You like to watch movies don’t you? Have you seen movies like Avatar, Titanic, Ratatouille, Star Trek, Up, The Incredibles, Benjamin Button, The Matrix, A Beautiful Mind, Mission Impossible II, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Apollo 13? Chances are you’ve seen one, or all of these movies. Did you like the music in those movies? Do you remember hearing a violin in the soundtrack? That’s Clayton Haslop playing the violin.
Mr. Haslop has played on numerous box office soundtracks and worked with composers such as James Horner (Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, The Mask of Zorro, etc.), Don Davis (Matrix, Jurassic Park III), Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Sky High, Alias, etc.), as well as several others. In addition to his work in motion pictures, he performs with groups like the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the New Hollywood String Quartet. He also spent three years of private study with the legendary violinist, Nathan Milstein.
I had the pleasure of doing a telephone interview with Mr. Haslop. Here is the transcription of our conversation.
Fiddle Examiner: Sir Neville Marriner invited you to join the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra when you were still a teen. That’s impressive. Since then, your career has really taken off. You’ve performed all over the world as a soloist and you give master classes. Where did it all start? What made you want to play the violin?
Haslop: I came from a musical family. I have five siblings. They all play. My parents played. My mother was the neighborhood piano teacher. She’s also been an organist in churches.
My father was an amateur violinist. So all the kids were encouraged to do music…first on piano…then, after a couple of years, we were allowed to change to another instrument. Four of my siblings are older. None of them were playing violin. My dad really loved the violin. When I was about eight years old he came to me and said, “You’ve been playing piano for a couple of years now. If you like, you can play another instrument. Have you ever thought about playing the violin?” And he had a kind of sad look in his face. It was an imploring look and I knew he wanted somebody to play violin. I felt badly for him so I said, “Yeah, I’ll play the violin.” You know it’s funny now, but for quite a few years I regretted that choice. My dad was a task master when it actually came down to it so my choosing his instrument meant that I had special attention. I had reasons to regret my choice but actually the choice, in the long run, was absolutely right. I think I have the right temperament for it.
My mother tells the story of my third grade teacher coming to her and saying, “Oh, I’m so glad Clayton is playing violin now because now he has something else to take his feelings out on other then the other children.” I don’t think that is fair. It is, however, an expressive instrument.
Fiddle Examiner: How did Sir Neville Marriner find you?
Haslop: I was raised in California, actually Santa Monica to be exact, until high school. Then my father got transferred back to the DC area. I was there in high school for two years. I left high school a year early to go to USC and the second year I was out here I was invited to play chamber music. It was with people who were in the L.A. Chamber Orchestra– a number of people including the principal violist. She liked my playing and they had a scheduled audition coming up. This was before the days when you had to advertise in International Musician and all that. It was by invitation only to get into the group at that point so I went and played. I actually didn’t play for Neville Marriner. He was commuting from England. I played for the concertmaster, Paul Shure. Paul Shure was second violinist of the original Hollywood String Quartet which was really an incredible group made up of studio players. Felix Slatkin…the conductor’s father (Felix Slatkin was the father of conductor Leonard Slatkin) was also in the group. So I got invited to join after that audition. The second year I was with the orchestra, Neville picked me to do Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with the principal violist. Myra Kestenbaum was her name. We ended up doing it for two seasons. We played it three times during the first season, and then again three times on tour the next year. So those were really important concerts for me. It didn’t come about through a competition route. It was really just through personal contact with the conductor. I really wanted to play chamber music so I’ve had a number of groups outside of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. Myra and I founded the Los Angeles Piano Quartet. I played for a number of years with them, and then did some other things. I had a duo with a guitarist (Jack Sanders). I had a string quartet called the New Hollywood String Quartet. And, in addition to that, I was always free-lancing here in Los Angeles, in film, and also with other performing groups. I was, at times, acting concertmaster for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Opera. That’s basically it in a nutshell.
Fiddle Examiner: You got into performing on movie soundtracks. That’s fascinating! You’ve played in over 1000 films?
Haslop: I haven’t actually counted. Every year I get a report and a secondary markets check. It’s kind of a royalty, and it lists all the films and how much each has contributed to this thing. Some of them are down to like twenty cents…ones that I did years ago and nobody remembers. The list goes on for pages, probably twenty pages of titles of various things, and television shows. If you remember Dallas, I was playing on that…The Waltons….
