FeaturesNovember 21, 2021
The Art of Letting Go with Scott Tixier
The violinist and improvisation expert gave us some advice for playing–and living–in the moment.
Meet Scott Tixier, a violinist, composer, and educator specializing in improvisation. For him, freedom to express is the ultimate luxury, and a skill he aims to share with his graduate students at the University of North Texas. When he’s not in the classroom, he’s collaborating and performing with stars across genres (John Legend, Stevie Wonder, and most recently Adele, to name a few), or living his life the way he plays his instrument–taking it moment by moment.
You can hear his strings sweeping across “Love is a Game,” the symphonic final track of Adele’s new album, 30, or in John Legend’s new Christmas song, “You Deserve It All,” or on stage with The Police, who he joined on tour a couple weeks ago. That sampling of collaborations should give you an idea of Tixier’s range and depth.
Coming from a family of artists, including his pianist twin brother, he’s been perfecting his craft since the age of 5 – but it’s his ability to let go of all inhibitions and just play that has made his name in the industry and earned him multiple Grammy awards.
We chat with Tixier about his artistic practice, managing time as a creative, and the art of learning to let go.
You work across a wide variety of genres. If you could summarize it, what would you say that violin adds to any type of music?
I think the reason I’m in so many different styles is that the violin is like a mountain bike–it’s a hybrid. You can go anywhere with a violin. You can play fiddle music, gypsy music, classical, of course, baroque, rock music, Irish, folkloric, Indian–it’s in every culture. It’s an instrument that’s very versatile and it can be in any situation.
I think another reason I’m doing so many different styles is because I’m an improviser, so I don’t stay in one box. I’ve been trying to do that since I was a kid, I’ve been in a mindset that I don’t belong anywhere, because I don’t like following the crowd. What I like is to create my own universe and my own world, and with my improvisation I always need to do that.
Jazz was the door to open that journey around improvisation, but it doesn’t stay only in jazz–jazz music is a way to get into this mindset.
Music for me is more like a way to express myself and to be communicating. So I'm communicating with different genres and different styles.
What’s your favorite part of being an artist?
Freedom. I’m free. I do whatever I want with my energy and each time I do something, it’s something that makes me grow and something that makes me feel alive. I’m not working for anyone for anything–I like to be free.
It’s a long journey, but when you improvise, you learn how to let go, to be in the moment, in the present, not think about the future, not think about the past. You’re right there right now with the music and you’re in the zone. That’s a privilege. That’s one of my favorite things, the essence of it is being freed, basically.
How do you teach that to students?
Everybody has freedom within them.
It’s one of those things where you have to deal with how people perceive you, right? For an artist that is going to be on stage and expressing, they’re going to be looked at and it can be distracting. It’s hard to not care so much. If you play music and you look at yourself and you try to sound like something, or have a preconceived idea in your mind, you’re already making a blockage to be free because you have an assumption, you have an expectation. If you don’t look at yourself, and you try to be present in the moment, it’s where you create the best music.
You need to forget about where you’re going to go – you need to really embrace the moment and only react to what’s happening. If I see that a student is playing and they’re not in the moment, I tell them to stop, to listen, and to try to sing the inner voice that they hear… It starts from within, it doesn’t start from the instrument or the idea of it.
You’ve had some exciting collaborations recently. You specialize in improv, so do you get freedom in these collaborations or is there a certain direction you follow?
Sometimes big artists who are high profile, they’ll have a manager on set, and they have a very specific idea of what they want, so I’m just playing what they want me to play. Sometimes, in the same session, for example, one time with John Legend–it’s a cool story, because this was for a Christmas song just last year–I went to a studio, I recorded the track, and at the end of the session, I asked the arranger/orchestrator, ‘Hey, I really like the track. We should do a violin solo, it sounds good.’ Everybody left the studio, and I recorded the solo. We sent it to John Legend, just to make sure that it is okay, because it was not planned. I flew to Dallas, and when I landed I got an email saying that John wanted to keep it, so he kept it on the track. Then I went to celebrate at Midnight Rambler, and I saw Sting there! Anyway, the track is “Happy Xmas,” it’s a cover of John Lennon.
When I was [touring] with Stevie Wonder, everything was written too, and it was supposed to be a tour with only written parts, but in rehearsal I improvised a little bit and he heard me and he was like okay, ‘Who is playing?’ and I said ‘Me,’ and he said, ‘Okay, you’re going to play a solo for each day on violin.’ So, sometimes I get solos because I take them.
What inspires you as an artist?
Sometimes it’s things outside of music. There are many things that inspire me, but one of the most important things is the energy of a room, or the energy of a place. For example, traveling inspires me, different atmospheres and cultures. It makes me feel connected, because I see all the similarities and all the unknown, but also all the things that we have in common wherever I am.
How do you manage your time as an artist?
Usually, I’m really bad at time. Because I’m an improviser, I absolutely hate,hate planning. Actually it makes me a little uncomfortable to plan things, and I know sometimes that’s a bad thing because [of the society we live in]. I have a hard time organizing and planning in advance because I like to be spontaneous, and I like to do things that I feel at the moment, and just do them. When I play, that’s what I do when I improvise. I do things without planning them.
In my life, I’m very emotional, and it’s also a very emotional instrument, the violin, so what I try to do to organize my time is to prioritize my time with my instrument. My life is really around my instrument.
What are some of the most significant moments in your career?
One of the moments that touched me the most and impacted me as an artist, and also just as a person, was when I was asked to play with Stevie Wonder for two years and being on stage with him. I grew up listening to his music… Being onstage and doing “Isn’t She Lovely” with him every night, in places like Madison Square Garden or stadiums, it was really surreal and extremely moving for me.
Another one was when I was on David Letterman for the first time, because that was a big time in my life, a big change from basically doing no work to being on David Letterman. It was like it was one of the moments where I knew that something was different. Wow, a violin can carry me to these places.