Rock Island School Orchestra Leader to Work For World-Renowned Violinist
On Thursday, Matt Manweiler had a “come to Jesus” moment. Just not the kind you may think.
The kind, bright and artistically adventurous orchestra director for the Rock Island-Milan School District, Manweiler has accepted a new position of education programs coordinator with Jesus Florido and his company Latinfiddler Music.
On Facebook Thursday, Manweiler posted: “Jesus is a world-renowned Latin violinist who is a caring educator at heart. I will be working with Jesus on arrangements for his orchestral and educational residences, in helping build his pedagogy, and in coaching classically-trained teachers that are discovering the joy that comes from music that grooves!”
As Manweiler did Thursday for the virtual violin conference Fiddle Hell, he will be co-presenting and conducting with Florido around the world, as much as Manweiler’s teaching schedule in Rock Island allows.
“One of our goals is to spread the alternative styles visiting artist program that I started over a decade ago Rock Island by transplanting those
opportunities to orchestra students around the world,” he posted.
His administrators at Rock Island (where Manweiler has worked since 2005) have been very supportive of him taking on this role “to share the wonderful opportunities that Rock Island students have had,” he said.
“It’s very humbling and very exciting at the same time and there’s so much that I can learn from Jesus, as I’m also teaching alongside of him as well,” Manweiler said later Thursday. “It’s a really rare opportunity to get to be with someone that is this caliber of a performer. I’m super excited about how I may be able to develop as a musician and a teacher out of this as well. It’s just a really neat opportunity and I’m so, so grateful.”
Fiddle Hell is a four-day virtual conference with 270 workshops, concerts, and sessions by 120 experts representing nearly every style of
fiddle music on the planet. Matt and Jesus spoke to the conference about how classical musicians can venture into improvisation.
A 40-year-old native of Valparaiso, Ind., Manweiler studied with the same violin teacher as Florido (a 54-year-old Venezuelan) at Butler University in Indianapolis. Florido combines his classical training with knowledge of Afro-Latin, jazz, rock, and fiddle music “to create a compelling artistry, balanced on a fine axis of musical virtuosity and heart,” according to his bio.
“A live performer who has shared the stage with many great musicians and a lot of his idols, he loves teaching and he is a highly sought after-teacher,” Florido’s bio says, noting he regularly conducts workshops and clinics worldwide.
He lives in Los Angeles, where he maintains a small private studio and continues to practice as much as he can while packing his bags for the
In February 2020, Manweiler hosted Florido over three days, where he worked with about 500 6th-12th-grade students from Rock Island-Milan and Davenport, culminating in a joint public concert Feb. 21, 2020 at the Rock Island High School Auditorium.
“He is one of the most well-respected Latin educators and violinists around,” Manweiler said in a February 2020 interview before Florido’s residency.
“A lot of our students have Hispanic heritage, and playing about Latin music is a great way to celebrate that heritage,” he said. “We also want to teach all of our students to embrace people that are from a different culture than they are. We feel one of the best ways to accomplish this goal is to have a fun learning environment and immersion in diverse art.
“Our goal is to create a lifelong love and appreciation of music in our students,” Manweiler said. “We feel that playing music from other cultures and traditions can help our students to become well-rounded musicians and audience members. Sometimes a rhythmic mambo is more accessible to a teenager than a Beethoven string quartet is. I believe we have to teach about music of different styles to try to make those connections.”
“I want to help inspire the next generation,” Florido said last year from his Los Angeles home. “I don’t want to make all professional
musicians, but music develops your brain in so many more ways than just learning what’s in school, and it creates potential music patrons.”
Florido started playing at age 10, and came to the U.S. in 1987 to study with legendary Indiana University professor Josef Gingold, who taught the likes of Joshua Bell and Gil Shaham. Florido earned a full ride to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Butler, where he finished in 1996.
In addition to classical violin, Florido has studied Afro-Cuban, jazz, rock, and bluegrass. His score of musical influences is varied, incorporating composers and performers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Grappelli, Hendrix, Ponty, Shankar and Santana.
He’s shared the stage with everyone from Pinchas Zukermann and Itzhak Perlman to Whitney Houston, Moody Blues, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Florido has led workshops and residencies all over the world.
He credited his father’s love for a variety of styles. “My dad was always feeding me these kinds of music,” from Bach, to folk, to Italian opera, to Miles Davis, he said.
“Education is so very important to me, I need to pass it on, pay it forward,” he said, noting being an example of a successful minority musician also is vital. “Representation is important. In my days, I didn’t have that,” he said. “Butler is a very white school, but I always felt so welcomed by everybody.”
“I like to show kids — especially underprivileged – if you work hard, look at me,” Florido said. “I came here with nothing; everything I made I did by working hard, and trying to inspire. If I did it, you can do it too. I’m not the most talented person, but I work my butt off.”
Expanding beyond classical music
Manweiler got into playing in high school, including in a rock band, and started venturing into American fiddle styles while at Butler, which he called “groundbreaking.”
“That really probably saved my love for music, because I don’t know that I would have continued on if it was only classical,” he said Thursday. “I love classical music dearly, but connecting with these different traditions was so important.”
He majored in music education and his first teaching job was in Rock Island.
