Mike Tinus: Making music a class act
It's 9:20 am. Some of the students coming into their second period orchestra class at the regional high school don't immediately pick up their instruments. Some are trying to quickly finish homework for other classes, while others pull out something to eat. Most teachers are accustomed to dealing with a slow start to their classes in a variety of ways. Music teacher Mike Tinus's approach is rather casual. He lets the lounging go on for a bit, lets the students take some time for themselves, and then he tells them it's time to play music. They do.
When viewed in the context of the high school, where teachers who are overly strict can lose the respect of students just as quickly as overly nice teachers can get walked on, Mr. Tinus threads the needle. His students might clamor over his purported ego, but they are just as quick to produce the music he asks and the participation he requires.
"There's a saying that goes something like, 'If you can perform, you're a performer; if you can't perform, you teach.' It's completely false," says Mr. Tinus, "I do both. I'm a performer and I teach. When I teach I'm also performing."
Mr. Tinus has been a teacher in the Martha's Vineyard school system for 17 years, teaching 4th through 8th graders on Martha's Vineyard for 12 years before joining the staff at the regional high school.
"When you're teaching younger grades it's more of a coaching situation, you have to encourage the kids. In the junior high the energy is high. That's when they have the greatest potential. You can get a lot out of kids that age if you can organize their energy."
He describes the difference in high school: "Once the kids get to high school they have to make choices. In high school you start getting kids who are turning into adults and developing attitude, but you also have more discipline, dedication, structure. And kids who want to really do something with their instruments."
The responsibility of teaching a large variety of instruments, then being able to play in an ensemble, falls to Mr. Tinus.
"I'm always learning new instruments. I've been playing drums, bass, guitar, violin, cello, guitar, and piano for some time, but just this past summer I took a course to learn finger positions for trombone and trumpet. Brass is new territory for me."
Photos by Ralph Stewart
One of the challenges involved in a high school band and orchestra program is that it relies on musicians who started playing at a young age. Mr. Tinus explains the step program that allows 8th grade band and orchestra students to play a concert with the high school students. It provides an experience of things to come.
Along with the orchestra, concert band, and jazz band, Mr. Tinus teaches guitar. He explains, "In the guitar program that I teach, I have kids that come in fooling around with blues and bar chords, and I have kids that come in not knowing which string is which. I pair up the experienced kids with the inexperienced kids as a sort of mentorship. That's the best part of the program; you can see the inexperienced kids just take it in."
The guitar class has an unstructured, but intense atmosphere. Hard-working students arrange themselves around the room figuring out songs and forming chords.
"The kids have to do a Berklee College of Music warm-up pattern, they have to form a bar chord, which is painful before your hands build up calluses, and they have to learn finger picking so that they can play the Beatles song "Blackbird" by the end of the semester. The kids are working; it's not a class of relaxation."
When not teaching music, Mr. Tinus plays it. "I play seven nights a week in the summer. Making a living off music can be very uncertain, but playing music along with being a teacher is a perfect marriage."
He says being a regular performer at Atria in Edgartown, and Farm Neck in Oak Bluffs, along with his many musical performances during the Martha's Vineyard wedding season is one of the reasons he came to Martha's Vineyard 17 years ago.
"Playing daily gigs only in the summer works nicely because when you get sick and tired of playing music out - you get back into teaching."
Ben Williams, a 2008 Martha's Vineyard Regional High School graduate, is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.