Meet Aaron Colverson as he shares his ardour for music, art and his glorious one-stringed instrument, as well as his journey from his native America to Kenyan soil with EDNA GICOVI.
One warm Sunday afternoon in late February 2014, I sat with a friend on the soft grass at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) enjoying the food, music, poetry and friendly banter at the Kinanda Arts Festival (a monthly art extravaganza). A bespectacled, cordial young man plopped himself down on the grass next to me. He knew my friend.
After pleasantries and introductions, we talked about the free cake that was being passed around and he talked of his experience working as a pastry chef in Tennessee in the US. The conversation veered from cake to music to life in Kenya before more and more friends streamed in and we all wandered off to different areas of the venue. Later on, towards the end of the event, we silently watched a solo violinist perform a breathtaking rendition of Paradise by the UK band Coldplay. It was Aaron Colverson, whom I had met a short while before.
Growing up in different states, Aaron dreamed of being many things including a fire fighter like many kids growing up in America aspire to be. He was involved in different pursuits from an early age. He did martial arts, took violin lessons, played football, swam and took cooking lessons, among other activities. “I wanted to take part in everything,” he says of his diverse interests. He particularly loved music and sports. He hoped to be some sort of athlete or coach. He still holds on to that dream to this day, and hopes to find a way to connect his involvement in music with his athletic abilities.
A love for the violin…
Aaron started playing the violin at the tender age of eight. “The first few years, I was terrible. It’s definitely not the easiest instrument to play. It took me a while to get the basics,” he says, adding that once this happened, he does not recall any one time when his mother had to make him practice.
“I really enjoyed doing it!” he says excitedly. “There was something special about the instrument; something powerful about its sound.” In about three years, Aaron was playing in small chamber quartets (a musical group of four string players – usually two violin players, a violist and a cellist), a feat not achieved by many children of his age at the time. There’s a great deal involved in learning the instrument; a lot of listening to different pieces and a lot of playing as well. Aaron had a gift.
He hated his first music teacher. He found her too harsh. He quit the music class for a while as a result of this. He picked it up a few weeks later, this time with a different teacher whom, he says, was influential in her playing style, care, and patience towards her students. He found another influential teacher, after moving to Tennessee with his family, who contributed some elements of violin playing that were not so common to him at the time. Throughout his school life, he encountered different teachers who were influential in different ways and helped him to further polish his skill.
After high school, Aaron attended Stetson University in Florida in the US. Because of his musical abilities, he got half scholarship. At Stetson, he studied health sciences because of his interest in sports. The scholarship required him to be involved in music and he played in several orchestras and took music lessons. He encountered a good number of fine musicians at the school as well and this made him work even harder at his violin playing because he also wanted to be equally good.
He however left Stetson after only two years instead of the required four. He felt that what he was studying didn’t really challenge him. In addition, his parents were paying a quite an amount of money for him to study there while he strongly felt this wasn’t what he needed at the time. He transferred to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville where he studied music, as this was what he had decided to focus on but he was still unsettled.
His search for an institution that would accommodate his interests and fulfil his thirst for musical knowledge continued. He stumbled upon Berklee College of Music in Boston on an online search. He hadn’t heard of the college prior to that. He was impressed by their programmes and went for an audition as was required. He succeeded and also qualified for a partial scholarship to study a course in professional music.
“Berklee is a diverse institution. At least 30 percent of the school is made up of international students, an environment that I relished. The amount of influence from different cultures was one of a kind and this aspect really opened my eyes and ears to what was possible,” he says, adding that he learnt a lot from being there, listening to different ensembles (a group of musicians, actors, or dancers who perform together) performing, and from the numerous teachers from different backgrounds.
He also learnt how to play as a solo artiste accompanied by other contemporary instruments like the guitar, keyboard, electric bass and drums, among others. He also played in various orchestras and was exposed to various musical styles and ideas from all over the world, which all contributed in making him the musician and performer that he is today.
