Adam DeGraff's New Rockin' Fiddle Challenge: Don't Stop Believin'

March 20, 2012, 1:43 AM · "Don't Stop Believin'" for solo violin? You'd better believe it!

Violinist Adam DeGraff has a new Rockin' Fiddle Challenge for his fellow fiddlers:

That's right, Adam is challenging people to learn his solo violin version of Journey's Don't Stop Believin', that 80's tune made newly popular by The Sopranos and by Glee). Post your performance to Youtube, and Adam has lined up some best-performance prizes from the Electric Violin Shop of Durham, N.C., including a Realist Acoustic Electric Violin for the first-prize winner and a Coda Bow for the second-prize winner. (He explains it all right here.)

Adam, a Northwestern University-trained classical violinist who turned to improvisation and rock 'n' roll after a stint as concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, is one half of The Dueling Fiddlers (Russell Fallstad is the other violinist.) You also may remember Adam's Rockin' Fiddle Challenge of 2010, in which he challenged violinists to learn his (rather difficult!) arrangement of Guns N' Roses' Sweet Child O' Mine. The winner of that one was Amy Lidell of Indiana.

"Last time was a lot of people signed up (about 2,000), but the piece was so difficult," Adam said. (I can confirm that -- I tried it!) "I think I ended up with some frustrated people, and that wasn't my intention, to stretch people to their limit!" The new piece, which he's calling Violinists Don't Stop Believing, is arranged for the intermediate player. "Anybody who can handle basic double stops would be able to get through this. The way it's arranged, the melody will kind of hold its own." (I also tried this one, it's easier, and shorter, this time around!) Like last time, Adam will give a series of tutorials, working on one small part of the music at a time, until the whole song is covered.

Adam wants to let people know that it's possible to rock out on the violin.

"There are all these awesome violinists out there, and their friends think that they're nerds because they play the violin," Adam said. "We know that's not true, of course, they're super cool kids. But their friends think that the music that they play is something that they don't like. So a bunch of kids started taking my arrangements and Dueling Fiddlers arrangements and playing them at their schools' talent shows." For example, this performance of Stairway to Heaven was done with Adam's arrangement of the song. "It's amazing how the crowd goes wild at the end! I started thinking, okay, that's my audience for this Rockin' Fiddle Challenge: those high school kids who want to get up and play something that their friends will recognize and that will also really encourage them to practice super-hard so that they can make it sound like the original piece that they know."

Adam wanted to use "Don't Stop Believin'" because it has stood the test of time.

"I put up a cover of Rihanna's 'We Found Love', and people seemed to like it. But -- I don't think 'We Found Love' is going to be a cool song in six months," Adam said. "It's a great song. I like it, I had a lot of fun with it, and it was number one on the charts for about six weeks this year. But I don't think, next year, people are going to remember that song. So I decided that I'm not doing any more arrangements of pop and rock songs that I don't think are going to be around forever."

Adam DeGraff

One song he has in mind for a violin version is 'Rolling in the Deep' by Adele. "It just won every Grammy there was, and I believe that song is going to be a classic," Adam said. "Even though it was written last year, it will turn into a classic."

"I just want to put up music that is meaningful to people, it doesn't have to be pop or rock," Adam said of his arrangements. "When they get up in front of an audience, I want them to be proud to play it, and they won't need anything else, other than their violin. Even though I'm playing the five-string violins now, I'm writing these arrangements all for four strings, so you don't need to have a five-string to pull these off."

Adam recently wrote a version of Amazing Grace in honor of his longtime musical partner, pianist Lynn Wright, who died earlier this month from cancer. Together they formed the group Pianafiddle.


"The truth is, without him, there would not have been the first Rockin' Fiddle Challenge, because I never would have gone so far off the deep end with my playing!" Adam said. "In a nutshell, Lynn and I found ourselves in the same remote place at the same time. I had quit my job with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, and Lynn had retired. He'd actually come to West Virginia to die -- that was his kind of tagline. There weren't a lot of other musicians in the area, and we just started playing together. At first I think he was kind of rolling his eyes, playing with this classical violinist. He didn't read a lick of music, it was all improvisatory. He was the pianist at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for years. At the same time, he was also an Episcopal priest. He was probably the most interesting musician I had ever met."

