Arts and Entertainment

Teachers Teaching Teachers How to Teach

Violin teachers in the Starling-DeLay Symposium prove that teaching can be just as creative as the music they play.

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Teaching is far too often nothing more than a bland textbook and an uninspired lecture. While many teachers view it as just their job, there are also noble teachers who know the importance of their profession, pushing themself to branch out and improve. Once every two years, violin teachers come to The Starling-DeLay Symposium to learn how to do just that. 

Renowned violinist and teaching revolutionary Dorothy DeLay began the symposium in 2001, just one year before her death. Previous generations of violin teachers were known for their authoritarian approach, taking control of every aspect of their students’ playing; DeLay took a very different approach. According to violinist Todd Phillips, DeLay once said, “You can teach anybody anything if you figure out how they learn.” Instead of dictating every aspect of her students’ playing, she asked questions during each lesson, encouraging her students to come to conclusions on their own, acting as a guiding hand. She treated each student as an individual and always made it a priority to figure out how they learned best. After DeLay’s passing, the Starling-DeLay Symposium serves to honor her legacy and revolutionary approach to teaching.

Located in The Juilliard School, the week-long biennial Starling-DeLay Symposium is structured as a series of events led by the top violin teachers in the country in front of an audience of other music teachers. These events consist of a wide variety of activities including master classes and workshops. Each member of the symposium’s teaching faculty gives a master class to top students from across the country. This year, the master classes were taught by renowned violinists Li Lin, Francesca dePasquale, Joel Smirnoff, Danielle Belen, and Catherine Cho, who each brought their own teaching style to the symposium. Lin was relentless in his careful dissection of each student’s playing, empowering them to connect with the audience. “You can embrace the audience, bring them to you, hug them in,” Lin said, “or you can go out and get them.” The class went beyond technique as Lin began to question the intention of music-making at its core. “When you go to a concert, do you go to get comfort? Or do you go to get inspiration? You go to get new energy that you don’t often get in real life.”

Catherine Cho, newly-appointed artistic advisor of the symposium, gave a particularly unique class that ranged from teaching new violin techniques to exercising on stage. A former student of DeLay herself, Cho customized her teaching style to each student. Cho’s first student in the master class, violinist Jaewon Wee, admitted that she was worried about double-stops, or playing two notes at once, in one of her pieces. After Wee played, Cho showed her an unconventional technique invented by Ruggerio Ricci to make Wee’s double stops easier. Cho took this moment to remind the audience that, “If you don't limit yourself to ‘this is the right way to do it,’ you can have more possibilities.” For the next master class student, Cho invited seven of her current and former Juilliard students to simulate a studio class and led a workout that included jumping-jacks and stretches to help them get in touch with their bodies and cultivate a group dynamic before playing. For another student, Cho asked them to tell the story that they believed the music was trying to convey. They told a story about birds and gorillas in the forest, and the two of them stomped around the stage like gorillas to feel the music in their bodies. The master class was concluded with a recital by violinist Randall Goosby, who The Spectator interviewed earlier this year.

The symposium also included a Q&A session with Itzhak Perlman, one of the most famous violinists in the world, in addition to a number of workshops ranging from presentations on pedagogy to body mapping sessions on physicality. The latter was taught by Jennifer Johnson, who used the “Alexander Technique,” a practice that creates an economical and balanced way of playing an instrument by focusing on the alignment of the skeleton and muscles.

The Starling-DeLay Symposium is a prime example of what advanced out-of-the-box teaching can look like. The teachers who watched and took part in this symposium were given a variety of new teaching philosophies and techniques. Above all else, it inspired them to reject the cookie-cutter structure that has historically defined pedagogy. This methodology goes beyond music, proving that, with creativity, there’s nothing standing in the way of any teacher pushing themselves to inspire a new generation.