MANHATTAN—In a 2001 profile, The Strad magazine labeled Manhattan-based violin pedagogue Joey Corpus "The Underground Guru." One the area's most sought-after private teachers, Joey Corpus is not officially affiliated with any particular institution, although he teaches many conservatory and pre-college students privately from his Upper West Side apartment, which is situated on Broadway, between Juilliard and the Manhattan School. His roster of well-known former students includes Lara St. John, who studied with Joey for 15 years, during her time at Curtis and beyond. In addition to college-age and pre-college students, Joey's busy studio includes many post-conservatory professionals who work with him intensively while they prepare for auditions; hence his famous nickname, "The Secret Weapon."
Joey is a member of Violinst.com, and a thoughtful contributor to its discussion pages. Alert readers may recall from previous discussion threads that Joey is a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair since a tragic automobile accident that took his mother's life when he was eleven and still living in his homeland, the Philippines. It was not until a few years after the accident that Joey, who grew up in a musical family but had been told he was hopeless at piano at age eight, became seriously interested in violin. At fourteen he began to study in earnest, often without the aid of a teacher, and at 15 he was offered a full scholarship to come to New York and study at Juilliard with Dorothy DeLay. But due to medical issues, Joey stayed at home in the Philippines until 1982 when he came to Philadelphia to study with the late Jascha Brodsky. As soon as Joey arrived in Philadelphia, his fellow students began coming to him outside of class for help solving problems in their own playing. All the long years of self-study had sharpened Joey's innate ability to analyze the mechanics of violin-playing. From the earliest moments of his professional career, Joey was recognized by his peers as a master pedagogue. The rest, as they say, is history.
Even though I've been studying with Joey for only about a year, already I feel that my technical facilities and musical understanding of the repertoire have progressed immensely. I've been fortunate enough to have had excellent teachers throughout my violin life, but somehow Joey's analytical approach has helped me achieve a few breakthroughs in areas where I had been struggling for years. On top of it all, Joey is one of the sweetest and most intelligent people I've ever met. Some kids my age have teachers that scream at them until they get something right, but Joey gets his point across without breaking anything, and he does it with a sense of humor, too. Although the drive from my house in Philadelphia to his apartment can top three hours with traffic, the trek is worth it for lessons from him!
Caeli: What range of levels and ages do you teach?
Joey: My youngest student at the moment is 12 years old, and I have a few in pre-college. I don't teach beginner and intermediate levels simply because I don't have the training or the experience. There are many others who would do a much better job of it. Most of my students are in college, professional working musicians looking to improve their playing and violinists preparing for concerts or auditions.
Caeli: Recently, Almita Vamos, whom I interviewed for this website and for From The Top, said that when she meets a prospective student, she looks for a character that she thinks will blend with her own personality, someone she can work with. How do you decide whether to take a student into your studio?
Joey: That was an excellent interview!
Joey: I heartily agree with Mrs. Vamos. There are other things I look for, too. I evaluate the person's musicality, temperament, quality of tone, bow arm, left hand technique, and general playing style. I make a mental note of the things that require immediate attention. But there is one other thing that I try to determine that is very important in the scheme of things: the level of self motivation. I ask myself, does the student have the determination, discipline and patience to do the work that is required in order to achieve excellence?
Caeli: In this era of parents starting their kids on violin at age two, it is remarkable to learn that you were able to become so accomplished so quickly, despite your rather late start on violin. I know that you became serious about violin starting at around age 14, but when did you first start training?
Joey: I was very nearly 14 when I started. Before that I had pretty much decided to become a [visual] artist. I had apprenticed with my uncle, the renowned artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, for about a year, sold a few pieces and assumed that that was going to be my career even though I wasn't very good at it.
Then I found a violin in the house one day and I thought it would be great to learn how to play it. It took about a year before my father had it repaired so it could be played. The reason for this delay was that as a kid I'd taken piano lessons. After a year my teacher told my father to save his money. She said I had no musical talent whatsoever! So when I expressed an interest in playing the violin my father assumed it was just a short-lived whim. I was very excited to finally get to play the violin.
My uncle (my father's brother), who lived next door, was an amateur violinist. He taught me how to hold the violin and bow, but that was it. Even after a year of piano I didn't really know how to read notes. I knew where middle C was, found it on the violin, and taught myself how to read notes, and to vibrate. About 6 months later I played [Elgar's] Salut D'Amour as my audition piece and started formal violin lessons.
