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Simply Violin

The Simply Violin Books are Dedicated to:
Lisa Berman's teachers: Mary West and Erick Friedman
In Memoriam: Mary Drane West (1909-2007)
(by Faith Farr)
“Baby doll — don’t you think that could be better in tune?”

“Sweetie — let’s practice that a little slower.”

To Mary West, everyone was her “baby” or “sweetie.” With patience and tenacity, with her warm smile, gentle spirit and encouraging words, Mary inspired, motivated and educated more than
1000 violin students in Minneapolis over 50 years. Mary passed away in June at the age of 97, still teaching a full studio of students until a few months before her death. Mary’s magic (besides incredible knowledge and skill) was her love for her students. Every student felt they were her favorite. Mary’s love inspired each one to do their best every day for the next lesson. She was devoted to their progress and committed to their development as people.

To her students and colleagues Mary was a mentor and a valuable friend. “Love your violin.” “Let your bow be your voice.” All Mary’s students have a beautiful sound and excellent technique, but they all sound different. Mary’s gift to her students was helping each one truly play from their heart and fulfill their own artistry. Mary set high standards. She said she didn’t expect all her students to become professional violinists; she just expected them to play like professionals. And they did. Mary West’s students routinely won competitions at all levels. They entered prestigious music schools and universities and now have performing and teaching careers, from local freelancers to orchestras as far away as Australia. And those who have careers outside music still value the life skills Mary taught them — anything is possible if you practice, practice, practice.

Whenever there was a problem with a passage, Mary searched for the technical reason holding the student back. Her amazing ability was to watch and listen and zero in like a laser beam on that spot that was causing the problem — a shoulder a bit too tense, or some imbalance in the hand. Then Mary would give a specific exercise for correction and improvement. Students were never told just to practice “more;” they always went home knowing what needed to be fixed, and how to practice to accomplish it. One student remembers eagerly practicing in the car on the way home from lessons — because the instructions were so clear and the improvement so obvious. Lessons were positive and encouraging. Mary always commented first on what had improved, and then drew the student in with questions about areas that needed work. Before every audition or competition there would be a phone call to say, “Oh baby doll it’s going to be just fine. You’re going to do just great.”

Mary was tenacious. Technical development was never “good enough for you” — there was always room for improvement and there were no short cuts. No student was exempt from Sevcik, Whistler, Trott, Kreisler and Flesch. Mary was patient and knew the importance of repetition. She was willing to say things over and over and work on problems again and again without letting up. “Hold your violin up.” “Relax your bow arm shoulder.” “Keep your shoulders back.” “Vibrate continuously.” “Play in tune sweetie.” “Look like a violinist!”Mary had a simple structure for her lessons — start with the scales and technique. She knew the students were going to practice their pieces. And when students realized that they weren’t going o get to the pieces in lesson until the technique was covered, they started practicing the technique too. Even with recitals or auditions approaching, the technique came first in lessons.

Mary was eager to learn from others, and was eager for her students to learn from others. Whenever students got comments from a competition, those comment sheets were on the music stand at lesson for weeks afterwards — until every point suggested by the judge had been worked through and improved. Mary was a generous and inspiring mentor to her colleagues. Teachers could talk to her about a problem a student was having and she had very helpful suggestions. She would also hear students that colleagues brought in and give suggestions on how to work on problems. She was encouraging to other teachers and made each one feel they could improve as teachers.

Mary must have been born a teacher. When she was 5 years old she begged for a violin and started lessons soon after. After every lesson she fled to the attic and secretly taught her older sister, Virginia, to play. After a year, the sisters held a surprise performance for their astonished family. Mary and Virginia studied at the Kansas City Conservatory and Juilliard, and then toured the east coast as a swing duo, The Drane Sisters. But when invited to perform for President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in 1938, they played what they loved best, classical music. Mary married Bob West in 1942 and continued to perform until the family moved to Minneapolis in 1951.

While raising her family, Mary started private teaching. She became a professor at the University of Minnesota and taught at MacPhail Center for Music from 1968 until her death. In her distinguished career, Mary received many honors including Outstanding Teacher of the Year (MN ASTA), Teacher of the Year (Schubert Club) and Special Service Award (MacPhail Center). In 1991 the Governor of Minnesota officially declared October 6 to be “Mary West Day” in recognition of her musical contribution to Minnesota. In 2006, ASTA honored her with the Rabin Community Service Award. In accepting the Rabin Award, Mary said, “I feel so very, very fortunate and appreciate the honor so much. All that I ask of my students is that they reach as high as they can and play the violin as best as they can. And I can honestly say, so far, they all have.” Mary’s zest was remarkable. When asked about her philosophy of life, the secret her success, she replied, “I can say that I have truly loved every moment of my life.” Mary has gone to that place where all the bow arms are beautiful, all the pinkies are curved and everyone plays from the heart. May all of us be inspired by her example to enjoy every moment of our lives, to strive for lofty goals and to practice, practice, practice. Article by Faith Farr.

Comments by John R. Waddle, Luthier

Mary West taught violin in Minneapolis for many years. She was such a gem. I really miss her since she passed away. She would sometimes come in with students who were looking for the right instrument. She would listen as she directed them in how to try the violins. She would say, "use vibrato and play a scale. Use the full bow on each note". Once they had done that on each violin, she would say "play up the G string, don't press". Then she would ask them to do the same on the D string. She liked a big open sound. She would say "you have to find the right contact point with the bow on the string". Usually after these tests we would already have a pretty good idea of which violin was the best for the student. If we still weren't sure, she would know just which pieces to have the student play next. Mary loved her students, and knew that I don't pay commissions to teachers for "approving an instrument" like some shops do. It was never about the money with Mary.

Like I said, Mary was a gem.

Erick Friedman and his teacher Jascha Heifetz.
A child prodigy, Friedman studied at the Juilliard School of Music and made his New York debut when he was only 14. Three years later, he trained under Jascha Heifetz and played at Carnegie Hall.
In 1960, Friedman signed a contract with RCA that allowed him to play with the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony and London Symphony. He became a regular guest musician and conductor at music festivals all over the world, and led the Garrett Lakes Summer Festival Orchestra in Maryland for more than a decade. When an automobile accident injured his left arm and hand in the late 1980s, Friedman became a professor of violin and chamber music at Yale University. He continued teaching there until his death. Friedman was the recipient of the 2000 Ignace J. Paderewski Award for Distinguished Contributions to Society and Culture. He also won a Grammy Award in 1996 for best historical album for his participation
John Grossman
John Grossman grew up in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.  He received his masters degree and started teaching stringed instruments.  John, played cello with the Sioux City Symphony and taught in the public schools in Norfolk, Nebraska and Sioux City, Iowa.  John founded the Northeast Nebraska Youth Symphony.  He worked tirelessly with students helping them to learn technique and prepare for youth symphony, symphony and college and conservatory auditions.  His approach was positive, kind and gentle.  He believed that a student could play anything.  John played in several bands, most notably The Dixie Daddies.  John was a gifted arranger.  He made arrangements for his students and bands.  He was amazing at counterpoint and wrote several fugues in the style of Bach.  John left behind a legacy of students who are professional musicians and professionals in many other fields.