Private Teacher Interviews
Colorado ASTA is initiating a series of interviews with Colorado private studio teachers in order to create a community of support for teachers at all stages of experience. Whether you’re just starting out or have been teaching for thirty years, hearing about other teachers’ experiences can really help us to gain perspective on our own paths in teaching. I hope you’ll find this series interesting and please recommend teachers you know so we can grow this community of learning about learning!
-Philip Ficsor ASTA Private Teacher Liaison
Finding Your Voice
~Interview with William Hinkie, Violist~
I had the pleasure of interviewing William Hinkie this month. His quiet intelligence and the thoughtfulness were character traits that were immediately apparent and I’m sure are some of his strongest assets in teaching his studio of some forty students. I hope you enjoy reading about his musical journey as much as I did finding out about it in person (ok, over Skype).
William’s journey begins in Southern Louisiana, where he grew up. Having interviewed our very own Arlette Aslanian-Townsend who also hails from S. LA, I stepped into the obvious trap of asking, in an area well over a million people, if he knew her. Lo and behold he not only knew her, he went to highschool and part of undergrad with her and they studied with the same teacher (Sally O’Reilly)! O’Reilly’s pedagogic approach to teaching was a great influence on William. He says “I took her pedagogy class at least three times-twice at LSU and then when I was at the University of Minnesota doing my DMA, I took it again. The manner in which she laid out the information was just so helpful, such as what order to teach students what materials and so on.”
William came to the viola comparatively late. When he was near graduating with a Music Ed degree (violin performance emphasis) he fulfilled a requirement to study another instrument privately (besides the ensemble experience on the myriad of other instruments education majors need to have) and he chose viola. Or perhaps the viola chose him. Either way it was a match made in heaven. He says he had an immediate connection with the instrument. When I asked what it was that grabbed him about the viola he says “the sound primarily. And the role of the instrument in an ensemble. I feel like I was made to be in the middle of an ensemble-principal 2nd violin would be an ideal place for me. So the viola made all the sense in the world.” He auditioned for various Masters programs as a violist, eventually ending up at Cleveland Institute with Heidi Castleman. This was another fortuitous turn as he found in Castleman a not only an outstanding pedagogue and musician but also an amazing human being. He starts by saying “first of all, she’s a musical genius. She can get to the heart of an interpretation or a technical challenge and solve it with efficiency and effectiveness.” He goes on to say “she is the kind of person that, even though it’s been 25 years since I studied with her, I could text her and she’d get right back to me. She cared for her students as people and is one of the most authentic people I’ve ever met.” His admiration for her is obvious and it reminds me of the deeply meaningful role a great teacher can have in the hearts of their students. Being able to pass on musical passion and authenticity of character must be two of the golden hallmarks of a great teacher.
William then travelled for the next few years with stops in Memphis and Massachusetts before arriving in Colorado in August of 2007 to partner with then CU professor Jennifer John in a teaching collaborative starting the New Millennium Conservatory for Strings together. During the summers from 2010 he was also a faculty member at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. He has been involved in the public school systems in various capacities from a collaborative role (sectionals, volunteering) to full-time orchestral teaching. He also was the lead teaching artist at El Sistema Colorado during the first two years of this program’s existence. For the past five years he’s taught at Fuzz Music Studios in Longmont.
His teaching philosophy is to ensure his students have a secure technical foundation. He’s always seeking to, in his words, “broaden the base of the pyramid” technically speaking so that students can get to the business of making music. “The repertoire is the reason the student is learning music, the reason they’re here, so I make sure to reserve at least a third of the lesson for playing repertoire.” A wise choice to be sure. He uses Essential Elements (or Techniques, depending on which edition we’re talking about) for his beginning students, remarking that “students are starting their instruments later because schools don’t really start offering orchestra until the 6th grade. So Essential Elements is a good method book to start them off with. It’s well-organized and gets them learning not just exercises but music as well.” When asked about how he chooses repertoire for his students, he remarks “I find that the repertoire I select needs to work with a student’s character, or what excites them musically. For instance, I’ve noticed that a lot of middle school boys want to play fast! So I’ll give them something like that.”
