DENVER - "So what etude did you bring me this week?" Violin Professor Jim Maurer asks his first student on a sunny spring morning at the University of Denver.
A sheepish look from the young lady, in jeans, a black T-shirt and a ponytail. Last week was spring break.
"Well let's just hear it, a little slow," said Maurer, sinking back into his office chair in his new DU studio, his Curtis diploma hanging behind him on the wall. "Mr. Maurer," as nearly everyone calls him, is a fatherly figure, with white hair and a friendly round face. After she plays her Rode etude for a bit he adds, "Even though you are going slow, try to make a bigger tone."
Maurer has taught at the University of Denver for 35 years, and will retire in June. His students know him well. They know that he'll hear that whole etude, start to finish, practiced or not. Either sail through or to trip your way; you might as well learn it.
She plays it carefully, with perfect intonation. The lesson goes on to reveal that she actually did prepare the entire etude, and quite well. She also prepared the one after it. He overlooks nothing. He asks for dynamics, clarity of soft notes at the tip. He shows her a better way to break chords, tells her to emphasize the beginning of trills, to reach an extended fourth finger without shifting....
But his patience is epic. A mistake elicits a knowing smile and a twinkle of the eye as if to say, "you know, and I know..." His voice remains kind in tone. He may correct relentlessly, have a student play something 15 straight times, but he never raises his voice.
That kindly round face, that friendly demeanor and good humor...who is this? Surely it's Santa Claus! But no, somehow Jim Maurer is more trustworthy. He won't promise you a bag full of gifts: he'll make you find your own.
James Maurer, born in 1943 in Shreveport, Louisiana, was only 4 when he started begging for a violin. He received it on his fifth birthday and started taking lessons shortly after.
"I started out with a sweet little old lady in Shreveport named Miss Ponder," Maurer said. She taught him through Seitz Concerto No.3, until he was about 12.
"I wasn't especially advanced when I went to Felix Ponziani, who was concertmaster of the Shreveport Symphony," Maurer said. "He could see that I had the potential to play a whole lot better."
Suddenly, Maurer found himself on a diet of Mendelssohn and Paganini Capricci. It was an unsettling new pace, one that was to shape some of his later ideas about preparing the intermediate student for difficult repertoire.
"I sort of missed out on that middle level of repertoire," Maurer said. "That made it hard on me for a while. "
At age 13, Maurer won a concerto competition and played the Mozart D major concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic. The conductor, Alexander Hilsberg, a Curtis graduate, encouraged him to audition for Curtis.
"I got in, and (Ivan) Galamian accepted me in his studio," Maurer said. "The fact that I got in to study with him was kind of a big surprise."
At age 14, Maurer left his family in Louisiana and headed for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
"For a little southern boy, that was a big change," Maurer said. He lived with a family his father knew through business, and he still remembers his commute by bus and subway to get to his 8 a.m. lessons on Wednesdays.
At Curtis, Maurer was one of 10 pre-college students, at an institution with a total of only 150 students. "It was small enough where all the students got to know each other," he said. Thus, his poker-playing buddies included the likes of Charles Avsharian, Shmuel Ashkenazi and Sergiu Luca.
At age 20, Maurer graduated from Curtis. He was set to go to Indiana University to be an assistant to Josef Gingold, who had taught him chamber music at Meadowmount School of Music summer program. Instead, he was invited to be part of a string quartet, and he wound up at the University of Southern California.
"One of the hardest things I had to do was call Gingold and say that I'd changed my mind," Maurer said. The much-beloved Gingold had been his chamber coach at Meadowmount.
During his years at USC, Maurer played in a string quartet with Paul and Martha Katz (who later formed the core of the Cleveland Quartet) and won the Coleman Competition, as well as third prize at the Munich International String Quartet Competition. During those years he also turned down a chance to join Jascha Heifetz' studio, opting instead to study with Eudice Shapiro.
Yet Galamian's influence on Maurer is unmistakable and ever-present. In fact, a picture of the young Galamian hangs in Maurer's studio at DU, next to that of Josef Gingold.
"He kind of looks over my shoulder while I teach," smiled Maurer.
"I think Galamian was the most important violin teacher of the 20th century," Maurer said of his mentor, pointing out that Galamian taught more of the great 20th century violinists and teachers than anyone did. And Dorothy DeLay, who anchored the violin program at Juilliard for so long, was Galamian's assistant. "All of the technique she taught, she learned from him."
