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Happy Birthday, Joshua Bell

Tales of the H-T – stories taken from or inspired by the Herald-Times Archive at the Monroe County History Center. Article by Rod Spaw.

Monroe County residents of a certain age feel really old: Joshua Bell just turned 55. Yes, the violinist extraordinaire who grew up in Bloomington now is eligible for a whole bunch of “senior” discounts from the like of Denny’s, Walgreen’s and T-Mobile.

Bell, whose birthday was Dec. 9, figuratively came of age in the pages of The Herald-Times, which checked in with him regularly as he began venturing out to conquer the world of classical music. The newspaper began tracking Bell’s career at age 14, after the son of Alan and Shirley Bell had won the grand prize of Seventeen magazine-General Motors first-ever National Concerto Competition in 1982.

This is how HT entertainment writer Mike Pearson introduced Bell to readers in 1982: “Here’s a sandy -haired youngster, with eyes like giant blue marbles, who likes what almost all 14-year-olds do: Raiders of the Lost Ark; tennis, mystery novels and – who could have doubted it – video games. But if you look beyond the blue jeans and Apple computer in his room, you will see that, where other youngsters might have posters of popular movie and TV heroes and heroines, Josh’s walls are covered with the faces of Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn and Muti. And awards. Lots of awards.”

At the time, Bell was about to become the youngest solo artist ever to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra. There has been a lot to write about in the ensuring 40 years. Highlights from his website,, include multiple PBS specials;performances at the Grammy and Academy Awards shows; more than 40 albums; several film soundtrack credits. And concerts. Lots of concerts throughout the world and in the U.S., performing as a soloist, recitalist, chamber musician, conductor and, since 2011, as music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Bell also is a former faculty member at the IU Jacobs School of Music, where he studied under his mentor, violinist Josef Gingold. He received the school’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 1991, as well as the 20003 Indiana Governor’s Arts Award. In 2000, Bell was named an “Indiana Living Legend” by the Indiana Historical Society.

Reading his quotes in those early H-T interviews reveal a mature young man who already had embraced his destiny. What follows are excerpts from Bell’s interviews at ages 14, 17 and 18 with Michael Pearson, who now is assistant managing editor at the Toledo Blade.

Herald-Times photo by Don Vandeventer (age 14)

On learning to play the violin (age 14):

“The hardest part about playing the violin is that it takes a lot of work. I don’t always want to practice four hours a day, but I would never give up practicing either. It is not like you can just pick up a violin and know how to play it.”

On being labeled a prodigy (age 17)

“But I don’t know what these words mean – ‘genius’ and ‘prodigy.’ I never think of myself as a prodigy; I’m a musician. There was a time when every review of my performance always started out by saying ‘he’s wonderful for his age.’ Frankly, I appreciate it when they don’t mention my age. I don’t understand what age has to do with music.”

Herald-Times photos by John Terhune (age 17)

On leading a ‘normal’ life (age 17)

“I have had a pretty normal life, except for the fact that the people I hang out with are musicians who are much older than myself. I don’t think I’ve missed out on any of the things kids my age do, except wondering about what my future career will be. I decided that a long time ago.”

On maintaining a sense of humor while traveling (age 18)

“You have to constantly be in good spirits because you’re always meeting people who ask the same old questions. How many sisters and brothers do you have? Are your parents musical? How much do you practice? Most performers are great musicians, but they can’t handle the fact they must be constantly entertaining, even off stage.”

On performing in his hometown (age 18)

“In some ways, this is the highlight of my season because I’m playing for all my friends. Everyone in the audience is a friend or a teacher or a family member. It’s the best audience to play for. The most fun. It can also be the most pressure because you want it to be perfect.”

On why he does what he does (age 18)

“I love playing the violin. I’d do it whether I was making money or not. There’s just nothing I’d rather do.”

Photo by IU Jacobs School of Music (from a 2018 news release)