Meet Our Teachers: Marty Collin
(Beginner Mandolin, Guitar, and Banjo)
Welcome back to The Front Porch’s Blog! This week, we’re featuring another one of our fabulous long-time teachers, Marty Collin.
Marty is the former English Department chairman and Theatre Director at Saint James School, in Hagerstown, Maryland. He taught at Saint James for over 25 years (and before that at The Kildonan School, in Amenia, New York and at the University of Maryland-College Park) and directed over 120 plays. Inspired by his student writers, actors, and senior directors, he became a playwright, and now has eight full-length and one-act plays that have been produced throughout the United States and Canada.
Marty learned how to play music when he was twelve years old, borrowing a guitar from his neighbor. He’s played music ever since, eventually showing up on The Front Porch’s metaphorical porch in 2017, wanting to take mandolin lessons. We quickly realized he was better suited to teach!
Since September 2017, he has been teaching beginner mandolin, beginner banjo, and beginner guitar at The Front Porch. The motto of all Marty’s classes is that music is fun, and Marty certainly makes sure that’s true!!
I recently sat down and had a wonderful conversation with Marty. Read our conversation below, and learn more about one of The Front Porch’s stellar instructors. If you’re on the fence about learning an instrument, Marty can help you get started and find your musical voice — and have a blast playing!!
E: Tell me about your musical journey. How did you end up at The Front Porch?
In 2017 I retired from 37 years of teaching English and directing high school theater. My wife got a job in Charlottesville, and when we moved here I decided that I wanted to take mandolin lessons. I came to The Front Porch, met Emily [Morrison], and went out for a cup of coffee with her. After that one conversation, she decided that she wanted me to teach here instead.
So I just sort of stumbled into it by accident, but have happily been teaching beginner guitar, banjo, and mandolin at The Front Porch ever since.
E: How long have you been playing music?
I taught myself how to play guitar when I was twelve years old and never looked back. But I’ve never been a ‘professional’ musician. I taught music at schools and I’ve played music with folks out at bars and churches and things, but music was never my primary profession until I came to The Front Porch. Unlike many of the other wonderful teachers that Emily has hired – touring musicians who she asked to teach – I was a teacher who played music. But, I think I draw a lot of my strengths as a music teacher from my days teaching English and directing theater.
E: Lets talk about your theater experience. I hear you’re quite the accomplished playwright. Can you tell me about that?
Well, I was directing plays for high school theater in Maryland when I read a play that was so horrible that I said, “I can do this. I can write a play.” After all, all it needs is a beginning, middle, and end.
At the time, I was 49 years old. I sent it out, and on the last day of my 49th year I got an email from a publisher that said, “We really like this play, we would like to publish it.” I think it was produced one time that first year. But the next year I wrote another one that got produced a couple more times.
At this point, I have eight published plays that get produced all over the United States and Canada. Even during 2021, I had a play produced in California, one produced in Mississippi, and one in Minnesota. I just published a new play in July, and one in 2019 too. Several of my plays have been produced well over 50 times.
Like so many other things in my life, it started out as me just going, “I’ll show them, I can write a play.” Now eight plays and several years later we’re still going.
E: Are they all full length plays?
Some are full length, some are one acts, some are musicals, some are comedies, and some are murder mysteries. I only have one serious play, actually.
It’s been really fun, and has led to some cool experiences. For example, one time my wife and I were walking down the street in Pennsylvania and we saw my name and one of my plays on the marquee above a theater. We walked in, bought tickets, and sat in the back of the theater. It was my murder mystery, and I knew what was going to happen and who the murderer was. But I still enjoyed it!
E: It must be an interesting experience to see your plays acted out like that! Have you ever seen one of your plays performed and thought, “well, that was awful?”
Thankfully not. But, it’s never like I imagined it would be in my head. Sometimes people do really cool things and change them in interesting ways, and I always get to hear about it because they have to go through my publisher for any changes. I LOVE it when they have fun with my plays!
For example, at one point in my murder mystery, someone stands up and holds people in the audience hostage with a gun. Some directors are understandably uncomfortable with using a gun. One time, they changed the gun to a bunch of “sporks.” It sounds weird, but actually worked.
What’s interesting is that some of my plays I’ve never seen live.
E: Wow! That’s kind of crazy. Are you working on anything now?
Of course, I’m always working on something – my publishers expect it now. Not everything I’m working on always comes to fruition, though.
It’s funny, my plan was to move to Charlottesville, take mandolin lessons at The Front Porch, work on my writing projects, and walk the dog. What ended up happening was I came to The Front Porch, Emily hired me, and I’ve ended up teaching here more and more and more. I never left! So I’ve only released two plays since coming to Charlottesville. But I’ve been lucky to play so much music as well.
Between my life teaching music, writing plays, and walking my dog, I have a wonderful life!
E: Do you have any advice for someone who is trying to start writing?
My advice is just to start. Just like I tell my music students – take 20 minutes a day to practice your instrument, or 20 minutes to sit down and write. There are all kinds of possibilities with a blank page, but you just have to start writing.
