Leah Jones

Photos by:

Matt Poirier

“How a classically trained violinist takes new musical risks” 

When I was five years old, I decided I wanted to play the violin. My family was living in Vienna, Austria at the time, the City of Music, so it wasn’t entirely surprising that I was inspired by the same city that many famous violinists call home.


“You wanted to be like Mozart,” my parents tell me since I have few memories of those early years of life. I think I just liked the Mozart chocolate that was sold on every street corner. Nevertheless, my parents enrolled me in violin lessons, and I began my musical journey on a tiny violin that looked more like a toy than an instrument.

Fifteen years later and 5,000 miles from my musical beginnings, my music journey continues. Though I have chosen not to pursue music professionally, I still spend hours practicing and playing in the orchestra at the University of Alabama. From Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” to John Williams’ “Star Wars,” I have explored a variety of styles of music as a soloist and an orchestral member. However, as a classically trained musician who plays mostly classical music, my exploration of different genres has been limited. Bluegrass, folk, and country music have been largely uncharted territory. Though I enjoy listening to music outside classical music, I have had limited opportunities to explore these genres as a violinist.

When brainstorming ideas for Mosaic magazine, I came up with the idea of a musical experiment, a reason to finally dive into the world of upbeat pop music and the twangs of bluegrass. This musical experiment will allow me to look at the violin from a new perspective and grow as a musician. Music does not exist in isolation but draws on inspiration from all areas of life. I believe the things I learn will not only help me as a classical musician but open my perspective to the world.

One genre I am particularly interested in exploring is “fiddling.” In the South, I often get asked the same question:

“Is that a violin or fiddle you got there?” People ask me partly joking, but also curious.

What’s interesting about fiddling and folk music is the long history that goes back hundreds of years. Most think of the classic “Devil Went Down to Georgia” when thinking of fiddle music, but folk and fiddle music can be found all over Europe and the United States. It comes from a past time when modern technology was not yet created, and people spent their evenings gathered around fireplaces while watching the flames flicker in time to the fiddler’s beat. I look forward to beginning my musical exploration with this traditional folk music and exploring the world of a fiddler. 

It’s a crisp, summer morning in the Appalachian Mountains. The rising sun cuts through the thick fog that hangs in the undergrowth of the trees. A gentle breeze rustles the green leaves that will turn gold and burgundy in the later cold months. Perhaps somewhere in the distance, a creek can be heard running down the mountain- the cold water flowing from the deep depths of the mountain. It’s a peaceful morning.

But out of the quiet, a hauntingly beautiful song begins. A lone violin plays the opening double stops of a song inspired by the mountains themselves. The piece is repetitive, allowing the violinist to improvise: to linger on a beautiful chord, to build tension in the line. The longer the violinist plays, the more the piece evolves and takes on a life of its own. The last note of the piece rings out through the vast forest and silence descends again on the mountains.

As a violinist, visualization is a powerful tool for immersing myself in a new piece of music. Appalachia Waltz by Mark O’Connor is the violin piece I have chosen for my musical experiment, and visualization has been vital in understanding the music. As I play the opening double stops, I imagine myself standing in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. The song, inspired by Appalachian and Scandinavian folk music, draws me into another world of lush green forests and cool mountain breezes.

To begin learning Appalachia Waltz, I first listened to several recordings to become more familiar with the melody. Appalachia Waltz feels nostalgic and reminds me of my childhood growing up in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee for four years where my bedroom window faced a large green mountain. On some cooler Saturday mornings, my family would hike the mountain and enjoy the view that stretched for miles in every direction. In many ways, Appalachia Waltz brings back memories of living in the Tennessee Valley and my love for the mountains. If I had to pick one word for this piece, it would be green. As my violin bow quietly pulls against the silver strings, I imagine the color green filling the room around me, drawing others into the Appalachian Mountains.

As I began to learn Appalachian Waltz, I came across several challenges in learning the notes and rhythms. However, the greatest challenge with the piece wasn’t the notes written on the page, but the notes left up to my own experimentation. Much of folk and fiddle music relies heavily on improvisation and the violinist’s own interpretation of the piece. In my favorite recording of the piece, O’Connor and his daughter play a beautiful duet version of the piece. Together they improvise and build upon O’Connor’s original composition, adding harmonies that create greater depth in the music. Although classical music allows for some experimentation within solos and modern music, orchestral music typically requires strict adherence to the written music. For this reason, I rarely have many opportunities to improvise within classical music. Through this experiment, Appalachia Waltz allowed me the space and freedom to bring my own ideas to the song and to create a living piece of music.

In the midst of learning Appalachia Waltz, I also had the opportunity to see my all-time favorite violinist in concert. Although I may be biased, I think Hilary Hahn will go down in history as one of the greatest violinists of this century. A three-time Grammy winning violinist, Hahn plays with precision and technical perfection. As I sat in the middle of the concert hall, I marveled at her ability to draw the audience into her performance and to bring the music to life. With perfect technique and a beautiful tone, she left me with an unforgettable performance. After the concert, I stood outside the concert hall and listened as a cellist described rehearsing with Hahn.

“’More risks! Take more risks,’ she kept telling us all throughout rehearsals and before the concert,” the cellist said. Perhaps the most defining aspect of Hahn’s playing wasn’t technical perfection but the ability to take risks in the music. During rehearsals, Hahn continued to challenge herself and the orchestra to push the bounds of the music and take a risk. Music is a dynamic art form and it’s through taking risks that it can continue to grow and develop.

Now, after reflecting on my experience learning Appalachia Waltz, I finish my violin experiment with an open-ended conclusion. If I’m being honest, this is the fourth time I’ve tried writing the ending, struggling to convey with certainty what I’ve gained from this musical experiment. At first, I felt the need to have a very clear answer like “I am now a master fiddler who will continue to pursue to bluegrass” or “Appalachia Waltz taught me to appreciate different genres of music.” Although these statements may have elements of truth (though I am not even close to a master fiddler), they fail to fully convey my complete thoughts. I set out to explore a new genre of music and I’m not sure how that will continue to affect my musicality. I do have a deeper appreciation for folk fiddling, and I do hope to continue to explore genres. Perhaps the biggest lesson came not just from this experiment but from sitting in the concert hall listening to Hilary Hahn play what felt like the most magical and inspiring violin performance. It was a performance defined by risk and uncertainty. Whether it’s learning a new piece of music or simply getting out of my comfort zone, here’s to committing to taking risks. In music and every area of life, taking risks opens new worlds of possibility and leads to growth.