He’s got the world by the strings

By Austin Block

Imagine standing on the edge of a stage with 6,000 people staring at you. Imagine improvising a solo on your violin with country music star Keith Urban and his band playing in the background. Imagine your face filling the gigantic screen behind, projecting to the audience a close-up of your tightly closed eyes, your wrinkled collared shirt and the look of fierce concentration that radiates from your expression as your bow hums across the strings. Now imagine the concert ending, the exuberance fading and the audience slowly filing out. A man and a young boy walk up to you.  

“My son saw you playing, and he really wanted to see you and talk to you because he was really inspired,” the father says.

You are Kevin Schwarzwald ’11, accomplished composer, pianist and violinist. You are indescribably proud.

Schwarzwald, who conducted a piece he wrote, Epos 1, at last night’s Symphony concert, played with Urban in a benefit concert at the University of California, Los Angeles Tennis Center last summer. As one of 80 students selected out of an applicant pool of about 2,000, Schwarzwald participated in a musical camp called Grammy Camp at the University of Southern California. A week after the program ended, he and another student musician were asked to play a song, “Days Go By,” with Urban at the benefit concert. At the end of the song, Schwarzwald got to play a solo at the front of the stage.

“You don’t have that much going through your head at that point. My mind was working on the solo, but most of it was just like the Zen performance mode that you’re in,” Schwarzwald said. “It was one of those things that hits you most once you’re off stage.”

He said the best moment of the night was meeting with the man and his young son.

“That was a pretty amazing moment,” he said. “That really touched me.”

Schwarzwald has always been immersed in music. His father is a professional saxophonist and both of his father’s parents were also professional musicians. While living in Paris when he was 7 years old, Schwarzwald and his family would listen to live music at a Hungarian restaurant. One night, one of the musicians performed exclusively for the Schwarzwald table, playing all musical requests from the family. After that, Schwarzwald began to badger his parents for a violin and lessons. When his family moved to America a few months later, he got his wish. At age 10 he added piano.

Schwarzwald played in school bands at Paul Revere Charter Middle School, and at age 12, a year younger than the minimum age, he was admitted to the Junior Philharmonic Orchestra of California. By 15, he was a section leader in the Orchestra and a new Harvard-Westlake ninth grader taking three music classes: Symphony, Jazz Band and Electronic Music.

At the Upper School, Schwarzwald has taken advantage of both the classical and jazz music programs, playing violin for Symphony and piano for Jazz Band. He also leads a jazz combo. He has performed with a Blues band led by well-known singer Jean Shy and played in the pit orchestra for musicals on theater row in Hollywood, on movie soundtracks and on a start up band’s heavy metal album. He often plays on Tuesday nights with his father’s band at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard.

Schwarzwald also composes in his free time. Although he writes mostly classical music, he has also written some jazz and rock and is currently working on arranging pop and rock music for a full orchestra. In seventh grade, he won a national composition competition for a piece he wrote, which was later premiered in Austria.

Although a friend’s father taught him the basics of composition, and he has taken some other composing lessons, he said that much of what he has learned is self-taught.

“A lot of it is taking pieces and composers that I admire and seeing if I can get my hands on scores of them,” he said. “I look at parts that I really like of it and I analyze, I try to see exactly what he’s doing there and how can I apply that to my work.”

He said that ideas come to him at any time.

“This year I think I ran out of space in all of my composing notebooks, but for the past couple of years, especially in 11th grade, I almost [always] had a composing notebook and occasionally in class I did take it out and start jotting down stuff,” he said.

In 2009, the Junior Philharmonic premiered Epos 1, with Schwarzwald playing in the front row and filling in for the principal violin.

“That’s a really special feeling, because you put months of work into that thing and then you finally get to hear it realized, not just with the crappy computer sounds that you’re dealing with but with an actual orchestra,” he said.

For his final French Literature Honors project, he plans to write a musical response to a novel he read in the class.

“I’m basically going to be rereading the book next to the piano,” he said. “A lot of it is just that general emotions get narrowed down into ideas, because a lot of music is just writing down emotion and writing down what you feel about something.”

Four weeks ago, Schwarzwald had one of his most memorable musical experiences yet. He went to a restaurant called the Townhouse, where world-famous musicians gather every Sunday night for a jam session. He brought his violin, hoping to get a chance to play, but after watching Karen Briggs, who has given him violin lessons, play a dazzling 15-minute solo, an intimidated Schwarzwald decided to stay seated for the night for his own “psychological sake.” But then she asked him to play the last two or three songs of the night. So, suddenly beset with nerves, he hopped up on stage and soaked in a few precious minutes of musical bliss.

“You’re only nervous until you get on stage,” he said. “Before, it can be tough, but once you’re on there, especially if you have that good of a band behind you, you float on top of it.”