Schaumburg native rocks the violin in Trans-Siberian Orchestra
When Roddy Chong plays violin, he doesn't sit on a chair.
He leaps into the air, runs across an arena stage, lunges forward, and flips his long hair like he's playing in an '80s rock band. He might do a Pete Townshend-style arm circle with his bow.
Chong, a Schaumburg native considered one of the world's premier violinists, is pure energy onstage -- a prerequisite for his job as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's rock violinist.
He'll return home this weekend to perform two shows with the TSO's annual holiday-themed rock, light and laser show, "The Lost Christmas Eve," Saturday, Dec. 8, at Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
The TSO's winter tour is now crisscrossing the country, with 60 arena shows in six weeks.
"It's very athletic. TSO has pushed me further than anything I've ever done before. I've run the Chicago Marathon twice, and this is harder," Chong said. "As an artist, I don't hold back. If there's a spotlight on me, my job is to give 110 percent."
That's true of Chong's entire career, which so far has included four years with
the TSO, two tours with Shania Twain, and performing with huge stars like Celine Dion, Elton John, Brian McKnight and Kelly Clarkson.
When not touring with the TSO, Chong lives in Los Angeles and plays with actor Kevin Costner's band, Kevin Costner & Modern West. He's also working to expand his acting career and does a lot of motivational speaking for corporations. In his presentations, which, of course, include a little violin-playing, Chong shares his life story about growing up in Schaumburg and taking a path that is totally different -- and far beyond -- what people expect.
"It was beyond my imagination that a Chinese man who plays violin could be in a country music band, but it still happened," he said.
For Chong, it all began at the Betty Haag Academy of Music in Buffalo Grove. He'd been playing violin since age 2, but said he blossomed on the violin when he started at the academy.
"I had to practice for 20 minutes a day before I could go out and play with my friends. It seemed like an eternity," he said. "I thank my mom because she did push me. I know now, the goal wasn't for me to be a professional violinist. It was really about discipline."
At Schaumburg High School, Chong learned to combine his musical talent with his outgoing personality and flair for showmanship. He was class president and won the high school talent shows with his string performances. Then, around his senior year of high school, Chong stopped playing the violin.
"I didn't see my future as practicing for six to eight hours in a room," he said.
That was the start of a period of soul-searching for Chong. After earning a degree in telecommunications and African-American Studies at Indiana University, he began a string of odd jobs: a backup dancer for a hip-hop band, a trumpet player at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, a house painter, handing out brochures on street corners, cleaning boats, a trade show model at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, and a participant in the National Aerobics Competition.
He stayed in touch with a girl he met at that aerobics competition, and she inadvertently led him back to the violin. Chong's friend knew he was a talented violinist, and she also knew the producer for the rock band Jars of Clay. She put Chong in touch with the band, which was looking for a violinist. Chong was invited to tour with the band. Matchbox Twenty opened for them.
Chong's relationship with Jars of Clay ended badly. So in 1997, depressed and unemployed, he set out on an overnight drive to Nashville to visit a friend and search for work. While on I-465, just outside Indianapolis, he hit "search" on his car radio and heard the Celine Dion song "To Love You More," which features the violin.
"I don't like that David Foster nice music. I like rock music," said Chong, noting that he grew up loving "Headbangers Ball" on MTV in the 1980s. "I didn't even know who was singing it. But that song grabbed me so much, I started crying. Almost bawling. So I knew it was something special. I don't cry that often. I just got a distinct feeling in my heart that someday I'm going to play that song with that girl on the radio. I kept thinking that over and over again. I bought the record as soon as I got to Nashville."
Eventually, one day, he did play that song with Celine Dion.
Even more cosmic, he later learned that song was being test-marketed on the radio only in a few cities at odd hours. So the fact that he heard it when he did was an incredible coincidence.
While networking in Nashville, Chong got invited to audition as a violinist for Shania Twain. Not knowing much country music, he'd never even heard of Twain but auditioned anyway and got the job. They played on the VH1 show "Divas Live," and that's where he caught the attention of Celine Dion and ultimately ended up playing with her tour, too, before joining the TSO in 2008.
"For now, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is really my thing. But I hope to work for Shania again. She blew the doors open for me and got me started in my career," he said.
Always looking to improve himself, Chong's now working on his acting. He's landed a few TV commercials and small movie roles, but he jokes that right now, "violin is where I get all my jobs."
"Performing as an artist is always going to happen (in my future)," he said. "I am open to the opportunities."
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always interested to hear about people from the suburbs in showbiz. If you know of someone from the suburbs who would be great to feature in the column, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org