Learning to love (and rock) the violin

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First Posted: 8/5/2013

David Ragsdale is enjoying his career as the longtime violinist for Kansas, but as a child, he had to be talked into picking up the instrument by his mother.

“She didn’t kind of push me – she made it very apparent that that’s what I was going to do,” he recalled with a laugh. “It wasn’t gentle and it wasn’t voluntary.

“I didn’t care for it at all. As soon as I was larger than her, I said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to do this anymore. I want to play the guitar.’ I always wanted to play the guitar. I was really drawn to the guitar. I was never, ever drawn to the violin.”

So what changed his mind? Some early influences, including a friend, and a certain progressive rock band he would later join.

“About the time I was 16, 17, I started listening to people like Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin, and Steve Morris had just cropped up on the scene and all of a sudden I was realizing that the level of competition that I was going to have to face if I was going to make a profession out of this was pretty severe. I was OK, but these guys were on a completely different plane,” Ragsdale told The Weekender.

“And also, I heard a friend of mine who had practiced his instrument. [Laughs] And he had won a competition…and I went and saw it, and all of a sudden, in one fell swoop, I realized how cool an instrument the violin was. About the same time, I heard Kansas on the radio, and I’m almost positive it was either ‘Can I Tell You’ or ‘Bringing It Back’ – it was one of the more rockin’ Kansas songs where Robby (Steinhardt) displayed his wares, and all of a sudden I realized, ‘Man, I could play violin in a rock band.’ It was that foreign a concept back then. No one had ever done it.”

Another friend convinced him to send tapes of himself playing along with Kansas’ songs to the group, and after several years, he finally received a call to record with, and later join, the band. Since then, they have toured regularly and have even joined up with full orchestras, making special use of Ragsdale’s classical training.

“The roles pretty much stay the same, but the dynamics change dramatically because most of that stuff is tough enough to do just with us because you get into one of those intricate sections and you’ve really got to pay attention to what’s going on, and you have to know what everyone else is playing because your part weaves in and out of that. So you’ve really got to be on your toes. Now when you throw a 65-piece orchestra behind you, there’s a whole other enormous element with its own intricacies that you have to deal with,” he explained. “It’s tricky, but it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s the power of the music itself, not just the players, however, that he contributes their continued success to.

“When you look at all the bands that there were 40 years ago and all of those bands that are left, you realize what an enormous achievement celebrating your 40th anniversary…is, to still be around 40 years later, still doing it at a very high level and still making your living. This isn’t something we go out and do four or five times a year. We average about 80 shows a year, so we’re still doing this at a pretty high level,” he noted.

“The strength of the players, of the people involved, is certainly remarkable, but the music is wonderful stuff. Most people when they think of Kansas think of “Carry On Wayward Son,” “Dust in the Wind,” and “Point of Know Return,” which are great, commercially viable songs, but when you get deep into the real Kansas fan, there is some amazing composition in some of those songs. Just really stellar… It’s going to sound really arrogant of me to say, but it’s some of the best stuff ever written in rock ‘n’ roll. It really is.”

Before celebrating their 40th anniversary with a huge fan appreciation concert in Pittsburgh, Kansas will be stopping at Mt. Airy Casino Resort on Aug. 11 for a night of career-spanning music in one of their favorite states.

As for Ragsdale, he’s mulling a solo project as well as creating instructional manuals for those who may share his earlier dreams of playing rock music on the violin.

“Everyone knows when it’s time to solo, it’s time to solo, but what do you do the rest of the time? I’ve got some answers for that that might intrigue young minds. Or old minds for that matter!” he said.

Will it inspire kids like him who are reluctant to appreciate their instrument at first?

“It might,” he affirmed. “There’s a lot you can do with a violin. The violin is by and large probably the most expressive instrument on the planet. You can do a million things with it.”