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A Dresden Doll Drums Out Life Lessons

By Abigail J. Crutchfield, Contributing Writer

Brian Viglione, percussionist for The Dresden Dolls, made it a point to prove in a recent workshop that he is anything but a “Coin-Operated Boy,” the title of one of the group’s biggest hits.

At the event, held Monday night in Hilles Library, Viglione emphasized the importance of individuality and focusing on the present—both in art and in life. The workshop was sponsored by the Office of the Arts at Harvard (OFA) and the Harvard College Alliance for Rock and Roll (HCARAR), and it drew a crowd of 25.

OPENING UP

“It’s important to ask yourself how much you can be uninhibited physically first of all,” Viglione told the audience near the beginning of the workshop.

Viglione then passed out drumsticks to the audience. He taught the proper way to sit, hold the sticks, and even a few exercises to get started. “A lot of it comes down to finger-work,” he said, while demonstrating a drum-roll that looked like a lot more than finger work.

The Dresden Dolls was born in 2000 when Viglione met singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer at a Halloween party, an appropriate beginning for a duo that draws partial inspiration from the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” for their image. Viglione, however, began drumming when he was five, inspired by his father, who was a drummer and carpenter.

Although not a college graduate himself, Viglione is no stranger to Harvard or to speaking for college students. In his spare time, Viglione has been giving workshops at both high schools and colleges to inspire a next generation of musicians.

This was the second workshop Viglione has held at Harvard in under a year. At the first, he participated in a panel discussion on “The Onion Cellar,” a cabaret-style show starring both Viglione and Palmer and built around the Dolls’ music, which ran at the American Repertory Theatre last December. Viglione was the one who approached the OFA about this second Harvard workshop.

PALE-FACED LESSONS

Viglione—pale, thin and dressed all in black—began the workshop with a demonstration, stresed that his goal in playing was not to show a “demo of his tricks” but to encourage students to play beyond their own limits. Nonetheless, his tricks were in full effect when he played.

“So that’s basically just off-the-cuff sort of playing,” he said as he put down his drumsticks after a complex drum solo, drawing a laugh from the audience.

Viglione insisted that his theatrical style does not come from the ego, but from an effort to be free to the present.

“I try to think beyond normally expected boundaries and be open to whatever is coming in,” he said, citing a drum solo from “The Onion Cellar” in which he tried to give musical form to the actors’ emotions.

A WIDE BASE

Viglione also stressed the importance of finding value and inspiration in every musical genre, even those that seem far away from his own area of expertise.

He says his favorite genre is “anything that is passionate, dynamic, and heartfelt.” His list of favorite composers ranges from John Coltrane and Miles Davis to Mozart and Ravel.

Although the technical aspects of the demonstration would perhaps have been most useful for musicians, Viglione applied his philosophy more broadly. After finishing, he hung around to answer questions and sign autographs, clearly excited to have the opportunity to talk one on one to fellow musicians and fans.

When asked if he has a creed, Viglione had this to offer: “When encountering any art, try to be truly free of any judgment or prejudice and allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to what that art has to offer you.”

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