Frank Albert has turned his life-long fascination with stringed instruments into a career of sharing his passion for music.
Trained as a classical viola player at Virginia Commonwealth University, he intended to become a full-time performer when he graduated. But after some private lessons with younger students, he discovered he was built to work with kids.
In the last 15 years, he's taught more than 5,000 students through a Musicare, a traveling, hands-on preschool music program for ages 18 months to 6. He has also taught more than 500 private violin and viola students, including a student who went on to attend New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
To balance out the time he spends with younger students, he runs All Strings Attached, a new shop in Davidson. He handles the repairs, rentals and sales of acoustic and electric violins and other instruments in the violin family.
Albert's shop is the only full-service violin shop in the Lake Norman area. The Charlotte area has at least one other violin shop, but Albert said his shop specifically acts as a hub for orchestral-related needs of area teachers, students and professionals.
Albert, 42, also has played with the Salisbury Symphony for about 10 years and is entering his eighth year as a music teacher at Mooresville Christian Academy, where he started one of the first K-12 orchestra programs in Iredell County. Nearly two dozen students learn about European classical traditions mixed with some of today's more modern teachings in the orchestra program.
"I'm absolutely passionate about music, and I'm absolutely passionate about kids," he said. "My journey of entrepreneurship is basically a journey as it relates to children."
He and his wife, Lucy, have lived in Charlotte area about 13 years. They now live in Mooresville with their three sons ages 8, 11 and 14.
He said he opened the shop to meet the demand of the students and professionals in the Charlotte region, but also because the nuances of quality from instrument to instrument are so unpredictable and alluring.
"The instruments can make you neurotic," said the practicing apprentice luthier, or a stringed instrument repair technician. "On any given day, your instrument will be out of sorts, but that's what makes it fun and challenging. It's one of the few industries where an apprenticeship is necessary and, ultimately, (sound quality) comes down to the adjustment of the instrument."
Albert is just starting his apprenticeship in Virginia with Timothy Donley, who once owned a similar violin shop in Charlotte. It will take Albert about four years before he is an actual luthier, he said.
Improvisation is driver
Albert took up the viola in seventh grade, but has hung around violin shops for decades, he said. He took piano lessons when he was younger but lost interest because of the repetitive scales he had to play.
"Even as an 8-year-old, I was showing signs of wanting to do my own creative thing rather than fitting into a particular mold," he said. "And improvisation in all areas of my life is still probably my biggest M.O."
He credits his love for music to his parents, who he described as avid amateur musicians.
He'd often disappear into their musical world, listening to their collection of records for hours on end. He absorbed famous classical and jazz artists, secular and non-secular music and pop singers like Simon and Garfunkel.
"I spent most of my childhood with headphones on, listening, just fascinated by my parents' albums, and I'd just soak it up," he said. "My dad gave me the love for music, and my mom gave sufficient boundaries and tons of freedom. She encouraged me to explore things that were interesting to me."
Enter his ongoing career with Musicare, the music education franchise for children. Albert and his students use percussion instruments, their voices, their bodies, but more so improvisation and their imaginations to learn about music.
If someone mentions bugs, Albert has an arsenal of songs related to that theme. Same goes for practically anything a kid can think of, including pirates and dinosaurs.
"It's specifically designed to let the children immediately be involved in music-making," he said. "Even if they can't play an instrument, they're learning something - and it's highly spontaneous. What I've developed over the years is the ability to make absolutely radical shifts in where we're going with class because of something a child introduced into the mix."