Fiddle Examiner: Oh yeah, John Boy! Cool! How did you get into doing that?
Haslop: Well, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is a part-time orchestra so many of the players were free-lancing. Paul Shure was the concertmaster for the Fox studio, though this was after the days of the contract orchestras. In the 1940’s and ‘50s each studio had a contracted orchestra who showed up just like a symphony, but that ended around 1960, and that became a “per service”, independently contracted sort of thing. Gradually the face of things changed. When I came along in the mid ‘70s Paul Shure was still with Fox. That was his main account. The composers that tended to do Fox pictures, people like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, worked with Paul. I got ushered in the business that way.
Fiddle Examiner: What’s it like working with John Williams?
Haslop: He knows what he wants. There’s nobody that prepares a score better than he does. He has such well-trained ears. He just has incredible work habits. He basically does his own orchestrations. Really complete. They have to work so quickly that a lot of composers just don’t have the time to do the orchestrations.
Now, mind you, things have changed. Now we have these computer mock ups. They sample the instruments. They can make some fairly sophisticated mock ups. Many of these are quite sophisticated, yet they still fall short of what a real orchestra sounds like. Nevertheless, they are time savers for composer and directors. But John Williams…he has it all this in his head. He orchestrates by himself so he is hearing the whole sound of the orchestra, and knows what he wants when he gets to the session. In terms of his, you might say, bedside manner he’s extremely pleasant to be with and respectful of the orchestra. I’ve always enjoyed working for him.
Fiddle Examiner: Do you ever get to meet the actors?
Haslop: Yes. Occasionally actors will stick their heads in, particularly if they are involved in producing. Anthony Hopkins, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, just to name a few, would come in to listen to us. (Anthony Hopkins is also a composer. He scored his own film, Slipstream, and has released a few recordings of his music.)
Fiddle Examiner: So what’s it like working on a movie soundtrack? I mean, do you start early in the morning? Take lunch breaks?
Haslop: Well, typically we score six hours in a day, if it’s a full day of scoring. That means a three-hour session in the morning, lunch, and then a three-hour session in the afternoon. What’s become popular is to record each section of the orchestra individually. So we might show up and record just the strings. The next day they’ll bring in the winds, etc. Usually, now there will be electronic tracks that have been laid down before any of us come in. They call that striping…recording the instruments, or families of instruments, separately…and it tends to make the process go quicker.
Fiddle Examiner: You’ve done films like Avatar, Titanic, Ratatouille…big name films.
Haslop: Yeah, those are James Horner. I’ve been James’ concertmaster for a number of years. We knew each other when we were students really. The first film I did for him was called “The Hand” back in the 70s. James is wonderful. He writes of course, beautiful, very melodic scores. When you listen to Avatar, you listen to Braveheart…you know those kinds of movies…it’s pretty distinctive, that James Horner sound.
Fiddle Examiner: I was watching the short film One Man Band, the Pixar film…
Haslop: Oh yeah.
Fiddle Examiner: That was fun! It looks like it was fun to do too.
Haslop: It was fun and a bit scary. The Sarasate, right at the end there, we did with orchestra. The recording session itself was being filmed for a documentary. I had a camera right in my face as I stood playing. We had to do it several times…talk about having the red light on! It was a little bit of pressure I will say.
Fiddle Examiner: What kind of violin do you use?
Haslop: It’s called a Storioni. It’s made in 1782. Storioni was the last of the Cremonese masters…you know it’s where Strad worked. This maker was, oh, maybe forty years after Strad…a different generation of makers. He was highly regarded.
Fiddle Examiner: Have you ever played an electric violin or used a pickup?
Haslop: I have. I have a couple of friends who play them and own them, and have done a lot of things with them. I don’t know if you’ve heard of a guy named Doug Cameron. I just fooled around playing them. It’s not something I try to incorporate into my work.
Fiddle Examiner: The Storioni… Do you own that or is it on loan?
Haslop: I own it. As a matter of fact, I bought it from a member of the National Symphony, and that’s kind of a nice story. I studied with a member of the first violin section. His name was Guido Mansuino, and he loved violins. He was constantly buying and selling instruments and, through him, I really learned a lot about these old instruments and their makers. He spoke so highly of this violin…this particular one. He thought it was the best violin in the orchestra. He said it sounds like a Strad, and this and that, and so in the back of my mind I thought maybe I won’t be able to buy a Strad, but one day maybe I’ll have a Storioni. Well, I was sitting in on a recording session…about fifteen years ago, and I happened to be sitting with a former student of the violin’s owner…and she says, “Oh by the way, Carlton’s violin is for sale. He’s retired.” By the end of the week I owned it.
