.Berkeley’s Manning Music is a Hub for Bluegrass Enthusiasts

Manning family's path from folk bands and classical orchestras to a community fiddling academy

Manning Music bills itself as a community of teachers and musicians who love bluegrass, old-time, fiddle and acoustic music. The Berkeley-based school has nine teachers, as well as the school’s founders, Chad and Catherine Manning, who teach about 200 students of all ages. 

“A few years ago, I had a student in her 80s,” Chad Manning said. “She picked up a fiddle and, in two years, was a regular at local jam sessions. It’s never too late to start playing.”

Manning has played the fiddle since he was eight. Despite spending years playing with heavy hitters like David Grisman and Laurie Lewis, he said he never had any intention of becoming a musician or teacher.

“I grew up in Spokane, three houses down from Lundin’s Fiddle Shop,” Manning said. “It was Grand Central Station for the local fiddlers. I began taking lessons from JayDean Ludiker, who was teaching there at that time. She’s still at it. There was something in the sound of the fiddle, the emotion, the rawness of it, that spoke to me.

“As I got better, my dad picked up the bass, my mom started playing rhythm piano and my siblings joined in,” Manning said. “We had a family band and played country bars, rodeos and county fairs. I loved music, but I wanted to be a writer. I majored in creative writing, literature and philosophy, but I kept playing the fiddle. After I graduated from college, I moved down to Berkeley.”

Manning began giving fiddle lessons a few years after he started playing. “When I was 14, someone asked me to give them a lesson. They liked it, I liked it and I stayed with it. I’ve always had students,” he said.

After making contact with the Bay Area bluegrass scene, Manning’s friend, banjo player Bill Evans, invited him to fill in for another fiddler at a rehearsal for the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. Grisman liked his playing, and Manning stayed with the band for several years. He also spent many years with Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands. “Those gigs changed my life,” Manning said. “I learned so many lessons playing with them. But along the way, I was always teaching.”

One of his students was his future wife, Catherine Chang (Manning). “I grew up in Michigan and started classical violin when I was six,” she said. “I played classical music in orchestras through college and began fiddling when I started taking lessons from Chad. We fell in love, got married and started a family. I still love classical and teach kids how to read music, but you learn fiddle by ear. I love the idea of not being stuck to the page. Growing up, I had to have sheet music in front of me before I played. Fiddle is more communal.”

As she became a proficient fiddler, Catherine joined Chad as an instructor. “After we married, we were teaching out of our house in El Cerrito,” Chad Manning said. “We’d have jam sessions and eat dinner with the students. It was a community that grew by word of mouth. I don’t think of it as a school, but we soon had enough students that we needed a bigger space. We slowly developed the ideas that turned it into a proper business.”  

The two rented a studio in Berkeley and began to bring in guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, Dobro, music theory and voice teachers. They hosted jam sessions and offered classes for bands. And they expanded slowly but exponentially.

“When I have a new student, I teach them a little bit of all the fiddle styles,“ Chad Manning said. “They can decide from there what direction they want to go in. We have teachers in many styles who can help them follow their passions. California is on the national bluegrass map. Some of the best bluegrass and old-time music players are coming out of this area.

“We like to create as many opportunities to play as there are situations to play in,” he added. “We take students to play in retirement centers, put on square dances and encourage them to play at open mics. We do a student concert at the Freight & Salvage, so they all get a chance to shine and solo on a big stage. We take them to the farmers’ market at the San Francisco Ferry Building, so they can experience what it’s like to busk.”

The school also has a fundraiser, the Fiddle-a-thon. The kids gather sponsors, who then give money to nonprofits like the Sierra Club, the Women’s Earth Alliance or the California Bluegrass Association’s kids program.

“Teaching encourages exploration, and I learn a lot in my sessions as a teacher,” Chad Manning said. “Helping students find things in a way that’s unique to them often sheds some light on something I want to learn. That’s why we encourage advanced students to become teachers, too. It helps them get to the next level.”

For lessons at the Manning School, email [email protected] or visit manningfiddlemusic.com.

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