Jacques Lee Wood is a notable cellist in musical circles for his “expressive warmth and sensitivity” and “technical ease” when performing, according to his website. His talents have taken him around the world performing solo, recital, and chamber music concerts. Wood has produced his own original compositions and arrangements under StringLab, a duo with guitarist Simon Powis. He is also currently a resident artist at the University of New Hampshire (UNH).
Wood grew up in a musical family of European and Korean heritage in the college town of Manhattan, Kansas. Wood originally played the violin along with his older brother when he was a child, but by the time Wood was 8 years old and his brother was 9 years old, they had already reached the same skill level. That’s when their mother decided that one of them should switch to playing the cello. “The simple answer is my mother didn’t want my brother and I to compete on the violin with each other,” explained Wood.
His brother was originally supposed to be the one to take up the cello, but Wood decided to pursue the instrument instead.
“I didn’t really like playing the violin anyways,” Wood said, laughing.
Despite the incident in his youth, Wood said there has been no competition, rather overwhelming support between his family members about their individual music careers. His uncle, a cellist who currently lives in Korea, has actually been one of the biggest supporters in his music career.
“He’s been a good sounding board for career advice, for musical advice, for support when I need it,” said Wood. “We’re pretty close, since I was a teenager he’s been in my life, kind of like a second father to me. He’s given me both of my main cellos that I play on and a couple of nice bows, so he’s also been a supporter in that way.”
Wood’s musical talents also extend past the cello. He tries to learn a new instrument every few years and so far can play upright and electric bass, mandolin, banjo, and a little piano and violin. Wood, who is a big fan of bluegrass, says that his banjo playing is the strongest of his secondary instruments. He’s currently trying to learn the bagpipes.
However, despite Wood’s many musical pursuits, he doesn’t consider being a musician the most important part of his identity.
“Whenever I think of myself as a person, I always think of myself as a father first and a musician and cellist next,” he explained.
Both of Wood’s children have followed in their family’s musical footsteps. His oldest son, 6, started playing the cello when he was 3, and his youngest son, 3, also just recently started the violin. Wood expressed how proud he is of how they are both progressing.
Wood originally struggled trying to find a balance between his personal and professional life when his first son was born. “I thought I could maintain [touring] but it quickly became clear that I couldn’t be both a father and a musician who was touring around a lot,” he said. The desire to spend more time with his son and have more control over his schedule is what led Wood to pursue teaching.
Teachers have been some of the greatest influences on Wood’s musical style, much more than famous performers. Wood points to Lawrence Lesser, who he studied under while getting his bachelor’s in music from the New England Conservatory of Music, and Aldo Parisot, who he met during his time at Yale University for his master’s and doctorate, as his greatest influences.
“They had two totally different approaches to playing music,” said Wood. He asserted that Lesser was more focused on “the philosophical ideas of playing music,” while Parisot was “more about music as instinct and not overthinking it too much in terms of the interpretational aspect of it.”
“Most of what I teach now in terms of technique, my understanding of technique and the application of musicality comes from Parisot,” he explained. “Whereas the general appreciation of music as an art form comes more from my time with Lesser.”
With his own students Wood emphasizes the technical aspects of playing as he believes that without them musicians can’t express themselves in the best possible way. This often involves doing a lot of scale work. When Wood was growing up his teachers didn’t bother focusing on scales or the other basics because of his already advanced skill level. However, this caught up with him eventually when he reached his 20s and couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t progressing anymore.
“Turns out I had a serious fundamental gap in my understanding of how to play instruments,” said Wood.
Wood has also found that teaching has also turned him into a better communicator and helped him with his own approach to playing. “Teaching my students really helps me pan out the how and why of playing. How to take a concept and distill it down to its most essential elements and communicate it in a direct way,” says Wood. “Every time I teach students, they have a new perspective that they give me, and it helps me refine my own ideas about how to play.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many of Wood’s plans for performing, he is thankful that technology has allowed him to continue teaching and connecting with colleagues. Wood is also hoping that he and his studio at UNH will have some performances ready for live streaming next semester. UNH currently offers live streamed concert performances that can be viewed on the UNH Department of Music YouTube channel.
Photo Courtesy of Jacques Lee Wood