Fiddle Examiner: What do you like about it? I mean, what makes it a great violin?
Haslop: Well, it has that Italian quality. It’s not just old Italian instruments that can sound this way. I think other nationalities’ makers also can be wonderful. However, the Italian makers were terrific makers and I think really what it is, is as these instruments have aged, the wood has taken on certain characteristics. My personal theory as to why this instrument sounds so good is that the pitch, the sap inside the wood…even though the wood has dried…there is still moisture that goes in and out of the wood and, as that goes in and out of the wood, this pitch has got to me moved somewhat with it. So over a hundred years, maybe two hundred years or more, that pitch inside the wood has been moved around to the resonance patterns that are inherent in the top and back of the instrument. It will develop certain overtones as a result. It will give it that sizzle that a new violin might not have because it doesn’t have the reinforcement of the resonance patterns that affect that pitch in the wood. I’ve never heard anyone say this. It’s my own theory. People talk about varnishes. They talk about this and that as to why instruments this old, especially the Stradivarius and the Del Gesu are better than all the rest. I think that all these older instruments that were made well, the Amati, the Storioni, Bergonzi…yeah all these people and their instruments are wonderful, but I think it has to do with them being played for a hundred, two hundred years, consistently.
Fiddle Examiner: That’s fascinating! You definitely do need to break in a violin. I worked at a violin shop and I’ve had the privilege of playing many different violins, from cheap fiddles on up to expensive violins. For me, I’ve found that it’s more of a personal thing, like buying a car. You have to like the feel of it. You have to like the sound of it. It has to feel good in your hands. You know? That is fascinating that you think the age really has something to do with it.
Haslop: The age and the fact that it’s played. It’s been resonated during that time.
Fiddle Examiner: Like a fine wine has to be aged; then there is some truth to the myth?
Haslop: Yeah, for sure.
Fiddle Examiner: I want to ask you about rosin too. There are many brands of rosin. There are many different grades of rosin. You know, there are darks and lights, round cakes, square cakes, cakes rapped in velveteen. Do you have a favourite rosin? Do you recommend one?
Haslop: I use, I think it’s a Hill, dark. I’m not too particular about rosin.
Fiddle Examiner: Hill, yeah that’s the British rosin.
Haslop: It used to be that I would use a lighter color of rosin in the summers, in Virginia for instance. Out in California it’s not such an extreme change between summer and winter really. Sometimes we get fog and humidity, but most of the time it’s pretty consistent. You find something you like, and just stay with it. I’ve never been one on the gold dust, and all that kind of stuff.
Fiddle Examiner: So you like Hill?
Haslop: I like the Hill dark. Yeah, that’s what I’m using right now.
Fiddle Examiner: Cool. Just curious, because I’ve noticed that different types of rosin can affect your tone.
Haslop: Yeah, well I guess so. I think it’s the way it interacts with the humidity and with the hair itself. The hair length changes with humidity. The violin changes. I think it’s a complex relationship, really, and rosin certainly plays a part. My premise is that it’s 95% the player at the end of the day.
Fiddle Examiner: That’s a great philosophy. You’ve definitely got a lot of experience playing, and you’ve studied with the great Nathan Milstein too. Tell me about the time you spent with him.
Haslop: Well, he came into my life at a great time. At one time, I had a benefactor. His name was Richard Colburn. He started the Colburn music school in Los Angeles. He was a very successful businessman and amateur violist. We used to play together. He was fifty years my senior and kind of a second father to me in many respects. We were playing one day and he said, “What do you think of going to the Milstein master class?”
When he asked me that I had been having some difficulties. I was about twenty, twenty-one, I had the groups going, I was working, and this and that. I felt like my playing had sort of hit a plateau and I didn’t know how to go further, and I was kind of demoralized to the point that my first response was that I was afraid it might have been be wasted on me. And he said, “Well, OK.” Well, the next day I happened to be sitting in on a session with an old timer that I really liked. He asked me what was going on. I said I had this offer and I turned it down. And he said, “What??? You stay after the session! I need to talk to you.” So I did, and he spent about an hour speaking to me, and telling me his story. He had had a couple of missed opportunities which he’s always regretted. He said, “Clayton, you can’t say no to an offer like this.” So I got home and I called Mr. Colburn, and asked if the offer was still good, and he said, “Come down to my office tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do.” That’s how I got into the class.
