Monday, July 28, 2014

Inspired by Ottawa childhood, violinist touts Christmas tracks

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer | 11/23/2012

Before the studio-recorded albums, packed concert halls and international acclaim, Thomas McGregor’s labor of love began with a violin slightly larger than a box of tissues. 

About 20 years ago, McGregor — then a bright-eyed, two-year-old student at Ottawa Suzuki Stings — used a 1/64 scale violin to begin mastering an instrument that now has taken him around the world.

Before the studio-recorded albums, packed concert halls and international acclaim, Thomas McGregor’s labor of love began with a violin slightly larger than a box of tissues. 

About 20 years ago, McGregor — then a bright-eyed, two-year-old student at Ottawa Suzuki Stings — used a 1/64 scale violin to begin mastering an instrument that now has taken him around the world.

“As far as I know, it’s the smallest [violin] they make,” McGregor, now 23, said from his Austin, Texas, home. “Anything smaller and you’re going to have a hard time getting any sound out of it. ... Obviously, now I play a full-sized violin.”

An Ottawa-native, McGregor now works as a violin instructor and also travels the world for performances. Initially trained in classical violin, McGregor said he gradually gravitated toward genres with more traditional country roots, including bluegrass and fiddling. Eventually, his interest in such genres shaped the style of his instructional work, which McGregor said is referred as the O’Connor method. The technique, named after violinist Mark O’Connor, essentially combines the methods of playing jazz, funk, bluegrass, classical and improvisational violin, McGregor said. 

“[The O’Connor method] allows the teacher to address each child with their interests and that really appealed to me,” McGregor said. “Most children believe that improvisation is a thing that only the big guys do, but it’s really not that complicated when you take a simple approach. ... Using the method gives you a great foundation to get children to think outside of the box.”

Teaching such a method has allowed McGregor to travel the country showing others how to master the technique, he said. And when he’s not teaching, McGregor plays the violin at domestic and international venues, including England, Puerto Rico and across the east and west coasts, he said. McGregor also has recorded four solo albums, including his most recent CD, titled “Happy Holidays.” The album features 16 stylized Christmas tracks, including such songs as “Joy to the World,” “Away in a Manger” and “Go, Tell it on the Mountain,” all of which are evocative of the violinist’s boyhood in Ottawa, he said.

“These are tracks from my childhood,” McGregor, who also arranged the pieces, said of his album, adding that it now is being played on the radio in the Netherlands and across Europe. “These are songs that resonated deeply within me. ... These are songs that are traditional, hearty and really full of life for me. I’m really proud of the album.” 

Asked why he pursued the violin — instead of the mandolin, guitar, bass, banjo or other stringed instruments of which he’s also well-versed — McGregor said he appreciated the challenge the instrument presented. 

“I’m a very challenge-driven person,” McGregor said. “With the violin, I’m acutely aware of every detail and it’s enough to drive you crazy sometimes. ... It’s almost a challenge every time I pick up the instrument. I don’t think I’ve ever picked up [a violin] and been completely 110-percent satisfied with what I’ve done.” 

Had he not made a career of performing and teaching the violin, McGregor said, he’d have aspired to be an astronaut. Since he was a child, McGregor said, he’s maintained an avid interested in the universe, and he’s toyed with the idea of being an advocate of space education. 

“I had planned hopefully in the future to be some sort of space advocate where I speak to children about how fun and interesting space is,” McGregor said. “I don’t want to lose that aspect as far as our wonderment [of space]. I’ve always been interested in space, and I’ve always wanted to go to space.”

While he’s come a long way since his first lessons, McGregor still is keen to acknowledge his Ottawa-based training as the building-blocks of his success. 

“Working with the Suzuki program was great,” McGregor said. “The education was great. ... [Suzuki Strings] really gave me a great foundation and great all around philosophy for how to approach playing the violin.” 

McGregor’s next performance, which is expected to largely feature his new album, is set for 7 p.m. today at the Middle Creek Theatre, 33565 Metcalf Road, Louisburg.

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