TRAVERSE CITY — Most people who knew Phillip Parker when he was first learning to play cello through the Traverse City Area Public Schools music program picture a kid playing the straight-laced classics.
That's not the musician they will see Monday night when Parker appears as part of a quartet performing alongside well-known indie and folk singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov.
"I started in the TCAPS system and Ellen Boyer was my symphony instructor," Parker said. "I always loved rock 'n' roll growing up."
Parker set aside his cello for a time, learned electric guitar and a few other stringed instruments. But he kept coming back to the cello — an instrument both his father and his grandmother played.
"I was much more interested in electric guitar," Parker said. "I had a relationship with (cello) by the end of high school, but I wasn't really into it."
Parker left Traverse City years ago to attend college at the University of Colorado where he studied cello performance. Since then he broke free from rigid recital-based classics and for seven years has toured alongside Isakov.
"I stopped sort of fighting with it and made amends and started to expand what I can do with it," he said.
He set aside the world of sheet music, began composing his own sound and strapped an electronic pickup to his cello. Moving away from classical cello performance allowed Parker to improvise and experiment. He now uses his cello to play both his part and the lower notes a bassist would typically paint into the band's musical picture.
A recording-industry expert once told Parker his sound "is so huge and beefy it's like a steak sandwich," he said.
Parker currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, and tours the world playing with Isakov.
He participated in a focus group organized by the Opera House during his latest visit that spurred the venue to take a look at booking groups with more appeal to a younger audience, said Suzanne Parker, Phillip's mother and a member of the City Opera House board.
The Isakov booking stems in some way from that group but Phillip Parker said he in no way intended his participation to result in a show.
"This is the first time that they've been to Traverse City," Suzanne Parker said. "He's actually a classically-trained cellist, but anything with strings, he can figure out."
The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Monday night and tickets cost $15 and $25 depending on seating options. Tickets are available through the Opera House box office at 941-8082 or at www.cityoperahouse.org.