William is no stranger to ASTA. When he moved to Colorado he immediately jumped into the local organization, even serving on the board as the Northern Colorado rep. and sponsoring an ASTA student group at UNC Greeley. But after a while he just needed to take a break. He’s excited to be a part of the community again though, renewing his membership and thinks the CCAP program could be a useful supplement for his students. We at ASTA-CO are certainly excited to have him as part of the community and look forward to hearing more from him and his students
From Slovenia With Love
~A Profile of Katarina Pliego~
After a one month hiatus, we’re back with an interview of our newest member of ASTA Colorado, Katarina Pliego, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking this past week. Being part of this growing ASTA-CO community is one of the reasons Katarina was interested in becoming an ASTA member (that and the instrument insurance!).
As we began our discussion, and perhaps to Katarina’s annoyance, I immediately noticed her accent and asked her about it. “I’m originally from a small town in Slovenia (Laško), where I received my primary training as a music student.” Having spent some time studying music in Eastern Europe myself, the conversation inevitably veered towards educational comparisons between the US and Slovenia or in a broader sense, Central Europe. “Yes, I think there is a lot of Germanic influence in the Slovenian/Central European educational system. In primary [or what we would refer to as elementary/middle school] school, students enrolled in music programs would have their music studies after the school day, in the afternoon. I had two cello lessons a week, two theory classes and orchestra.” She found it surprising that students enrolled in music college here in the States would sometimes struggle to identify basic things like intervals, saying “here in the US it is the cello teacher’s job to not only teach cello but also rudimentary theory.” But there are some really good things about the educational system here, primary among those she says are that “all students must take an instrument. In Slovenia, if you didn’t want to study music, you didn’t have to, but here the appreciation for what it takes to be really proficient on an instrument is much broader.”
Upon graduating music high school, Katarina travelled to England to continue her studies. When I asked “Why England? Or rather…how?” knowing that wages in Hungary (and country familiar to me through my ancestry and regular visits) were very low, she relates that “since Slovenia is part of the EU, it was fairly inexpensive to attend university there; only about $3,000 a year.” Wow. What do they know that we don’t? Anyhow, she attended Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and as an added benefit got to play in the Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra. While in England, she studied with Caroline Bosanquet and such was her relationship with this kind-hearted pedagogue that Bosanquet bequeathed enough financial assistance to Katarina in her will (Note: Bosanquet passed in 2013) that Katarina was able to purchase an outstanding instrument (made for her) by well-known English luthier Rod Ward. Her bow is French from LaPierre A Mirecourt.
But how did she come to the US? She explains by saying “I had been to the US with my family several times. But Dr. Gal Faganel (professor at UNC), also a Slovenian national, had heard me in a competition and I contacted him. He encouraged me to apply and now I’m doing my doctorate at the University of Northern Colorado.” Having passed both her written and oral comprehensive exams, she’s now working on her dissertation. Or perhaps better put, she’s working on getting one of her dissertation review board members to accept her dissertation proposal. Being familiar with that process myself and the difficulties of integrating a performance aspect into the more objectified academic slant of written dissertations, I asked her the proposed topic. “The title of the dissertation is Performance guide and recording of three 21st Century compositions for solo cello and the pieces featured are by American/Russian composer Lera Auerbach, Finnish pianist and composer Olli Mustonen, and Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima. Auerbach’s Suite of the Birds is based on Pablo Casals’ Song of the Birds, and it quotes the main melody in extremely high register in each movement. Mustonen’s Frei aber einsam is based on a collaborative work of Brahms, Schumann and Dietrich called Frei aber einsam sonata or better known as the F-A-E Sonata. It uses the very distinct F-A-E motive at the beginning of each phrase. Sollima’s La Folia follows the structure and chord progression of a later Renaissance folia. The distinction between early and late folia is important due to their different chord progressions. The reason I chose this as my topic is because I believe that performing and recording new works is an important part in sharing and preserving classical music. The ability to work and interview the composers gives us an insight into their compositional process and music that is far beyond just reading notes from a score, especially since there is nothing written about these pieces yet or even much about the composers themselves. Recording new pieces and interviewing the composers is an incredibly valuable resource for performers.”
