A League of Extraordinary Violinists (Part IV): James Lyon

This violinist feature needs little-to-no introduction because it's Mr. Clara's Dad! We are very fortunate to be working with the exceptional James Lyon for our Ear Taxi shows, and given his role as violin prof. at Penn State, we expect to learn a thing or fifteen from the experience. Keep reading for string technique secrets, TMZ-level dirt on Clara, and some USDA Prime dad jokes. This run with Jim is going to be an absolute hoot!

Doyle Armbrust: Hi Jim! At one point in your career, you were a member of a quartet with a rather unusual framework. Can you tell us a bit about it?

James LyonYes, for seven years I played in the Harrington String Quartet out in west Texas (insert obligatory yeehaw here).  HSQ had three missions: (1) to bring the glories of the string quartet repertoire to the good people of the Texas panhandle (B) to serve as string faculty at West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M) (3) to serve as principal players in the Amarillo Symphony (D) to go where no string quartet had gone before…whoops, NASA wanted us to keep that top secret! I guess I eventually got the proverbial seven year itch and we moved to beautiful central Pennsylvania where I have taught violin and chamber music for 25 years now! (insert nature sounds and the purr of a friendly mountain lion).  It was an honor to be associated with the fine musicians of the HSQ and we have remained friends as members have gone on to play in the St. Lawrence Quartet, the Montreal Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and the like.

DA: One of the videos we viewed before inviting Clara to audition for the group was of a Haydn quartet, performed by 4/5 of the Lyon clan. Is chamber music with the family pretty much the best thing ever?

JL: Chamber music is music of great intimacy and it often cultivates a family-like closeness among members. I am sure that the Spektral Quartet often strolls in the park together, bakes pies together, and all drink from the same glass at parties, right? Seriously, there is NOTHING like playing with family members, because over the years you develop your own little codes for communicating – almost telepathic really – that is very, very cool and quite rare.  There is a directness of communication through music that goes beyond words that is magical to experience with anyone and doubly so when with a family member.  

DA: What is your favorite violin-related Clara story...the one that gets told at the Thanksgiving dinner table every year?

JLWell, on Turkey Day we always tell the tale of how our ancestor Clarabelle McGillicutty Lyon made peace with the Native Americans at Plymouth Rock by playing “Bile Dem Cabbage Down” with such alacrity that they all enrolled their children in violin lessons with her! As for our own Clara, one of my favorite stories involves me practicing Bruch Violin Concerto to play with the Hershey Symphony many years ago when Clara was still pretty young. She came into the room and said, “That was out-of-tune, Dad.”  To which I replied, “Yeah, I guess it was. But it is normally fine.”  At which Clara said, “No – it is ALWAYS out-of-tune!”  Out of the mouths of babes…

DA: What is the most creative (or convoluted) excuse one of your students has given for not being prepared?

JLWell, the ol’ “dog ate my music” excuse is a favorite and if my memory serves me correctly it has only been tried on me once. The thing is – it was actually true!  This was long before the internet and therefore being able to find the music online and print it up was not possible or even conceivable at that time. Nowadays students have to be much craftier, like: “I was seeing if I played better after half a glass of wine, as Carl Flesch suggests. I did, so I wanted to see if I was even better after a whole glass. Well, by the fourth glass I was sounding really, really good, but unfortunately I passed out.  So I couldn’t practice any more - it’s not my fault, Professor Lyon.”  (This excuse is never actually accepted, but it is only even listened to from students 21 years of age or older.)

DA: Is there an element of string playing that you think is particularly important...one that many of us perhaps overlook?

JLI have always wanted to declare a thumb awareness week!  You know, complete with placards that say things like “Thumbs are Fingers Too,” and “Thumbs – the Forgotten Fingers!”  Our thumbs seem to count for so little in string playing that we don’t even number them like we do our other fingers. But tension in any of our fingers or in either hand always involves tension in the thumb muscle.  A relaxed thumb almost magically relaxes the rest of the hand. I learned this from cellist Paul Katz who said he learned it from his Tai Chi teacher. And it’s yours for free right now! 

DA: Which Muppet character do you most identify with?

JLOne of my favorite movies of all time is Muppet Treasure Island.  Though for obvious reasons I have always identified with Jim Jim Jimmy Jim Jim Jim Jim, he is technically not a Muppet character. So I suppose I will go with Fozzie Bear, whose incessant puns are nearly as awful as my own. Fozzie doesn’t care if other people love his puns, he just loves being himself by trying to be punny!

DA: Let's assume you've been granted one track on Carl Sagan's gold record, to be rocketed into space in the hopes of reaching other lifeforms in distant galaxies. Which track of which recording do you choose?

JLI was pretty disappointed when my recording of Barry Manilow’s timeless masterpiece “Weekend in New England” (sung to the accompaniment of the Turner Ashby High School Choir) wasn’t selected for either Voyager 1 or 2, due to Manilow’s extreme jealousy. But I am pretty much over that now, thanks to my therapists Dewey Listen & Ann Sharge-Alott . But, and I am quite serious in saying this, I think Spektral Quartet’s recording of Sky Macklay’s “Many, Many Cadences” is among the coolest things I have ever heard! The ensemble is SO tight, the articulations S0 precise, the piece is SO FUN to listen to, that I believe the rest of the universe deserves a chance to it.    

DA: Thanks, Jim! Looking forward to our Ear Taxi ride together!