His first venturing into fiddle styles, including bluegrass and Americana, came when his college violin teacher recommended a summer festival with acclaimed fiddler Mark O’Connor, who brought in “this all-star lineup of faculty members, and that was kind of the beginning for me,” Manweiler said, noting he studied with O’Connor at conferences in Nashville, Tenn., and San Diego, Calif.
“You would just go down the list and have these very approachable superstars you’d learn from for a week,” he said. Manweiler was drawn to different kinds of music beyond classical because of the “rhythm and the groove,” he said.
“It was a way to connect with an element of music that that classical music isn’t known for and there is a spontaneity to it,” he said. “There wasn’t the sense of we’re going to play music that was written two hundred years ago and do our best on it. It was, we’re going to take music today and it’s going to be brand new today, and bringing in that improvisatory nature of it.
“That was very new to me when I was in college and it was it was wonderful to feel like the music was alive and yours to tell a story with,” Manweiler said.
He wanted to expand the musical landscape of his students as well, which is why he began bringing in visiting artists about every other year to work with students and play together with them in a public concert.
After Mark Wood, Manweiler has hosted Turtle Island String Quartet (with Quad City Arts), violinist Christian Howes, and local artists like Ellis Kell and groups that Manweiler has performed with, like Barley House Band, Milltown, and Bucktown Revue.
He met Florido 20 years at a Mark O’Connor fiddle conference and stayed in touch.
“He’s not only a great performer, but he has a tremendous love for teaching and really sharing these wonderful styles with students that are in orchestras around the world,” Manweiler said Thursday.
“He is hybrid, where he grew up both playing classical and non-classical music, and so he has a unique approach,” he said. “I think he does a really good job of relating to classical musicians and tand then saying hey, let’s try something else – let’s try to add some grooves to this music, and finding new ways have classical musicians take risks.”
“Improvising is one of the things that we introduced, but primarily my goal is to have an inclusive music program, where we look at styles of music and lots of different traditions,” Manweiler said. “European classical music is one of those and it’s very wonderful. But there’s also a lot of other traditions in music — there’s music that comes out of Africa, out of South America, some out of more bluegrass and old-time
“We want to try to have an inclusive music program and some of that is going to include learning about chords, and learning about how to improvise,” he said.
Improvising can be very hard for traditional musicians, but Manweiler and Florido introduce baby steps, where they can achieve small victories.
“They’re steps that these musicians can take where it might be out of their comfort zone, but we’re going to give them something they can do to start that journey of improv,” Manweiler said, noting they could start doing a solo for four measures of a piece.
“Then they feel like, this is something I can do,” he said. “I teach my students there’s really no wrong notes when you’re the one that’s telling stories and I’ll teach them if something sounds maybe a little bit more tense, here’s something we can do to continue that story. It’s not a wrong note. It’s a note that adds drama and so a lot of our curriculum is based on the improv side of giving them tools so that they can succeed and that’s been the biggest secret that we’ve had.”
Rock Island has just partnered with student from Bettendorf and Davenport on visiting artists so far, and one of Manweiler’s priorities in the new job is to bring similar residencies to other Q-C districts and around the world.
“That’s one of our goals of me partnering up with Jesus,” he said.
“I’ve been working on kind of this formula to bring these artists into the public school system and we want to take that and expose as many students from around the world to that that formula as possible,” Manweiler said. “Because there’s a lot of students that only study classical music in their school orchestra. And again, we love classical music, but there’s more richness if you can have a more diverse repertoire and celebration of playing music.”
It’s also key to be able to play with the visiting artist and not just watch him or her perform.
“Watching and listening is very important and I think a lot of public places do that very well, and Quad City Arts is one of the organizations that has done that very well, bringing a lot of diverse musicians into schools,” Manweiler said. “But to go side by side and to start speaking this new language with someone — it’s a different type of an experience. It’s more immersive.
“It’s more personal and then, usually these visiting artists festivals, there’s several days of workshops leading up to the performance,” he said. “There’s a relationship that’s built between the artists that we bring in and the students and that helps the music connect deeper.
“We want also the students to realize that this is something that they can do and if they’re only watching music be performed, it’s good but it’s not as empowering – like I can play this on my instrument and I understand this language and I can do an improv and sound wonderful in this style or that style.”
Collaborating on a new job
Manweiler said joining Florido as a staffer happened naturally, and they’ve been working out details over the past year.
“Just one thing led to another and we realize that we would be a good fit working together,” Manweiler said. “We’ve been brainstorming and planning the last year for this and now we’re ready to start taking this elsewhere and he has a lot of relationships with other schools in countries like Austria, France, Singapore and South America, and so he has certain programs that he’s already prepared for us to go to with this curriculum that we’re building.”
He will help put together music arrangements for students, coach teachers, and empower teachers with tools to continue to offer these variety of styles to students.
Manweiler will work in the job on his off hours from school, and hopes to travel over the breaks (Rock Island-Milan’s calendar has two weeks off in the fall and spring and a shorter summer vacation). Due to Covid concerns
Florido’s company, Latinfiddler, is a brand name that was coined by Mark O’Connor about 30 years ago, Manweiler said.
“Mark was like, Jesus is Latinfiddler, and it just kind of stuck,” he said. “Jesus has done everything from composing and producing music for Rachel Barton Pine to playing with a crazy list of artists. He’s one of the top on violinists in Los Angeles who does sessions, is off to travel the world as a solo artist,” Manweiler said. That brand covers a very diverse career.”
For more information on Florido, visit https://jesusflorido.com/home.