"He believed that violin playing was a science," Maurer said. "Galamian was very detailed, he thought about what to do on every note to make it sound better. He had his clear ideas about what each student needed to do, but he also treated them individually."
"Near the end of his life, when he was gravely ill, his wife would invite students over, and he would teach from his bedside," Maurer said. "When he was ill, this would help him get better."
So dedicated was Galamian to teaching, he literally died while teaching a lesson.
The other great influence on Maurer's teaching has been his family's deep involvement in the Suzuki movement, bringing the philosophies of Shinichi Suzuki home to America.
Maurer met Jackie Hunter in 1967, when he was the new violin teacher at the University of Colorado, and she was among his first college students. Her mother, Arlene Hunter, came to meet him the week before her first lesson. Her first lesson came at the end of the week, and she'd heard the scuttlebut from other students about this new teacher.
"They call you Scales Maurer," Jackie said, upon meeting him. "I hear all you teach is scales!" Jim and Jackie were married in 1968, and after a brief stint as the librarian for the U.S. Military Academy Band in West Point, Maurer took a job as violin professor at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. Jim and Jackie settled in Aurora, Colorado.
It was Jackie who brought the Suzuki Method into the Maurer household. She first learned about Suzuki from a state teachers convention, where Sister Alice Josephine demonstration of the Suzuki approach with small children. She also went to a course in Gunnison, Colo., with her mother, and came home newly inspired.
The course compared the pedagogy of University of Illinois professor Paul Rolland to that of Shinichi Suzuki.
"It was most interesting," Jackie said. "I remember a teacher picked up a cotton ball with a bunny!" The creativity of the Suzuki approach captured Jackie's imagination; She took copious notes at various Suzuki institutes and began to apply what she was learning in her own studio.
The birth of their daughter, Joanna, in 1975, pulled the Maurers even more into the Suzuki world. They saw the success their nephew, David Waldman, was having, learning from John Kendall, and they wanted the same thing for their daughter.
With no Suzuki program yet established in Denver, this meant building it from the ground up. This, they had a major role in doing.
In 1977, the Maurers held the first Suzuki institute in Colorado, called the Denver Suzuki Institute, with just a handful of teachers and about 30 students. They continued to run that institute through 1993.
In 1980, they started a Suzuki group called Denver Talent Education. A Suzuki group pools together the studios of a number of teachers to offer group classes year-round. The Maurers have turned the leadership roles of DTE over to other teachers, and the group continues to educate young musicians in Denver.
"Jim Maurer is one of the people who lent a great deal of credibility to the movement in the early years, because of his credentials, coming from Curtis, and also being attracted to teaching youngsters. " said William Starr, University of Colorado professor and a pioneer of the Suzuki method in the United States. "He came from a professional background and great training."
Not only that, but Maurer also helped in the development of the organizations that sustain the Suzuki movement today. He served on the Suzuki Association of the Americas Board of Directors for nine years between 1982 and 2001, serving as chair and chair-elect for four of those years. He was President of the Suzuki Association of Colorado from 1982 to 1984, and he was on the International Suzuki Association Board of Directors from 1999 to 2001.
Starr, who served on many of these boards with Maurer, said, "That's one of the things that made everything so pleasant, we all got along famously. Jim is a fine musician, and someone you can rely on."
The Maurers obviously did not listen to anyone who said, "You can't teach your own child." In fact, they wrote the book on how to do it successfully.
"I learned about the Suzuki method because I lived it," Maurer said. "I learned all those Suzuki pieces from practicing with Joanna."
Joanna started playing the violin at age three, "although we have evidence that I would have preferred to have started at age one," said Joanna, who currently lives in New York and plays for the American Chamber Players and in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. She is married to trombonist Demian Austin, and they are expecting their first child June 2, the same day Jim retires from DU.
Until high school, Joanna practiced every day with her parents, in the morning with one parent and in the evening with the other. Then as a teenager she took lessons from her father, one two-hour lesson a week. When she graduated from high school, she went to Juilliard, where she studied with Dorothy DeLay for her bachelor's and Robert Mann for her master's degrees in violin performance.
As a child, "I actually thought everyone in the world played the violin," Joanna said, so immersed was she in a home where her parents taught, rehearsed and practiced themselves. "I remember falling asleep when I was really young, lying between my father's feet as he stood and played. And later I remember hearing him practice through the vent in my room as I would be falling asleep at night."
Her first evidence that non-violinists existed in the world was when a babysitter was unable to tell her if she was supposed to play a "high 2 or low 2" in a Suzuki piece. "Of course, she looked at me like I was crazy," Joanna said. "That was one of my first reality checks that indeed the whole world did not grow up playing the violin."