Caeli: That pretty much flies against all conventional wisdom on the subject, and yet you were so successful. How did you manage? I can just imagine the response you'd get on this board if you posted, "I've never had formal lessons, but I'm teaching myself to play Salut D'Amour for an audition." Everyone would immediately scream at you to get a teacher!
Joey: Once I was accepted by my first violin teacher I stayed with him for three years. I had lessons with a few others after that, but for the six years before coming to the U.S. I was largely self taught. It wasn't my choice, to be self-taught. For reasons still not completely known to me I was rejected by a couple of teachers. But I wasn't going to let that deter me, so I worked things out on my own, with lots of help from the Flesch and Galamian books.
Caeli: If you had been living in a country with better access to teachers, do you think you would have developed differently as a musician?
Joey: I wouldn't recommend teaching oneself. It can be very frustrating and may not be worth it in the end. I certainly would have developed differently with proper guidance.
Caeli: Do you think being self-taught for so long made you more aware of the process of learning, and therefore a more insightful teacher?
Joey: Yes, definitely. Learning how and why things work was invaluable to me.
Caeli: I know you studied with Jascha Brodsky in my hometown, Philadelphia. What other teachers and mentors did you have?
Joey: My first teacher was Luis Valencia. He gave me an excellent foundation. Lots of Sevcik! There was a Hungarian violinist who taught at the Hamburg State Conservatory for many years. Her name was Nelly Soregi. She came to Manila every summer for 3 years in the mid-70's. She would play and teach for 3 weeks at a time. I had lessons with her 5 days a week. She was a first-rate musician, and I learned much from her, mostly from listening to her lovely playing up close. She was definitely a big influence.
Caeli: You have a lot of brothers (any sisters?) who are also musicians. Can you tell us about your musical family?
Joey: I have four brothers and a sister. Two brothers are involved in music. Hector, who lives in Oviedo, Spain, is a violinist and violist. Rards was a voice major in college, led a heavy metal band for quite a few years and is now a sound engineer. Rolando is a web developer in Philadelphia, Bert is in computer networking, and my sister Marie is a housewife. I have three first cousins, all brothers, who are professional musicians; Jed [Jaime], Ramon and Coke Bolipata.
Caeli: Can you give us a history of your performance career? What made you decide to start teaching, and why did you decide to shift the emphasis of your professional work away from performing and towards teaching?
Joey: There were quite a few opportunities to perform in Manila, Philippines,
where I was born and raised. I played solo and chamber music concerts, did a few competitions, was the concertmaster of the country's youth orchestra, played in the master classes of visiting artists – similar to what most young musicians experience early on. At that time I was also interested in a few things other than playing the violin. I had my own chamber orchestra which I conducted for a couple of years. I wrote a lot of music, and toyed with the idea of becoming a composer. When I was in my late teens I decided that it was time to devote all my energies to playing the violin.
The shift to teaching happened somewhat gradually. While in college in Philadelphia, a lot of my friends and classmates kept asking to play for me informally. Before long they were coming to play for me every week. By the time I was done with school there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to teach more than anything else. I continued to play in public from time to time, but the course of my life was clearly set before me.
Caeli: Tell us about your experience with writing musical arrangements and calligraphy – I've seen the beautiful hand-written arrangements of music in your apartment!
Joey: I started composing and arranging almost as soon as I learned to read notes. I used to arrange standard jazz tunes for string trio or quartet to play with friends. Copying music developed from all that composing/arranging. When I had a chamber orchestra we would occasionally have a score that didn't have parts, so I wrote them out. After college I did a little bit of music copying. It was difficult and time consuming!
Caeli: I've noticed the overflow of books about jazz and magic on your bookshelves. Would you mind talking about these interests? I can imagine that a violinist and a magician would need similar types of talents and skills!
Joey: My father was an amateur jazz pianist and audiophile, so we all grew up listening to a lot of jazz (apart from classical music) on records. The art of jazz improvisation has always fascinated me and so I mess around with it a little bit (on the piano, not the violin). As for magic, I've been doing sleight-of-hand longer than I've been playing the violin! It's just something I've kept up all these years, solely to amuse my family and friends. It does require fine motor skills and coordination, similar to playing a musical instrument but a little bit easier!
Caeli: There's been a couple discussions on Violinist.com concerning violinists with disabilities. What is your adult life like being in a wheelchair? How does it affect your playing and teaching (if at all?) From my perspective, I completely forget that you're in a wheelchair in our lessons. In fact, if I think about it, you seem to get around the room over to the music stand and back – more quickly than any teacher I've ever had.
