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Winter 2002-03

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Following the dream

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Following the dream

By Maryann Franklin

Adam DeGraff, a newcomer to Monroe County, is a unique addition to the community. It’s not often a successful concert violinist decides to make his home in rural West Virginia.

Raised in Chicago, the trained classical musician settled on a Monroe County farm last April, along with his wife Lisa (also a talented musician).

DeGraff with students

Photo by Maryann Franklin

DeGraff began studying violin at the age of four and has been performing professionally since he was fourteen. He studied at Northwestern University and won a scholarship to seek a graduate degree from Rice University in Houston, TX. During those years of dedicated training, practice and performing, he never imagined that he would find himself running a bulldozer and building a road to a remote farm.

Before the move, DeGraff, only 24 years old at the time, had already earned the impressive position of concertmaster (principal violin) for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. While there, he and Lisa developed a taste for the country and a passion for sustainable living.

After four years, they decided to make a big change. “I wanted to make music and be a farmer,” said DeGraff. “I wanted more direct contact with my audience and less bureaucracy. I also wanted more control over what I performed.”

So DeGraff decided to give up the “illusion of security [financial and otherwise] that holding a principal job in an orchestra provides” and follow a different dream. “In a way, I felt that by playing in the orchestra, I was sacrificing my art. As an individual performer, I have to produce the same highs and lows and intensity of sound with a single instrument, and that’s an exciting opportunity,” he said. “Art isn’t contingent on anything except for a creative spirit. Art isn’t about attracting an audience. It’s what happens when you play.”

Instead of performing 300 concerts a year, he now finds himself involved in a variety of pursuits, which include farming (of course), road building, organic gardening, woodworking, solo performing and teaching violin. Some of his students travel five hours round-trip to study with him. “Yet I’m not really a violin teacher,” said DeGraff, “although I feel I do it well. I’m a concert violinist, and that’s what I bring to my students. I teach them to perform. I’ve studied with the best teachers in the world and I bring a pedigree of experience that’s usually available only in big cities. I share what I got from these special teachers with others.”

But don’t expect him to give up performing any time soon. He and Lisa, who plays the flute, also perform concerts, fundraisers, and other special events. Recently, DeGraff has been negotiating with Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg about starting a strings program there.

As part of his passion to share music on an intimate level, DeGraff performed “Fiddling with Bach” at Ames-Clair Hall in Union in mid-October. “I designed the program for anybody who enjoys any type of music,” DeGraff said. It included Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, which was featured in the movie Music of the Heart. “By demonstrating the relationship between violin music and fiddling, my intent was to show how Bach was really the father of the fiddle,” he added. The program was basically a one-man show; however, DeGraff also made it his business to keep the audience involved.

The site for the concert was also a special place — historically, structurally and acoustically. Built in 1857, before the Civil War, Ames Methodist Church was one of the oldest churches in Union. It served African-American worshipers exclusively from 1891 until the early 1980s. In 1993, the building was donated to the Monroe County Historical Society, which restored and renovated it inside and out. The structure was re-named Ames-Clair Hall, in honor of Bishop Matthew Clair, a Union native and one of two of the first black bishops in the Methodist Church. Since its completion, the hall has been used as a small auditorium.

When he first played there, DeGraff said he was “absolutely blown away” by the quality of the sound. “I’ve played in some of the finest concert halls,” he said, “and this old church, without a doubt, has the finest acoustics of any of them. The building itself is an instrument.” Another unusual thing about the building, according to DeGraff, is that both loud and soft tones resonate beautifully. “Usually,” he said, “you get one or the other.”

Having given up what the city has to offer, DeGraff now knows “it’s all on my shoulders” to continue and expand his musical career in this unconventional setting. He has many creative ideas to keep moving in that direction. This summer he conducted an intensive Mountain Springs Music Academy on his farm. He plans to create and produce more shows such as “Fiddling with Bach,” and would love to travel throughout the state to perform. “I love West Virginia,” he commented. “The people here are great.” He hopes to pursue grant funding or other ideas and seek individual sponsorships that will allow more students to pursue their dreams of a musical career. “I’m willing to try almost anything,” he said.
DeGraff shows fingering to student

“I can get an orchestra job any time I want,” DeGraff declared. “I get calls all the time. I made a name for myself as a concert musician. I was good at it. But just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it. I made a conscious choice to do this instead. Now I work 80 hours a week instead of 40, but I don’t mind, because I’m working for myself.”

Asked what he got from moving here, DeGraff replied, “Oh my God! It’s like I got my life back. I got a sense of community, natural beauty. I don’t feel as if I gave anything up. The best part of being here is waking up in the morning and going out on my deck to see the sun rise up the holler, and watch the mists turn red.”

Right now, the dream, for DeGraff, is being here. “I just love being here,” he said. He expects the dream will continue to evolve. “It’s a gift to be able to follow your heart,” DeGraff said. “We did it in Richmond, and we’re doing it here. They say it takes seven years to establish a business. I look forward to seeing where this will lead.”

Contact writer Maryann Franklin at 304-772-3229.