Aaron loves the violin. He refers to his performance style as a classical approach to contemporary music. “The instrument has a unique characteristic to it,” he says. He explains that the violin is a versatile instrument that has been used in many different ensembles in history all over the world. “I’m still learning the violin even after all these years of playing it,” he says modestly.
He graduated from Berklee in mid-2011. Before that, he had visited Kenya with a few other students from Berklee on an exchange programme. Here, they met Sara Mitaru, a Kenyan singer and songwriter and her husband David ‘Blackman’ Muthami, a music producer and instrumentalist. The couple hosted them and organised for them to meet with different musicians in Nairobi who were interested in not only going to Berklee but also in contemporary music in general; and who wanted to learn how they could expand their abilities and knowledge of what music really is.
During his stay in Kenya, Aaron was fascinated by the orutu, a one-stringed fiddle native to western Kenya, especially amongst the Luo community, that is played like a violin. He learnt how to play a few songs on it from an orutu player whom he met. He also had a chance to perform with his hosts at a concert at the Michael Joseph Centre in Safaricom House, off Waiyaki Way in Nairobi’s Westlands area, an experience that had a great impact on him.
All these experiences brought him back to Kenya towards the end of 2011. “Since I came back, I have had the pleasure of performing with a lot of talented musicians and realised opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I stayed at home,” he says. He also loves the fact that in Kenya he is reaching out to different audiences as there are not many contemporary violin players in the country yet.
Plans for an art centre…
Aaron is also working on plans for an art centre with Sara and David. He intends the art centre to be a place where artistes from all over the continent can interact with each other, learn different styles of music, perform, teach, and experience each other’s styles.
One of his goals pertaining to the art centre is to have it partner with his alma mater in the long run. “Berklee has partnered with different institutions and centres from all over the world but none in Africa yet,” he explains, adding that partnering with Berklee, a premier music school in the world, will go a long way in helping the centre as it strives to develop and enhance an array of contemporary music-education.
Aaron says that with time, the centre will diversify and involve other artists like visual artists, digital artists, photographers and dancers, among others. At the moment, he is writing the curriculum for the centre, as he will be leading the programme. He hopes to have the centre started by the end of this year.
Believing in yourself…
One of the biggest challenges Aaron has faced in his involvement with music is the idea of believing in himself. “It’s difficult to continue doing the same thing day in, day out and believe that it’s going to lead to something better,” he says about being a violin player. Not only that but also believing that when someone puts him down or discourages him saying that he won’t make it, it is either because that person didn’t make it or didn’t push themselves to the extent that they needed to in order to make it. He adds that, “Trusting that what I’m doing is going to be beneficial in the future, not only to me, but also to others has not been easy.”
Playing the violin requires a great deal of discipline. It is something you have to do everyday, just like anything you want to be good at, according to Aaron. Through improvising, listening, playing with different groups of people, and adapting to new styles, he has been able to perfect his skill and continue reinventing himself, which, he says, is absolutely exciting.
Watching successful performers in action greatly inspires him. Previously, it intimidated him but now it makes him want to be even better in his performance. “Human beings created where we are today. We are human beings, you and I,” he says pointing at me. “So why is it that we cannot do what we would like to do?” he asks. “Believe in yourself. You can do whatever you set your mind to,” he adds.
The art centre is among his immediate future plans. He plans to be in Kenya for at least the next five years so as to be closely involved in the building and development of the centre.
Aaron looks up to the late Jascha Heifetz, a Russian born violinist widely regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time. Performance-wise, he is inspired by Bela Fleck of the instrumental US group The Flecktones. His favourite type of music is jazz-fusion, a musical fusion genre developed from mixing different genres like funk and R&B. He is happy to be doing music. Practise, practise, practise, and believe in yourself. This is his advice to anyone looking to master any form of art. His pieces can be found online at the following website: www.reverbnation.com/aaroncolverson
Published in April 2012