Joey: Being a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair is difficult, on many levels, but I'm very thankful how life has worked out. It doesn't really affect my violin playing. It does interfere with my teaching when I have to stay in bed for a few weeks and am unable to work. This happened recently. I had a couple of students who were preparing for college auditions and I couldn't work with them for the crucial 3 weeks before the audition. It was quite frustrating.
Caeli: What advice (both general and specific) would you give to young violinists with disabilities?
Joey: Don't let the disability get in the way of learning or enjoying your instrument, first of all! Sometimes you have to be creative, think "out of the box" and find your own way of doing things. Books on violin playing don't often deal with our particular difficulties, and teachers who don't have our disabilities won't have a clear understanding about a certain problem we're having. Try to figure out how to make it work for you.
Caeli: What advice do you have for violinists who have obstacles in their paths-such as a late start, a disability, or an interruption in their training?
Joey: If you know that your calling is to be a musician, and it is the best thing you do, by all means pursue it with gusto. The road is a little bit more difficult with obstacles, but you deal with them as they come and continue to strive to play as well as you can.
I first met Almita Vamos over a telephone connection at the studios of WOSU-FM in Columbus, Ohio, where I interviewed her for a From The Top special report. I was in Ohio for a show taping, and Mrs. Vamos had kindly agreed to talk to me from the studios of her home station WFMT-FM in Chicago about 17-year-old violinist Siwoo David Kim, who drives 14 hours every weekend for a lesson with her at Northwestern University. During the interview I was impressed by Ms. Vamos' sense of commitment to her students, her deep humanity, and her charming sense of humor—not to mention her interesting singing voice! (Click on this link and scroll down to "Audio Segments" to hear the interview.) After speaking to her and listening to a tape of Siwoo's lesson, I was left with a clear sense of why he and his parents are happy to spend so much time on the road for his weekly hour with Mrs. Vamos. I contacted Mrs. Vamos—one of most sought-after violin teachers in the U.S., and she graciously took time from her busy summer to answer more questions and share her ideas about teaching and life.
Caeli: People often speak of you and your husband, Roland, in the same breath, as "the Vamoses". How did the two of you meet?
Mrs. Vamos: I met my husband when we were students at Juilliard. We actually met for the first time at a Chinese restaurant with a group of other students before a Juilliard Orchestra concert, and my fortune cookie said that my fate was waiting outside the door. He went ahead of me upon leaving the restaurant, opened the door and said, "Aha! Your fate!" It was just a joke but we walked back to school together and talked. I thought he was one of the nicest human beings I had ever met, but I did not think of him romantically for a while. We were friends for many years. Maybe that is why we have been married almost 50 years.
Caeli: You and your husband share students—how does that work?
Mrs. Vamos: We teach many of the same students, but not in a single lesson unless we are giving a duo masterclass. Actually it was the Yings [of the Ying Quartet] who decided to study with both of us, and ever since we have been linked as a team.
Caeli: Do you ever have any big disagreements about anything violin-related, musically or pedagogically?
Mrs. Vamos: We have no big disagreements about music. My husband was a great influence on me musically, and I respect his musicianship as much as anyone.
Caeli: You and Mr. Vamos have taught at many places, including Oberlin Conservatory, and now at Northwestern. Have you always also had a studio of pre-college age students, or are have you mainly focused mainly on your conservatory students?
Mrs. Vamos: This is a good question. For the past 28 years I have taught an equal schedule of pre-college and college students. Since my pre-college students are all fairly advanced and very serious, many aspects of my teaching are the same, regardless of their age. (My jokes are different, though.)
Caeli: So, for example, you introduce new repertoire in the same order?
Mrs. Vamos: I believe that the repertoire should be carefully selected. A younger student may take a little longer to master a piece, and an older student may bring more maturity to the music (hopefully). But no matter the age, the standard is the same: striving for excellence. I love teaching all ages.
Caeli: Will you tell us about your own childhood and student life?
Mrs. Vamos: As my husband would say, I was born at a very early age. I started to study the violin at age five. My parents were not musicians but my two older sisters were pianists. My oldest sister guided me more than my parents because they were working to support the family and did not know much about music, although they loved it.
Caeli: Who were your teachers?
