Mike Hunter Q+A
Mike Hunter is a tour de force musician with Child’s Play NY. If your child does our Brooklyn classes, you’ve likely seen him accompanying productions on the piano or doing improv on the guitar with our Mini Musical classes. In addition to being an awesome teacher, Mike can be heard eight shows a week, playing violin in the pit of the Broadway musical, Tootsie. He made his Broadway debut in The Band’s Visit and plays his own music with Harmony with Hunter. Executive Director, Jocelyn Greene sat down with Mike to ask him some questions about his life as an artist, making music and teaching kids!
What are your earliest musical memories?
I remember my parents singing to me before I went to bed each night; my mom would sing traditional Korean folk songs and my dad would sing Beatles and Cat Stevens. Around 4 years old I also remember sneaking a little improv session on our old Baldwin upright while the parents were gone. I wasn’t supposed to officially start learning until age 5 but guess I got impatient.
Who are some of your influences?
Classical music factored heavily in my early music education, some of my favorites were Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Stravinsky, etc. and they all filter into what I do now one way or another. With contemporary music I get pretty eclectic, 90s rock and metal was big for me in my 20s but lately I’ve diversified more into folk, prog, electronic music, basically anything that strikes me as unique, interesting or connects with me emotionally. Theater is a newer influence, I’m still getting into that world really, but Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen see some heavy rotation on my sub way commutes.
What made you want to pursue a life in music?
Growing up in the classical world I thought the only way to make a living as a musician was by going to a conservatory, practicing 8 hours a day and playing other people’s music. I liked being good at classical music but I didn’t love the music itself, maybe because I was too young to understand it properly. Once I picked up a guitar and started writing songs and playing in bands it clicked pretty fast that I wanted to be a professional musician, I just hadn’t realized until then that there were multiple avenues to having a fruitful musical career.
What kind of training did you get, and what about it do you most rely on now?
My training was pretty strict classical growing up, piano at age 5, violin at 7, practice every day, compete, perform etc. At the time I was pretty resistant to the rigidity of that world, but I’m incredibly thankful now to my teachers and parents for keeping me (mostly) honest and holding me to a high standard. Thanks to them the technique I developed early on allows me to consistently find work and not have to constantly worry if something is too difficult for me to handle. Most importantly my teachers taught me how to practice properly, an incredibly important skill that allowed me to learn other instruments and gives me the confidence that I can play/learn-to-play most anything that gets asked of me.
What kinds of adjustments do you feel you need to make in working with children as opposed to the rest of your musical life?
Working with kids is a pretty serious responsibility to me. It’s a ton of fun obviously, but I’m constantly hearing from adults my age how a bad teaching experience turned them off from music/acting/performing early on. Of course it’s still important to push kids to be their best, but I think ultimately the overriding goal should be that the kids enjoy what they’re doing, that they have fun and develop a deeper understanding and love of music and theater. With adult musicians you don’t (and shouldn’t) have to walk that line quite so carefully. That’s one of the great things about Child’s Play, the kids learn the techniques, terminology, choreography etc. but in a fun way that doesn’t discourage them from being a part of the theater/music world in the future.
What are some of your favorite Child’s Play NY memories and/or shows you’ve played for?
We did a summer camp production of Matilda, I think it might’ve actually been the first full camp I did with Child’s Play. I was genuinely shocked at how amazing and hard-working those kids were. They only had 5 days and they managed to put on an incredible show, it was inspiring to be a part of it. There was another show at 121 Pierrepont (I’m blanking on the name at the moment), it went exceptionally well though and at the end the audience gave the kids a spontaneous standing ovation. The looks on those kids’ faces was something I’ll never forget.
How has working with children informed you as an artist?
It’s easy sometimes to get jaded when you’re pursuing an artistic career. Sometimes the hardship endured while you’re chasing a dream can cause you to almost resent the thing you’re pursuing, or to become pessimistic and disconnected from the spark that drives you to be an artist. There’s a purity to the way children experience art and music, and seeing that firsthand can be a powerful reminder that what I’m doing is still worth the effort.
