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.
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