Apple Valley native Aria Stiles, a violinist, has traveled far and fast in the music world: at 20, she’s a regular member of Pam Tillis’s touring band as well as a full-time student at Nashville’s Belmont University. As if that wasn’t enough evidence that she’s been embraced by the capital of country music, she’s also the current Miss Music City, in line to compete for the title of Miss Tennessee.
Before she hit the big time, though, Stiles participated in Minnesota Varsity: a program run by our sister station Classical Minnesota Public Radio to spotlight young musical talent. If you are—or if you know—a Minnesota teen who shows talent in performing classical music, whether vocally or on an instrument, this year’s Minnesota Varsity beckons. Submissions are being accepted through Dec. 5.
A couple of weeks ago, I called down to Nashville from the Current’s studios in St. Paul to talk with Stiles about her remarkable journey from Apple Valley to Music City.
How did you start playing violin?
My mom is a piano teacher, and [I have] four other brothers and sisters…so we were all inevitably going to play something, right? My two older sisters have violin degrees; one’s a teacher in St. Cloud right now, and the other one has a performance degree but she’s currently raising three kids. Also, we had the Stiles Quartet—we were all part of the quartet, so I was introduced to classical music there.
I started [playing] when I was five, so I was very influenced by my mom. She’s involved in all sorts of different organizations around Minnesota, so it’s been really great. Then I was introduced to fiddling when I was about eight, I’d say. I started doing a lot of local competitions; I went to Wisconsin and all over the map in that area. I also continued to play classical compositions; I really strived at those and loved them. Then I did the typical theater and dance and vocal lessons in high school, so those propelled me even further into what I’m doing now, which has been such a blessing.
Minnesota Varsity was an awesome opportunity, because I got to play my concerto, but then I got voted to do the encore number. My brother got to come up with me and I did fiddle tunes, so I got to show both sides of my personality in my playing, so that was awesome.
Then I moved to Nashville, because I wanted to pursue more of a commercial style of violin. At Belmont University, where I’m currently a junior, they have what the call the commercial violin degree, and they also have it for all the other instruments and voice and stuff—where you just hone in to what your instrument can do in the music business. We’re learning a lot of jazz right now, and that’s been good, because knowing jazz is a good basis to be able to play whatever kind of music comes your way. So I still continued on to fiddle competitions here in Tennessee, and one of them—the Grand Master Fiddler Championship—I just competed in a few weeks ago.
My freshman year, a video appeared of me on YouTube, and Pam Tillis—who I currently perform with—her manager saw me and contacted me through Facebook and said, “We like your playing; would you want to come audition for the fiddle player and the backup singer for Pam Tillis on her tour dates?” So I said yes, I would love to, so I think that call came…maybe on a Friday, then I went and auditioned at her house on Monday, and then they called me back and said they wanted me to start touring with Pam, and then Thursday I was playing at the Grand Ole Opry with Pam.
I think that’s a lot of fears of Belmont College students: you come to college, and then what’s next? But thankfully for me, I got to get right in on what I want to do, which is touring and making music with country artists. For the most part; what and who I’m going to play for can always change, so that’s just kind of been my journey and I’m very blessed to be touring with an artist right now.
When you participated in Minnesota Varsity, you were a senior in high school. You’re now 20 years old, a junior in college, and…a full-time student, in addition to your playing?
I am a full-time student, yes. It gets a bit stressful at times, being on the road! I’ve missed a lot of school days this year, but they’re working with me; I think they understand this is an incredible opportunity, so I was faced with a big decision—should I take a semester off, or should I keep going? I decided to keep at school, because I’m almost done. Some of the administrators have told me, “The chances of you coming back to school and finishing once you leave are very slim, if you take a semester off to go tour.” So I decided to stay plugged in, and now I’m going to finish my degree next December, 2015. So I’m really excited for that.
Are you playing with any other artists, or is playing with Pam Tillis quite enough for now?