Currently she is freelancing as well as teaching privately. When asked about her teaching philosophy she is pleasant and candid. “The students really help to determine their own path in terms of their commitment level and goals, but for most everyone we do a scale, an etude and a piece as part of their ongoing studies.” For her more advanced students, she creatively employs Scrabble tiles by having “the students choose a tile and that is the scale they play in lesson.” She eschews the use of fingerboard tapes, preferring the students to use their ears rather than their eyes to develop their fingerboard awareness and insists on deep familiarity with first position before moving on to higher positions. She takes progress slowly and deliberately in those first few lessons, insisting that technique be fully in place before moving forward. “The fundamentals are so important because if the early things are not in place, the techniques built on top of that will not be solid.” Currently she teaches at Front Range Community College and enjoys working with older students (one of the reasons she wants to get her doctorate).
Why ASTA? Katarina is looking forward to meeting other private teachers in the area and says “it’s hard not to feel a little isolated and to simply not know who else is out there.” So community is important [stay tuned for get-togethers this summer ASTA members!!]. Also important are the graded certificate programs through CCAP. “This reminds me of the ABRSM exams (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) they have in England” she says. “It gives students a focus for their studies and they get an achievement certificate from it so that’s really good.” Katarina is married to a gentleman training to be a firefighter and they are expecting their first child on September 20th! Her dog Tosca (whom she says she’s a bit of a diva) will have to take a backseat once the baby arrives, but based on what Katarina has told me, her career will continue it’s upward trajectory and we wish her all the best in all her endeavors!
~A Profile of Hudson Manness~
Background: Hudson Maness is an aspiring young violist who is currently going through college auditions. He and I both teach at Music At Mainstreet in Parker, Colorado, the town where he has lived most of his life. He’s an engaging, entertaining young man and I had the great pleasure of speaking with him. I’m sure you’ll enjoy his fresh insights on teaching, music and performance.
From the violists I know, choosing the instrument was always a matter of sound rather than melody or popularity. Hudson’s case is no different. When he was younger he had always been fascinated with the idea of playing viola. Eventually, in elementary school, he had the chance to try both violin and viola as part of a try-out session, of sorts. He had to be sure viola was the right choice. “[The violin] was just way too screechy” he says to me with a laugh. “And I loved the dark viola timbre. In hindsight, the violin I tried was probably terrible, but I can’t deny its screams aided my decision.” When I asked him of his early tutelage on the instrument, he related the following humorously unfortunate story: “In truth, I began playing in third grade as part of the elementary school orchestra, but I normally don’t include that year when I think of how long I’ve been playing. The orchestra only consisted of the instruments that the shop the school was renting from could manage to get at the time: violin and viola. Everyone (except me) wanted to play violin, so when they ran out of violins, some unfortunate souls ended up having to sit with me. One of the few actual memories I have of that year is when I asked the teacher how to hold the bow (because I had observed how advanced and professional players held their bows) and demonstrated my ‘fist grip’ on the bow. He said my hold was fine and went on to something else. I don’t think anyone learned anything that year. Needless to say, not many were inspired to stick around. The next year everyone quit except for me — including the teacher! That left me in a now one-person orchestra. And then my life changed forever: the new teacher arrived, Caroline Paetsch, an alumnus of The Juilliard School. She was incredible, a light in the dark. Since I was the only one in the class, I basically received daily 45-minute private lessons from her for two years, jump-starting my playing ability. After the first year she invited me to be part of her private studio, and she’s been my primary teacher ever since.”
The interesting and perhaps unconventional thing is that for the past few years he’s had two private teachers at the same time: Caroline Paetsch and Dr. Christopher Luther, former viola professor at UNC. Hudson explains that “like some vocalists, I have a teacher who focuses primarily on musical development (Mrs. Paetsch) and a teacher who primarily focuses on technical development (Dr. Luther). They’re both brilliant in teaching musically and technically, but the current set-up has helped me in ways I could never have previously imagined.” Dr. Luther it turns out, has recently moved to Denver where he opened a string shop, Luther Strings, that according to Hudson, aspires to be the Robertson’s of Denver. Luther Strings is a seller of fine instruments and they reportedly do quality bow rehairs with a quick turn-around. I’m just reporting what I heard as information for the community. Anyway, Dr. Luther has been yet another important figure for Hudson, as have the many other musical influences in his life that he has met through various festivals he’s attended such as the Montecito Festival, BUTI-Tanglewood and MAI in Mezzano, Italy.
