From the Archives: String Players on their Favorite Holiday Gifts

By Heather K. Scott

A new fiddle or bow, interesting instrument swag, a historic music score, rare recordings from your favorite musician… What’s the best music-related gift you’ve ever received? And what’s on your wish list for this year? Strings magazine polled 14 string players to find out what musical gifts have meant the most to them over the years.

Christopher Costanza, cellist who’s a Young Concert Artists International Auditions winner and a recipient of a prestigious Solo Recitalists Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts

Favorite Gift “Back when I was in high school, my cello teacher at the Eastman School of Music Prep Department, Don Reinfeld, gave me a shiny new metronome: a classic Franz Black Bakelite model, complete with a flashing light atop. The loud, sonorous, deep, woodblock tone of the Franz is unique and somehow comforting, especially compared to current electronic offerings and iPhone apps. That electric device served me well for many years, until I replaced it with a small, less architecturally iconic Seiko quartz model (I still own the Franz, however!).”

Marie Daniels, chamber and orchestral musician, solo violist

Favorite Gift “One of the best gifts I ever received was a graduation gift from my viola instructor in high school, Joan DerHovsepian, assistant principal violist of the Houston Symphony. She gave me a collection of viola parts from the major symphonies most often found on orchestral audition repertoire lists. At the time I had very little understanding of the value in this, but now I can truly appreciate it. Though we have the online IMSLP database for finding parts to most of the great standard pieces, it’s still something special to read and study the music off of large, bound pages and good editions. And, of course, these parts always remind me of my teacher and of the inspiration she gives me.”

Abe Dewing, violinist and vice president of marketing at Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, Fusion String founder

Favorite Gift “My violin was a gift purchased during my sophomore year in high school and paid for by my grandmother. I had just completed my first season in repertory of the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. Each year we had to re-audition, so I was really nervous. I made friends who I really connected with, so I looked forward to another season of playing with them. For added pressure, my parents had a musical plan for me when I joined BYSO: spend two years in repertory and two years in senior orchestra during high school. My recollection on how the audition went was nonexistent.

“Mail day came, I remembered opening a thick envelope, which was usually good news back then, and saw I had been accepted for the new season. I jumped for joy and read on about a tour that summer. I thought to myself, wait repertory is going to tour? Only the senior orchestra tours. My a-ma (grandmother in Taiwanese) was so proud of me that she set aside $1,000 to pick out my very own violin and bow. This signified my first real commitment in something I would enjoy in life, whether if it was professional or not. My a-ma recognized that and showed her support by allowing me to own my violin. To this day, I use it for practicing, rehearsals, and concerts. My violin has traveled with me to five different countries on two continents. It hasn’t changed much in these years but how much I appreciate it has. Thank you, a-ma!”


Ilmar Gavilán, first violinist of the Harlem Quartet

Favorite Gift “It was a temperature/humidity reader for my violin case and was given to me by Jaime Amador, the violist of my quartet.”

Matt Haimovitz, cellist, educator, and music pioneer

Favorite Gift “Following my first performance in Europe, a Barbican concert with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim, I received a beautiful little metal sculpture of a cellist. But what made an even bigger impact on me was the benefactor who presented it: Abba Eban, one of the historic figures involved with the birth of Israel.

“Another recent gift that I treasure is a poster of my teacher, the cellist Leonard Rose, that he had inscribed to me. It hung on my bedroom wall the very first year I lived in New York City in the early 1980s. When my family moved to another apartment, that poster disappeared without a trace. Thirty years later, I was warming up backstage at Washington University in Washington, DC, when the poster reappeared. Apparently, the landlord of that first NYC apartment had held onto it for 30 years and brought it to me at the theater. It now hangs proudly in my home studio.”

Joan Harrison, modern and Baroque cellist and teacher

Favorite Gift “The summer after I received my masters of music in cello performance from Yale, I had an accident that resulted in a dislocated right shoulder. My best friend (then and now) was cellist, Robert Gardner, former principal cellist of the New York City Opera. I mourned to him that my music career could be over because I had to take several months off of playing, which at the time seemed like a death sentence. He encouraged me to use the time off the cello in a musically productive way and gave me a gift certificate to study Suzuki pedagogy at the School for Strings in New York City. This exposure to a philosophy of teaching changed my life—it has become part of my identity as a cellist, educator, mother, and community member. Exposure to something new opens potential for understandings that can last a lifetime!”

