Ben Hoyt: Mesmerizingly Polyphonic

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I recently sat down with Ben Hoyt, a street performer based just outside of Washington, D.C.  Ben plays the electric violin, and is crazy good at it.  Sitting in the town square of the D.C. suburb, we talked about learning how to be comfortable improvising, being homeschooled, and life at a music conservatory. CV: So, just to begin: Where are you from?

BH: I’m from Chevy Chase, Maryland, and moved a few miles away 8 years ago.  I was actually homeschooled from 4-9th grade, and that’s when I moved, it was interesting socially -- meaning nonexistent.  But it was good because I feel like, when I was homeschooled, I developed a lot musically and I had a chance to really focus on the violin, primarily.  

CV: Where do you go to school?

BH: I go to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, it’s a part of John’s Hopkins University. and I’m doing a degree in violin performance and I’m also doing a degree in what’s called recording arts which is sound engineering and learning how studios work, producing music, recording artists, that kind of thing. and it’s actually an engineering degree and it’s great, it’s fantastic. the double degree is a 5 year program and I will be going into my 3rd year in the fall.

CV: You said “violin, primarily,” do you play other instruments?

BH: I started to play piano when I was homeschooled; we had this keyboard at our house and I watched this video on youtube of someone playing Pachelbel's Canon and then doing this really cool jazz improv thing with it and, of course, everyone knows Pachelbel's Canon but to see someone do something so fantastic with it in a different musical way was inspiring to me.  

I think that really inspired me in two ways: it first and foremost I wanted to learn to play piano, so I sat down at the electric keyboard and started trying to figure out how to play Pachelbel's Canon which is relatively simple but I had never played piano before.  And I started spending hours on that things and I started playing movie music I learned to play bass clef with my left hand which was hard because violinists only play treble clef -- that was great, that really got me started.

I think the other thing that this one video in particular really inspired me to do was to take music and perform it in a different way, which is what I do when I street perform -- it also helped that I wasn’t going to school, so I had all this time on my hands

CV: How old were you when you started playing violin?

BH: I started playing the classical violin when I was 7, a lot of kids that I know started when they were like 3 or 4 so really tiny.  I don’t know if you’d call me a late bloomer, but I don’t really think it matters, as long as you practice, a couple of years as a toddler doesn’t really matter, in my opinion.

CV: How long is a typical practice for you?

BH: The way I see it, you should never do bad practice, and what I mean by that is you should never autopilot play your instrument because when you’re not focusing and you’re just playing notes; you’re not improving if you’re not focusing on problems, you’re just kind of playing through.  I think it was Yitzak Perlman who said that you should never practice more than 5 hours of focused practice a day, 5 is a max, because beyond that your brain can’t handle it, it’s too much mentally.  I can get so much more done in an hour of focused practice than 3 hours of just sort of playing music.  It’s how you practice, and if you do it in a very focused, organized manner.  

CV: When did you start to play the electric violin?

BH: I started playing the electric violin about 4 months ago, I saw a video of a guy playing electric violin and I thought “that’s awesome, I want to do that, I can’t not do that”. So I got this electric violin that has the normal four strings of a classical violin but it also has a c string of the viola, so it has 5 strings total -- which is great because you can play bass notes, sort of, which you can’t really do on the violin and I do loop pedal stuff when I street perform, it’s nice to have that [...] range of frequencies so it sounds broader.

CV: When did you start to street perform? Was it scary in the beginning?

BH: Yes, yes, most definitely.  I actually started performing with the normal violin, I started playing classical music on the street and I would just play my concerto or my bach or whatever I was working on.  It was freaky, it was really scary, because the only performances that you do as a classical musician are your recitals or your private lesson with your teacher, and playing on the street is so different: a completely different crowd, you’re outside -- which you don’t really do when you play classical music.

It was really my mom who was like ‘you should street perform, people will just throw money at you’ and I started doing it and people threw money at me, it was great.  I was playing my rep I was playing through classical songs over and over again, and that’s when I thought ‘oh why don’t I just throw in some arpeggios at the end or something like that and I started improvising, a lot.  I started doing a lot of whatever came to my mind -- whatever came to my fingers.  

