There’s always a teacher who makes a difference—the one that has a student looking forward to geometry rather than dreading it. Education propels teens toward their future at a rapid rate, but it’s the teachers themselves and lessons learned outside of textbooks that often carry the most weight. We spoke with eight teen string players from around the United States and asked them to describe their most memorable lesson.
Name: Minh Le
City: Lincolnwood, Illinois
My favorite lesson was my last lesson of this past semester with my private teacher Istvan Loga. During the lesson, I finally realized I don’t have to constantly rely on my teacher to move forward and succeed. Mr. Loga is there as a catalyst to help push me in the right direction, at a quicker pace. However, 90 percent of the work has to come from my own effort and ambition if I want to play my piece well. Mr. Loga showed me that I can go very far on my own at my level of playing the viola. Success takes hard work, practice, and having a successful mentality. This was particularly helpful to me because I have been able to apply this to my success in school, as well. Teachers are always there to help me, but it’s my own effort and mentality that determine whether I succeed or fail.
Name: Naomi Worlund
City: Surrey, North Dakota
Something I have learned that has stuck with me is the ability to feel and internalize the music. The first song I learned with this idea was “Florida Blues” from the O’Connor Method Violin Book II. This particular blues song swings the eights and slides into the notes. Imagine being on a swing; the ride is smooth until you get to the peak, when the swing comes to a jerky stop before going in the opposite direction. Sliding the notes is like making a flowing peak when swinging. Instead of the jerk, you continue going smoothly. When I started playing blues, my sliding was stiff, but as I felt the swinging, everything came more easily. The more I feel the song, the more I understand it and am able to play around with it. Being able to feel the music makes playing correctly much easier.
Name: Jacob Molina-Zepeda
City: Los Angeles, California
This past year I auditioned for college. Thankfully, I was able to have a private teacher guide me and take me to the next level. One lesson that my teacher taught me was not about technique, but about life. She taught me the value of playing. “We don’t play for other people; we play for the feeling it gives us after.” I took this into consideration every time I went into an audition. I used what she told me as a reminder to myself that no matter what happens, I still love music. Music is one of those things that I take for granted sometimes, and I forget to appreciate it for what it is and the opportunities it has given me. As I go forward with my music career, I plan to teach the next generation of musicians exactly what she taught me: the importance of why.
“As I go forward with my music career, I plan to teach the next generation of musicians exactly what she taught me: the importance of why.”
—Jacob Molina-Zepeda, violin
Name: Creston Marien
City: Poway, California
I have been playing the violin for five years now. I started out learning from Ulli Reiner in her Youth Philharmonic Orchestra program and I am still her student today. I not only take private lessons from her, but am also in her orchestra program at Twin Peaks Middle School. She is an amazing teacher and I have learned so much from her. I was given my first violin for Christmas when I was eight and I have loved the art of music ever since. I hope to play the violin forever.
One important lesson I have learned is to use expression to make the music come alive. The violin often sounds the way you feel. If you enjoy your instrument, it will sound that way. If you are frustrated, it will sound frustrated. Sometimes when you’re playing a piece you can try too hard. You have to stay relaxed, but also focused at the same time. That will keep you and your instrument connected so that the music will come alive and tell a story. Music is more than just notes on a page. I hope that this lesson will not only help me, but all string musicians.
This year was an especially trying year for me and playing my violin. I fractured my right wrist and later in the year had another injury to my left hand. Both times I had to wear a cast. I was still determined to play. I brought my violin into the doctor the first time so that he could cast my hand in order to hold my bow so I could at least practice. I did everything I could to continue to practice. The violin means so much to me and I could not imagine not being able to play. My teacher was very understanding as she also suffered an injury to her wrist last year. She told me the story of how the doctor said
she would never get full movement back in her hand, but she persisted and overcame her injury. She continued to give me instruction even when I had a cast.
The true lesson I learned this year is that it’s important to always believe in yourself and never give up. You can do anything if you set your mind to it. If you really strive to do your best and are tenacious, you can always succeed in what you love to do.
