Earlier this month, Max Brody made his first teaching appearance at Music Time. Born and raised in Concord, Max shares similar musical roots with many of our instructors. Max tells us his story – from a natural draw to guitar-ish toys as a child, to the ups and downs of piano lessons, and all the way to the realizing that music is truly something he can do for a living, despite what he once thought. I was feeling the power of music, and the power of community right along with him! I hope you feel it too.
What do you remember about the very early stages of music for you? Did you start with guitar?
I started on piano. I always wanted to play guitar though! When I look at photos of me as a kid, I had toy guitars that I would run around with, or other things that looked like a guitar, that I would hold like a guitar, and pretend to play like a guitar. My mom has painting of my brother and I that was done by a friend of the family. I look about 6, and I was holding a toy guitar, trying to bow it with a stick, like a cello. It’s funny because I don’t remember any of this, but I guess it was always there!
With all these toy guitars, it seems like your parents were encouraging the music! Were they musicians?
My mom played a little piano. She always made sure there was a piano in the house, and that we got beginning piano lessons. My dad doesn’t play music, but he comes from a family of musicians. His mother went to Eastman School of Music, she was a pianist and a singer. Two of my uncles play. One is a classical flautist and his son, my cousin, plays piano and is a professor of music theory in Kentucky. The other uncle is a jazz saxophonist who lived and played in New York City for a while. My dad got a pretty musical ear from growing up in that household! He listened to all kinds of stuff, a lot of jazz.
What do you remember about those first piano lessons?
I was probably 8 or 9, and I remember being back and forth on it. I wanted to play guitar, so I was a little bummed that I had to play this other instrument first. There were moments though, things that my teacher would give me to play that I would really relate to. Whenever I found a piece of music like that, I would just play it over and over again and try to play it as beautifully as I could. That was probably my first real experience of getting lost in playing, feeling that I was expressing something that I couldn’t express in words.
Did you play in school band, or only piano lessons?
I actually missed that! I was home-schooled until midway through 6th grade, when I switched to public school. At that point, I did not play a band instrument, so it wasn’t even on my radar.
Were you still in piano lessons at this point?
Probably around the same time I started school, I finally got my mom to let me make the switch to guitar. She gave me this old acoustic guitar, it was probably just sitting in a closet. I knew she had it. Maybe she was just tempting me to see if I was really interested? She also had this old Hal Leonard method book that was really focused on folk music. I did my best working out of it, but I was also just getting into rock music at the time. I would try to play the songs I was listening to, with varying degrees of success.
What sort of rock music did you like at that time?
My favorite thing was the Beatles, but it was too complicated for me to figure out. I listened to them all the time, but I didn’t really want to touch it yet. I remember the first rock song that I was really able to play was Wish by Nine Inch Nails.
I think so? Somewhere along the line, my mom was dating this guy that had an electric guitar and an amp that he didn’t use. One year for Christmas, he gave it to me. If I would have known that I was going to be a musician, I might have kept better track of the whole thing! It was really just something for fun. The idea of actually being a musician seemed like such a crazy thing. As much as I thought I was cool, I never would have admitted it to anybody.
That’s interesting, you really did not see music as something you would stick with? Let’s hear the story of how that shifted.
I started playing with the idea of it in high school. I had friends that were also playing now, and my brother started playing drums, so we could set up in the garage and play together. We played a couple shows, not anything big. We would open up the garage and have friends watching in the driveway. I also started practicing more. Not because I had anything particular I wanted to learn, just because I heard that people who were good at music practiced a lot. So I tried to practice for two hours a day.
Were you taking guitar lessons at this time?
Yes, I did have a teacher that was a professional musician. I was studying with Chris Meek, over at East Bay Music. I actually met Sal (who teaches at Music TIme) there! He was working behind the counter.
Did you do any other formal music education besides lessons?
I actually ended up doing orchestra my senior year of high school. They needed a double bass player. Nobody in the school played, so I figured I would be as good as anybody. Being in the school band program, I got this incredible sense of community – the kind of community that only music can give you, you know? Being a pretty shy person, it was a really electrifying experience. When I left high school, that all went away.
I went to DVC and I thought I would be an English major. I took a couple music theory classes for fun, but I was pretty close to shutting it down. I just didn’t see how I could do it. Then one summer, on a whim (and it was probably going to be the last music class I ever took), I did Steve Sage’s Rock, Rhythm & Blues class.
