Meet Joel Epstein: violinist, violist, writer, arranger, educator and ACMP member since the 1970s

Joel Epstein teaching beginner violinists as part of Elifelet’s educational programs for refugee children

I first learned about longtime ACMP member Joel Epstein when he sent me a review copy of his book, Music for the Love of It: Episodes in Amateur Music-Making, and then learned of his past involvement as a member of ACMP’s International Advisory Council and on our website committee. As part of an ongoing effort to get to know more of the fabulous people in the ACMP community, I sent Joel some interview questions.

Enjoy getting to know Joel! And if you have a story you would like to share, please drop me a line.

Stephanie Griffin: Tell me a bit about yourself and your relationship to ACMP.

Joel Epstein: I am a violinist and violist. The first time I played chamber music was when I was 14 – my brother, now a professional pianist, played cello and my father played piano. We played the Zingarese trio by Haydn. And I have been playing chamber music ever since. I live in Israel now, and play string quartets once a week, piano trios once a week, and various pickup groups here and there. Our string quartet has been playing together for 35 years – I think we are the most senior amateur quartet in Israel.

I joined ACMP in the early 1970s, and have been active ever since. I served on the International Advisory Board, and I worked on the website committee a bunch of years ago. I use the ACMP directory whenever I travel. I take my fiddle with me to Hawaii, where my daughter lives, and often play string quartets there. I have played in the US, in Britain, South Africa, and India, all thanks to the ACMP directory.

Please tell us about the book you wrote.

I’ve written several, actually. The one you mean is Music for the Love of It: Episodes in Amateur Music-Making. It is a series of historical sketches of amateur music-making, from Queen Elizabeth I (an avid amateur musician) to Walter Willson Cobbett, a British amateur of the early twentieth-century who did much to promote the cause of chamber music in Britain. There is a chapter about amateur music-making in America, in which the ACMP figures prominently. ACMP supported me throughout my writing: Kitty Benton, our newsletter editor, was a well of information; and cartoons drawn by Sue Lloyd, ACMP’s first newsletter editor, grace the first page of every chapter.

And what ties these episodes together?

That’s a good question. Actually, I originally set out to write a book about the history of amateur chamber music. But I quickly realized that the history of amateur music is simply the history of music, at least until 1860. Amateurs and professionals sat shoulder to shoulder in all the ensembles of Europe and America. Strictly speaking, all of the players in Haydn’s orchestra, for example, were amateurs – they all served in other capacities as liveried servants, even if they were hired for their musical skills. The year 1860 is significant, because that is the year that the last amateur – a divinity student who played tympani – resigned from the Gewandhaus orchestra, thus making it the first all-professional orchestra of Europe.

There are other themes that run through the history of amateur music-making. Music was and is a great leveller. Even in the stratified societies of Classical Europe, and the class-conscious halls of British aristocracy, music was the playing field where everyone was equal. There was no reticence in a Baron about sitting next to a blacksmith if both were holding fiddles in their hands. In particular, women were equals. Indeed, women played a leading role in promoting amateur music, especially in America. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the role of women in American music.

Where can ACMP members purchase this book?

The book is available on Amazon.

You said you have written other books?

I wrote The Language of the Heart, a fictional biography of Ziryab. Ziryab was the court musician to the Sultan of Andalusia, and one of the originators of the Andalusian style, which is in many ways the basis of our Western music. The Curse of Gesualdo: Music, Murder and Madness is a fictional biography of Carlo Gesualdo, the sixteenth-century madrigalist, who murdered his wife and presumed lover, then had himself whipped in remorse. And I wrote a method book on teaching violin in classes, based on my experience as a violin teacher in Israeli schools. All the books are available on Amazon.

Could you please tell our readers about your teaching career?

When I retired from my professional career in software development, I decided what I really wanted to do was teach. I taught for a few years in Israeli public and private schools, and now I run a music program in an after-school program for status-less children in south Tel Aviv.

What exactly do you mean by status-less children?

In Israel, most of them are refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan and other African countries, but they also include any children born to foreign workers or illegal immigrants. These children were born in Israel, but have no legal status; so they are not entitled to any government support, national health care, national insurance, or any other benefits that Israeli children enjoy. My program is part of Elifelet, a nonprofit that provides support that the government refuses to give. I work there as a volunteer, along with eight other music volunteers. Two of those are ACMP members.

That sounds like a precarious situation. What does your music program offer to those children?

Actually, I don’t think Israel treats its refugees any worse than a lot of other countries. We have about 50 kids in our program. We have 25 violinists. The third graders study violin in classes of five, then the next year they go on to study at the municipal conservatory in south Tel Aviv. In addition, we teach chorus, ukelele, guitar, rock music, and we have a kindermusic program for first and second graders.

And how to the kids respond?

With unbridled enthusiasm. Some of these kids are so eager, they bring their violins to school even on days they don’t have lessons, hoping for a chance, any chance, to play. Just by way of comparison: when I taught in public schools, out of a class of 30 children, we were lucky if one or two kids signed up to continue their studies in conservatory. At Elifelet, 80 percent of the kids continue their lessons for the second, third and fourth years.

We also see the effects of music on the kids’ cognitive and emotional development. Most of the kids in our program come to Elifelet with a lot of baggage – neglect in early childhood, discrimination, violence in the home and in the neighborhood. We see a lot of change in the kids in the music program. Often, one of our counselors asks me nervously, “How is Immaniel in violin class?” “Great,” I say – he’s a hard worker, very attentive, and never acts out. And the counselor tells me that in school, Immaniel is unmanageable – fighting, crying, and with a host of learning disabilities. Music works magic on these kids.

It sounds like you get a lot of satisfaction from this.

I often ask myself, who gets more out of this program, my students or me? For 35 years, I worked in various jobs in technology; I had my own company, and I worked on projects that made a real change. But nothing in my professional life can compare to how I feel when my students play a duet together, and experience the joy of making music together.

Are there any other music-related activities that you have been enjoying in your retirement?

Yes! In addition to playing chamber music and teaching, I also have done a lot of arrangements – mostly for string quartet, but also for woodwind ensembles and other combinations. Most of my arrangements are of Israeli folksongs, but I also arranged American and Welsh songs, as well as a lot of miscellaneous stuff. I sell my arrangements at SheetMusicPlus but if you see something you like, please write me directly at yoelepst@gmail.com, and I will send it to you for free or for half price (depending on my mood).

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