ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!!!

CONVERSATION WITH TODD FRENCH

by BettyLou Stevens


Todd French, father and husband first, but
also ICS moderator, entrepeneur, cellist
and inventor--and he can cook too!
Dear Chatters, it is with much honor and humility that I offer you a window, if you will, into the life, the mind, the being that is Todd French, President of StringWorks and ISIS. We sat down for several intimate one-on-ones so that I could delve into Todd's inner soul. We also drank a lot. How is it that so many virtues, so much talent, and so many insights can be contained in one gorgeous creature? Read on and discover exactly how it's done . . . BettyLou Stevens

BL: Tell me about your days at USC. With whom did you study?

TF: I did my Masters Degree at USC. There isn't much to tell about USC, as it seems like it was a very quick two years, and the 2nd year already started some of my professional career, both in business and performing. I do have a few items I will recall quite fondly. I was very lucky to have worked with Dan Lewis during his final two years teaching there, and moreover I was able to work under him closely as principal cellist both of those years. He was an amazing man, an incredibly gifted educator (even if his methods were considered 'old school' and perhaps not as fluffy and PC as what is required or strongly recommended in education nowadays) and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to truly work in great detail on some master works of the symphonic repertoire, whereas now it is simply play through three times and perform. That's an experience I did not appreciate as much at the time as I do now, looking back. Also, I had some fantastic education from James Tyler, head of the Early Music department. He's not just a fantastic early music director, but a consummate professional and blindingly intelligent individual. Most of my educational experience was in my undergraduate, at Illinois Wesleyan University, to whom I am eternally committed. Back to your original question, while at USC I studied with the venerable Eleonore Schoenfeld.

What was she like? I have heard all kinds of stories. What was her approach with you?

Half the people reading this likely have studied with Eleonore Schoenfeld in one way or another, either directly or through one of her tens of thousands of students or students' students. She's a living cello pedagogy legend, and exactly what I needed at the time. I had much of my development as a cellist (in fact, most of it, particularly wrangling in this wild, unstructured talent) from Ko Iwasaki in Illinois, but Ms. Schoenfeld was able to really hone my skills as a performer and an artist like I think no other teacher could have done. She was strict with me as what is required to teach those with adult ADD such as myself (self-diagnosed), yet I was able to still grow myself as a cellist. I'm amazed by such gifted teachers, as I'm one who doesn't have the patience or the skills to relay what knowledge I've obtained form such amazing educators through the years. Teaching is such a difficult task – teaching well is, to me, a truly fantastic gift.

In one sentence, what was the greatest lesson you learned about cello technique?

Don't think about what you are playing when you are playing it.

I practice that philosophy all the time, everywhere I go! Was the early music something you sought, or did you happen to fall into it by happenstance?

I guess it was more by happenstance, and a lot of it having to do with a fascination with the viol family. I saw the movie Tous les matins du monde and was quite inspired by it. The choral director at IWU asked if I would be willing to learn bass viola da gamba for the St. Matthew Passion and I gladly agreed to teach myself. While it was somewhat of a travesty, it hooked me enough to seek out the program at USC when I enrolled, as it was a very strong program. I soon was roped into baroque cello and treble as well as bass viol. The repertoire is so fantastic, particularly some of the rare early Renaissance pieces, and a good viol consort always gets the blood flowing.

What is your practice schedule like? Does your StringWorks business make it difficult for you to prepare your opera playing?

Practice? Am I really supposed to keep doing that even though I put in my time? Uh oh.

How would you describe your cello playing and sound? Whom were your idols?

I always have had a rather large and full sound, but not the most precise player technically. I guess I'd be more classified as a lyrical cellist than a virtuoso, and considering how much I struggle with Piatti, I don't think my name and 'virtuoso' have ever been used in the same sentence. As far as idols go, I had a few of note. It depended on the piece, actually, because different cellists have different strengths. I loved the huge full sound of Piatigorsky, enjoyed DuPré's Elgar concerto like the rest of us, and took to the recordings of Steven Isserlis quite a bit, particularly his sonatas of all types – a fantastic and unique player. As a young cellist I was very much idolizing my teacher at the time, Ko Iwasaki. He seemed to have quite a following of students who idolized him, which is odd because he never asked for it, nor acted as if he should be idolized.

Where do you see your cello playing going? What plans have you for your future as a cellist?

Actually I have fancied getting back into some chamber music and have talked with a couple of violinist colleagues of mine about 1) a Brahms piano trio CD and 2) a collaborative effort on the Brahms Double Concerto. To do this I will have to get back into a strict practice schedule like the old days, but I actually look forward to it if it can ever happen. I'm cutting way down on my baroque performances and now doing only one festival a year, but since for some reason my playing chops are still pretty good, I know I might be able to pull together a respectable performance of either of the following projects if I again work my tail off.