Ida Kavafian, violinist, violist, educator, and director of the Music from Angel Fire Festival


Favorite Gift “A brand-new student named Jisoo Choi came to her first lesson bearing a gift. Little did I know how much attention and pleasure it would give me. It was a crystal-studded mute that I have treasured ever since. Audiences think I either have a red light or rubies on my violin, and I enjoy keeping them guessing! Everyone needs a little bling now and again.”

Ljova (Lev Zhurbin), violist, violinist, and composer

Favorite Gift Ljova suggests that the best music gift any musician can get these days is a gift certificate to a local music store, (“if you’re lucky to still have one,” he says). “Keeping the local music scene alive is the most important thing we can do.” He also likes the idea of iTunes gift certificates. “I find that I listen to my iTunes downloads repeatedly, whereas I barely listen to anything on Spotify more than once.”

Janice Tucker Rhoda, violinist, author, and teacher

Favorite Gift Janice Tucker Rhoda most beloved musical gift was one she received at the age of 11. “My parents gave me a wonderful Giulio Degani violin as a gift for practicing a lot.” She adds that the gift was a bit bittersweet. “At the end of my freshman year at New England Conservatory, age 19, I was commuting by bus and subway to go home to the North Shore [outside of Boston] in Massachusetts—it was a long commute. While waiting for a bus, I had extra time to take a walk. I proceeded away from the center of town and was crossing the street when a car came rushing around the corner and hit my violin out of my hand! It flew up into the air, came down, and crashed on the ground. It had a major soundpost crack, which was repaired, but the sound was never as loud or as sweet as it originally was. Eventually I traded it in for another violin. My heart was broken.”

David Samuels, musician and luthier


Favorite Gift “At age 15, I was a student at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, majoring in viola. Little did I know, but my instrument was made by an amateur, and sounded like a muffled shoe box. My teacher, David Holland, delicately suggested that I upgrade my instrument and proceeded to place in my hands a handmade viola from Mittenwald. Even though it cost a “fortune” ($800), my parents soon made it mine, and it changed my life. Not only was I able to produce a beautiful tone, but it was so delicately and precisely crafted, I was in awe. I studied it in great detail and even tried to look in its mysterious innards. As I advanced in my playing and even played professionally on it, I never lost my curiosity as to how such a beautiful, intricate, and mysterious instrument was created. This curiosity led me to becoming a violin and bow maker. After 35 years in the profession, I have a much greater understanding of these beautiful musical instruments, but there is still that mysterious element left to intuition and our emotions that music evokes.”

Athena Shepard, violinist and educator

Favorite Gift “My favorite musician gift was a small violin pin from my student Trevor. His mother was a very sweet lady. Trevor wanted to play violin because it was the hardest instrument there ever was, in his opinion. He started lessons with me when he was seven, and was adopted from South America. One day, his father came to the lesson and apologized if it sounded like his son hadn’t practiced much, because in fact, he hadn’t. I assured him Trevor was doing fine and that I couldn’t tell anything was different. He said Trevor was having trouble doing well in school and needed to spend his extra time doing well on his homework. I immediately felt bad for him and wished to myself that he could do as well in school as he was doing on violin for me. After some months, I had to move away, and my heart cried to leave him. His mother gave me the pin as a present before the December holidays. Trevor was one of the sweetest, nicest, most balanced boys I ever met. The pin reminds me that we are all here on Earth to help each other, and be the best we can be, no matter what.”

Mark Summer, Grammy-winning cellist, composer, and arranger, founding member of the Turtle Island Quartet

Favorite Gift A classical guitar is one of Summer’s favorite musical presents over the years. “I received [it] from my father when I was in the early years of studying the cello. Even though it was well over 40 years ago, I still remember what it cost: $35. In spite of my obvious love of the piano and guitar, and my penchant for improvising on both instruments, my father pushed very hard for me to play the cello. So, it was a complete surprise when he took me to the local music store and told me to pick out a guitar. I played it for years before buying a 12-string and then later a very good six-string dreadnought guitar. I gave that nylon-string guitar from my father to my favorite uncle, and I’m hoping he still has it somewhere. “

A version of this article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of Strings magazine.