Once, when my friend wanted to join an M.F.A. program to write a novel, his father held out a pencil and told him, “Son, I’m not paying for an M.F.A. program. But I will help you out – here’s a pencil, go for it.”
You just have to begin. Go from there.
E: I think that something people struggle with is finding inspiration. Where do you get your ideas?
On my desk at home I have a small box. Any strange or unusual thing I hear, I write it down and put in the box. I know that I can always go to the box and pull out an idea. So I’m always listening to words; I listen to things that people say and I write them down.
E: Other than writing, what did you do during the pandemic lockdowns?
I played a lot of music, took a lot of walks, wrote, and spent time with my wife. I also listened to a lot of music.
E: What have you been listening to or playing recently?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Norman Blake, since I’m working on two of his tunes. I love Blake and Tony Rice and all the folk greats. I’ve been playing folk music since I picked up a guitar at 12 years old. Yes, I have an electric guitar, but I don’t play it nearly as much as my acoustic one.
E: Well, I know you teach three different instruments – mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Do you have a favorite “child” between them?
I think the right answer is that whatever one I’m playing is my favorite instrument. I like them all, they’re all very different, they all have different voices, they’re all fun to play.
I especially love working on them with beginners. I think that is part of my Front Porch job and life – to light small fires under beginners and get them interested in playing and in The Front Porch, and then push them on to other talents who can get them really going.
My talent is introducing people to something they’ve always wanted to do, and lighting a fire for them.
And I’ve gotten good at it!
E: Were you still able to do that during COVID?
Yes, but it’s challenging. You can’t really hear each other and you can’t really play together. There are so many variables in the Zoom universe that its just difficult. You would think at this point someone would have invented a “superZoom” for music lessons. I mean, I was teaching a woman in Alaska this last year on Zoom, and her connection was stronger than some people here in town.
At this point, I have one Zoom private student. I learned a lot teaching on Zoom, and I think I got pretty good teaching online. I’m glad I’m not on Zoom as much now, but I’m always happy to go through anything where I can learn a lot and become a better teacher.
E: Tell me about your work at UVA’s International Residence College (IRC).
The IRC is great. I taught the school principle of the IRC and his wife on Zoom during the pandemic. He came to me and asked if I would be willing to teach some of the IRC students who were stuck here during the pandemic since they couldn’t go to their international homes and were “prisoners” in their dorms.
We had a fantastic time, and I loved connecting with them when they were going through a tough time. A bunch of them wanted to keep going, and I’ve finally met them and played with them in person! I’ve gotten to go over to the IRC for dinner, and they come to The Front Porch to play now. It’s fun to entice the UVA kids off of the campus – I’d always want to work with more of them. This summer, I started again with new sections of IRC students and I can’t wait to keep going with them.
E: Here’s the kicker: what do you enjoy most about teaching music?
For me, it’s all about fun. If you want the essence of what I do here – and what The Front Porch does here – it’s fun.
I never tell my students to go home and practice. I tell them to go home and play.
That fun element of the Front Porch should never be divorced from the rest. Music is fun, and it always should be. Its the reason all of our classes are great. It’s the reason Roots & Wings does amazing things – it provides fun for those kids, and that’s what The Front Porch is all about.
That’s incredible!! I couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much for talking to me.
Marty’s Fun Facts:
Best Concert: “David Grisman in Boston in the 1970s.”
Favorite Travel Location: “Italy (I’ve been seven times). I did a 10-day walking tour from inn to inn right before COVID that was fantastic – I got chased by a wild boar. I can’t wait to travel again when the pandemic is over.”
Most Remarkable Event: “Marrying my wife. My wife was born in an oil camp in Venezuela, and I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. The fact that we were able to meet and fall in love is the most remarkable thing that has ever happened to me.”
Want to check out some of Marty’s plays? Here’s the full list of his published plays: Reindeer Games: A Christmas Panto for Young and Olde! (Leicester Bay Theatricals), I Love You When It’s Raining, Roy G. Biv (Lazy Bee Scripts), Delia Dancer, Doughnut Girl (Heuer Publishing), The Mistake (Green Room Press), The Man in Seat 24 or (The Uninvited Guest) (Brooklyn Publishers), You Don’t Have to Feed A Cello (Heuer Publishing/Brooklyn Publishers), Nose as Long as a Telephone Wire (Brooklyn Publishers), Lakeside Lunch—A Restaurant Farce (Smith Scripts, UK).
Thanks for reading this week’s “teacher feature!” Join us next week as we highlight some of our students. And keep an eye on this page for any new updates, stories, and news from the Porch!
Interested in sparking a musical fire? The Front Porch offers individual and group music classes for all ages and skill levels! Sign up for a class with Marty or one of our other amazing teachers today. It’s never too late to start!
Love what The Front Porch does? Learn more about our Roots and Wings outreach program here, and donate to support music education in Charlottesville.
Just looking to listen to some music? Check out our upcoming concerts and events!