He describes his aspirations as a musician, student, and teacher in the following way: “As an undergrad, my primary goal is to be well-versed in the standard viola solo repertoire, orchestral excerpts, and chamber repertoire. But also I have an interest in conducting and composition because there really haven’t been any opportunities for me to explore them in high school. Basically I want to expand, to get deeper in my engagement with music. As for once school ends, if I had to choose right now between a music career in which I only worked in one field, (such as an orchestral or full-time teaching job) or a career that’s a mosaic of projects and orchestras and ensembles and solo work and private teaching, I’d go for the latter. I just can’t imagine myself stagnant in a job that’s comfortable, without much room to grow as an artist. But of course that’s just looking at it now and that could definitely change based on the opportunities I get. Even the little bit of teaching I’ve done over the past few years has changed my life. I now find it difficult to see a future for myself without teaching private students in some way. It’s a wonderful way to give back, and watching my students develop and get better is utterly fulfilling.” As a teacher, he has mostly beginners to intermediate players, both violinists and violists. He aspires to combine the strengths of his teachers and apply them in his own teaching approach. For instance, he says “I’ve had mentors who’ve had brilliant musical direction but sometimes lack specificity towards the technical side of playing. But I’ve also had the opposite. I want to combine the best of both worlds. My basic philosophy is to set a solid technical and musical foundation for beginners and to really help them avoid bad habits that could hinder their playing. I want them to learn good posture as soon as possible so they don’t have to worry about retraining their muscles sometime down the road. I also want to teach them how to practice well, and how to find love for music in any situation.”
An interesting thing about Hudson is his fascination with the fantasy genre of literature, describing himself as “obsessed” over series such as The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien — so much that he actually wrote and published his own full-length novel called “The Black Sun” available on Amazon for anyone interested! He actually plans to keep a journal throughout his undergrad years for observations and stories to base future writing on in order to somehow meld his two passions of fantasy literature and music and thereby hopefully expand the audience of classical music lovers. A lofty but really exciting dream, to be sure!
He’ll be auditioning for a veritable who’s-who of music conservatories over the next few weeks: Juilliard, Mannes, MSM, IU-Jacobs, SFCM, CIM, Peabody, and Eastman. His repertoire consists of the Walton Concerto mov. 1, Bach 2nd Cello Suite mov. 1 and 3, Brahms Fm Sonata mov. 1, and Kreutzer #35. He says that very few places insist on scales and arpeggios, which I found interesting. Perhaps that’s from a by-gone era.
Hudson is an inspiring young persona with dreams and aspirations. He reminds us to hold on to our own dreams and actualize them. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about him as much as I did talking with him.
For the Kids and Music
~A Profile of Arlette Aslanian Townsend~
Arlette Townsend is a well-known and admired studio teacher in the Denver area. She describes her early years as a teacher and performer as developing organically through her contacts with teachers and colleagues she met along the way. Her sunny demeanor and pleasant outlook grows out of over thirty years of teaching and performance experience and her perspectives are ones that we can all learn from. Here is her story.
Arlette spent her formative years in Louisiana (where her father was on the music faculty of LSU as a conductor), but regularly travelled to Colorado in the summers because her father was involved with the Central City Opera as a conductor. She moved to Colorado in 1988 to play in the Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Boulder and later that year transferred from LSU to enroll at CU-Boulder. She continued her studies with legendary pedagogue William Starr.
On the recommendation of a colleague in Boulder, who praised Arlette’s potential as a teacher, Starr suggested that she consider teaching as an option. At the time she hadn’t really considered that-she just wanted to perform! However, the respect she felt for Mr. Starr encouraged her to try it and after her first lesson experience (a book 4 Suzuki student), she was hooked. She calls it “a light-bulb moment.” It was during her undergraduate years that she started teaching at Boulder Suzuki Strings (BSS) and her study of all ten Suzuki books with Starr prepared her well for this time.
During the next ten years, she taught at BSS, took lessons with renowned Denver-area teacher, Harold Wippler in order to enhance her orchestral excerpt familiarity and after about nine years into her tenure at BSS, she took a supplementary Suzuki class with James Maurer, then professor at the University of Denver. This led to her receiving an offer of a full scholarship to study with him and subsequently she earned a Masters in Suzuki and Performance.
During her studies at DU, Mr. Maurer invited her to teach at Denver Talent Education (DTE) where she still teaches to this day. In addition to teaching group classes, she also conducts the string ensemble, which she says she enjoys very much. Perhaps because her father was a career conductor, she says it feels very natural for her. Additionally, she likes to teach students those initial basics of playing in an ensemble setting. She says “it’s fun to be the first orchestra teacher to kids and teach them the etiquette, like how you turn pages, how you do divisi, bringing your pencil and whatnot.”
