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Joshua Bell talks music, education and his 300-year-old violin

Known for his personality and virtuosity, Joshua Bell, 47, has recorded more than 40 albums and garnered accolades from the Avery Fisher Prize to an Academy Award nomination.
Published Mar. 17, 2015

Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world, also has one of the most famous violins.

It's a 300-year-old Stradivarius called the Gibson ex Huberman, an impeccable instrument stolen twice in its storied life. Bell paid $4 million for it, and it goes everywhere.

Surely it would start to talk to you, right? Like Tom Hanks' volleyball in Castaway?

Bell laughed. And then, he kind of agreed.

"It's a special thing, opening up the case every morning and seeing this object that has had so much history and so much happen to it over the 300 years," he said. "It almost feels like a living, breathing thing. I don't take it to the extreme as Tom Hanks did. It varies day to day. I get along with it better on some days than others, depending on the weather and the way it's responding. And I try to treat it with special care and take it to a special violin doctor."

Bell, 47, is a charming celebrity of the classical world, known for his personality and virtuosity. He started on the strings at age 4 and made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17. He has recorded more than 40 albums and garnered accolades from the Avery Fisher Prize to an Academy Award nomination. A new crowd learned about Bell after he played anonymously in a subway for a Washington Post story that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

The father of three tours constantly. In the past month, he bounced from Florida to New York to Colorado and back to Florida. He found time for a call before his concert Tuesday at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, where he'll play with pianist Sam Haywood.

Does your travel schedule affect your performance?

Well, everything affects everything, so yeah. But I'm also very accustomed to traveling and know how to deal with those things. I know how to deal with jet lag and I know just how much rest I need and when I need to take naps. When you walk on stage, you need your brain working at its highest and most fully-functioning, so it's not always easy, but I sort of figure it out. There are better days, and there are days when I'm running a little ragged, but somehow when I walk on stage, I put everything away and just put everything into it. I don't remember the last time I felt like I didn't give it my all.

You're on tour again with Sam Haywood. What is that relationship like?

We push each other, inspire each other. Sometimes we argue. That stimulates you, you know, learning and defining your ideas, and helps you define what you want music to be. Argue and figure it out. He's not an accompanist there to follow me. I don't want that kind of pianist. We begin the second half with the Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G major. It's one of those magical pieces, but it's a piece that's so deep and profound. Every time you do it, you learn something about the piece. Even now, I was just rehearsing with Sam and still finding new things in the piece. That's what's so fun about being a musician. You're always discovering.

There seems to be new interest in grass roots music events in our area. How important is music at the community level?

It's great to see those things happening, and these festivals and youth orchestras, and I think it's just really important. Music is such an incredible tool for kids in general. They learn discipline, they learn how to express themselves. You learn math. You learn language. It's the ideal teaching tool, and that's why it's mind-boggling when any school superintendent decides that music is something we can kind of do without. It's just ridiculous. It's tailor-made to help educate a young person in many ways. I think music should be the basis of an education, not just something you do once a week.

Did you see your audience change after the Washington Post story?

As my career has gone on, I guess I've become more well known. I'm playing to fuller halls in general, which is a nice feeling. When you're doing that, you're going to have a certain number of people who are not just the hardcore classical fanatics, and this makes me very happy. I want to see more people who aren't just listening to classical music. If people clap at the wrong time, that only tells me that I've gotten someone to come that's not used to going to a classical concert, and that makes me feel good.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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