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With Milwaukee roots, four musicians follow their passions
September 30th, 2009
Too often young people drop their passion for pursuits that may seem more practical, following the road more traveled rather than the one that stirs their hearts.
Four Milwaukee natives, all former students at Milwaukee Jewish Day School and Shorewood High School, are breaking that mold by devoting themselves — at least for now — to their passion for music.
Naftali Beder, Elias Cohn, Jacob Feiring and Jacob Muchin each have a different approach to music but they share a love of playing, of creating a musical whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Raised in Shorewood, Naftali Beder, 22, grew up listening to classical music. At age 6 he wanted to study flute but had to wait until age 8 to begin lessons.
“My arms weren’t long enough, and 6-year-olds don’t have the lung power to play the instrument,” he explained.
He played flute for eight years before fate stepped in during his sophomore year at Shorewood High School, leading him to his instrument of choice, the bassoon.
“The orchestra teacher decided she wanted to play Beethoven’s Seventh, which called for a bassoon, and she did not have a bassoon player,” Beder recalled. She also needed a French horn player, again missing from the current orchestra.
The teacher approached him, telling Beder that he could play in the orchestra if he could learn bassoon or French horn. Beder was frustrated at the time that he could not play in the orchestra, as it was reserved for upperclassmen, and the flute section was full. So he spent that summer learning bassoon and was hooked.
“It has a lyrical sound; it’s a gorgeous instrument,” he explained. He realized that he had been playing the wrong instrument all those years.
“You should know when you’re playing the right instrument. It’s almost like being in love,” Beder said.
His new love has accompanied him to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he is entering his senior year studying illustration. He has played bassoon for Yarmulkazi, Brown University’s klezmer band, for three semesters.
He also writes some original klezmer music for the band, which plays around the Providence and Boston area and has recorded several albums, one with a cover illustration designed by Beder.
“There is something about klezmer music that is unmatched, even in classical music,” Beder said.
“There’s a strictness to classical. With klezmer, there’s a communal sense of these drunken klezmerim dancing around to the music. When we’re rehearsing, it’s like a big jovial conversation.”
“The gigs are incredibly fun. And to see college students who first hear this interesting form of music, and then they’re dancing to klezmer…. That is quite nice.”
His Jewish background, specifically his recognition of Jewish harmonies — has helped him with klezmer improvisation, Beder believes.
Beder’s career goals do not involve music. “Music will always be a hobby — a prominent one — but not a career,” he said.
After he graduates next year, Beder would like to become an editorial illustrator — think The New Yorker magazine— or a children’s book illustrator.
Elias Cohn, 27, received his first guitar as a present for his bar mitzvah. His father, Shorewood resident Michael Cohn, was the first person to teach him anything on guitar.
“Music has always been a passion, something that I always dedicated a lot of time and energy to,” said Cohn, who lives in Washington, D.C. since graduating from Colorado College in 2005with bachelor’s degrees in history and political science.
Cohn has already experienced a hefty dose of the music business, and he considers music his career.
“I let the college hype get to me that music is awesome and great but not something that you can do as a career,” he said. “After college, I saw that music was really a business like any other, and if you chose to get into that business, you could do it,” he explained.
Until recently, Cohn was part of a successful band called Junior League Band, for whom he played guitar and wrote much of the music. Junior League Band toured all over the country and played Milwaukee at festivals (Summerfest and Riversplash), local clubs (Stonefly and The Social) and a live performance on WMSE. The band also released full-length and half-length albums. Cohn left the band in June.
“Artistic and business-related disagreements made me feel like it was time to move on,” Cohn said, adding that he had two great years with no regrets.
He plays bass with a cover band, Northeast Corridor, and is actively involved in three additional music projects, which all involve playing gigs.
“The most rewarding part (of being a musician) is hearing the songs come together, producing art that’s beautiful.
“But you couldn’t do it without these other people in it,” Cohn said, referring to his band mates. “They took ideas in your head and they made them better than you could ever do yourself.”