When I started using the electric violin on the street, I started doing this loop pedal thing where I would arrange pop songs, and then loop it.  What that means is: I’ll record the basic chords to the song and I will record harmonies on top of that and sometimes I’ll do percussion.  Then when I have all of it recorded and I start playing the song I generally throw in a lot of improv, I’ve heard that I’m very good at it, which is great.  It’s interesting, I’ve had no training in improvisation so when it comes to jazz improv, no way, that’s hard, that’s complicated, but in terms of having a chord progression playing on a loop and just playing whatever melody over it, I’m pretty good at that.

CV: Who taught you the pedals? How did that start?

BH: So, I had heard about pedals and I didn’t really understand what it was but I saw someone playing guitar on YouTube and he had this thing and there were two guitars going at the same time and I was like ‘oh that is the coolest thing in the world’, and then I looked up ‘violin loop’ and I saw people who do this with violins and I was like ‘whoa, I can totally do this, I need to have one of these things’ so I went out and I bought a tiny, little one-pedal.  The reason I started playing with the electric violin on the street was because I had incorporated this loop pedal and I was amazed by it.  

I started out with one pedal then a couple of years ago, I decided to upgrade to this huge, 6 pedal thing.  It was expensive but it paid itself off in a couple of nights, so very much worth it. It gives me many more options in terms of looping, manipulation, effects, and taking things away and putting them back.

CV: At Peabody, do you find electric music, electric instruments kind of coming to the fore or is the study very strictly classically based?

BH: It’s very strictly classically based, I have mixed feelings about that, but, I think to be able to do cool things on the electric violin and to do looping, to be able to do alternative music you need a very very solid classical, technical training foundation: you need to play your scales, your intervals, you need to do all of your exercises and everything and you need to play classical repertoire because it’s very very hard, so for those reasons, I am glad that the conservatory is, that in general, conservatories are, focused on classical music.  

The problem is that so many kids who go to these schools, who go to Peabody, have difficulty expressing themselves in other forms of music and have been brought up to play classical music their entire lives and they never diversify, they never really try anything different, so it’s difficult for a lot of these kids to improvise, or have a jam session -- you know?  The bottom line is that if you want to do something in alternative music, if you want to play the electric violin and pop songs and be a pseudo-rock star, you have to go through this training so that you are very technically able so that the alternative music is no problem.

CV: In three words, how would you describe your sound?

BH: That’s so tough. It’s not three words but it may work: you could call my music “mesmerizingly polyphonic,” if I do say so myself.  

CV: Who is your favorite artist or composer-- what is your most played song on your ipod?

BH: I love Beethoven, there’s just so much passion and so much angst, and so much darkness and energy in so much of his music in so many different forms.  I have very mixed feelings about Lindsey Stirling, some people laugh at her and some people love her and some people hate her. I admire her for what she’s done: she started as a YouTube artist and she started doing these videos and it was different and it was weird, she’s playing the violin and she’s dancing, which is something I would never do and in a way part of me is like ‘oh man, what are you doing’ and at the same time I have such admiration for someone who can take classical music, take the violin, and not only play alternative music but also dance while she’s playing. It’s so cool that someone did that and is now touring the world. In a way, I feel like that’s what so many musicians want to do but are afraid to do: take their craft and do something different with it.  I wouldn’t say she’s necessarily my favorite performer, but I admire her greatly.

CV: If you could have a jam sesh with anyone living or dead who would it be and why?

BH: Probably Stéphane Grappelli -- famous famous improvisational violinist.  That would be so cool, because I sort of do improve but I haven’t been trained in it, so maybe just a lesson from him. But that would be awesome, that would be really cool.  There’s this video of Hilary Hahn who is arguably one of the most amazing, cleanest, most technically proficient players in the world jamming with a folk violinist and she’s very much out of her element, and they do improvisation and it’s very very interesting to watch her, this world class violinist try to do something that she’s just not used to.  

CV: You made me stop and sit for 15 minutes and sit among almost 100 other people, what do you think is different about you that makes people stop and listen?

BH: There’s something that happens when there is a large crowd watching you perform, there’s an energy, this sort of inexplicable energy that the eyes of the audience watching you gives you, this kind of energy you have from all these people watching you and that energy makes you focus more, put more energy into it, just be more passionate, and into it.  That will be apparent through the sound of the music and also the visuals of my playing you know: I’ll dig in, I’ll get into it, I close my eyes, and that in turn makes more people stop and give their audience-energy.  So it’s kind of this upward spiral in a way of audience-performer feedback. I think when I get a crowd, when I have a lot of people watching me, there’s a high that I get -- an adrenaline rush that gets me going and more and more people stop.

Learn more about Ben on his website