How long have you been with the LA Opera? How is that you are able to play "half-seasons"?

My first opera with them was Tristan und Isolde in 1995 – talk about learning to swim by being thrown in the middle of the ocean! 5½ hours, something like 439 pages of music, and never since have I longed for the word 'fine' as much as with that opera. Still, for some reason, I still play there, and they still have me there. I'm down to about a quarter of the season now, and happy to do any that I am able to do.

Tell me all about your exciting new venture, ISIS, and what does it have to do with the Egyptian goddess (with whom I have been compared more than once)?

ISIS has nothing to do with the Egyptian goddess other than in name. It stands for Instrument Security Identification Systems, and essentially it's a system to assist in stolen instrument recovery, as well as a tool for third party registration, inventory tracking, provenance records, or supply chain management of any musical instrument. For violin-family instruments, we have a microchip that is installed in the instrument. This microchip can be scanned, for example, and checked in the database at any time. It provides a nearly tamper-proof way to identify an instrument instead of relying on glued-in paper labels or visual identification from one of few experts available.

So it's like a microchip; like the one my Shazzam! and I had installed at the vet, right?

Very similar, actually. The pet chips have a special coating because they are injected under skin – these are more simple in construction, with a glass capsule enclosing the antenna and microchip itself.

How would ISIS have worked had a system been installed in Peter Stumpf's General Kyd prior to the theft?

Actually, we've been talking to the luthier in charge of its restoration and he's very anxious to get it chipped with ISIS. The LA Phil was lucky that the cello was still in the area, and that the police had kept this luthier on as an expert to identify it if it was found. Should it have been sent overseas, or anywhere else in the country where one of perhaps a dozen individuals who can identify it by sight does not live, it may have indeed been turned into the world's most expensive CD holder. With the microchip, anyone with a scanner (pawn shop, police department, dealer, individual) could have scanned it, checked it in the system, and found out it was stolen.

What do the purists say about tampering with rare instruments to install an ISIS chip?

Actually I haven't met with anyone yet who has had difficulty with the concept, as the microchip is installed in a structural part of the instrument, not a part that would affect value or tone. Typically they are inserted in a block – the end block, the corner blocks, the neck block. The rarest of instruments seldom have the original blocks in any case, so you aren't defiling the great handiwork of Stradivari by inserting the microchip, but simply adding a measure of security.

Congratulations on the smash success of StringWorks. How did it all start? And why Wisconsin?

Essentially, I thought of the concept of setting up a nationwide rental program for string teachers who did not have decent access to good quality instruments for their students. Many teachers do not have the luxury of a fine violin shop or even a music store with staff possessing even a rudimentary knowledge of stringed instruments, so their students can suffer with not only terrible instruments that have existed in a rental fleet for 20-some years, but a setup that requires the feat of a team of cellists or violinists working in unison just to depress the A string in first position. When I searched around for the perfect instruments for such a project, looking for a balance of quality construction, design, materials, tone, and price, I couldn't find anything acceptable, so I figured that I could design my own. (While I don't have a background in making, I did in restoration and appraisals/identification, as I was the curator of the collection at USC at the time, also working as the director of the Fine Musical Instrument department at Butterfields). After significant trial and error, many changes, updates, modifications, I came up with the StringWorks Crescendo and Artist models – the Crescendo as the 'rental' instrument and the Artist as the 'step up.' I incorporated in 1997, but actually opened shop in 1998 after about a year's trial run with a local teacher (to iron out kinks – field research, I guess it is called, but what would I know, my degrees are in music). This was the dawn of internet e-commerce, so I also developed a website and launched that year (1998). To my surprise, the instruments came out so well that customers were buying them more than renting – far more. Word of mouth spread the news and I had to quickly start designing more lines to fill the need, and soon it grew to what it is today. I'm so thankful for the internet because without it, I couldn't have reached as many people as I have. I do recall when I first launched the website being ridiculed by some in the industry that this new model (direct-to-consumer branding through e-commerce only) would never work. I do relish that it was a very successful model and paved the way for others like it, not to mention some of the stalwarts adapting a version of their own as well. I think a whole lot of it is due to luck – right place, right time.

I chose Wisconsin for a number of reasons, primarily that my wife and I figured we'd want to move back to the Midwest sometime early in our marriage, which is not the case right now (we're VERY happy to be living here!). On the professional side, Wisconsin has some advantages: 1) the labor is very loyal compared to California as a whole, where individuals will stay with a company forever as long as that company treats them well. 2) the labor laws for employers are far less constricting than in California. 3) the location is central to shipping throughout the country and Canada, which is an added bonus.

