Erika Walczak

A woman plays violin

Can you tell me about your experiences touring and performing with such artists as Rod Stewart and Whitney Houston, among others?

Playing violin in string sections and as a side musician has literally taken me all around the world: China, the Middle East, Europe, The UK, South America, Mexico, Canada and all over the US. My first touring gig happened while I was still in college – I joined James Last’s string section and toured all over the UK and Europe. Later in Los Angeles, I connected with Rod Stewart’s camp and performed in many shows and broadcasts with small string sections and even filled in as lead fiddle/mandolin player occasionally. As a member of Yanni’s string section, I got to travel to some really distant places including Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Argentina and more recently I toured North America and Mexico with Adele.

What has playing with these musicians taught you?

Preparation is key! It’s so important to spend time listening to and learning the music to be performed, especially when it’s a style outside of your training. Focus and concentration – on the popular music stage there can be so many distractions. Amplification, for one, requires so much attention – you have to make sure things are charged, plugged in, etc. Stage volumes can be very high, and what you hear from night to night can vary greatly. Audiences can be very large and, well, demonstrative! Lights are bright. You may be asked to move in ways you’re not used to, in clothing you’re not that comfortable in. It might be freezing cold, raining or really hot. Doesn’t matter! People paid to see the artist and you do your best to deliver a show regardless.

Flexibility is a very important quality to cultivate as well. It’s the artist we have to focus on and whatever they need we have to deliver. Staying tuned in and alert goes a long way. Lastly, self care is key. I learned early on to keep as regular a schedule as possible while traveling. Daily yoga practice keeps me feeling strong and healthy. Also eating well and resting help keep things in balance.

How does it differ from classical performance, and is there any connection or any lessons that can be learned from the two?

In classical training, we work hard to deliver the composer’s intention to the best of our ability. On the pop stage, the composer is often right there with you. In classical training we work on our technique and study scores so we’re ready to tackle the challenges of any piece. In the pop world, a classically-trained musician has to expand their skill set, developing skills in the areas of jazz and blues have been so important for me. You never know when a violin solo might be required! Participating in Sherry Luchette’s Adult Jazz Combo at PCM has been a game changer for me. I got to work on singing, soloing and comping in a sweet and safe space.

A woman plays mandolin with Rod Stewart

You have also done extensive recording work for TV and film. What has that experience been like?

So thrilling! Every time I walk onto a studio lot, I pinch myself because it feels like such a dream to play motion picture scores. Sometimes they’re very simple, like the Mad Men underscore that was very subtle and we mostly had to play softly and without vibrato. Sometimes they’re really difficult, even physically taxing like the Battlestar Galactica score. Frequent stretch breaks are useful in such situations. Once again, staying present, alert and catching everything you can on the first take is key as recording time is very expensive. Listening carefully and blending with the other players is also a very important skill to cultivate.

Do you have a particularly memorable experience/story from performing / touring / recording?

There are so many, but I suppose that playing Maggie Mae with Rod Stewart is a highlight. When I got the call for a few dates that lead fiddler J’Anna Jacoby was unavailable for in July 2018, it quickly became clear that I’d need to learn mandolin. So I borrowed her mandolin and practiced quite a bit. The fingerboard layout is quite similar to violin except with frets. But the pick technique was a whole new thing for me. On show day, I remember a guitar tech placing a tuned mandolin (with strap) over my head. I felt like I’d really arrived as I’m so accustomed to carrying and tuning my own instruments. I was laying back on stage, just trying to remember my part when the guitar player looked at me and said “get up there!” It was time for the big duet, so I stepped forward in my six inch heels and really enjoyed a moment in the limelight with an iconic rock star!

Anything you would like to add?

Having a musical home like PCM to return to has been so grounding for me. Watching my young students develop and my adult learners thrive is such a joy. Thank you for this opportunity to share some cool memories.