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“What are your influences?” It’s a popular topic asked in interviews or on applications for music conference showcases and festivals. The music of our past tends to hold a special place, but I’m usually a bit annoyed at the question, especially when it might feel like there’s limited to talk about what I’m actually focused on now. In effort to find our own unique voice and muse, it can feel frustrating to suddenly be asked to go back in time and list influences which may or may not feel like anything we're performing or creating currently. I tend to worry too about having the “right answers” when performance opportunities are on the line. Yet, the truth is, I do have musical influences that have profoundly shaped me.

How do we honor our past without letting it hold us back from our future? A little like a child growing up and entering the world, we come from a family of influences, including teachers, favorite artists, and genres, and ideally we learn from them but we don’t try to become them. We grow into our own shoes.

I didn’t bother applying to any conferences or festivals in 2021 due to the uncertainty of the continued COVID-19 pandemic, but I’ve recently enjoyed revisiting my early musical influences, and with fresh ears have come to see how they have in fact shaped my musical tastes, my composition style, and my approach to interpretation and arranging. I invite you to enjoy a bit of my past here and I look forward to sharing more in future posts.

Dance of the Renaissance: Someone gave me a cassette tape of this album when I was 8 or 9 years old and it’s still one of my favorite recordings of all time. Considering my first “gig” was around that time as a strolling minstrel at a Renaissance style “May Faire,” this album was quite suitable. Even now I feel transported to another time. This is one of my favorite qualities of music.

Midori - Live at Carnegie Hall: My aunt gifted me this album along with a few others among the first CDs I ever owned. It made me fall in love with Classical music. Not that I wasn’t already a fan, but prior to this my Classical music listening was primarily recordings of the Suzuki books I was working through and a boxed set of Classical favorites, like Pachelbel’s Canon and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which were primarily orchestral or solo piano recordings. This album significantly expanded my view of what a violin could do, technically and emotionally. YouTube didn’t exist quite yet, so opportunities to hear a wide range of artists and composers weren’t nearly as accessible as they are for today’s students. I loved every piece she put on her program, particularly Ravel’s Tzigane which I heard a young Hilary Hahn also perform live in recital not long after.

Scruj MacDuhk: I saw this band perform at the Strawberry Music Festival near Yosemite, CA as a teen and fell instantly in love with their fusion sound. Featuring Ruth Moody, now of the Wailin’ Jennys, Leonard Podolak, more recently of the Duhks (more on them in a part 2 blog), fiddler Jeremy Penner, as well as Dan Baseley, Joel Fafard, and Gillies Fournier, and hailing from some far away place called Winnipeg, I dreamed of being in a band like this someday! As fate would have it, it would take almost 20 years but I’d eventually meet most of those musicians, open for Moody and the Wailin’ Jennys, enjoy talking fiddle with Penner, and perform with Fournier. Even though the band was relatively short lived, these amazing players carry on with other groups and projects that are all well worth checking out.

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter: Another early CD I owned, I fell in love with Mendelssohn and Mutter. Not as overtly flashy as some of the other major concerto repertoire, I was drawn to the inherent emotion woven through the notes and Mutter ability to personalize and humanize. This remains an all time favorite piece of mine, and while just about everyone has recorded it, this one remains one of my favorite renditions.

Nickle Creek: Also during my teen years, the mecca for music in my hometown of Monterey, CA was a coffeeshop called “Morgan’s,” owned by an infamous mover and shaker named, well, Morgan! One time he hosted a young Bluegrass band from Southern California called Nickle Creek. They weren’t much older than I was at the time and didn’t have an album out yet, but it was apparent that they were destined to share their sound. Sure enough, Alison Krauss learned about them a few years later and helped boost them into the major festival circuit. It was an honor to have had the chance to sit a few feet away from Chris Thile and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins before they were famous. Though they have written wonderful originals, here’s a traditional tune they performed that night to particularly wild applause.

Short Trip Home: I’d nearly forgotten about this album until a student recently reminded me about it. Sure enough, all the sounds came flooding back. I’d listened so many times while studying for my high school science exams I can still remember it note for note. I did well on those tests, but I’m pretty sure my memory of those Biology, Chemistry, and Physics facts and equations all these years later isn't nearly as clear...

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey with me. Stay tuned for Part 2. It turns out I have many more influences I’d like to share!

Please email Laurel at if you have a violin, viola, fiddle, music biz, or practice related question you’d like answered in the blog or on a podcast, have a story or insight to share, or if you’d like to inquire about violin, viola, or fiddle lessons with Laurel, in-person or via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.

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Laurel Thomsen

Violin, Viola, Vocals
Performance, Instruction, Recording

Based in Santa Cruz, California

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Photography by Michelle Magdalena
Skype: laurelthomsen

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