Where do you get the instruments, and who makes them? Are they "shop" instruments or are any of them handcarved by one luthier? Tell me about your product line?

We have workshops all over the place. Some lines are made in Southern China, some in Northern China, some in Romania, and some in Hungary. All are quite small workshops, and we are quite picky about every single instrument made for us each year. We have one that is handmade by one luthier, the others are made by a handful of makers, and in the case of those made in Hungary, only 3 or 4. Essentially I have setup these workshops in different areas because each has different strengths, and fill a different need in our lineup. I'm always improving each line, making sure that any changes are made do nothing more than increase quality and tone.

I have heard raves about your Man Claudiu. Who is he and what makes him so special?

He's a master maker in Romania who used to teach at our workshop there. He's since gone off to do his own making and we have been very pleased with the quality and tone of his instruments. It's a nice advantage to have a luthier making for us as the price can be significantly lower than a comparable American maker, but we do have him working at his capacity. Demand is somewhat outstripping supply sometimes, as one man can't rush himself to make instruments too quickly or the quality suffers tremendously.

Why Eastern Europe?

Eastern Europe actually has a pretty long standing reputation for high levels of lutherie, with such makers as Jan Dvorak, the Konya family, and Paul Pilat hailing from there. With such a rich tradition, it's something that is easily adapted by other makers, and there exists a line of master makers to train others interested in learning the craft.


A family affair-- Ella, Heidi and Mr.
French himself relax after a hectic day.

I heard you played a Kallo Bartok cello in the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. What comments did you receive about it before you sold it to that woman?

Actually I received all kinds of comments about it, mostly about its appearance as you can't hear a thing down in the pit and scarcely was I able to have each member of the orchestra sit around my chair as I played a brief solo for them to enjoy. Playing my 'main' cello for so long, and having the Bartok look so different, one can't help but attract some 'shop talk', and many were commenting particularly on the beautiful flaming of the back. It's always fun to make people guess what it is when they ask me, but enough know of my secret now (I used to make sure nobody knew about my business ventures so I could hopefully be taken seriously as a cellist – didn't want anything to dilute that already fine line) to assume it is one of 'my own.' I enjoyed playing it because it's much easier to play than my ornery old French cello.

How are you expanding the services StringWorks provides?

We recently figured out that while we have experienced fantastic growth and permeate about all aspects of the internet in terms of stringed instrument marketing, we have only touched the surface of what is out there in terms of players and teachers. We are going the more traditional route now in attending conventions and events, developing a catalog (a very fancy one, I might add – it's going to be a visual treat, nothing like the standard fare), and making sure teachers know about us, as it seems most don't. As far as expanding services, at present we have added a new feature to our trade-in policy that gives not only the 100% trade-in allowance for the first trade up, but 80% for any subsequent trade-ups in the future, with no limit. This way, we're making more of a statement that we want our customers to feel like their purchase of an instrument is more of an investment, and it will not be akin to throwing money away. It also gives them the opportunity to grow in instrument level and price at their own pace, not be tied to buying something that is far too much for them at present. We still have our 7-year guarantee, and my staff is still the best in the world for customer service (I'm myself amazed at how long my staff will talk on the phone with someone who is asking questions – even for an hour – whether they intend to purchase or not). Great customer service in ANY industry is the best service any company can provide, and I speak to that as a oft-frustrated consumer.

I understand you are now going nationwide through regional reps? Why do you find this necessary and what will the reps role be? And how can I sign up?

We've been nationwide from the start, technically, as that was the original business model, and we still have several running programs in their otherwise instrument-starved local areas. One point I'd like to make is that we make sure our representatives fully reveal that they are representatives or agents of StringWorks, and since we do all the billing, our name is all over the instrument, invoice, rental contract, business card, and rosin, it's quite clear. The reason for this is that we look down on the all too common practice of 'kickbacks', which are commissions paid to teachers by dealers 'under the table.' We have no issue with teachers earning commissions, but feel it should be fully disclosed to the benefit of the customer, so they can temper their decision with ALL the information, and not assume that the opinion they are receiving is completely unbiased and in the best interest only of the customer/student. Any qualified teacher can sign up if they feel the area where they teach is in need of such a program – we have an online application, then each of them are reviewed, making sure the qualifications are there and we don't have a conflict with another Representative.

How is it that you are able to run a burgeoning company, participate in a marriage, raise a child, and still manage to be productive as a cellist?

