A student from Zachary Middle School plays her violin while head banging to 'Crazy Train'.
A student from Zachary Middle School plays her violin while head banging to Crazy Train. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

When 1,000 Northside Independent School District student musicians come together for a concert on Saturday night, guests expecting a traditional orchestra performance might do a double take.

Where guests would usually see students sitting in orderly rows, reading notes from their music stands, on Saturday night, they will see children raise their bows in the air, bob their heads, and play rock songs.

Students will perform songs by AC/DC, Michael Jackson, and Ozzy Osbourne at the Northside Sports Gym. They have practiced since January to hit the notes perfectly and headbang at just the right time.

The 1,000 students are participating in a program called Electrify Your Strings, organized by Trans-Siberian Orchestra electric violinist Mark Wood.

Mark Woods works with students at Zachry Middle School during rehearsal. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Wood, who wears his hair down to his shoulders and commonly sports black skinny jeans, travels the country in between Trans-Siberian concerts, working with middle and high school students on their technical skills and choreography.

The program ends with a large concert where students show off their work from the practice sessions. Wood hosts his program all over the world – in an average year, he helps put on between 50 and 60 student concerts.

His goal is to show students that music is worth their time, and he hopes “to send a new message about the importance of our arts program in schools.”

“The typical cliche [attached to classical music] is ‘dead white people’ music, and I play classical music,” Wood said. “It is time that we integrate three things into our music programs: technology, improvising, and American styles. [It is] augmenting the great, great tradition of classical music, [which] is a gift from Europe.”

At a rehearsal Thursday morning at Northside’s Zachry Middle School, located on San Antonio’s Northwest Side, dozens of students gathered on the school’s stage with their string instruments.

Along with Electrify Your Strings, Wood brought the drama and excitement of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to the middle school through a film crew that is working on a reality television pilot about his program and pulsing rock music that blasted out of the school cafeteria’s speakers.

Zachry is one of 12 Northside ISD schools Wood is working with for Saturday’s concert. On Thursday, Wood traveled to four of the campuses to hold personal sessions with the students.

Throughout the morning, Wood encouraged student musicians to add some drama to their movements, directing students to throw their heads back and cast their bows up in the air after long notes.

“Use your hair,” he told students who proceeded to throw their heads forward with each downward slash of their bows. “You all look like rock stars!”

Students lift their bows into the air during rehearsal. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

As Wood gave feedback to individual students, their teacher, Liliana Cavazos, demonstrated the choreography the children needed to internalize. The students felt like rock stars, she said, and that sometimes piqued their interest more than the traditional classical music that most orchestras play.

Wood said adding an electric element to the concert can help engage audiences. He and a few pupils used electric violins that neither looked nor sounded like their traditional counterparts. One student held a cherry-red, circular violin close to her chin as she strummed high-pitched notes.

Cavazos compared the sound of the electric string instruments to that of an electric guitar. She said you can have an acoustic guitar, which she compared to a traditional violin, or you can have an electric guitar, and use effects and pedals to alter its sound.

Seventh-grade student Hanna said she loves playing high notes, because it allowed her to “rock out really hard.”

“My parents were really excited [about the program] because my mom used to be a bit of a rocker when she was little,” she said. “They like hearing the music.”

Cavazos said her students look forward to participating in Electrify Your Strings all year long. This was the fifth time the program came to Zachry.

Last year, seventh-grader Sean participated in the program. He said his mom and her boyfriend saw him perform at the Aztec Theatre.

“She thought it was like an actual concert,” Sean said, noting that everyone seemed really impressed with his performance.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.