handing out sheet music, Lynn and Ladio basically throw them into the deep end right away. They tell the kids to grab their instruments and bows. Then they teach the students the Moxie Strings’ new single – called “Stir Crazy” -- completely by ear.

You'd think that learning a melody like this -- on the fly -- might be tough for a kid. But the Moxie Strings dissect the song, piece by piece. And by the end, the kids do start to get it. Their version understandably sounds slower and a little more off-key than the original, but after only fifteen minutes or so, the song is there. 

"Sometimes we could spend 40 minutes teaching the tune and have a blank stare. But then start working on the improv, and we look down, and the kid that was looking at us with a blank stare is smiling and excited."

  But Ladio and Lynn say the best part of these clinics comes at the end. That’s when they push the students to improvise and create their own melodies. When a kid improvises, they say, the musical world opens up in a new way. It becomes about a lot more than technique and learning some notes. It becomes about expressing yourself. The music becomes personal.

"Sometimes we could spend 40 minutes teaching the tune and have a blank stare," Lynn says. "But then start working on the improv, and we look down, and the kid that was looking at us with a blank stare is smiling and excited!"

"And it’s an exciting message because you really do see the light bulbs go on! It’s inspirational that way," Ladio says. "But going along with that is the creativity piece. You'll have to look at your instrument a little differently. It's not something that is just going to play notes that you see on the page in front of you. It's going to be something that you will make the creative decisions on. And you will decide what notes you want to play based on the scenario around you, how you want the notes to sound."

Ladio continues:

"The next step is composing and actually shaping soloing, there’s just so many amazing directions you can go once you start looking at your instrument as a vehicle of creativity. And trying new music is the perfect landscape for that. In the strings world, the natural progression is to Celtic music or bluegrass, fiddle styles of some sort or jazz, and all of them have improvisation and composition as fundamentally part of them. So it just becomes a great landscape"

Ladio says that even a decade ago, learning this stuff wasn’t that common in public schools. But now?

"So many teachers now are including different kinds of music in their programs," Ladio says. "So many publishers and composers are writing arrangements for orchestras that are in many, many different styles. We’re watching the strings education world kind of transform itself in front of our eyes."

The band hopes that as these teaching styles change, it can inspire more and more kids to stick with their instrument. And maybe, in a few years, they hope, a few of those kids could become the next Moxie Strings.

The band will be touring across Michigan over the next week or so. You can see where they'll be playing at their website.