I'm not exactly sure how productive I am as a cellist anymore, but I won't expand upon that much further in case some of my colleagues read this. Everybody asks me that question, and truly, it's not difficult at all! I find watching my daughter for 3 hours much harder than multi-tasking on running my business, instant messaging with the office, answering email, and waiting for a phone conference call. My schedule is flexible, and I honestly feel I have more free time than many people with 'real jobs' that I know, although I do work at all hours of the night sometimes, chatting with my web developers (while I used to design all my own sites and write my own html, my time is better served elsewhere now and I outsource much of this work) at 11 p.m. or answering emails using the 'do not deliver before' function so as not to appear like I'm working at night. I wish I was able to practice more than I have been recently, and it's not that I don't have the actual time (my days of 4-5 hours of practice a day are LONG gone, however), it's that my mind is always racing and when I have something come up, I need to take care of it, write it down, or think on it some more. My concentration level for practice is somewhat limited now, but I definitely make sure that I keep my chops up whenever possible, as I don't do enough playing (concerts, sessions, gigs) to keep my chops up that way.

Is your busy schedule the only reason you did not volunteer to play with my Los Angeles Cello Quintet?

I assure you that and the wild dogs holding me back are the ONLY reasons. I love cello ensemble, and have many fond memories of my days in a cello ensemble. Do ask me next time, and schedule the concert in lovely Dana Point, ok?

I read in the CNN article on-line that you and Heidi are nearly billionaires. Yet you still play in the pit at Dorothy Chandler in the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. Why?

Nearly billionaires?? Isn't the interviewee supposed to be doing the exaggerations? I hope NEVER to stop playing with the Opera or the occasional event with the LA Phil or a studio session, but some things are beyond my control. I am truly blessed to be able to play with this level of ensemble, and I don't take it for granted one bit.

You are obviously a gorgeous specimen, physically. How does this play into your success? Do you find that physical presence has a positive effect on how people react to you?

I've never been referred to as a specimen…fascinating. I guess I never considered whether my physical presence has anything to do with my success, but I have considered my personality having something to do with it. To start a business and be successful at it, you must be both ultimately confident and willing to work as hard as it takes to make it happen. I'm confident to the point of pompous (ask anyone who knows me, although my years in the beach town of Dana Point surrounded by a surfer community have rounded my edges a great deal), and this was definitely a strong suit in my quest to create not only a new business but a new model in an industry long standing in tradition. Any entrepreneur will likely be met with some significant negative feedback, but a confident individual will be able to utilize that negativity to further strengthen his or her conviction in the project. I actually overcame some hurdles early on in the business, as I have always looked quite young for my age, so attempting to be taken seriously by suppliers, distributors, advisors, others in the industry, etc. was often difficult because here comes Doogie Howser acting like he knows what he is talking about. Now that the company is well established, and my hair has receded a bit, I no longer get the comments of 'how old ARE you?' or 'you sure are young looking' during business meetings.

Well, when I asked around about you, the first thing people said was "well, he's gorgeous" or "the handsomest boy-next-door I have ever seen." Do you think our society places too much importance, especially in Southern California, on outward appearance?

Um, well, yes. Southern California obviously places too much importance on it, otherwise I wouldn't have two groups at my gym, depending on when I go to work out. If I go in the mornings, I get the silicon/botox crowd. If I go in the evenings, I get the steroid crowd. When someone completely natural walks in, they actually look out of place.

I will not even guess to which, if not BOTH, you belong!! I read the article in "Audi Magazine," did you finally get your own, or is Heidi the sole Audi driver? Do you have pronounced auto lust, or are you interested mostly in safety?

Heidi drives the Audi, but I do on occasion, for example on Sundays when it is my responsibility to tote Ella around to Church and back while Heidi is singing. I most definitely have a serious case of auto lust – if I had a 10-car garage, I'd likely have 10 cars. Safety is a small part of it – for me it's more about the experience of driving and the performance. They are toys to me – wonderful, exhilarating, and very expensive toys.

Oh yes, I understand. I get a lot of attention driving around in my Hummer. It is so exhilarating! What do you miss that you no longer have time for?

Tennis – I used to play 3 times a week, now it's down to about twice a month if I'm lucky. I also miss chamber music, but it's not that I don't have time for it, it's that I live out in the boonies and none of my colleagues would ever step foot behind the Orange Curtain to come play with me.

What are you reading these days?

I just finished a great novel by a friend of mine entitled 'M.D. – the Making of a Doctor'. He's hoping to get it published sometime in the near future. I'm about to start reading 'Shadow Divers' by Robert Kurson – I have an affinity for real-life adventure stories, probably stemming from my childhood affection for 'Drama in Real Life' from Readers Digest.