He attributes some of his musical inclinations to the Jewish music he heard in synagogue. “I’m not sure it was something I appreciated until later in life, but … any songs that are sung [for so many years must be]great songs, great melodies.”
“Hearing these melodies mostly in minor key modes, using scales that are different than a lot of most Western music, I find myself gravitating toward those scales,” Cohn said of his own songwriting.
Though he is building a career in music, Cohn hasn’t quite left his day job; he works part-time for a non-profit housing counseling service. He describes his busy life as “a balancing act.”
Jacob Feiring’s musical journey started when he was 12, when he got his first guitar.
“When I began playing guitar, it was one of the few things I connected with. By 15, I’d practice for hours,” said Feiring, who is studying film production at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and living in the Riverwest neighborhood.
Feiring described an almost immediate “strong emotional tie” to the guitar. He also plays bass guitar. He grew up playing music with his friends.
“It’s really satisfying to work on music, especially with other people, and create something,” said Jacob Feiring, 23, who is now setting up his second band in Milwaukee. “Growing together as musicians is very satisfying,” he added.
For three years, Feiring was part of a local band, Freight, a punk-influenced band that recorded a few records locally and played several Milwaukee clubs — the Cactus Club in Bay View and Club Garibaldi were a couple regular gigs — as well as some venues in Madison, Chicago and Minneapolis. The band broke up this past March.
“Freight’s bass player moved to California,” Feiring explained. “We had been together since the band’s inception, and it didn’t feel right to replace him and move on. It felt right to let go,” he said.
Feiring’s new band, The Sea, the Ocean, is based more on pop influences than Freight — with “a much quieter, sweeter, softer sound,” he said.
Feiring is writing music and some lyrics for the band, which plans to record in the next few months and hopes to begin performing in local clubs by September.
While Feiring considers his music a hobby, he does not count out making it a career.
“Ideally it would be great to play music for a career; it’s something I’ve desired in the past,” he said. For now, however, he aspires to work in film production after finishing college.
Jacob Muchin, 20, grew up surrounded by music, specifically Jewish music, in his Shorewood home. He played music with his mother, Jewish educator/musician Marge Eiseman, for a few of her albums.
But he only discovered the thrill of playing live music fairly recently, less than two years ago.
“My twin brother, Jona, is a guitar player and came home over winter break [from college in Boston],” Muchin said. “We started playing music together, and that’s when I realized it was fun to play with other people.”
Muchin got together with some old classmates from his days at Shorewood High School, and last winter formed a band, Aim for the Elbow, which Muchin describes as a groove rock band.
Muchin plays bass guitar and has written original music for the band, which has played a handful of Milwaukee bars.
“When you can get to the point of playing, when you’re playing music instead of playing a certain song…. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s an awesome thing,” Muchin said.
Still, Muchin does not expect to have a career in music. Rather, he’s focusing on career goals that seem more realistic. Currently enrolled at UWM as a computer science major, Muchin is doing part-time computer repair work for Computer Geeks.
But, he added, “If someone wants me to play music and will pay, great, I’ll do it!” he said.
When asked whether they had any words of advice for aspiring musicians, each gentleman offered a gem.
“If it greatly pains you to practice your instrument, you’re probably not playing the right instrument,” Beder said from personal experience.
Cohn separated his advice into two compartments — artistry and business.
“The artistry is extremely important, a lifelong study,” he offered. “Learn to play a second instrument, or to sing, or to understand what else is going on [in the song]. There are a million great musicians out there; to be the best in town is going to be difficult. Develop your own songs and style. Those are the musicians who get ahead,” Cohn explained.
“On the business side,” he added, “understand that it is a business. It’s fun, but to be a professional it’s work. Bring a seriousness to it as you would towards any business.
“Being a musician is not tough; being in the music business is tough.”
Muchin and Feiring shared the same sentiment: Practice, practice, practice.
“Spend a lot of time practicing. Practice all the time,” Muchin said.
From Feiring: “Keep working on your craft. It’s the only way to get better.”
Former staff writer for The Chronicle, Elyse Cohn is the director of development and marketing at Danceworks in Milwaukee.