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ASU honors graduate to tour nationally as professional violinist

Felix Herbst holding a violin with music equipment on a table in front of him.

Felix Herbst, a 2019 ASU honors graduate, is based in Boston and works as a violinist. Photo courtesy Felix Herbst

March 06, 2023

Felix Herbst was of two minds when he was thinking about attending Arizona State University.

He started playing violin at the age of 7 and loved the creativity that came with mastering different musical styles. He also had a love of science and its challenges.

He combined these interests as an undergraduate double-major in violin performance and molecular bioscience and biotechnology. He also was a student in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU.

Herbst is originally from Holzgerlingen, Germany, and grew up in Santa Rosa, California. He graduated ASU in 2019 thinking he would go the scientific route, but instead chose to pursue a musical career.

Now he is based in Boston and works as a wedding violinist and DJ in New England, on recording and arranging projects, in shows with other musical artists and on freelance gigs.

He currently is a violinist in the pit orchestra for the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof,” produced by NETworks PRESENTATIONS. The tour will take him throughout the United States and Canada until mid-May.

We caught up recently with Herbst, who was on a tour bus, to get his recollections about experiences at ASU that led him to where he is now. Here’s what he had to say.

Question: How did you decide to attend ASU and Barrett?

Answer: To be honest, I had no idea approaching the end of high school where I wanted to go. I had applied to 20 schools and ASU was not on my radar until I found out that my National Merit Scholarship would grant me full tuition there. Barrett invited me to tour the campus and I took a trial violin lesson with my professor-to-be, Dr. Katherine McLin, and I loved both, so decided on the spot I would go there.

 holding a violin and smiling against a blue background.

Felix Herbst

Q: How did you decide on your major/minor?

A: Music has always been a part of my life, and at a certain point I realized that if I loved it so much, I should give it a shot and try to make a career of it. After my first semester, the science-y part of my brain felt understimulated and I missed that kind of learning process a lot, so I decided to add a second degree path in molecular bioscience and biotechnology (MBB). Living systems at the cellular and molecular level have always fascinated me and MBB seemed like a great degree path with enough flexibility in electives to create an interesting curriculum.

Q: You completed an honors thesis titled “Finding Space: A Modern Violinist's Role Explored via EP” with McLin as your thesis director and thesis committee member Samuel Pena from the ASU School of Music. Can you give more details about it?

A: My honor’s thesis served two purposes. First, as a modern violinist and musician interested in many styles of music beyond classical and even straightforward fiddle or jazz playing, I had come to realize that my niche and function in the musical world wasn’t very defined. It was quite hard sometimes to figure out how to find creative fulfillment performing with and for other artists in the standard roles often assigned to string players, and I wanted to expand beyond that and see what I could come up with for myself to create and play if it were solely up to me.

The second, and frankly more significant purpose, was to use the structured thesis process to force myself to create and publicly release music. I have struggled for a long time with a fear of being creatively vulnerable, with toxic perfectionism and thus with procrastination of really expressing myself publicly through my music. By using the thesis to commit to creating this EP and releasing at least one of the songs publicly, I was able to create something I am very proud of and bring myself to share it with the world. The piece I released, “Wadsworth,” is available on Spotify.  

Q: What have you been doing since you graduated?

A: Post-graduation has been a roller coaster! The week of finals, I got a call to fly to New York City to do a show with Alicia Keys, so I scrambled to take all my finals early, played the show and came back for my graduation ceremony. After spending a few months in Arizona hiking a lot, enjoying some free time and sleeping a lot, I moved to Boston two days before what ended up being the beginning of the (novel coronavirus) pandemic. I had spent a year in the middle of my undergrad attending Berklee College of Music out there and loved it, so wanted to return. I had applied to several science lab jobs there but decided I would go the freelance musician route.

Q: How did ASU and Barrett prepare you for the “Fiddler on the Roof” tour experience?

A: My time at ASU/Barrett prepared me for this tour in myriad ways. My development of my technical faculties at the Herberger School of Music, my experience working together with a wide variety of musicians and personality types, and the opportunities I received to play in the pit in musicals at ASU were invaluable to making me feel confident and comfortable on this tour.

Q: How would you characterize your undergraduate honors experience?

A: Being in the honors college as an undergraduate allowed for the feeling of a smaller, tighter-knit community within the huge institution that is Arizona State. Similarly to how my science degree helped fill some of the intellectual desires I was feeling while I was just starting the music major, Barrett added for me another layer of challenge, commitment and stimulation on top of my academic experience. Additionally, Barrett granted me access to honors funding for things like my thesis that opened doors for me creatively and practically. And beyond academics, I can say that the friends I made in my first few years of Barrett are some of the best people I know to this day.

Q: What advice would you give to students still in ASU/Barrett?

A: Being on the other side of undergrad, and no longer within an academic institution, it strikes me what an incredible resource a place like ASU/Barrett can be if you take from it what you want and need. The school is there for you, so in the precious time you have there, make it work for you. Take advantage of funding, of advice, of connections with people, of facilities, of all those things that surround you now but may never be available to you again a few years down the line.

Q: If you were speaking with a prospective student, what would you say?

A: ASU is a place with an incredible range of things you can get out of it. If you are trying to earn a college degree as quickly and with as little student debt as possible, you can make that happen here. If you are looking to have an incredibly fun, exhilarating time and get set on the road to a good career, that’s there for you too. If you don’t quite know what you want, but want to try out several pathways to see what sparks your interest, it’s perfect for that. And if you are dead set on a specific journey and you want to draw from funding, advice and other resources to get you there, all while enjoying a 65-degrees-Fahrenheit evening in December, there you go.

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