Tuesday, February 23, 2010


One of the inevitable tasks of being a teacher is that ultimately, we must let go. At the conclusion of this school year, I will be saying farewell to a few seniors, after many years of collaboration. Hopefully, my students will have learned as much from me as I have learned from them. It is not only violin technique and musicianship that I explore with my students. Our collaboration goes much deeper than that, perhaps into the realm of  personal transformation. Many parents and colleagues have expressed a reverence for their instrumental teachers that transcends any other educational experience. An accomplished cellist friend of mine, Michael Zachary, who happens also to be an attorney and plays with Rainier Symphony, has shared that the wisdom transmitted from his former cello teacher remains unparalleled to this day.

Occasionally, the time with a student is cut too short, perhaps due to a family's need to relocate for employment purposes. Such is the case for me with one immensely talented student, a twelve-year-old whose artistry, I'm convinced, is genetically encoded from ancestral roots in Odessa, Ukraine, a part of the world that produced some of the greatest writers, poets, actors and musicians.

On top of my messy desk, next to my laptop, rests the "Collected Stories" of Isaak Babel (1894-1941). I have read one of the stories, "Awakening" several times, for the theme of a parent imposing his fantasies on a child strikes an all-too-familiar chord with me. Babel, himself having studied the violin in his youth while growing up in Odessa,  tells the tale of a young violinist forced by his father to study with the fictional Professor Zagursky (most likely modeled after the famous pedagogue Piotr Stolyarsky who taught Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, and Leonid Kogan, among others). The young Jewish protagonist, though lacking in musical talent, is to be deemed a wunderkind like Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist and Jascha Heifetz, in order to lift the family from dire poverty. The push from his father and fame frenzied teacher to succeed backfires, however, and eventually the young violinist casts his violin into the sea. But all is not lost as our protagonist awakens to a love for literature and becomes, eventually, a writer acquiring fame on his own terms.

"When a boy was four or five, his mother took the tiny, puny creature to Mr. Zagursky. Zagursky ran a Wunderkind factory, a factory of Jewish dwarfs in lace collars and patent-leather shoes---Zagursky gave them a first push in the right direction, and then the children were sent to Professor Auer in St. Petersburg."

I find Babel's tale holds much relevance for me as I continue to work with young students and counsel their parents. The ways of learning are manifold, and as I, too, have sort of awakened, I feel as if I have tapped into an ability to problem solve. As I teach, I'm guided by an instinct, or intuition, a sort of psychic connection rather than an exact method. I check for signs from my young students that their music is inspired by a desire to express themselves, a respect for artistry, and that it is based on their own dreams, not just those of their parents. And with the time that we will have shared together, my task as a teacher will be accomplished.

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