Meet the Teacher: Mike Tinus, instrumental music director at MVRHS

How he got into music, won the Derby, stayed on the Vineyard, and contemplated the future of music (in that order).

Mike Tinus, at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, with his guitar — one of many string instruments he plays. Photo by Sophia McCarron

MVTimes intern Sophia McCarron will occasionally interview teachers on the Vineyard. Got an idea for a great subject? Email us at onisland@mvtimes.com.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a suburb of Syracuse, N.Y., in a place called Camillus. but we called it “Scumillus.”

Where did you go to college?

I went to Ithaca College, where I met my wife, Becky. I was a senior, she was a freshman. I stayed there for three years and taught in a public school, waiting for her to graduate. I guess I still liked her at that point too. During those three years of teaching in a very very poor school district, they actually closed the school in fall because of lack of enrollment, because all the boys were out hunting for deer so they could eat in the wintertime. It was very poor, lots of medical problems. That was a different lifetime. During those three years I practiced the [standing] bass and went out to Michigan State University [to apply for their Master’s program] and stood in front of six people for about an hour. I closed my eyes and played the bass, and when I was done, I said, ‘I would really like to come to your school,’ and they said, ‘We’d really like you to come to our school.’ But I didn’t have any money, and they ended up giving me free tuition and $5,000 a year. True story.

What made you come to the Island?

Do you really want to know?

Yes.

Is this on tape? Well, I fell in love with a Cape Cod girl in college and she — being from Cape Cod — we were trying to figure out what we were going to do, and a job opened here, and they hired both of us. We had 260 string students, and I gave it one year. Before that, I was touring around the country and moving to an island was like, well, what am I going to do? So I gave it one year, and the reason I stayed was because I won the Derby. I actually won the Derby with a big bluefish. End of story. Here I am 24 years later.

When do you think music became part of your life?

My grandfather came over before the Russian Revolution, and he was a choirmaster. He died when I was 6. I was into music at that time, not totally, but my grandmother for some particular reason — I don’t know, I never got to ask her — sent me all of his music, and I remember just looking at it like ‘What is this?’ And I had to find out more about it. I asked my mom about it, and that, I think, was a turning point that got me into music.

Also my good friend, Larry, we used to spit carrots on each other, when I was about 8 he asked me to play the bass, and I didn’t know what the bass was, it was more to get out of math class in fourth grade. That’s how it all began.

Is being a teacher something that you imagined doing?

If I was at high school age and you asked me what I was going to be, I would probably have said a rock star. We played in bands in high school, for the girls and that kind of stuff. I taught lessons in high school to kids just to get some money. I think it was $4 per half-hour I charged kids, then I raised my prices up to $5, and a bunch of kids quit. My wife is a teacher. I don’t think I’m the best teacher, but I’m honest and I like working with kids high school age. I like making music, and I like getting kids to make music. That’s why I’m here.

What is your favorite part of teaching?

Interacting with the kids, absolutely, no question about it. Playing music with the kids.

Do you see yourself teaching for the rest of your professional career?

Well, I have to get my two kids through college; after that I don’t know. I’d like to play music still, record some albums. We were going to record an album this summer, but we couldn’t figure out where to put it, which is a funny state of music right now, because this computer doesn’t have a CD port … what’s a record, who has a record player? You guys listen to stuff on this iPhone thing where all the music is compressed into one narrow band, there is no high end, there is no low end, so I was really disappointed, because I did want to record something but I didn’t know what media to put it on. Do you put it on the cloud, do you make an MP3 of it? I don’t know. I continue to play professionally in the summer; my wife and I do a lot of weddings. I’m here for a while.

What do you do on your days off?

Fish. Play music. Garden.

How many years have you participated in the Derby?

Since I’ve been here, so 24 years.

Do you have favorite students or classes?

Well, we’re not supposed to say we have favorite students, are we? Sure; I think every teacher would be lying if they said that they didn’t have favorites, I mean how can you not? I like all of my classes; I can’t imagine teaching four geometry classes, and that’s it. I guess if you’re really into math, then that’s fine, but this is different every day, that’s what I like about it. Every single day is different, I’m not opening up a book and saying, ‘OK, everybody, pages 19 to 21.’ Every day changes, something happens, a string breaks or someone comes in and has me check out a song. I have 25 songs already from kids this year, and we’ve been here three days.

What’s the most important thing you try and teach your students?

I have these discussions with my wife, and they’re good discussions. I’m not the best teacher — I don’t ever claim to be, but I’m honest. I think I’m real just because of my experiences and being out there, I’ve seen a lot of stuff, I’ve been to places where you shouldn’t go, music has taken me there primarily, and I’ll tell kids when you graduate what you’re looking for, what’s there, what’s in it for you. I try and tell them that kind of stuff.

You said that music has taken you to some places, what do you mean by that?

When I was 16, I was playing in bars — that’s a hard question, and I’m trying to give you an answer that’s real. Music showed me a lot, for bad or good, when I was a kid your age. It showed me the adult world. I’ve seen people shot for $5, I’ve seen people miss when they’re trying to shoot up heroin, I’ve been places that as a 16-year-old I probably shouldn’t have been, but I think that gives me an approach where I try to be real with the kids; I’ll tell you the truth. Music is a hard way of life, that’s one of the reasons I became a teacher, or I’d probably be dead. If I hadn’t met my wife, gotten a decent job, I’d probably be doing what a lot of my friends are doing, they’re in their late 40s or early 50s and they’re still trying to make it.

Do you regret anything about your life?

No, I don’t think so; that would be a waste of time. Stop should-ing on yourself is a term that someone once said to me. It would have been nice to be a bit more recognized for playing and performing, but that’s a tough one too. Kids your age now see someone like Lady Gaga; you give up a lot when you are that person, and that I wouldn’t be able to do. Your life is not private, you can’t even go to the bathroom without someone knowing. You have no privacy, and I like my privacy — I live out on three acres in the middle of the woods. No regrets.

Do you think there’s a correlation between talent and fame?

I think the gap is widening, I think there’s a lot of luck. I think it’s who you know. It’s being at the right time at the right place. Are there a lot of people out there who are famous and talented? Absolutely. Are there a lot of people out there who are famous and not talented? Without a doubt.

What is your proudest moment in life?

Being married for 25 years — and we still like each other. Having raised, hopefully, two successful children. My eldest daughter, who is 21, is going off to study in Spain for a year alone, and my youngest daughter, who is 19, got into Brown, and she did that all by herself.

What comes first for you, family or work?

My bass, fishing, my garden, my family, and work. Not necessarily in that order, sometimes it’s work, then fishing, sometimes it’s my family, then my bass, but those five things. Depends on the day. Today is fishing.

How long have you been fishing?

Since I was a little kid. My dad used to take us up to Lake Ontario, but never saltwater fishing. That was the thing that intrigued me about coming down here.