The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview we spoke with violin and viola instructor Michael Pordesimo about his approach to teaching and the importance of creativity and independence.
Center for Musical Arts: Good morning! I’m Erica Reid, I’m with the Center for Musical Arts, and one of my favorite parts of my job is talking to the Center faculty, just to learn a little bit about them, learn their personality, learn their teaching philosophy. Today I’m with Michael Pordesimo, how are you doing today?
Michael Pordesimo: Pretty good. How about yourself?
Center: Good. And I believe you are one of our incoming members of faculty. Can you tell me a little bit about how you landed with the Center for Musical Arts?
Michael: Yeah, so I currently teach at Dana V. Music as well. One of my coworkers there, Brian Hickman, actually had mentioned that they had been opening over at the Center for Musical Arts. And then he had held a piano recital there and had asked me to play there as a guest. And so that’s actually how I got to meet Kathy and everyone before I’d even considered even starting to teach there. So it all just flowed really well to me becoming a teacher there.
Center: I see. We love Brian Hickman. I got to talk to him for a faculty interview as well, and I love the guy.
Michael: Yeah. No, he’s great. I love hanging out with him.
Center: Now, Brian teaches piano, but I believe you teach violin, is that correct?
Michael: Yes. So I teach both violin and viola, actually.
Center: Okay. How did you know that strings were going to be your instrument? This is one of my favorite questions because everybody has a different way that they found that this was their instrument. How did you come to the violin and the viola?
Michael: My journey into finding the violin and viola is very boring, if we’re being honest. [laughs] So, I was a Suzuki child first off, so that’s how I was brought up. And so, my parents pretty much just forced me to start when I was three years old. My sister’s eight years older than I am, and she also played violin. Before I even could think about it they were like, “Here’s a violin, you’re going to do it.”
Center: Got it. Tell me a little bit about your teaching philosophy. Does it involve being forced to play an instrument? [laughs]
Michael: [laughs] Obviously, I ended up enjoying it and made a career out of it. But no. And honestly, I normally caution against starting kids as young as three. You can do it, but personally, I feel like a lot of that comes down to how driven are your parents or committed to helping their student learn.
In terms of my teaching philosophy, I really want students to eventually become their own teachers. I want them to feel very comfortable being a musician, and just be having some music in front of them, and maybe not necessarily know exactly how to approach it, but they have tools and other resources to figure out “How can I learn this?” Or, “How can I practice this?”
That’s ultimately my goal with all of my students. I just want them to become their own teachers. Sure, I want to see them, I love hanging out with them. But, ultimately I want them to be good independent, free-thinking musicians.
Center: Yeah! So I do want to say that the Center offers classes for very young students, starting at 18 months, where you’re just exploring music. So if you are somebody looking to introduce your very young child to music without it being structured lessons, we do have some really fun, engaging options there that you can do with children with caregivers.
But I do want to ask more about, because your bio really pushes the idea of promoting independence and free-thinking. How did you come about that teaching philosophy? Why did it become important to you that students would become their own teacher? I really love the way you worded that.
Michael: It actually came from my own teacher that I had in high school. Her name was Selena Bolgerie. I originally met her, actually, at a Suzuki camp when I was in fourth grade. She was my technique teacher. It’s funny that I chose her to be my instructor, because she was the teacher who made me the most miserable the entire time I was at camp. [laughs] I remember leaving each one of her classes during the, I think, two, three week period, feeling like I was a terrible violinist because I couldn’t handle a lot of her things. But, it also really made me want to get better. And so, eventually later on I had moved and she was maybe two, three hours away from where I’d lived, and so I commuted every weekend to go take lessons from her.
But anyway, back to our original point. Her goal for me was always to give me as many tools as I could to figure out how to play different things of music. And it was never, she never necessarily said, “You have to play this piece because it’s going to teach us this or this.” It would be like if I picked something really hard, she’s like, “All right. We’re going to learn this, and then we’re going to figure out how are we going to learn this.” So in terms of, “How do we practice these different sections?” or there’s a new technique that I had to learn and so, “How can I learn this? What are things that I need to do in order to make this happen?”
And so that really just struck a chord with me because, me as a musician, I feel really comfortable in general looking at things all because of the things that she showed me, and she made me feel very confident in myself as a musician. So I really enjoyed that philosophy that she passed on to me, and so I try to pass that on to my students as well.
