The Nature of Learning: Starling-DeLay


The late Juilliard violin professor Dorothy DeLay once said that she was not that interested in teaching—she was interested in learning.

Chee-Yun Kim performed with pianist Akira Eguchi at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies.

(Photo by Nan Melville)

Brian Lewis leads a pedagogy class in the Glorya Kaufman Dance Studio.

(Photo by Nan Melville)


“Having thought about that statement for a long time, it’s an amazing statement,” said Paul Kantor (B.M.’77, M.M. ’78, violin), a violin professor at the Cleveland Institute of Music, who taught a master class at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies. “Learning doesn’t need teaching. Learning can happen spontaneously, through self-discovery, through experiences one has, through flashes of insight. But teaching does require learning. Someone once said, ‘If the student’s not learning, the teacher’s not teaching.’”

DeLay, who died in March 2002, founded the biennial Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies in 2001, and this May the five-day event included almost 200 participants—students, teachers, performers, Juilliard faculty and alumni, and young artists—from 33 states and 17 countries.

The symposium not only celebrates the study of the violin, it also celebrates the nature of learning.

Performance psychologist Don Greene, who has taught at both Juilliard and the New World Symphony, said that DeLay was one of the first to embrace the lessons he was teaching students, even though he is not a musician. Knowing how to play the violin isn’t enough to be a great performer—one must learn to master the pressure of performance—and that’s Greene’s specialty.

At the symposium, which takes place at Juilliard, Greene had students running up and down stairs, doing jumping jacks, and standing against the wall to get their hearts pumping, simulating the nervous response that can happen before a performance. When the heart is pumping, can you center yourself? Can you play?

“Adrenaline is very powerful,” Greene said. “You can deal with it two ways: you can hope it goes away and deny it, or you can use it to do even better than you did in the practice room.” 

Nightly recitals at the symposium gave participants a chance to hear a broad range of repertoire—and in at least one case, a big surprise. After violinists Joan Kwuon and Joel Smirnoff played a program of works by Telemann, Mozart, Enesco, Prokofiev, and Moszkowski, a very special audience member came to the stage: the legendary singer Tony Bennett. He and pianist Lee Musiker performed a rendition of “Sophisticated Lady,” joined by Smirnoff, the former first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet who was recently appointed president of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Kwuon, who is married to Smirnoff and was his assistant at Juilliard.   

The symposium featured nine young artists, ages 12 to 24, who performed in recitals and master classes. One such participant was Byol Kang of Köln, Germany. “I think it’s a really special audience,” said Kang, 23, who played in a recital on the second evening and also in many master classes. “Everyone knows the music, and you can feel like people are rooting for you; it’s really uplifting. When you feel that people are enjoying it with you, that’s really inspiring.”

Juilliard faculty member Itzhak Perlman (’68, violin) brought along members of his own studio to participate in a master class in which they played pieces in different ways, taking requests from other students and audience members. Perlman also talked about learning under the very different styles of his two main teachers, Ivan Galamian and DeLay. With Galamian, “he told you what to do, and if you did it, you were fine,” Perlman said. With DeLay, “she wanted to involve me in the process—and I really hated it. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it!” But in the end, DeLay’s way worked well for him. “That’s how I teach.” 

In another master class, Monica Huggett, artistic director of Juilliard’s new Historical Performance program, took participants through works by Biber and J.S. Bach, frequently demonstrating (with characteristic elegance) on her Baroque instrument and bow. She made it clear that Bach’s sonatas and partitas present enough possibilities to spend a lifetime studying: “My parts are covered in Wite-Out, and little pieces of paper, and more Wite-Out, because I change my mind so much,” Huggett said. 

Many participants were extremely interested in the orchestral audition master class given by David Kim (B.M., M.M. ’85, violin), concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Young artists were asked to prepare orchestral auditions, and Kim talked not only about musical issues, but also about the audition mindset, about knowing your audience of audition panelists, and about the deadly sins of auditions, such as playing out of tune, rushing, having an ugly sound, having an overactive vibrato, and playing unintended accents.

“We’re looking for great violinists, but we’re also looking for great musicians, because those are the ones that make the orchestra level go up and up,” Kim said. 

University of Texas Professor Robert Duke lectured on the nature of learning itself: how the brain works and how teachers can work with that knowledge, illustrating his points with hilarious stories along the way. He said that every human is wired for expression, and mentioned that his granddaughter can see a Clydesdale horse and say, “It was e-normous!” sweeping her hand over her head in a perfect, unrehearsed gesture to show just how big it was. Teachers need to tap into those natural, already-developed abilities in order for students to embrace what they are learning about music.

Chee-Yun Kim (Certificate ’91, violin), a violin professor at Southern Methodist University, discussed the difficulties of memorizing Bach and offered some ways to learn music away from the instrument.

“Sit down with staff paper and rewrite it,” she said. Write in fingerings, articulations, dynamics, everything. You can have the violin with you, but you will be writing it from memory. “It’s a commitment,” she acknowledged. “As you do it, think, ‘I’m going to own this piece.’ Once you write it down, you will feel like, ‘I know this piece, I wrote it!’” 

Brian Lewis (B.M. ’91, M.M. ’93, violin), the artistic director of the symposium, talked about ways to approach the Barber Violin Concerto, emphasizing that “engaging the imagination of our students is the most important thing we do.” He added: “We are training our students to make their own decisions."


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