Strolling violinist strikes palatable chords for diners

Merav Singer's repertoire is likely a little more varied than those of most violinists.

"I play everything -- lots of classical, very Romantic pieces, encore music, Broadway show tunes, country, theme songs from movies, 'Titanic,' 'Schindler's List' ... songs that people recognize," says Singer, 32.

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Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Violinist Merav Singer, left, plays for Man and Sue Kong, of Lawrence, at Pachamama's, 2161 Quail Creek Drive. Singer takes requests from dining guests, making her way from table to table each Friday at the restaurant.

"People think it's funny. I'm dressed like I am (in a red cocktail dress), and then I play 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia.' I'm working on 'Orange Blossom Special.' That takes chops to be able to play it."

There's a reason that Singer, a classically trained violinist with an impressive pedigree of study and performance, can't get away with only knowing how to play Prokofiev and Bach.

She's a strolling violinist at Pachamama's, 2161 Quail Creek Drive, a fine-dining restaurant. She's been performing there since February.

Singer is paid a base salary by Pachamama's, in addition to earning tips for her playing. Average tip: $5. (Though she's earned as much as $20 per table.)

Oh, and a free meal, too. "Oh my God -- it's worth it just for the food," she says.

Rather than catering to the needs of a conductor and a symphony audience, Singer spends Friday evenings taking requests from diners -- "Music of the Night" from "Phantom of the Opera," "Anniversary Waltz," Pachelbel's Canon.

How does her employer, Ken Baker, chef and owner of Pachamama's, feel about her presence in the dining room?


Merav Singer

"It's a nice backdrop to what we're trying to do here. She's super talented, she plays lots of requests and the customers are getting used to having her," he says.

"Everybody's real excited about it; they think she's fantastic. I'd like to keep her around for a while."

Conservatory trained

Singer, who began studying the violin at age 7, is no music snob.

She's happy to play whatever songs diners request, in whatever style -- baroque to klezmer.

As Singer moves from table to table, she carries with her a "gig book," containing sheet music for about 150 songs that she has specially transcribed for solo violin.

Most requests tend toward the lilting and lovely, such as Debussy's "Claire de Lune."

But that's not always the case.

"Some people want Van Halen. I'm working on it. I just found out about (The Who's rock opera) 'Tommy.' It's going to take some time to see if I can make it work," Singer says.

It's a good bet -- given her musical training -- she'll be able to accomplish that. And much more.

Singer graduated from Lawrence High School in 1989 and from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in 1993.

The Jerusalem-born Singer studied violin with Tiberius Klausner at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and later with Piotr Milewski at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, earning masters of music degrees from both schools.

While at Smith, Singer performed solos with the Pioneer Valley Orchestra and the Five College Baroque Orchestra. She also has soloed with the UMKC Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati conservatory's Ensemble for Eighteenth Century Music.

In 2001, she toured Eastern Europe as a member of the Camerata Lawrence, with concerts in Berlin, Budapest and other cities.

Honest way to earn living

It may seem like a rather lofty background for a strolling violinist. But Singer is perfectly happy with this gig, at least for now.

"My favorite is when people put down their forks, close their eyes and listen. That's when I feel that I'm talking to them, through the music," she says.

"When you're performing on a stage, you have some of that sense. But when you're standing next to their table, it really gets to them. I've made people cry -- that was cool."

In addition to playing at Pachamama's, Singer is a member of the Meadowlark String Quartet, which is hired to perform at Lawrence-area events and receptions. She gives private violin lessons, too.

That's while she tries to decide between going back to school to earn a doctorate in ethnomusicology or preparing to audition for orchestras around the country.

In the meantime, working as a strolling violinist is an honest way for a musician to make a living -- or at least to supplement her income.

"It's crucial for me," Singer says. "Otherwise I'd be working a nine-to-five job right now."

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