"We started playing together, and it was just fun. There was no thought of ever making it a commercial venture," Adam said. But then it evolved, and they wound up playing together for six years, more than 400 concerts in 42 states. "We had a bus tour, the whole nine yards. Pianafiddle turned into this big Nashville-based touring act. And the whole time, it was all about improvisation. We never wrote any music down."

"I was never allowed to do things the same way twice, because if he saw me trying to do that, he would throw me a curveball: change the key or change the tempo," Adam said. "There's a great video I just re-posted of me doing Wizard's Walk, which is by J. Unger, with Lynn. The great part of it is not necessarily my playing, but of Lynn, halfway through, deciding to double the tempo! There was just a huge grin on his face and he just went 'Hah!' like, 'What are you going to do now?'"

It was Lynn who told Adam to go in the direction of rock 'n' roll after his solo video of Sweet Child O' Mine got so many hits. "He just e-mailed me out of the blue and he said, 'Adam, the people are speaking. This is what they like,'" Adam said. "That's what got me thinking about really putting it out there. What a great guy."


March 20, 2012 at 06:43 PM · This looks really cool! I entered the last challenge and yes, the piece was really difficult, far above my technical level. But I actually made it through the whole piece, and got a CD for most improved. It was well worth doing even though I couldn't get it to a point where I could perform it. Maybe after that this one will seem like a piece of cake (ha).

March 20, 2012 at 08:59 PM · Laurie, thanks for the wonderful posting. You make me seem way cooler than I actually am :-). And Karen, yes, this one is much easier... though it has some tricky spots. I hope you'll join up. I think you'd have fun!

March 21, 2012 at 01:46 AM · Sigh, if only there were a transcription for viola....

March 21, 2012 at 04:59 AM · I'll send you the file and you can transcribe it. Let me know if you are interested in that. Last TRFC we had some pretty awesome violists join us. (They transcribed and competed.) Even had a cellist!

March 21, 2012 at 10:44 AM · Hi Adam, I purchased and downloaded the sheet music last night. I read through the first page, it looks do-able and fun, but still challenging. (I was just being sarcastic (about myself) when I said "piece of cake.") I have a lot going on at work, though, and Beethoven to practice for orchestra, and a Bloch solo piece to practice, so I don't know if I can put it together in the 2-month time frame. I'll see what my teacher has to say.

Mendy, don't you also play the violin? Last time the piece had some double stops where you had to extend your 4th finger quite far--and those would have been impossible for me on the viola, my hand just wouldn't reach. I saw one of the violists' videos, though, and he was quite good and had the reach for it. What do violists do about that if they don't have huge hands?

March 21, 2012 at 01:21 PM · Hi,

how does the difficulty of the Stairway to heaven cover compare to sweet child o' mine and this?

I (very) optimistically tried learning sweet child o' mine, and no chance, gave up after a while (couldn't make the first page sound even half decent..) I know Don't stop believing is easier, but I much prefer stairway to heaven. Is it more doable? Would like to know before buying the score!

March 21, 2012 at 06:12 PM · Cool sound off of that Realist violin. Before I realized it was amped I was thinking that's either the most extraordinary violin I've ever heard or the best youtube recording ever made.

March 21, 2012 at 08:44 PM · Hi Luis,

the Stairway to Heaven is also rated (by me) intermediate. MUCH MUCH easier than the Sweet Child O' Mine with I rate as Advanced+/Professional.

March 21, 2012 at 08:46 PM · Jim, the realists are great when they're plugged in and decent when they are just played acoustically. But yeah, the sound you are hearing is definitely tweaked a bit ;-)

March 22, 2012 at 01:49 AM · Adam, I'd love to try to transcribe it! Send it on my way and I'll see what I can do with it...

Karen, I still get the 'playing on the wrong string' bit quite often and tend to play sharp all the time. I can try on violin, but think I'll have a better shot on viola. The trick to the reach is in the left arm rotation and left hand balance. I can just manage a 9th, and I don't have large hands.

March 26, 2012 at 08:09 PM · Excellent, tune, excellent playing :)

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