Two steps into Mark Cooley’s Sheboygan apartment and it becomes obvious he is a man for whom music plays an integral role.
Stacks of record albums, ranging from classical to pop to jazz, decorate the room; music stands with piles of sheet music await his or his students’ attention; his precious violin and viola stand poised for his deft touch.
More importantly, however, two notes into an impromptu concert and it becomes apparent that Cooley is a superb musician who makes his instruments sing with passion, grace and talent.
Cooley, 57, lives in the St. Nicholas Apartments, 916 Huron Ave., and occasionally treats his neighbors to a concert of his fine music, especially for holidays like Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day.
“I have a bunch of arrangements of Christmas carols and I’ll sit in the lobby and play for people as they go in and out,” he said.
He also shares his talent and passion with students.
Unfortunately, since 2002, Cooley has been dealing with a back injury that has resulted in his need to use a wheelchair. His music is always accompanied by pain.
“For one thing, it is very difficult to play in a wheelchair,” Cooley said. “I’ve had to adapt but it’s like anything else ... you get used to it eventually. Playing with pain is very difficult.”
But the pain hasn’t stopped him. He currently plays with the Manitowoc Symphony.
“These days I play wherever they need me,” he said.
Cooley and music have been playing together in two-part harmony since he first picked up the violin at the age of 13.
“That’s very late to start playing. Usually five or six years old is standard,” said Cooley, who hails from northern Illinois.
Cooley’s love affair with the violin began with a televised concert of Russian violinist David Oistrakh. The violinist caught his attention and that, combined with his love for the beauty of the wooden instruments, turned into a lifelong passion.
“It took me a couple of years of complaining to my parents before they let me take the violin in school,” Cooley recalled.
Cooley started taking lessons in the second semester of sixth grade. By the time he was in seventh grade he was basically performing teaching assistant duties for his teacher.
“That’s how I got started teaching,” he said.
Cooley continued studying violin at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee with Carol Findell. When Findell left for Portland State University in Oregon, he, along with several other students, followed her to Oregon.
“Basically, we established a new program at Portland State,” Cooley said.
Cooley was a performance major in both violin and viola.
“That’s kind of unusual because as a performance major you do a lot of playing — usually around five to eight hours a day of playing. And there’s a big enough differences between the two instruments so that I had to practice on both. And then you have to perform a required amount of time for both instruments,” Cooley said.
When pressed, Cooley said that violin was probably his favorite instrument.
“There are things about the viola that are attractive, however,” he said. “It’s a deeper sounding instrument...more soulful.”
Cooley came back to Wisconsin and continued studying. He started playing in a lot of community orchestras along with union gigs, touring with such famous artists as Anne Murray, Smokey Robinson, Tom Jones, The Moody Blues, Melissa Manchester and Barry White.
In the community orchestras he often played as a “ringer,” Cooley explained. “A community orchestra rehearses six to eight weeks. A ringer is somebody who is a professional and comes in for like the last three days. They kind of expect you to have your stuff ‘right on.’”
Cooley has been living in Sheboygan since 1990.
“I used Sheboygan as kind of a central location as far as travelling. I also carried a load of between 20 and 30 students. I still have a couple of students; one of my students is trying to get ready for auditions for Julliard, Eastman School of Music and the Peabody Conservatory,” he said.
Another one of his students, Tobias Wing, who has studied with Cooley for several years, recently received his Eagle Scout Award. Cooley was flabbergasted to be recognized by Wing with a special Mentor’s Award.
“Toby got up in front of everyone and started saying some things about me. I don’t remember everything because I was getting kind of emotional. It was a proud moment of my life,” Cooley said.
Wing said that even though Cooley didn’t directly help him with his Eagle Scout project, he has had a profound effect on him through the years.
“Mark always encouraged me and was always telling me to do better. He is really an important person in my life and I believed he deserved an award,” Wing said.
Wing also said that Cooley is a “great teacher. I just personally like the way he teaches. He doesn’t try to over explain things, he just shows it to you and takes it very slowly at first and then builds on it until you finally get it,” said Wing, who goes to school in Oostburg. He isn’t sure if he’s going to major in music when he goes to college but he said, “I have a lot to think about, but music has definitely been a major option for me.”
Several of Cooley’s students have continued in their love for music.
“Quite a few are playing in community orchestras,” he said. “One former student is a violin major in college and several have gone on to teach music.”
Wayne Wildman, director of the Manitowoc Symphony, said Cooley’s participation in the symphony is invaluable.
“Mark is just a fantastically talented musician; and it’s not only his ability to play, but it’s also his very deep love of music and his very, very deep knowledge about music,” Wildman said. “That’s a really special combination of talents that he brings to not only the Manitowoc Symphony but also an enormous benefit to his students.”
Cooley and the rest of the Manitowoc Symphony will perform this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Capitol Civic Centre, 913 S. Eighth Street.
“Music has been very good to me,” he said.
Read the original article, with video, here.