What do you do in your free time besides answer questions on and monitor "Instruments and Equipment" on ICS?

Lately I've been traveling far too much. Trips overseas 4 times a year, Wisconsin 5 times a year, Illinois another 3-4 times a year, then some random trips as well. I recall not too long ago when traveling was exciting. Now, staying at home for a 2-week stretch sounds like heaven. Locally, I've enjoyed cultivating new friendships with other young families, and try to coordinate events together. Going to the beach is always fun, and Ella enjoys it a great deal, so I'm fortunate to live close by. Tennis, of course, and driving (as established earlier), as well as taking short 15 minute naps on my hammock during the afternoon lull. More and more my free time is gladly taken up with activities with Ella. I look forward to staying active with her as she grows – the soccer games, the clubs and school activities, and making sure she doesn't date until she's 21.

What would your friends say about you?

I guess it depends who you ask, and when you ask them. I'd be happy to let you talk with them, just give me a little notice so I can pay them off before they hear from you.

That is so deliciously evasive. You are so modest and humble, and it's well, almost too good to be true. What are your most embarrassing faults?

It's not too good to be true, and really not evasive. I pride myself in remaining a mystery, although it doesn't really work all that well. My close friends would say that I'm driven and very serious, but also pretty fun and crazy when I know I have permission to be, and I think my greatest gift to a friendship is the ability to throw in humor during tense situations. I have many friends who get deeply involved in tense moments, and with the right timing, a nicely placed bit of humor always helps – you know that all too well, right BL? As far as modest and humble, I would bet you wouldn't find any friends of mine using either of those two words to describe Todd French :).

I understand you and your lovely wife Heidi have a new little daughter. What is her name, and how old is she now?

Her name is Ella Frances, and she is a very vibrant 18 months old now, taking the world by storm, and leaving us in her wake.

How has fatherhood affected you?

Let me count the ways…I find myself dedicated to this wonderful little person, instead of narrowly focused on my own life. Parenthood amazes me, how your attitudes, priorities, and sense of purpose all change literally in a heartbeat. I can see the world through new eyes now, appreciating otherwise mundane things because I realize how much they might mean to her. It's really fantastic, I must say.

How would you describe yourself as a father? What role do you take in little Ella's care giving?

I'm fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with Ella. Working from home quite a lot, taking her and Heidi with me on my frequent trips to America's Dairyland, and being very fortunate to have a flexible schedule all allow me to spend more time with her than many fathers get to. We like to walk to the beach (her in the backpack), go to the park, but my favorite moments are around naptime or before bed, when I am able to have her fall asleep on my shoulders. I'm also proud to say that specific to her care giving, I have influenced a lot of her eating habits, and she enjoys many exotic foods, as well as my proudest culinary accomplishment with Ella – her joining me at the breakfast table with her own cereal – complete with milk and spoon. Love it.

What child-rearing tools did you learn from your parents that are now being put to the test?

I'm still waiting to use the adage 'Because I said so!' which I vowed NEVER to repeat to my own children. Because I don't recall much of the child-rearing techniques my parents used on me at 18 months, I can't really say which of them I'm consciously applying to Ella's upbringing….

Do the two of you plan to expose her to music playing?

Most likely – she's very excited about music, and primarily dancing to music. We plan to start her on piano at 4 or 5, as that's a good foundation even if she chooses not to continue in music. I do enjoy when she runs up to my cello (in its case – this IS earthquake land, you know) and says 'Play! Daddy! Play!' – unfortunately the joy in listening only lasts about 10 minutes, and that's probably due to my playing….

Have you started a 562 account yet?

If you mean a 529, no we haven't, but we plan to in January, per the advice of our accountants. We have other financial structures in place (hopefully) to help pay for her college, which by the time she's old enough to go, will likely approach $125,000 per year. Oh joy.

After Ella came, what changes did you notice, if any, in the way you and Heidi communicated? What surprised you about the effect a first child had on your marriage?

Wow, deep question, Ms. Walters. The old adage about not having much time together as husband and wife is completely true, but the thing is, while you do miss the 'date nights' anytime the whim comes upon you, the realization of the reason for the sacrifice makes it all okay, so it's sort of complaining with the undertone of not wanting it any other way. In reference to the way we communicate, it's actually quite funny how we find ourselves occasionally talking as we would to Ella. One of Heidi's key items with Ella is adding 'thank you' after Ella says 'no', or saying 'no thank you!' Recently she found herself correcting me as well, adding 'thank you' after I answered a question in the negative.

11/4/04


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