Manning Music bills itself as a community of teachers and musicians who love bluegrass, old-time, fiddle and acoustic music. At present, the Berkeley-based school has nine teachers: Robin Fischer, Rowan McCallister, Leah Wollenberg, Yoseff Tucker, Arvram Siegel, Jasper Manning and Morgan Balfour, as well as the school’s founders, Chad and Catherine Manning. The school currently has about 200 students. They teach children as young as three and have adult students, some of them retirees.
“A few years ago, I had a student in her 80s,” Chad Manning said. “She picked up a fiddle and, in two years, was a regular at local jam sessions. It’s never too late to start playing.”
Manning has been playing the fiddle since he was eight. Despite spending years playing with heavy hitters like David Grisman and Laurie Lewis, he said he never had any intention of becoming a musician or teacher.
“I grew up in Spokane, three houses down from Lundin’s Fiddle Shop,” Manning said. “It was Grand Central Station for the local fiddlers. I began taking lessons from JayDean Ludiker, who was teaching there at that time. She’s still at it. There was something in the sound of the fiddle: the emotion, the rawness of it, that spoke to me.
“When I was 17, I heard a recording from the ’50s. Orville Burns, a Texas fiddle player, performing a version of ‘Sally Goodin.’ It cut to the quick. Hearing that record brought out the passion in me,” recalled Manning.
“As I got better, my dad picked up the bass, my mom started playing rhythm piano and my siblings joined in. We had a family band and played country bars, rodeos and county fairs. We did some originals and got to open for Tom T. Hall. I loved music, but I wanted to be a writer. I majored in creative writing, literature and philosophy, but I kept playing the fiddle. After I graduated from college, I moved down to Berkeley,” he continued.
Manning began giving fiddle lessons a few years after he started playing. “When I was 14, someone asked me to give them a lesson. They liked it, I liked it and I stayed with it. I’ve always had students,” said Manning.
After making contact with the Bay Area bluegrass scene, Manning’s friend, banjo player Bill Evans, invited him to fill in for another fiddler at a rehearsal for the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. Grisman liked his playing, and Manning stayed with the band for several years. He also spent many years with Laurie Lewis and The Right Hands. “Those gigs changed my life,” Manning said. “I learned so many lessons playing with them. I don’t know where to begin, but along the way, I was always teaching.”
One of his students was his future wife, Catherine Chang (Manning). “I grew up in Michigan and started classical violin when I was six,” Catherine Manning said. “I played classical music in orchestras through college and began fiddling when I started taking lessons from Chad. We fell in love, got married and started a family. I still love classical, and teach kids how to read music, but you learn fiddle by ear. I love the idea of not being stuck to the page. Growing up, I had to have sheet music in front of me before I played. Fiddle is more communal.”
As she became a proficient fiddler, the former Catherine Chang joined Chad Manning as an instructor. “After we married, we were teaching out of our house in El Cerrito,” Chad Manning said. “We’d have jam sessions and eat dinner with the students. It was a community that grew by word of mouth. I don’t think of it as a school, but we soon had enough students that we needed a bigger space. We slowly developed the ideas that turned it into a proper business.”
The two rented a studio in Berkeley and began to bring in guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, Dobro, music theory and voice teachers. They hosted jam sessions and had classes for bands. And they expanded slowly, but exponentially. Lessons and classes are by appointment only.
“When I have a new student, I teach them a little bit of all the fiddle styles,“ Chad Manning said. “They can decide from there what direction they want to go in. We have teachers in many styles who can help them follow their passions. California is on the national bluegrass map. Some of the best bluegrass and old-time music players are coming out of this area. As a teacher, it’s nice to help prepare students, when there’s a community they can join. Ten years ago, they couldn’t play, and now they’re professionals playing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s pretty cool.
“We like to create as many opportunities to play, as there are situations to play in. We take students to play in retirement centers, put on square dances and encourage them to play at open mics. We do a student concert at the Freight & Salvage (in Berkeley), so they all get a chance to shine and solo on a big stage. We take them to the farmers’ market at the San Francisco Ferry Building, so they can experience what it’s like to busk,” said Manning.
“We also have a fundraiser, the Fiddle-a-thon. The kids gather sponsors, who then give money to benefit some cause like the Sierra Club, the Women’s Earth Alliance or the California Bluegrass Association’s kids program,” he added.
During the COVID pandemic, the school had to shut down, but classes continued on Zoom. “We had students and teachers with COVID, but nothing tragic,” Manning said. “We had to cancel the student concert we had planned at The Freight, but we continued backyard concerts in our house. Students would come in through the gate on the right side of the house and exit through the left. We had backyard jam sessions and did a livestream, to replace the concert at the Freight.”
Said Manning, “Teaching encourages exploration, and I learn a lot in my sessions as a teacher. Helping students find things in a way that’s completely unique to them often sheds some light on something I want to learn. That’s why we encourage advanced students to become teachers too. It helps them get to the next level.”