The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview we spoke with violin & fiddle instructor Max Wolpert about his approach to teaching, the importance of community in music, why he was drawn to the fiddle, and more.
Center for Musical Arts: Hello! My name is Erica Reid, I am the Marketing Manager for the Center for Musical Arts, and I get to interview our faculty to get to know them. Today I am with Max Wolpert. How are you, Max?
Max Wolpert: Doing well, Erica. Thanks for having me here.
Center: Could you start us off and just tell us about your history with the Center, and what you teach?
Max: Yeah, sure. So I actually just started teaching at the Center in June of this year.
Max: Thank you! It’s been really great getting to know everybody here and working with my students that I’ve had over the summer. I teach violin and I specialize in teaching fiddle. I’m primarily an American old time fiddle player, I teach a number of different traditional styles by ear, as well as things like getting violinists to transcribe pop and rock songs that they like, and writing their own music, and things like that.
I also do teach viola and mandolin, as well as things like composition, songwriting, music theory… if that’s of interest of diving more in specifically on the creative side of things. [Learn more about Max’s tunewriting & fiddle workshops here.]
Center: Okay, wonderful. So can you tell me what drew you to these string instruments, and especially I’d like to hear about fiddle. What drew you? How did you know you were a fiddle player?
Max: Well, so I actually I started playing violin when I was three years old on the Suzuki method like a lot of folks who are just getting started as kids start on. Actually, my parents had audiobooks that were about the lives of various classical composers, and then the soundtrack was all to their music. And so I had one that was a Vivaldi one and so I listened to Vivaldi’s violin concerti from when I was very, very small. “Oh, that’s really, really neat. I really want to do that.”
And I started playing traditional music, I think when I was probably seven years old or so. And one of the things about it that was really, really neat is—I love the styles of music that I fell in love with from hearing recordings, and things like that. But it was also really neat in that unlike when I was playing in school and mostly playing music with other kids my age, when I was playing traditional music I would get to play with musicians of all ages, folks who were in the community who were the kind of old timers, and I actually got to play with them, and learn tunes from them, and things like that.
So in addition to falling in love with that music from a purely musical point of view, it also sort of became a community building kind of thing. And I got to make a lot of great friends and work with a lot of great musicians.
Center: I can see why you would be a fit for the Center. I love hearing about the ways that music and music lessons go beyond just the individual lesson or the recital, and bleed out into our communities and our lives. That sounds like a really special experience that you’ve had. Is that something that you try to foster with your students as well?
Max: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and I think going back to what you were saying too about “why string instruments,” you can do this to some extent with all instruments, of course, but I think one of the things about the string instruments that’s so wonderful is that they’re so well-suited to sitting in a circle and playing music with other people. I mean, it’s not a piano that you need a very sort of specialized room for. The wind instruments are lovely, I love them all dearly, but with a string instrument, you can talk and sing at the same time as when you’re playing it. So they’re so well-suited to just sort of picking up and playing in a way that I find really charming.
Center: I hadn’t thought about that before. I’m glad you brought that up.
I’d like to share a line from your biography; excuse me while I read this directly from it because I really like it. “Fiddler, composer, and storyteller Max Wolpert conjures up monsters and myth where the traditional, classical, and theatrical meet.” There’s a lot there and I would love to hear more about what that means to you and I myself am a storyteller and writer. I really want to hear what the mythology piece of it means to you.
Max: Sure. Well, so a lot of this just has to do with the kind of music that I like to consume and that I like to make. A lot of traditional music from whatever tradition you’re drawing from, including the classical tradition, by the way—but a lot of this music sort of serves in large part as a vehicle for storytelling.
If you think back to the oral traditions of these old ballads and even back to things like ancient Greek poetry, they were set to music as a way of making them easier to remember so that you could perform them. It helps us remember stories and communicate them. So in the very literal sense, that’s something that I enjoyed tremendously. I’m an avid reader. I very much like programmatic music, music that specifically tells a story.