What are some things you enjoy other than music?
Honestly I don’t get a ton of time for hobbies. That’s something I’m trying to work on, balancing my career and personal life has always been a struggle and the career does have a tendency to win out, especially when you’re scraping by as a freelancer. I do love to cook, I dunno, maybe I’ll get back into basketball if my knees can still handle it…
Was there a turning point for you transitioning from an amateur musician to knowing that you could pursue a life in the profession?
I don’t think there was actually. I somewhat purposefully didn’t leave myself with a safety net, when I moved to NYC I didn’t have a backup plan. I bartended initially and just really hustled for work, taking any and all opportunities I could, and as I got more opportunities I gradually was able to leave my bartending gig and move to music full time. I was as surprised as anyone when I finally realized I didn’t need a side job and could make a living solely through music. Not a super comfy living, sure, but it’s definitely improved over time.
Is there a favorite/defining theatrical or musical experience?
My first time on a Broadway stage for The Band’s Visit was a defining moment for sure. I never thought Broadway was an option for me, much less that I’d get to actually be on stage soloing in front of the audience. It was surreal, and humbling, and one of the most fulfilling artistic things I’ve ever gotten to be a part of. That was a unique, special show, and I’m eternally grateful that I got to be a small part of it.
What advice would you have for young aspiring musical artists?
I’d just say listen. Listen to anything and everything, pay close attention to what you’re listening to, and try to reserve judgement. Your ears are your most valuable instrument, if you can’t analyze, understand and appreciate what’s going on around you then it doesn’t matter how well you can sing or how fast your fingers can move. All music has value, all art has value, even if it’s just to learn what your actual tastes are.
In addition to playing for our musical production classes, you’ve had to do a lot of musical improvisation for Child’s Play NY classes. Essentially, you underscore the original plays that the kids make in the Mini Musical classes. How do you think these improvisations add to their final show?
Hopefully the improvisation just adds a little color and dramatic effect to what’s happening on stage. The performance is what’s important so I try not to get in the way of that, but generally I just try to provide some extra atmosphere and help stitch together the scenes. I’d like to think that it adds to the ambiance a bit and gives the kids some extra guidance.
Who is a collaborator that has made you better as an artist?
The guys in my original band actually, Hunt for Hunter, have definitely challenged me to evolve as an artist. Collaborating is tricky, you need to be protective of your creative vision but also willing to work with your collaborators to change it for the better. Working with people you trust and respect is essential, and the guys in my band are all immensely talented musicians, singers and songwriters so I take whatever suggestions or criticisms they offer seriously. Every rehearsal with that band I walk out a better musician, which is ultimately what you want out of a collaboration, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
What are some other musical gigs you do in and around New York?
My main gig now is playing violin in the pit at Tootsie on Broadway, which takes up a lot of my time these days. One of the great things about that job though is the flexibility it offers, so I can still do Child’s Play, play keytar in an 80s band, perform with my Hunt for Hunter, record string arrangements in my home studio, etc. It’s not quite as varied a list as it used to be, but I’m extremely fortunate that it’s more than enough to keep me artistically fulfilled and pay the bills.
If we wanted to hear you play live, not at a Child’s Play NY show, where would we go?
You can hear me play violin at Tootsie, we’re at the Marquis Theater 8 shows a week. You won’t see me since I’m in the pit, but it’s a terrific show, super funny, and the cast is absolutely phenomenal. Those actors are just the height of acting professionalism, it’s really hard to fathom how they do what they do 8 times a week. My band Hunt for Hunter is also booking shows again (http://huntforhunter.com), and if you’re lucky you may occasionally see me performing with Rubix Kube, an 80s tribute band. It’s over the top ridiculous, lots of shtick and choreography, costume changes, props, etc., I wear rainbow spandex and play the keytar. The spandex is oddly comfortable, I gotta admit.