Center: Wonderful. And if I come to one of your lessons and I have a piece of music I just love, will I have the option to choose what I am studying, or do you have a pretty concrete path that you try to follow?
Michael: I have some, I guess, let’s say highlights that I definitely try to hit in general, in terms of, so for string instruments in general, I want my kids to be able to shift, or eventually do vibrato, or other things it’s more just building habits, like making sure that we use full bows or a posture.
But those are all things that we can in general hit depending on what piece of music we’re playing. So a student comes in with a piece of music they want to learn, normally I’m up for it as long as it’s not something crazy, way out there. I’ll just be like, “Okay, sure. We’ll try it,” and if we are working on it for a little bit and it’s still not coming together I’ll be like, “Let’s come back to this later when we feel a little more confident in our stuff,” but I never just outright say no, for the most part.
Center: It sounds like a really nice blend of the foundation that we need as musicians, as well as that independence and creativity. It sounds like you’re really striking that balance.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. Something, I guess, I grew up, I was trained primarily as a classical musician for the most part. As I said earlier, I was a Suzuki child, so I just went all the way. I went up to Book 7, and I think I eventually told my teacher I was like, “I want to do something else.” But that something else still was more classical stuff.
What really got me into trying to play other types of music was actually when I was in college. Out of the blue I was looking for an elective to take, and there was this intro to jazz improvisation, and I was like, “I want to learn how to improvise, that’ll be cool,” and so I did. I was the only string instrument. I think, well, no, there’s a bassist, that was about it. Everybody else was guitar, or brass, or something like that.
But it taught me so much, even though I can’t say that I’m still a great improviser, but I learned how to read off of lead sheets, I learned my jazz scales. It really opened new doors for me because I was like, “Wow, I’ve been playing classical this whole time,” and that’s fun, that’s great, and on a technical level, technically more interesting. But, it’s really fun just to diversify. For example, one of my friends was hosting a singer/songwriter festival for fun. And so I joined that, and all I did was just play piano and write songs about my cats. And I was like, “I don’t do this on a professional level, but this is fun.”
And also, I guess the reason I mentioned this is because I think it’s important for students to be more diverse. I want them to experience the joy I found in playing other types of music, sooner than I did. Because I was 21, 22 by the time I was starting to break out of classical.
So, for example, I have another student who sometimes we would do an exercise where we would roll dice. And so, it would be like, “We can only play these three or four notes,” and then we’d be like, “All right. So let’s see what songs can we come up with using these?” And we would record them. And sometimes they’re silly, but it was really fun. Or I’d play a backing track for them while they just tried to make something up.
But I feel like as they keep trying, it also helps just bring up their confidence as a musician, because we don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but as long as you do your best, it’ll be okay. So, I think it’s fun to do that with my students, just go in other directions than just the standard classical way, so to speak.
Center: Michael, I love to hear that. I mean, this is also supposed to be fun. We learn the foundations, especially if we’re wanting to pursue music, but there’s also, there should be an element of self-expression and fun. And in these interviews when I’ve talked to other instructors who are multi-instrumentalists, a lot of times they’ll say, “This is my instrument I just mess around with. This is not the one I’m really excellent at, this is the one that’s just fun,” and the pressure is off a little bit and, “This is the one I just make some funny tunes with when I need a break from studying music.” And I think that’s another balance you’re striking that’s very important for students.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. I enjoy telling my students about the weird things that I do sometimes. For example, I think at one of those showcases, I think I played violin, I played viola, I played mandolin, and I played piano, and I sang, all in the same thing. And then I introduced myself. I was like, “Oh, I play all of these at a very toy instrument level.” It’s like the Jimmy [Fallon] skit where they all play toy instruments. So that’s what I jokingly told everybody as I was performing. Because I tell people all the time I’m like, “Yeah, I got a C in piano methods. I’m not a pianist, at all.” But, it’s been fun just to do it, try for it anyway.
And the mandolin is the same thing. I just randomly saw one on Facebook Marketplace and I was like, “I could play that, maybe.” And so, I got one, and I can definitely say I’m not a professional and could not play it professionally, but it’s fun.