Name: William McGregor
Instrument: Double bass
City: Malvern, Pennsylvania
My favorite lesson was with my wonderful teacher, Albert Laszlo, at Juilliard Pre-College. In the lesson, we focused on learning and respecting the techniques that composers use specific to the era of the music and the style. I was working on the Bach Cello Suites, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that each movement is a specific dance. My teacher told me how connected music and movement are in all of this music, and how important it is to feel the movement inside you, because that is what drives the phrases. This was very eye-opening and inspiring for me, as I was now able to see the notes on the page as more than just pretty melodies, but rather carefully laid out movements, harmonies, and motifs that made each piece of music unique.
However it wasn’t just the words from my teacher that inspired me. In order to feel the movement in each suite, he said that I should put my bass down. He then asked me, “How would you move to this?” Confused, I started to move awkwardly, until my teacher started to sing the sarabande from the second suite. He also moved so gracefully to it, bringing out every intricate part of the piece in his movements. He then asked me to dance it again, and this time I sang along. He told me to feel the emphasis of the third beat. I started to embrace every movement, and every detail in my movement, to the point where I realized how many layers actually made up the piece that seemed to be laid out so simply on the bass.
After seeing me dance to the music, my teacher knew it was time to pick up my bass again. When I played it, it sounded completely different, like it was brought to life. The music and I were transformed. This lesson will be forever so meaningful to me, as it taught me to learn, deeply feel, and appreciate the complex nature of the music we play as classical musicians and not just to look at the notes on the page.
Name: Beatrice Chen
City: Chicago, Illinois
In all honesty, I can’t really choose one impactful lesson because the collective feedback I have received over the years continues to benefit the ways I practice and play the viola. The two summer chamber-music programs I’ve participated in so far have been the most influential in sparking my desire to focus on music as a shared experience. Everything I learned from my coaches (David Finckel and Wu Han) shared a common thread: the necessity of communication. I not only share the notes with my peers, but I was sharing every color, character, and meaning with the audience. With this help, I believe that communication has allowed me to work in a direction with more of a purpose. Finding ways to express yourself is very important in being a musician, but by finding ways to work with other people and combine our strengths, music can be much more fulfilling.
Name: Liliana Morales
City: La Habra, California
By far one of the most memorable and insightful lessons I had was when I was learning how to play thirds. I distinctly remember getting frustrated because it seemed as if no matter how much I adjusted my hand, I simply could not get the thirds to be in tune. This lesson, while difficult, taught me that I had to remember to be patient with myself. As young musicians, when we are faced with new challenges, it is very easy to get carried away with perfection—we forget that learning an instrument isn’t accomplished overnight; it takes a lifetime. Having my teacher help guide me through the process, being patient, and taking her time to explain exactly where and how I needed to place my fingers was revolutionary. It made me realize that while there would be many things I would not be able to accomplish on the first try, this didn’t mean I’m a bad violinist. This lesson helped me to not only reflect on the mentality with which I approached learning the violin, but it also made me appreciate all the hard work my teacher put in and how much more there was to learn.
Name: Cullen Luper
Instruments: Violin & Cello
City: San Francisco, California
I started Suzuki violin lessons when I was five years old. It gave me a strong foundation. However, I really got into music after I went to Alasdair Fraser’s Sierra Fiddle Camp when I was seven. It was a life-changing experience. There was music everywhere, all day long. The nights were full of dancing, dance bands, and sessions. The people weren’t reading music; they just knew it and learned it by playing together, and anyone could join in. They communicated through music. That experience taught me that music is everywhere, not just on paper. It taught me to listen and notice the patterns and groove. After I felt confident in the groove of most traditional tunes, I began listening to the chord players. I started experimenting with the guitar when I was ten years old. I also was lucky to be a part of the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers. They were patient with me as I sat in their sessions and tried out different chord ideas on the guitar. From there I moved on to trying out the cello, piano, whistle, and the bass. Now, I love to explore how everything fits together.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Strings magazine.