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Matthew Linaman ’13

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Pillar Story

March 15, 2018 by Shase Hernandez

Matthew Linaman grew up focused on one thing. He practiced it every day for hours, entered competitions, and trained for years. That thing was gymnastics.

“I had no idea I liked music,” he says.

He also didn’t know that years later he would graduate from SFCM with a degree in cello performance, use crowdfunding to help purchase a 19th-century French cello, give a TED Talk, and publish a book about his experience.

But that would all come later.

In the sixth grade, Linaman was presented with the option to choose an instrument to play. He chose the violin. “I picked it up and it felt like I had played it before,” he recalls. His affinity for string instruments was cemented when he heard a classmate play the cello. (“I knew I had to get one of those.”) It wasn’t long before he told his mother he wanted to quit gymnastics because he loved music more.

The focus and discipline he had learned as an athlete seamlessly translated to the skills needed to succeed in music, and he soon focused all his attention on his newfound calling. “I was just in love with music,” he says. Linaman practiced, made fast progress, and learned challenging music just to experience what it was like to play it. He joined his local youth orchestra, began taking private lessons, and played in his school orchestra. “It was my thing. I was the cello player.”

But he found out at an early age that life can hit you hard. When he was 15, Linaman’s father passed away. Through the pain and grief, music helped him find his path—it became the driver of his life. “I wanted to create things and give back to the world through music. That’s when I started practicing a lot and seeking out opportunities like summer festivals. That’s when I began realizing I wanted to go to a conservatory.”

It was during this time that he played in a master class at UC Davis. The cellist coaching him, he recalls, was unable to help him with the tension he felt in his shoulders. Later that day, a man approached him and said the reason his shoulders are coming up was because he was lifting his heels off the ground while he played.

“I thought this guy was incredible. He turned out to be Jean-Michel Fonteneau, who I later found out teaches at SFCM.” After hearing Fonteneau play, Linaman was transfixed. “I had never heard anything like that before. Fonteneau had an aura about him that really stuck with me. It was so inspiring.”

Linaman was accepted to the SFCM Pre-College division and made the four-hour commute from Reno to San Francisco once a week. After graduating high school, he enrolled at SFCM to keep studying with his cello teacher.

After a fruitful four years at the Conservatory, which included winning the annual concerto competition and forming a cello quartet that toured Europe and Russia (their signature tune was an arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody”), Linaman graduated, and it wasn’t long before he set his eyes on his next great challenge: purchasing a 19th-century French cello.

The instrument would help him achieve his goal of creating and sharing music with the world—the same goal he had been pursuing since the age of 15.

It was Fonteneau who found the instrument and first knew it would be a perfect fit for Linaman, who, at the time, was recruiting students for his cello studio and working part time at a coffee shop. Upon receiving Fonteneau’s call, he was excited, but doubtful he could afford such an expensive instrument. After a week-long trial with the cello, he knew he had to go for it. “The hardest part was believing I could do it, even though I couldn’t see how I was going to complete the goal.”

Linaman knew that if he was going to succeed, he would need the help of his community. If the goal was to purchase the cello to share his music, perhaps he could share his music to help him purchase the cello.

He took a grassroots approach and started an online crowdfunding campaign to raise money. Rewards for supporting him ranged from a signed CD of his recital to a private house concert with a catered dinner. He raised almost $10,000 in thirty days.

He also got the message out through word of mouth, social media, and email. Linaman built a network of friends, acquaintances, and helpful strangers, all interested in helping him achieve his goal. He played private house concerts in San Francisco and Marin to raise funds, each time making more connections with potential supporters.

The success of his campaign, he says, was that it was mission oriented. “I wasn’t just asking people to help me buy a fancy cello. They were helping me in my vision to bring music to the world. The cello was a vehicle for that.”

With the support of many people, including a loan from a regular at the coffee shop where he worked, Linaman was ready to take the leap and purchase the instrument. He had graduated from SFCM just one year earlier, and had inspired people throughout the Bay Area to support his mission. It wasn’t easy. “I felt like I was walking into the unknown,” he recalls, but he did it.

Inspired by his story, he was encouraged to write a book about the experience. Now an expert at taking on big projects, Linaman, who has never considered himself a writer, is about to publish his book, tentatively titled The Fearless Cellist. The work weaves the story of how he came to purchase the cello into a resource guide for musicians seeking to tap into grassroots fundraising to help fund their own projects. It is set to be published in the spring of 2018.

In 2017, Linaman was approached to give a TED Talk in San Francisco about his life as a musician and entrepreneur. With a successful fundraising campaign completed and a book underway, the TED Talk was yet another challenge Linaman took head on. “The experience was great and totally nerve wracking,” he says. But that doesn’t come through in his talk, which narrates his story through music and words, with great emphasis, of course, on the cello.

Today, Linaman teaches students in his private studio, at Starr King Elementary, and where he began his journey at SFCM—the Pre-College program. “I’ve always loved working with kids,” he says, “and teaching at SFCM is my way of giving back to the program where I learned so much.”

He is in close contact with Fonteneau, whom he considers a mentor. “I remember every single lesson with him and, in fact, I’ll be having one in a few weeks. It’s always amazing how much I still have to learn from him.”

Now armed with his cello, a TED Talk under his belt, and a book on the way, it’s only a matter of time before he takes on his next big project.