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Behind the Scenes: Ferndale music teacher’s two sons to play with Whatcom Symphony

Bellingham Music Club will launch its 2014-2015 season with two concerts featuring brother violinists Glenn and Grant Donnellan at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 at Trinity Lutheran Church, 119 Texas St. Admission is free.
Bellingham Music Club will launch its 2014-2015 season with two concerts featuring brother violinists Glenn and Grant Donnellan at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 at Trinity Lutheran Church, 119 Texas St. Admission is free. COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Joanne Donnellan, a longtime Ferndale music educator who was concertmaster for Whatcom Symphony Orchestra for years, has two sons who’ll be performing in the WSO’s opening concert at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 5, at Mount Baker Theatre.

Her son Grant, a professor of music at Western Washington University is currently WSO concertmaster; and her son Glenn is a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Because these two violinists grew up in a home that valued classical music, and because both of the Donnellan brothers are strong advocates of music in the schools and are passionate about instilling a love of music in young people, I thought it appropriate to ask them directly about their lives in the world of professional music.

Here’s what they have to say about how parents and teachers can encourage a love of music in children.


Kids are innately expressive with sound and movement and love do anything that is imaginative and fun, so if we can create musical experiences that encompass those qualities they will naturally gravitate towards them.

I have been singing to my twp kids and making up songs during routine activities since their infancy and now I can't stop them from singing (which is sometimes a problem in the car or at bedtime!) I also have instruments scattered around the house which we all play spontaneously.

We also have CDs of various genres to which we like to sing and dance (neither of which I could do in public!) As parents, if we start by modeling enjoyment of and participation in music, kids will imitate us and then eventually usurp the activity. Now if I'm playing a CD, my kids turn it off and put in their own; I'm no longer allowed to sing along on songs but I am allowed to listen and encourage with praise, which seems to be a fair trade for the magical experience of a child's uninhibited expression.

In my work with students of all ages, I strive to get them to engage their imagination and their emotions as listeners or performers and I find that when this is achieved, kids are open to any genre of music - in this case, a 3rd-grader is capable of enjoying a Beethoven symphony, as a listener, just as much as a 16-year old enjoys it as a performer in a youth orchestra.


Play music around them. As young as two years old, play kids songs (“Wee Sing” books for example) for them at home, in the car. They will naturally sing along. Sing with them, too! That's the best place to start developing their musical ability. My kids still love to sing, but now it's with their favorite pop songs.

Next, I asked them about growing up as “classical” musicians, rather than a less geeky musical genre:


Just the act of carrying the classic shaped violin case can make you feel vulnerable to social jabs as a kid, but I don't remember it being a big deal. Several of my friends also played violin or a stringed instrument, both as a Suzuki student and in orchestra class at school. This provided a deeper bond between us just like sports, journalism club, or any other common activity does. As a result, I had a great core of friends who were musicians there, in addition to my non-musician friends. That balanced out any extent to which I may have felt geeky by playing violin. Also, the strings program in Ferndale schools was so strong (largest high school string orchestra in the state) that playing violin seemed very accepted by other students. Most non-strings and non-musical peers were simply impressed that I could play well. I think that if only for social reasons, every kid wants to be good at something. Violin was what I was best at, and it always feels good to excel at something among your peers, musicians or not.

In an interview with Grant in 2013, here’s what he said :

I credit my parents for exposing me to high-quality music from an early age, and I credit my mother for having had the vision and perseverance to teach me the violin at age 4: I can only imagine what that must have been like for her!

It must have been a pretty good experience for me, however, because I never stopped enjoying playing the violin, even when it meant I had to practice instead of going outside (still a dilemma for me, at times, in adulthood).

While I grew up playing and listening, primarily to classical music, I now enjoy other genres as well, especially jazz. I was always an avid listener. I remember painting the house in the summer as a youth while listening to Brahms' violin concerto on the cassette player. I think my dad would have liked more painting and less listening, however.

When, I work with a second-grader in the Beethoven in the Schools program, or with a high school student at the Marrowstone Music Festival, and they become excited by the music in a way that is unique and uninhibited, I feel privileged to participate in that moment and privileged to share this art form that has brought so much meaning and beauty to my life.

For me, the important thing is to encourage people to make a personal connection to this music, whether as a listener or as a performer and, hopefully, to model the same in my own performances.

I believe the timeless magic of this music is to be found in the versatility and depth with which it communicates - it reaches each person in a unique way - and seeing people become affected by it is deeply inspiring to me.

Glenn will be playing his Electric Slugger violin in several concerts while he’s “home.”


The National Symphony Orchestra asked me to perform on an electric violin for young students that come hear us at the Kennedy Center on field trips. The fiddle they borrowed from a music store had a gain setting on the amp that made it sound like a heavy-metal guitar. I didn't know electric violins could do that and had a lot of fun messing around with that sound, so much so that my wife, Jan Chong (also a violinist) would ask me when I would be done practicing (a lot).

I learned “Eruption” from Guitar Hero, which was very popular with the students at that time, and the kids loved it. I also learned “Purple Haze” and had the orchestra play along, which lit up the superintendent of Fairfax County Schools. So when I wasn't playing those solos for the kids, I sat there playing the other NSO pieces thinking "I've got to get one of these."

That evolved into thoughts of making one, which led me to Sports Authority on the way home from a performance, where I stood at a wall of baseball bats, holding my violin up to a Louisville Slugger and thinking it just might work.

I made my first one from that very bat and played it with the NSO for other students. Then I made a YouTube video of my rendition of the National Anthem to send to the Washington Nationals to see if they'd be interested in having me play at a game.

Ironically, my rendition reminds a lot of fans of Hendrix's version, but I never heard his until after I posted my video. A few months later, on August 8, 2009, I played my first National Anthem for the Nats. I've probably played a couple dozen games now, including the Orioles, Braves and Mets. Recently I played for the O's vs. Mariners, where I got to stand on the dugout with their mascot playing the 7th inning stretch as well.

It's resulted in a lot of media attention and a licensing agreement with Louisville Slugger, who sends me a pro-grade C271 Slugger with my signature heat-branded on it like the MLB contact players. It’s now available as an Electric Slugger®, which I make on a per-order basis for anyone who wants one.

Folks can check out my Electric Slugger Facebook page if they want to learn more.

I'd love to do a 30-stadium Electric Anthem tour, but that may be just a pipe dream; it would require a major sponsor to set it up with Major League Baseball! (Find him on YouTube: just type in Glenn Donnellan.)


Ann MacDonald announces auditions for the Whatcom Sound Jazz Singers at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship, 1207 Ellsworth St.; and for the Allegra Women's Vocal Ensemble at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10 at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, 1720 Harris Ave. Details: 360-676-1024, e-mail:info@bellinghamsings, or go to Bellingham Sings public Facebook page.