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Check Out Joel Michael-Schwartz’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Joel Michael-Schwartz.

Joel, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I am a professional mandolinist, guitarist, and educator based in Baltimore. After growing up in the Chicago area, I moved the Baltimore to study with a master mandolinist and found myself in love with this wonderful, complex city and the artists, activists, and educators I had found. Since then, I have been doing my best to bring some beauty and justice into the world through art and activism.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Of course not! On a very basic level, making a living has always been hard work and has been made much harder by the pandemic.

There have been many bumps in the road, large and small. One of the larger ones came to a head last summer, when the Atlas Group of restaurants came under intense and, in my experience, well-founded criticism for racist practices. This was due to their clear, blatant discrimination against a black family because a little boy was wearing shorts in the summer (a white boy nearby was dressed similarly, with no consequences). I had performed for them for years but could not turn a blind eye to such an opportunity for improvement, especially since I had personally seen many examples of passive and active racial discrimination there.

However, instead of engaging, Atlas cut ties with all the musicians who had publicly criticized them or shared their experiences. This was a blow to our livelihoods early in the pandemic, and it was hard to accept that an organization who had been happy to hear our music would refuse to hear our voices.

This is a large example of a common problem: people (and employers) refuse to recognize that the search for art and the struggle for justice are tied to each other. It is difficult to see art, especially your own, exploited by people who care nothing for that struggle.

Of course, my own experiences are that of a white, male musician-so if even I experience and see these struggles, it makes it that much clearer how dire they are.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
My creative work has two main parts: the mandolin and teaching.

I took up the mandolin when I was twelve and have loved it to abandon ever since. I have spent the last ten years exploring its traditions, from Italy and Germany to Brazil and Appalachia. What really sets my work apart is my dedication to expanding that tradition. I am constantly trying to study traditions from all across the world and have been lucky to study with masters from India, Peru, Lebanon, Brazil, and Spain, working to bring my beloved instrument into traditions where its sound has not been heard.

The other half of my heart is the teacher. In college, I discovered, much to my surprise, that I loved teaching, and even better-I was good at it! Since then, I have worked non-stop to bring the joy that I feel to my students, who range in age from 6 to 76, and in experience from absolute beginners to degree-holding professionals.

For me, teaching is not about producing virtuosos (although that can be fun!), but about making music a core part of a person’s life, a safe space where they can explore, enjoy, and challenge themselves and others.

We live in a culture that is so over-focused on quantifying and verbally expressing every aspect of our lives. But everyone knows that life isn’t truly like that-so many things that we experience alone and together pale when we say them. Music is for those aspects of life, and sharing it is my great honor and joy.

Before we let you go, we’ve got to ask if you have any advice for those who are just starting out?
Two things:

– Do it every day. You don’t need to practice every day, playing and messing around counts too! But every day is the key to improving and enjoying your art.

– Keep your goals small. Ambition is the death of progress. Sit down, and set a goal that you can accomplish before you stand back up, be that in two minutes, five, or thirty.


  • 30 minute lesson: $35 (guitar, mandolin, uke, theory)
  • 60 minute lesson: $55 (guitar, mandolin, uke, theory)

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