Wielding a Cello and a Smile, Mike Block Defies Expectations

By Amelia Mason - April 19, 2014


Mike Block is the sort of musician who always has his fingers in a dozen different projects. The Julliard-educated cellist is perhaps best known as a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, but it’s as an educator and relentless creator of numerous side ventures where he truly shines. At home in a variety of styles, from classical to folk to pop, Block—sporting a specially-designed cello strap that allows him to play standing up—is a kinetic performer and an inspiring teacher.

Block’s career is even more impressive in light of what he has overcome. In 2009, the cellist was hit by a New York City taxi cab, landing him in the hospital with a broken rib, a busted jaw, and nine missing teeth. After a lengthy dispute with the insurance company, Block was forced to raise the bulk of the money for the numerous surgeries required to replace his teeth. A successful Indigogo campaign raised $48,000 of the $70,000 needed to cover expenses, more than twice the original campaign goal.

All this is to say that Block is an artist of action, a passionate self-starter. In the years following the accident, he founded the Mike Block String Camp, which has since proliferated to include a session in Michigan in addition to the original Florida camp, as well as an advanced program designed for professional musicians. This summer, Block will run the Brooklyn Pop String Camp for the second year in a row, where kids ages 8 to 18 learn to play and arrange their favorite pop tunes. Block’s camps boast a low teacher-to-student ratio, mixing high expectations with an emphasis on playfulness and improvisation. This is the crux of Block’s signature teaching style, which encourages students to push themselves by abandoning all preconceptions of what music should, or could, be.

Block’s most recent album, “Brick By Brick,” is a modest, yet heartfelt, epilogue to the traffic accident saga. Comprised of eight studio and three live recordings, it is dominated by intimate performances of Block’s original songs. There is the goofily virtuosic “Concert Teeth,” a comical ode the cellist’s temporary dentures; the yearning R&B-inflected “It’s Time To Run;” the bluegrass-inspired “Learning To Smile.” All are colored by Block’s characteristic wit and energy.

As an artist, Block is devoted to defying expectations around the cello. His chosen mode of performance--standing up--is a literal embodiment of what he seeks to do musically: release the cello from its classical shackles. Block embraces ugly and unexpected noises: the crunch of bow pressed against string, the shock of dissonance amid harmony. He employs a variety of innovative percussive techniques, like the bowed “chop” and complex plucking rhythms, to accompany himself when he sings. He covers everything from Top 40 hits to fiddle tunes to originals. A video of one of Block’s live concerts, in which he exhorts the crowd to hum a chord while he improvises around Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” encapsulates the essence of his performance style: exuberant, creative, and deeply social.

Hit return to post