“I never knew a grandfather,” Bell adds gently, “so Gingold really was that.” The professor was such a frequent guest at the Bell household in his later years that the family even dreamed of turning him into legal kin. “My grandmother”—a Russian Jew from Minsk—“was alive when he was teaching me and, at one point, there was talk of trying to set them up,” he recalls with a chuckle.
Bell attended Bloomington High School North in the mornings and spent his afternoons on violin at the university. His mother still sounds a little miffed, albeit amused, when she relates how sometimes, after she dropped her son off at the music school to practice, “he’d go right out the back door and go to the Space Port” video arcade for the afternoon. When I ask Bell about it, he counters that it was “actually the Rack and Cue” to which he escaped for games like Donkey Kong and PacMan. “They would put a certificate up, ‘Highest Score Ever,’ on every machine. I had four or five up there at once with my name on them.”
In 1982, the local Donkey Kong king won first prize in a different sort of contest—a national talent competition sponsored by Seventeen magazine and General Motors. His prize included a solo violin debut that same year with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which led immediately to professional management. Bell was 14 years old.
For most teen performers, this would have been the moment to abandon the family farm for Juilliard or another elite East Coast conservatory. But Bell’s parents and Gingold kept him at home in Indiana. After graduating high school at 16, he moved into a Bloomington dorm where he became known for partying like, well, a college student.
Typical collegiate behavior failed to slow Bell’s career ascent, which continued with a Carnegie Hall debut in 1985, followed the next year by an Avery Fisher Artist Program career grant, a key imprimatur of the music world. Even as a teenager, it was clear that Bell had something to say with his violin that symphony audiences wanted to hear, something that helped him glide easily from a “prodigy”—a gifted adolescent who attracted audiences with his youth—to an adult interpreter capable of drawing them with his playing alone.