If you’re a classical musician trained in the venerable halls of Curtis, Juilliard, and others, you may see yourself at a crossroads. A seemingly unceasing shift in the culture continues to push the orchestra out of American mainstream life, and the music scene has been left with an endless stream of qualified players, and only a meager handful of orchestra seats for them to fill.
As a trained clarinetist with a degree from Juilliard, I had many colleagues who continued to pursue the old guard, many who’ve done it successfully. But I’ve also seen highly trained and skilled musicians that choose to take unconventional paths—in comedy, business ownership, and beyond. Some, quite literally, turned to their own devices to launch their careers. For these musicians, going viral is a means, not the end. A viral video can garner the attention of key event planners; a high followers or “likes” count can serve as proof that the musician will turn out audiences.
Twice a month, National Sawdust Log takes a closer look at the new age, interviewing musicians who are using unconventional methods to climb the ladder. Today, the Log turns its gaze to social media, sitting down with one of the titans of Classical Music Instagram: Drew Alexander Forde. Known to his followers as ThatViolaKid or TVK, he has amassed nearly 120,000 followers on the picture-sharing platform… but he has his sights set much higher.
Forde, 26, gets headline treatment for his aspiration to be “the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of music.” Tyson, Forde says, “talks like a human being. He takes misconceptions and flips them on their head… and he’s not afraid to spread his message on social media. That’s part of what inspired me.”
In practice, Forde’s style carves out its own niche. While Tyson, an astrophysicist and celebrity figure, gets YouTube compilations of his easy-to-digest explanations of scientific phenomena, Forde sees himself as more of a documenter. “I use social media to catalog my progression towards my goals,” Forde, a YouTuber himself, says. “I try to document where I am at each point in the journey, and I want to help others along the way.”
It’s tough to argue with Forde’s staggering success. For perspective, here’s how the violist stacks up in a side-by-side Instagram follower count with some of today’s best-known musicians on Instagram (as of November 30th, 2017):
Comparing ThatViolaKid to previous generations of artists might be unfair—but unfair to whom? Forde, falling more squarely within the more social-media-savvy “millennial” demographic, may have a more advanced understanding of a platform now only seven years old. It’s Fleming and Wang who get the star treatment in The New York Times and Washington Post, and whose faces appear on billboards and Lincoln Center screens. Forde, while talented, is a relative unknown in higher circles… for now.
How did he get so far?
“Consistency is key,” he says. “When you’re consistent [in posting], you will grow. Create content that makes you happy, because that will be fun.”
What are examples of that consistency that are more substantive than cat photos? Forde borrows a popular moniker of social media entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk: “If you aren’t the master, document your journey to being the master.” He points to his first hashtag campaign, #JourneytoJuilliard, in which Forde documented his (ultimately successful) practice regimen in preparation for his Juilliard audition, as “crucial” in gaining his first 1,000 followers.
In going from 1,000 to over 100,000, TVK leveraged other “hashtag campaigns,” social media hashtags used by influencers and brands alike to encourage other users to post with a specific brand attached, with great success. His most successful, #PlayHomiePlay, has more than 10,000 posts to its name. Forde started the hashtag in his own spirit—encouraging others to post the often messy “in progress” work that he used to fear showing to the online world.
How does he maintain that consistency? Forde urges to create content with other people in mind, and to not stop. “I want to make others’ lives better. If I can impact just one person positively, that’s all I care about. I see people all the time that have just as much success as me in any given month, but they just stop. It gets hard. Responding to everyone that commented on my videos for years was hard. I just kept doing it.”
Whether social media becomes an essential road for classical musicians to earn a living is certainly up for debate, but the approach has so far yielded significant fruit for Forde beyond his follower count. TVK’s Instagram fame has earned invites to far-reaching venues and offbeat performances, including a chamber music performance in Singapore, a half-time show for a Philadelphia Major League Soccer game, and his concerto debut with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic. In addition to his glitzy high profile performances, he is frequently invited (“two to three dozen times, Forde estimates) to run workshops with middle schools and high schools across the country, and recently spoke at Juilliard about the importance of social media.
“Social media is here to stay,” Forde urged. “But it’s not the end. It’s simply a platform for people to tell their narrative. That’s what people are interested in, and that’s what music needs. If we stop using classical music to tell stories, it will die.”
So who does the social-media master follow? “@estherabrami, a violinist who is effortlessly elegant in the way she builds her brand. @jessedriftwood is an incredible filmmaker and photographer who makes the best stories on Instagram. @chloetrevor_violin is the No. 1 classical musician to follow. She’s really the trailblazer for literally everyone on the platform, and it makes me smile to see her still crushing the game.”
As for what Forde says to those who scoff at his social-media savvy?