It’s very full-time. It’s basically every weekend that we play shows, but we’re on a little bit of a break while Pam gets ready for her Christmas tour. All summer it was every weekend, and we toured all over the country. We went to Canada three times, went to Alaska—which was awesome. We’re just going everywhere.
Other than that…there’s just the general ensemble at Belmont that I’m in, I’m in the bluegrass ensemble, and we actually have our concert tonight. I’m in the jazz quartet, which is just the typical arrangement of a classical quartet, but we’re playing jazz music. That’s really exciting, because we get to see how the music moves us, and that develops me as a player: to know how the music is affecting me, and how I can put my personality into it even more. That’s a big part of what I’ve learned being here at Belmont.
Other than that, I’m just doing little recordings here and there with people from school, but not really [working full-time with] any other artists, because it’s a lot to do just one artist in general.
Will any of your upcoming tour dates bring you to or near Minnesota?
Not that I know of for this next year, but we were in Iowa a couple of weeks ago and my parents actually got to come see me for the first time. They had seen me at the Opry once, but they drove about five hours to come see me in Iowa. [Pam and her band] have been in Minnesota before I started with them, but not in the near future, which I’m really bummed about!
What do you study when you study for a degree in commercial violin?
So, obviously there’s classical—and you can also do that at Belmont. I was actually classical for one semester, but then I decided to go back to commercial because I like it even more. What we’re studying is just how to be a utility player, where you can accompany people. In general there’s four people you can take classes from to be a commercial violin major.
One of them is very bluegrass-oriented and fiddle-style, so you can go for that genre; then another one, his name is Buddy Spicher, he’s very iconic here in Nashville. He recorded on all the old records—Charlie Daniels, Johnny Cash, all those. Then we have another teacher who’s fluent in jazz, and the fourth one, who I’m taking from, his name is Tracy Silverman and he’s an incredible electric violin player. He’s got a six-string electric, which I play now also, and he’s teaching me fundamental jazz, improv…I’m learning a lot of stuff that he wrote himself. So basically, for commercial violin you can pick the kind of genre that you would like to be more knowledgable about and really go for that.
With the idea being that your end goal is to be prepared for a career playing in sessions, in bands, advertisements, this sort of thing?
So that’s a little confusing. It’s not commercial like advertisements. The end goal would be session musicians, touring, playing in bands. I think the best thing about Belmont and being in Nashville is the connections you’re making. The connections that I made by performing at a fiddle contest and then getting contacted by a manager to perform with his artist…so it’s really about the connections here in Nashville. The more knowledge you can have about all the different styles, the better a performer you’re going to be, the more adaptable you’re going to be, the more people are going to want you to play with them because you know so many different styles and so many ways to play the instrument and you can adapt to them or they can adapt to you. It’s just being very diverse in how you play and how good you are.
On a slightly different note, congratulations on being Miss Music City. Tell me about what that means and what that process is.
Well, I recently entered the pageant world and I am competing for Miss Tennessee in June. There’s five categories that go into that; it’s the Miss America line, so it’s very community-service based and very talent-based also. The five categories are talent, interview, on-stage questioning, evening gown, and then swimsuit competition. I have grown to love this program, because it’s shaped me, really, as a person: knowing about your current events and studying to be a public speaker. It’s helped me as a performer, because I can hopefully talk to people better and be more clear about what I think about issues of the world or anything like that, but then also the physical fitness part of it has been great for me also—so just getting, you know, in shape and being healthy.
The Miss America organization promotes a well-rounded woman, and that’s what we’re all striving to be, and competing for Miss Tennessee has opened the doors up to meeting so many people here in Nashville and all around the state, so it’s been a really great opportunity for me. So many people have seen me play, and…funny enough, I competed for Miss Tennessee once, and you never win it your first year, so I’m going again. Anyways, the first year I played the Mendelssohn violin concerto; so this next year when I compete again, I’m thinking I’m going to do something more…I don’t even know what I’m going to do yet, but more rock or maybe even something with my electric violin or possibly singing. So, you know, I did my classical performance and now I’m going to do something fun! Not that that one wasn’t fun, but you know what I mean.