She performs and freelances throughout Denver and is concertmaster of Stratus Chamber Orchestra, a position she has held since shortly after the orchestra’s inception in 1999.
She left the Boulder Suzuki Strings program to teach in the public education sector at Cherry Creek High School for two years but at the end of two years felt like it wasn’t for her. She feels the administration was very supportive and that the Creek program was and is fantastic at showcasing excellence, but for her, the job didn’t allow enough time to develop her own playing skills to the highest of her ability. She ultimately left the position to have more time to devote to pursuing her own performance goals.”
Like many of us, Arlette started in Suzuki as a youngster (initial studies with Paul Rolland-her father was on faculty at Champaign-Urbana). But with her father in music academia at LSU, she had some very traditional training from the LSU college teachers (Sally O’Reilly, Dinos Constantinides). She credits the nurturing quality of Kevork Mardirossian, one of her most treasured early teachers, as one of the most important elements that drew her to the similarly nurturing environment of the Suzuki method.
Arlette enhances the Suzuki materials with other method books and repertoire, as well as sight-reading etc. She feels this is a key element of her teaching approach as well as generally among Suzuki teachers. “There is such a heavy Baroque emphasis in Suzuki that you have to get other styles in there. Pieces such as Monti Czardas and Meditation from Thais are staples that students need to learn, so those are incorporated too.” Additionally, one of her specialties is preparing students for successful auditions. Her extensive concertmaster experience has enabled her to pass on valuable traits to her students who have also had many leadership positions in school and youth orchestras.
As a past president of the Suzuki Association of Colorado, she feels grateful to have been based here in Colorado, where the Suzuki culture is very strong. Notably, the first international president, William Starr, is based here; James Maurer was a national president and the Suzuki Association of the Americas is in Boulder.
In terms of teaching, she values the importance the Suzuki method puts on parental involvement, creating a beautiful sound through Tonalization and other important distinctive features such as the emphasis on listening and memorizing. Arlette feels that the Suzuki approach is a holistic and positive approach, which emphasizes the whole person and the music as the vehicle for creating a healthy person.
Currently she teaches 23 students, both violin and viola. She considers five year olds as the ideal age to start learning the instrument. For younger students there are alternate methodologies that she considers more age appropriate (Dalcroze, Orff, Music Together etc). She teaches Mon-Thur at her home, then group lessons every other Saturday at DTE. She teaches from around 3:30, takes a 30 min. dinner break, then teaches till about 8 or 9 PM. This allows the older students, many of whom have after-school activities, to still have lessons.
For prospective students, she invites them to observe a lesson with a pre-existing student of a similar level so they can see how she teaches. She sagely explains this approach by saying “in a first lesson everyone is on their best behavior so it doesn’t show how it’s actually going to be. This way they can see what a student of mine actually looks like and what actually happens in a lesson.” Before the prospective student leaves, she gives them her policies (see attached) so everything is out in the open and so they can know what her expectations are.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep on schedule with students. Her approach works well: the parent whose student is having the current lesson opens the door for the next student (they have a “secret knock”) then the students unpack in her “warm up area” (aka her living room) so when they walk in they’re ready to go. This allows her to teach the full time of the lesson (be it 30, 45 min or an hour) without having to gauge how long a student will unpack/pack-up and then chit-chat after.
While her thirty years of teaching experience have afforded her many pieces of advice for teachers starting up, her main advice is to be firm on your attendance policy. “I know with younger teachers they always feel guilty about taking the lesson money when a student has cancelled and not offering a make-up but then it’s easy for the teacher to get railroaded because people will take advantage of that if they can.” Also, if a relationship isn’t working, she has learned to move on rather than letting a toxic relationship (primarily she’s referring to parent-teacher relationship here) fester. “If possible, try and get a feel for that before you accept the student-don’t feel like you have to accept a student whom you don’t feel is a good fit: it isn’t worth it. Have confidence that you know what you’re doing and that you deserve respect.”
It was a pleasure to interview Arlette and hear about both her background and her perspective on teaching. She’s a wonderful teacher and violinist and we’re excited to have her as an ASTA member!