That first class when he did that opening monologue, it was like he answered all of the questions that I never thought to ask, or had been too embarrassed to ask. He basically stood in front of the class and said, “You can make a living playing music. It’s hard. You have to work hard, but you can do it. I can say that because I have done it – and I’m going to teach you how.” I was totally hooked on his every word, like so many of his students were. When that semester was over, I ended up taking it again, and again. Over, and over, and over, for probably too long.
Oh, I know! I did the class for many years,too. What were you playing with the class bands?
I got a chance to play just about every kind of music that anyone in that class played. The first band I was in did classic rock band. Later, I was in a group that I never thought I would have enjoyed as much as I did. We did all girl groups, Phil Specktor Wall of Sound type stuff. It got to the point where I was in 5 or 6 bands every semester, and then we would go and play I would end up sitting in with a bunch of other bands.
The sense of community in Steve’s class – it was one of the strongest communities I have ever been a part of. It was intoxicating! Probably one of the reasons I stayed so long.
Did any of the bands you had in class stick outside of the class? What did you end up moving on to?
There was definitely a type of complacency that we fell into in the class, and there was never the right amount of drive to really make it work. There are several people that I met in the class that I still play with, but none of the bands stuck together. I’m playing a couple gigs this week with a friend I met in that class.
I took a little bit of time off after Steve’s class. I kept playing, but I needed to think about what I was doing. It had been so intense, just nonstop for years. I felt like I lost a sense of what I wanted and who I was musically. In that class, you are whatever you are needed to be, which is a wonderful skill that every musician needs to have. I had to take some time and make sure it was right for me. Then I enrolled at the California Jazz Conservatory.
Nice! What do you remember most from that experience? Did you have a concentration?
Well it’s actually still going on! There are just so many classes that you have to take to graduate. I came in not really knowing very much about jazz, I decided to make it last a little longer, and give myself the time every year to really work on it. I’ve been there 4 years, and I’m going to do one more.
Over the years, what is one class or teacher that stands out ot really made an impression on you?
One of the strongest experiences was studying with Dan Zinn. He teaches a class called “Single Line Soloing”. He had a way of speaking that would just captivate a room, and the things he said would just ring in your head all week. He had a way of delivering information to you that felt open-ended. He would give you an answer, but it would still have a question mark at the end of it, so it would leave you wondering. He had a military-type presence, there was a boot camp quality to his class. When you were in there, you were working, constantly working. When you were out, you were practicing like crazy to keep up, because he would listen to every note you would play, and he would tell you completely honestly what he heard. That class, honestly, I walked into there never playing jazz, and I came out of it playing jazz – and really feeling like I had the tools to keep on developing. It’s been really wonderful.
Are you gigging much or just trying to get through school?
It’s ramping up again now! Over the past 2 years, I’ve been starting to play a lot more. It was nice to take time to study, but in music, if you’re not gigging, you’re missing something really important. It’s really hard to replicate that anywhere else no matter how hard you work.
So true! I completely agree. Before we wrap up, let’s talk about teaching. What’s your background and experience?
I have been teaching at a studio out in Fremont for a couple of years, plus one day of driving around, teaching at homes the Concord area. I’ve been doing that for about 7 years now. I started with just one kid. My friend was teaching him drums, and he wanted to start guitar, too. I told people that I was giving lessons, not trying to advertise at all, but then I got another student from a friend. One thing led to another, and somehow it just all worked out! I was really lucky that it ramped up so much that I got to quit my job and just do that.
Since you’ve been teaching for a while, what has changed or developed with your teaching style or philosophy?
The number one thing (and probably the most important thing that everybody has to figure out pretty quickly when they start teaching) – I had to learn to go slowly. I forgot how long it takes to learn to do things! The first couple lessons I did, I just came in with so much information, I don’t know how anyone could ever keep up. The first thing I figured out was that I have to really slow this down, go step by step, and make sure that the material is understood.
I asked Steve about this once, and he said, “You’ll figure it out.” Then he gave some great advice, “Just play with them. No matter what you do have some time in the lesson when you just play together – it’s one of the most important things you can do for them.”
I was really frustrated by that at the time, but now I think it was completely right. For a lot of people, private lessons are the first time that you do social music-making at all. There’s so much stuff to learn and so much stuff to teach, it’s easy to loose track of how important that is. But if you don’t get to play music, you’re not going to want to keep studying or practicing. I noticed a big difference in my students’ enjoyment of the lessons, and my own enjoyment of teaching them, when we started just playing together.