The current Miss America won her title playing with a cup, did she not?
She did, yes.
I imagine that has to influence your thoughts about what talents might fly.
That’s a whole other issue, but the thing with that is that what is hard for people to see who don’t know the system is that the pageant is really won in the interview, so because nobody gets to see the interview, we don’t see how they did, how well they communicated and how knowledgable they were about the system, about the world, about how to interact with the judges. So you always have to trust that the judges picked the right person, because they were the only ones that got to see the interview. So her performance doesn’t really influence my decision on what I’m going to do—basically because I’m competing for Miss Tennessee first, and if I was blessed to become Miss Tennessee, I’d shine through whatever I performed just because I love performing and that’s where I thrive.
If a native Minnesotan were to become Miss Tennessee, I as a Minnesotan would certainly be proud, and I’m sure other Minnesotans would as well.
Thank you. It’s a lot of fun being involved, it really is.
I notice on your Facebook page you shared a video by Molly Kate Kestner, who I recently interviewed. Have you been following her career?
This is how I know Molly: she was a Distinguished Young Woman of Minnesota, and I was a Distinguished Young Woman of Minnesota in 2012. I was really excited for her when she won that title and got to go on to nationals, because I did the same thing and went to nationals in Mobile, Alabama in 2012. That was an awesome program to be involved with. Through that, that was how I kind of got involved in the Miss America organization. She is just a great girl. She’s so inspiring, a really great role model for girls to look up to.
What is it about fiddling, compared to classical violin playing, that appeals to you?
Not just fiddling, but all the music that I’m playing in general, it’s a lot more of what you can put into it. With classical, you’re always reading off the sheet. You’re always following rules and being instructed by your teachers. I also love that; I’m still taking classical lessons because there’s still so much classical music that I still want to learn. But the other side of that, fiddling—you can improvise, you can make it your own, you learn all the chords and you get so much more involved in the music because you learn all the chords and know how to play notes around them.
Experimenting [at] live performances, you can see what makes people like you—if you play a really great lick or really great solo, people applaud for you and that’s how you know they really liked it. There’s just a lot more audience involvement with the fiddling or the electric violin stuff that I do, and I love that because I love to be cheered on by my audience—because that’s what makes you feel good, that’s what makes you know that you’re doing something that other people like to hear. Classical, there’s just an ethic that you applaud at the end and there’s a lot of rules. I love that for that kind of thing, but for the fiddling, it’s a lot of fun for me to be able to interact with the audience.
You’re experienced now in so many styles of violin; what, for you, is the continuity at the heart of all these styles? What’s at the heart of your musicality as a person?
What it really has to do with is my teachers. When I was in high school, I took from Mary West for two years before she passed away, and I moved on to Cindy Marvin. Cindy Marvin played a huge role in my life, as more than a teacher: she was a mentor and a friend to me, and she made music real to me. She encouraged me in all the different styles and she related it back to different life aspects, so that was something that I can see in the classical sense—she didn’t really pursue any fiddling, but she was so supportive of all the other styles that I did. Then I had a teacher in high school—she was my choir director, Judy Sagen—and she was the same way. She was supporting me in whatever I did, and really encouraging me.
Teachers love it so much, but they don’t get paid to teach you. That’s the really good aspect of a teacher is that they can do it no matter what they get out of it, because they see potential in somebody. I had a lot of people that saw potential in me, and they pursued me. They helped get me to where I am today. I had so many great mentors and friends back in Minnesota that were always encouraging me to just be my best, and I think that’s been true across the board. I’ve had so many great teachers.
Do you have any advice for young musicians who are aspiring to participate in Minnesota Varsity this coming year?
Yes. Practice and make your piece good! Just have fun with it, you know? Varsity was such a fun opportunity for me, coming in and recording. I had done some other recording sessions, but being in that studio that I got to record my piece in was just amazing, recording solo stuff. Right now I do a lot of recording for other people, so I’ll just do backup stuff. That was an awesome opportunity, to be able to record a whole concerto and do all that.