Jazz violinist David Schulman practices for Jazz ’n Families Fun Days at the Phillips Collection. He will be interpreting art through music. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When you look at a famous painting in an art gallery, you probably feel something: happy, sad, confused, uncomfortable. If you look at a painting closely, you may start to hear something: birds chirping, leaves crunching . . . or, if you’re violinist David Schulman, music playing.

This weekend at the D.C. Jazz Festival’s Jazz ’n Families Fun Days at the Phillips Collection, Schulman will make up music based on particular paintings that the audience is looking at. (Composing music on the spot is called improvisation, which is a big part of jazz music.) Schulman said his goal will be to help the audience understand what the paintings are saying.

“I come to the paintings on their own terms,” he said, “and find out how they speak.”

Translating art

Can a painting really talk? KidsPost asked Schulman if we could see him in action. So on a recent day, he set up his musical equipment in a corner of the Phillips. He brought two violins (one was plugged into an amplifier, or amp, which made it louder) and a few small percussion instruments.

Schulman also brought effects pedals, which he put on the floor. The pedals allow Schulman to record his music on the spot and then play the recording back as he plays something new. This is called “looping.” By the end of a song, a listener may hear 10 violin parts even though there is only one Schulman.

Click above to enlarge the image.

Once Schulman’s equipment was ready, he picked out a painting by Francis Bacon called “Study of a Figure in a Landscape.” He looked at it. He blinked his eyes and looked at it some more. In the painting, there’s a shadowy man sitting in the middle of a field with his knees pulled to his chest, a blue sky behind him and trees that seem to be blowing slightly around him. After a few moments, Schulman picked up his violin.

He played some high notes pizzicato — meaning he plucked the strings — to represent the sky, long bow strokes for the grass and a more melodic, quieter part to represent the man in the field, Schulman explained later. The music created a mood that was mysterious and beautiful.

“I’m offering ideas,” Schulman said. Or “a soundtrack” for people looking at the painting.

Becoming a musician

Schulman started playing the violin when he was 10 years old, growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a kid, he practiced the violin about an hour a day, and “it became a part of my personality,” he said.

Today, as a full-time musician playing throughout the D.C. area, Schulman still practices about 45 minutes every day. And even though he is 48 years old, he still takes violin lessons. “It’s a way of honoring the instrument and honoring the commitment,” he said. Also, “you have to keep learning from other people.” The violin is challenging, he said, even to him.

Speaking for the art

Combining different art forms, such as painting and music, is something Schulman has always liked to do. He wants people at the Phillips this weekend to feel something as he tries to hear a song in each painting.

“I try to find a real connection,” Schulman said. “It works half the time, and that’s part of the thrill of it.”

Moira E. McLaughlin

Passport to fun

Enjoy the D.C. Jazz Festival’s Jazz ’n Families Fun Days at the Phillips Collection this weekend. There will be music and art activities. Before you go, click on our Fun Days passport, above, and print it out. Take it to the museum, and check the boxes on your passport after you have visited the different events. When you’re done, give your passport to a volunteer at the Phillips for a chance to win a KidsPost prize package.

What: D.C. Jazz Festival’s Jazz ’n Families Fun Days

Where: The Phillips Collection,
1600 21st St. NW.

When: Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Violinist David Schulman will play Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and Sunday at
1:30 p.m. in the Goh Annex, floors
1 and 2.

How much? Free!

For more information: Your parents can call 202-387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.