Center: I think those are things that keep you going! I mean, studying anything that you’re passionate about is difficult, because as you’re getting up right to the level of your capability, and it’s exhausting, it’s hard work. And I think in order to keep at it, you’ve got to find those moments of fun. And it just sounds like you really know how to do that.
Michael: It took a while to get there, though, I will say. I actually ended up taking a break from music for a little bit, and I ended up actually going to the healthcare field, ironically. Yeah, so I ended up being a CNA for a year, and it was very tough work. But I was just so burnt out on music I was like, “I don’t want to teach anymore, I don’t feel like this is going to work out for me.”
And then my best friend, Rebecca, she actually dragged me back out of what I call my music retirement, my retirement at the ripe age of 28. [laughs] But anyway, she was like, “You could play for my church or something,” and I was like, “Oh, I could use extra money, so I guess I’ll do it,” and so that kind of like, I guess, spread into me starting to teach again, and then starting to get really involved, and building a studio again and whatnot. So I definitely blame her for getting me back into music.
Center: Well, we thank her for that. Yeah, I think it’s probably important for our students to hear that, because we all hit that roadblock from time to time, and I don’t think a break is wrong. I’m really glad you came back to it.
And it sounds like as a result, you found more ways to bring fun, and creativity, and things into it. And like you said earlier, introducing some of these concepts to your students earlier than you came across them, earlier than you came across improvisation and things like that, so that maybe they never hit that wall completely, even though things do get difficult.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I feel like as a result of that break, I came to appreciate my music a lot more. And like you said, I’ve been able to find more avenues to just continue to make it fun for myself.
Center: Wonderful. So what are you doing when you’re not teaching or listening to music? I know there’s two cats running around in your house.
Michael: Yes. I don’t know where they are, but–
Center: Where’s Delilah? [laughs]
Michael: She is somewhere in my room here. But actually, I live with four cats, actually. We have four cats and two dogs, technically, in the same house.
Center: Oh my gosh.
Michael: So, it’s a big zoo. Yeah yeah yeah. But yeah, in my free time, I just like watching TV. I play Magic: The Gathering a lot, so whenever I meet new people, my first thing I ask them is, “Do you play Magic?” So, I have one student, actually, that I teach right now, and I made his lessons in hours, even though they’re only 45 minutes, so I could spend that first 15 minutes playing Magic with him.
Michael: I feel guilty though because I win most of the time, but still. It’s fun. [laughs]
Center: You’ve gotta learn. [laughs]
Michael: Exactly! You know, the teacher’s gotta school the kid. Anyway, I play Magic, I really like building model kits, I think I put that in my bio. I really just enjoy building things. Actually I used to work at the Lego store, like forever ago, and that was honestly my favorite “for fun” job. Like, we got 50% off Legos and so I would always build Legos all the time.
Center: You’re speaking my language now!
Michael: For a hot minute when I was teaching at another school, I would always bring in Legos as a reward or something, because it was so cheap for me. And so slowly everybody knew me as “the Lego teacher,” even the kids who weren’t my students. And so I would just have kids walk up to me and be like, “Do you have anything?” and I was like, “No…”! [laughs] I always had kids asking me for Legos.
Center: I love this. So Michael, it has been lovely to talk to you. Is there anything else that you think it would be important for prospective students to know about you or the way you teach? I did want to ask, what age range do you teach? Do you teach students of all ages?
Michael: Yes, actually. Currently my youngest student is like 5 years old, and then I go – I have a few adult students… as old as you want to be to start learning! It’s never too late. And I feel like there’s always stuff you can learn from starting to learn an instrument.
Like, for example, I have one adult student who’s always so rough on themselves, and I’m like, you just have to be kind to yourself, you know? I would always tell them, “You’re very brave for wanting to begin a new instrument, and we all have to start somewhere. It’s okay to make those mistakes as we’re learning.” Because that’s how you learn!
And they’re always so hard and nervous, but I’m like, you know what? Not everyone can say that they’re learning a new instrument, and getting up and performing in front of people. Learning from me, I think it’s important just to know that I will always try to be as supportive as I can… while being realistic. [laughs] But in general I will always find a way to help my students succeed and find ways to enjoy themselves.
Center: Well, Michael Pordesimo, it was an absolute joy to talk with you today. Thank you so much for your time.
Michael: Thank you, it was wonderful. Have a good one.