Mrs. Vamos: My first major teacher was Mischa Mischakoff. When I began lessons with him I was only seven and not advanced, so he sent me to his wife to study for awhile because he had no patience for such a beginner. Then he took me back and I learned an incredible amount from him. When he left the NBC symphony to go to Detroit he sent me to Louis Persinger. He was such an inspiration, and he was my last full-time teacher. I liked not running around to many teachers, but I did also have some other wonderful musical influences like my sister's piano teacher, Nadia Reisenberg. I learned a lot doing sonatas with my sister and coaching with her and watching my sister's piano lessons. I had wonderful chamber music with the members of the Juilliard Quartet. There were many more outside influences, but I credit my two major teachers [Mr. Mischakoff and Mr. Persinger] for everything.
Caeli: How involved were your parents during your early music training?
Mrs. Vamos: Unfortunately, because my mom was working, so no one oversaw my practicing. I could have practiced better. Therefore, I always have the parents of my younger students at the lessons. I assign them the role to play assistant to their children.
Caeli: Louis Persinger's most famous pupil, Yehudi Menuhin, was homeschooled by his mom. But you went to a regular high school.
Mrs. Vamos: I was schooled traditionally, but I also went to the Juilliard Prep school for many years. I loved the Prep school. The boys were really cute. My two last years of high school was at the High School of Performing Arts on 46th Street in Manhattan. Then I went to Juilliard [College].
Caeli: How do you decided whether to accept a new student when they come to you?
Mrs. Vamos: I listen to them and I talk to them. If I have room and they are eager and serious I try to take them. I try to take as many as I can. I teach forty hours a week, as does my husband. It is dreadfully hard to turn a serious and talented student away. And to those who have kindly advised us not to work so hard: they, themselves should try to turn away a wonderful young child. My two sons who teach used to beg my husband and I not to work so hard. Now they are overloaded with their own work and understand us better.
Caeli: Can you tell us a little about some of your up-and-coming students and some of your former students who have made it big?
Mrs. Vamos: Many of my students have made it "big". One of the most interesting of my students who does solo a lot is Rachel Barton [Pine]. She is not only a great violinist but she is very intelligent and is devoting her life to giving her energies to others. She has a fund to help young serious violinists, she has researched and recorded many Black composers. She has brought the name of the great female violinist Maud Powell to light again. I could go on and on about the achievements of this great talent.
I have had others who solo a lot, and many who play in the best symphony orchestras all over the world. I can't elaborate on one or two because there are so many out there whom I love and admire. Sibbi Bernhardsson and my daughter-in law, Simin Ganatra are former students who now play in the Pacifica Quartet with my son [cellist Brandon Vamos]– I almost forgot them! I never realized what a rewarding but challenging life the quartet artist lives. There is Daniel Ching, former student from Oberlin in the Miro Quartet and the incredible Ying brothers and sister whom we taught at the Music Institute. These young people have successfully made it in one of the most difficult careers, and have families, and teaching studios as well.
Mrs. Vamos: A movie star? Hardly. I went to a pub because I heard that Rachel was playing some of her Scottish music there, and after one beer, which is all I can handle, a camera was in front of me and I was being asked questions. The reason I did not make a fool of myself was because the subject was Rachel, very dear to my heart. However, may I, add that I have acted in some other very unusual film roles. My oldest son was a film student at one time and he used the natural acting talents of his family for the many films he made. Although we were never discovered by Hollywood we were amazing actors because my son was a fantastic director! My husband, Roland, I have to admit, was always the star.
Caeli: You deal with so many talented students every day, and a lot of them share the same goal: to have a successful career in music. How do you feel about these ambitions knowing how competitive the industry is, and that not all of them will make it?
Mrs. Vamos: Ah, another good question. First we should define what it means to "make it." To me, "making it" means becoming as good as you can through hard work and perseverance, being passionate about what you are doing, and being happy pursuing those goals. One should leave many options open in the field of music. Violinists are lucky because they can do so many things: chamber music, orchestra, solo, teaching. And there are alternative possibilities. One can create fun work by creating their own careers utilizing their youthful energy. When I was young I knew that I wanted to be a very fine violinist, the best that I could be, and I let life guide me to a career. Since I am by nature a happy person I am very happy doing what I am doing. So far, all of my students who've wanted to stay in music have jobs in music. Not many are millionaires financially, but they are millionaires in satisfaction and are leading very rich lives. When I married my musician-husband my parents feared that we might be very poor. It was a wasted worry.