But I think going back to the community building side of things, I think that this is something that just is a very central human experience that we tell stories together. And that is something that we can do on our own reading a book, or watching a movie, or whatever. But if you think about collaborative experiences that we share together, whether that’s sitting around a campfire in a circle and telling stories, and even things like going to a play, or going to see a movie in a movie theater, those are things that we do together in groups of people.
And so I think going to hear music, and experience music, and play music together and in a big group is a very important component of that community building that you were talking about. And to me at least, music that tells a story is very, very good at doing that. I think we as humans enjoy telling stories to each other.
Center: Yes, absolutely. I agree. Okay, so I’d like to ask about teaching and philosophy because I imagine that prospective students might watch this and get an idea of who you are. We’ve talked a little bit about that community building, but is there anything more you’d like to say about the way that you specifically teach?
Max: Yeah, absolutely. For me, engaging the students’ creativity is the most important thing in teaching. I think that there’s a lot about the classical violin that I love dearly, I have a lot of experience with that, it’s important to me. I think on the darker side of it, it can feel a little bit like you’re learning pieces out of a catalog, and you sort of go through in a specific order, and that’s not the way that I like to run things.
For me, I think that you are never too much of the beginner to be engaging yourself creatively with what it is that you’re doing. And so that might include learning music by ear with no sheet music, and incorporating improvisation, and ornamentation, and things like that, which of course are very important in the various fiddle traditions that I work in. It might include transcribing pop music or music from a student’s favorite TV show or movie that isn’t traditionally done on the violin or the viola that we might be doing anyway. Maybe it means writing your own music.
And so to me, an important part of music lessons is not just, “Okay, let’s learn how to play the violin,” which is great, but it’s also just a way of practicing, and learning how to engage the creative sides of our brain. And so whatever is the student’s sort of impulse in that direction, I am more than happy to follow and run with. And then that’s great for me too, because I learn about a lot of really cool music from my students that they’re excited about. And then I can teach them how to apply it to the violin and then I get to learn about it, which is fun.
Center: I can only imagine how fun it must be for a student to be working with music that they themselves have chosen or feel drawn to. That might not, as you say, be from the violin canon. I think that must be such a fun way to study.
Max: Yeah. Well, and sometimes it is. Sometimes students come to the violin because they’re really excited about violin music and that’s great. There’s a lot of fantastic violin music out there. But for me, it’s just about, let’s blow the walls off the room. There shouldn’t be anything that says “you can’t do this on a violin,” and that’s the perspective that I’m trying to get my students towards.
Center: Okay. So when you’re not teaching music, playing music, listening to music, what else are you doing?
Max: Well, as you might have guessed from that line in my bio, I am an avid consumer of fiction of all kinds. I love to read books, comic books. I’m a movie fan. I love to cook, it’s one of my very favorite hobbies I think, in terms of, as I said, of engaging the creative part of my brain, doing that in the kitchen is a lot of fun. I’m not quite as good at that as I am in music, but it’s still an awfully good time.
Center: It is really important for us to have hobbies and interests that aren’t all about being the best at something, or those things that we just muck around with, and enjoy that. I think if you want to talk about creative process, those are just as important as the things we study really seriously.
Max: Absolutely, yeah. Well, I think those of us that work in the arts—it is important, as you say, to have something that is a hobby, and that is something that we can exercise our creativity outside of our context as professionals. And I’m definitely in favor of that.
Center: Yeah. Okay, well, is there anything else that a student looking at the Center for Musical Arts might like to know about you, and your approach to music, or your personality? Anything about you that you’d like to share with us that might be helpful to know?
Max: Well, I mean, I think that, again, the main thing that I always try to try to put forward is that… things that you maybe didn’t think were a possibility on a given instrument, may be more of a possibility than you thought. So don’t talk yourself out of trying something because you think it’s not something that can be done. It probably can and there’s probably people who can help you do it.
Center: Okay, I love that upbeat note. Let’s stop there. It was lovely to get to know you today, Max. Thank you for taking the time.
Max: Thank you so much. This was great.