It was in Switzerland so I travelled over there the following summer. I got there and was kind of disappointed. He was in his late seventies. I only knew of him through his Bach recordings that had come out a couple of years before…the highly regarded recordings of the six Sonatas and Partitas of Bach. Everybody knew that, but I didn’t know a whole lot of his playing. I had Heifetz recordings, and Stern recordings, Oistrakh, Perlman…not a lot of Milstein so I didn’t know what to expect. And I get there and the first student starts playing, and it’s OK, and then Milstein picks up his violin to start to demonstrate. The violin was out of tune. He wasn’t warmed up, and it didn’t sound that great to me. I thought, oh my gosh…I came this far…and I felt disappointed. Well, the next time he demonstrated, he tuned the violin and he was warmer. And by the third time, like ten or fifteen minutes into this master class he’s doing things I just can’t believe. It completely changed my view of things, and he played it very differently. He played with this old Russian approach. His bow arm, and his whole approach to holding the bow, the use of the arm…the right arm…the way he held the violin was very different. A lot of areas were different from what I had oriented myself to.
And so I went back to school, really, with him. He was not what you’d call a pedagogue. He’s not a formal teacher to me. I would see him at the master class, and I would go to London afterward for a month and go see him. He was very generous. He would never take a penny even though I told him I had a sponsor who is willing to pay for my lessons. He would spend three hours at a session with me at his home. And then I saw him in the states when he was in Los Angeles, and when he was in New York I’d see him there. So, over a period of three years, I spent time with him and it really gave me some new ideas in terms of playing and practicing. That’s what I’ve tried to incorporate a lot of into my teaching methods, you know my instructional courses.
Fiddle Examiner: I know. You talk a lot about that in your blogs. In one of your newsletters I read, there was a session you had with Milstein, and you said he played a difficult piece of music…I think it was either Bach or Paganini, and he played it perfectly. Then he put the violin down on his chest and played it again, like old time fiddler style, and it sounded just as amazing.
Haslop: Yeah, because he held the violin, essentially, with his left hand it didn’t really matter. He wasn’t really gripping it with his neck or his shoulder. It would be balanced. Now, he was rather portly and when he did this he was sitting down. He was sitting down and kind of leaning back in a chair. The violin was resting on his chest more or less, and he played through the sixteenth Caprice (Paganini). I just saw that it was so fluent and effortless for him. That changed my whole idea about how you hold the violin, how you balance the left hand, how you problem solve to get around the violin. I think a lot of times people are too much in a hurry to get things done, and they don’t take enough time to reflect, and to find a way to do things with a less amount of effort. Accomplish more with less. You gotta slow down and take some time. It’s more about how you think…whether you have your mind around what you are trying to play, really, or whether you are trying to rely on your fingers to do it. Milstein would say that. The great teacher, Leopold Auer, said you can practice twelve hours a day with your fingers, but you can do just as much in two hours if you are using your mind. It does take time but, I think, the more considerate approach, breathing when you practice, becoming and staying relaxed and not rushing things will yield favourable results.
Fiddle Examiner: Yes. Breathing is important. Left hand is definitely important. I’m just curious how you use your left hand. I mean that seems to be kind of opposite of what most people have been taught. You know, you should hold it on shoulder, and there should be a comfortable balance between your left hand and your chin. If you hold it specifically with your left hand, it would be very difficult to shift.
Haslop: His demonstration was pretty amazing. He had a very subtle, refined touch, and he could do surprising things. Now I do use my chin, of course, for certain things especially big shifts backward and down the instrument.
Fiddle Examiner: You have to or else you’ll drop the violin.
Haslop: He did use a little rubber sponge underneath his violin which helped grip the material that he had on. It kept the violin from sliding a little bit. But largely it was done through timing and balance rather than relying on a firm grip with the shoulder and chin. I always challenge myself to do that, to practice difficult passages with my chin off the violin until I have gotten it down and then work from there…building the tempo slowly. It takes time.
Clayton Haslop has a set of instructional DVDs available on his web site. Once at the site, you can sign up for his newsletter where he shares tips on playing and practicing. He also provides anecdotes from his experiences while touring and recording, and his private study with Nathan Milstein. For more information, visit: