Latest News: string players

Player Q&A

By Jessica Apperson



Violinist Simon Orvista, violist Erica Ticthdale, and cellist Steve Velez took the time to answer some fun and informative questions in between sessions for Rock Hits 2016 and our upcoming Hits of 2016 Volume 2.


What do you feel you do to add your personal touch to the VSQ renditions?

Simon Orvista - Even though these are tribute albums, it doesn’t feel genuine if I try to copy the original exactly.  After getting to know the vibe of each song, I approach the music as if it’s the most meaningful, important music I’ve ever played - and play it from the heart.

Erica Ticthdale - When I was in high school I often fantasized about being a drummer, so when I get a chance to be a “rhythm-section” (such as in Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” or Shawn Mendes’ “Stitches”) I get a little extra kick out of it.


What is the most fun about playing a song that isn’t traditionally played by string instruments?

Simon Orvista - I play the violin, and we often (and rightfully so...back off violas and cellos) get the melody lines.  So it’s fun to emulate what vocals do, especially pop vocals, since singers naturally do a lot of interesting and expressive things that aren't normally done on the violin.

Erica Ticthdale - Similar to what I said above, it’s fun to get a chance to “imitate” rock instruments, or even voices. I love all kinds of music, so as a classically trained musician it’s really fun to get a chance to branch out and dip my toe into other genres.

Steve Velez - It’s so fun to find parts of classical music in pop and rock music. Being inspired by George Martin to blend classical with rock was my motivation to do more with bringing it to life with my cello.


What was your favorite track to play?

Simon Orvista - Gah, I can’t pick a favorite kid.  Most satisfying to play: Sia’s “Chandelier” and Adele’s “Skyfall”; maybe “Sweater Weather.”  Surprisingly dope: The Sigur Rós tracks.  I’ve got a big soft spot for Lorde’s “Team.”  I’d have to go down the rabbit hole to remember all the songs I’ve done, but I always have a great time recording them.

Erica Ticthdale - My favorite track would have to be “Tennessee Whiskey,” since I not only get to imitate the singer (whose vocals in that song are so soulful and expressive), but the AMAZING guitar solo in the middle as well.  I had a lot of fun with that one.

Steve Velez - This is very difficult to pick after doing so many tracks. I love The Nightmare Before Christmas.  “This is Halloween” was so fun. I also loved doing Dream Theater, Tool, and Madonna.


What was the most challenging one to play?

Simon Orvista - Um, I’d say some of the slower, more intimate tracks can be hard to pull off well.  Things like “Stay with Me” or “Say Something.”

Erica Ticthdale - Ironically, the answer to this is the same as my answer above. Because we work hard to capture the essence of each song we cover, I needed to play along with Chris Stapleton’s vocals over and over to get myself into his groove. It was so worth the extra work!

Steve Velez - Absolutely, Dream Theater, 100%!


If you could transform any modern rock or pop song into a string rendition, what would it be?

Simon Orvista - Some old school R&B, like Donnie Hathaway’s “A Song for You” or some esoteric Stevie Wonder would be so fun...and I think it would sound amazing for string quartet.

Erica Ticthdale - Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” ‘Nuff said.

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Q & A with Rock Hits 2016 Producer Jim McMillen

By Jessica Apperson

Jim and Leo

Leo Flynn (Left) Jim McMillen (Right)


1. How do you remake rock songs with classical stringed instruments?

Most classical string music is weighted towards harmony and counterpoint. Most pop music is weighted towards rhythm. So, I have to find the basic essence of the rhythm of the song and then translate that groove onto an instrument that was not designed for that purpose. Guitar and Electric bass are designed for rhythm, but viola and cello are not. Our viola and cello parts tend to look like the left hand of a piano piece! Not for the timid. The players and I have developed these techniques over a period of many years.  


2. Which was your favorite track to produce?

Hard to choose only one track out of the over 700 that I have done for VSQ, but some projects stand out: The Nightmare Before Christmas - A tour de force of string special effects, put to musical use. Madonna - Her melodies are so strong, they are easy to accompany. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young - Strong melodies, great results. Mudvayne - Incredibly harsh music; extremely well done! Yellowcard - Don't know why, but these tunes adapted well for the strings. Jane's Addiction - I think we do their music better justice than they did! The Decemberists - Their neo-folk melodies really set the strings on fire. The Beatles - Don't change a thing from their arrangements. Anything you "improve" only makes it worse. Tool - Any of the VSQ tracks based on Tool are stellar because their music composition is stellar.  


3. What song was the most challenging to arrange?

Imogen Heap - Hide and Seek - Very rubato with lots of electronics; came out great. Macklemore - Thrift Shop - How do you recreate rap with strings? Listen to this!  


4. How do you keep the emotion/feeling of the song intact or do you try to alter that feeling when you think it’s necessary?

I try to duplicate the groove of the piece in the lower strings and the emotional quality in the violins. Every once in a while there is a piece that simply will not translate to string quartet, and only then do I re-imagine it. I believe that people want to hear the tunes they love in a similar environment to how they are used to hearing them. They want to sing along with the melodies. I do not try to take the melody, throw out the rest, and reconstruct it into something unrecognizable, changing the rhythm and feel along the way. I try to take something that is already beloved and adapt it for strings.  


5. How does the pre-production process with Leo (brand manager) and James (A&R) usually go on a project like this?

As I understand it, they choose the tunes based on a long list of variables and then submit that list to me. Then I create sampled mockups of the pieces. After a good listen, James and Leo help me mold those early versions into a piece that emotionally complements the original. Not as easy as it seems! Some tunes these days have Thunder Drums and Whisper Vocals. That makes it difficult to assess which of those competing emotions will predominate. Or will they co-exist, or will we switch back and forth by making some sections soft and some loud, because you cannot hear a whispering muted violin over a roaring cello playing quad-stops! Save

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