Two boys toting violin cases were obvious targets for taunts on the streets of Queens. Tourie Escobar said that he and his brother, Damien, were called "sissies, punks and all that."
Damien took to hiding his case under his jacket and putting a book bag over it. "If a person doesn't know about something, they're scared of it," Tourie said. "But I never really cared."
Now, after taking third place at the Apollo Theater's annual amateur night last year and appearing on "Today," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," the brothers are known far beyond the streets of their New York borough. They've even been on French and Japanese television.
Nuttin But Stringz, as the Escobars call themselves, will perform Saturday at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, in their first full-length concert since forming the duo two years ago.
The Escobars, who as high school students played in the subway for change, have produced a single, "Thunder," and are working on an album. They also have started a music publishing company.
Their music blends classical, rhythm and blues, jazz and hip-hop. "It's like Bach meets Dr. Dre," Damien, 18, said. A performance available on their Web site, www.nuttinbutstringz.com, combines classical elements with shout-outs, hip-hop moves and melodies that soar over a piano counterpoint and drums.
"The thing with our music is that we know what mood we were in when we made it, but it can take you anywhere," Damien said. "It's so relaxing. It's therapeutic to me, and I hope it's therapeutic to everyone else."
In creating their music, "everything starts out with improvisation, and then we build, with counterparts and arrangements," Tourie, 19, said. He recalled the time he awoke at 4 a.m. with a tune in his head, woke his brother and went to the studio.
Growing up on the south side of Queens, the brothers played violin in elementary school programs. Tourie had little patience for the program and dropped it; Damien, who began playing at age 8, could perform Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" by age 10.
While Damien continued formal training, Tourie taught himself and was accepted for lessons at the Juilliard School. His teachers said his fingers were too fat to play the violin and gave him a viola. "My true love was the violin," he said.
He left Juilliard, but Damien completed the program. They also attended the Bloomingdale School of Music on the Upper West Side.
"With Juilliard, they always have you in confinement, in a box," Tourie said. "I was more like a freelance violinist. I love to push the envelope with it."
Damien, disillusioned with the Bloomingdale school, quit playing for a year at about age 15. Before teaming up in Nuttin But Stringz, the brothers' musical styles were different: Damien more conservative and classically influenced, and Tourie a free spirit.
Damien "just started watching me play the violin, and he just broke out of that box. He started going crazy," Tourie said.
"He's all over the place in terms of music," Damien said. "He has such a wide mind; he can open his mind to anything. It took me a while to get like that."
Tourie said his mother, who teaches third grade in Queens, and an aunt have been supportive. "Everything we did, they always believed in us, whether it was track and field, basketball, tennis. [My mother] made us stick with it when we wanted to give it up."
As for musical influences, Tourie mentions Jimi Hendrix, and Damien refers to Quincy Jones. Among newer artists, they cite some who have built lucrative careers -- Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent and Aftermath.
But they think some of today's music lacks originality.
"Music is like a timeline," Tourie said. "In the '50s, '60s, '70s it was really going up, with different types of music. In the '90s and 2000s, it was going down, with everybody copying everybody. There were a lot of Jay-Zs and a lot of Beyonces. There's no individuality at all. We're trying to revive it, bring something new to the game."
Between appearances, the Escobars spend much of their time in the studio. Musicians on flute, guitar, drums, cello, piano and bass violin will perform on their album, "Struggle From the Subway to the Charts."
The biggest thrill in their young careers?
For Tourie, it was the Leno show, partly because Leno himself asked them to appear. "He put us on the couch to talk to him and talked to us for five to six minutes, like he would to an actor or an actress. He's real down-to-earth, and he loves the music," Tourie said.
Both say visits to city schools have been especially rewarding. When they were asked to perform at a Brooklyn high school for troubled teenagers, they were apprehensive.
"We really didn't think they would listen to us, but they did. Afterwards, we got e-mails," Damien said. The brothers are corresponding with several students, including some who are interested in music careers.
"We actually made a dent in somebody's life. These are our peers," Damien said. "That's where it starts, with us, our generation. We've got to set an example."
Their manager, James Washington, said some people think the brothers are twins because they mesh so well onstage. But they have different styles. Damien said he dresses more "urban," with Timberlands and do-rags. Tourie, he said, is more laid-back -- "so slink, so casual."
"We come together on the same page, but we're just so different," Damien said.
Nuttin But Stringz performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. 301-277-1710. Tickets are $25.