She credits her father's success with his students, including her, to his unwavering dedication and to his faith in his students' ability to achieve a high standard of playing.
"As frustrating as it was to hear, 'It's.....better,' after working really hard and thinking you nailed a passage, the extra work that elicited a "great!" with a big smile was always worth it," Joanna said.
Mr. Maurer does not allow his students to use the words, "I can't." With patient persistence, he convinces his students that indeed, they can attain the high standards he has in mind for them.
"I believe that knowledge is incredibly valuable and very hard to come to," Joanna said. "Once you believe it, it frees you to embrace all sorts of challenges and risks, enabling growth and success."
"Confidence is a tricky thing that slowly builds from within. It's very hard to instill a sense of confidence in someone," Joanna said. "I credit my father in many ways for helping me to build mine."
Between the hundreds of very young students taught by Jackie and Jim's involvement teaching students at all levels, the two came up with their own very comprehensive take on Suzuki pedagogy.
"The quality and conscientiousness the Maurers give to their teaching has raised the level of Suzuki training throughout the movement," said Suzuki violin teacher trainer Ellie LeRoux, who was trained in pedagogy by Jim and whose daughters took violin from Jim. "I owe so much of my own comprehension of pedagogy to their superb instruction and example."
For more than 25 years Maurer has taught Suzuki pedagogy at the University of Denver, a course that is informed by Maurer's keen sense of timing, of what a student can handle and when. He teaches his pedagogy students to be aware of the level of each student, and the appropriateness of various fingerings and techniques for that level.
"Many teachers jump students ahead to major romantic concertos, as soon as a student is playing well," Maurer said. "I try to take a progressive approach. There are a whole lot of pieces they should go through first. It's important to learn all those skills you need to play the more advanced pieces."
"One niche I have in my own teaching is that I teach at the advanced level, but I have experience teaching the very beginning levels, and also I have taught at the intermediate level," Maurer said. "I have an understanding of how they progress."
Maurer said that one thing he learned from Jackie was "how to treat kids. You treat them like people. They are just little people, and it's amazing what they can do and understand."
This idea has spread, to Maurer's Suzuki Pedagogy students, even to his colleagues.
"I've observed that being nice works," quipped Richard Slavich, Professor of Cello at DU, and Maurer's best friend.
"That's the difference between our generation and the one before," Slavich said, "They were abusive, many of them."
"I try to treat my students with respect," Maurer said. "If they trust you, even if they don't understand, they're still willing to try. If they trust you, you can have great success."
Laurie Niles studied violin with James Maurer from 1979 to 1985. After earning a Bachelor's Degree in Music from Northwestern and Master's Degree in Journalism from Indiana University, she came back to Mr. Maurer for Suzuki pedagogy training in 1996.
My studio recital is this Saturday, and though I made all my students pick their pieces two months ago, memorize them one month ago, and practice performing them for all their relatives, neighbors and pets for the last two weeks, one question remains.
What should I play? I've been in the habit of playing at the end of the studio recital, and I've enjoyed doing it.
Because of my little audition a few weeks back, I've spent several months working up orchestral excerpts and concerto first movements.
Hey, I could play the Scherzo from Schumann Symphony No. 2! Or, the first 27 bars of Mozart's 39! No, no, too common. How about the Adagio from Mahler Symphony 10? That's a show-stopper!
Okay, hah hah. But I didn't even want to play either of the concertos I worked up. I'm just sick of it all!
I turned to the Tchaikovsky "Meditation." Back in December, I'd heard Joshua Bell playing it on the radio; it's on his latest Tchaik album. (Do only old people say "album" any more?) I'd forgotten the existence of this piece, though I knew it well because of a recording I had of my teacher Gerardo Ribeiro playing it.
I really had to search to find the music, which I got for Christmas and promptly set aside, so I could practice for orchestra concerts, auditions, etc. But I really wanted to play it, especially on the Italian. Whoo, up there on the G! Still, shouldn't I maybe play my Mozart concerto that I had all polished up for the audition?
"How much progress are you going to make on the piece you really want to play if you play the piece you're sick of?" asked Robert, in typically logical, non-musician fashion.
It's been a long month, I guess I could use some Meditation.
For the second year in a row my Suzuki group dropped formality in favor of fun for our final concert of the year last week. We asked the kids to show up in jeans and STEP (our group's name) T-shirts. We invited an Irish band to show them its stuff, as well as an Irish dance instructor to teach them to dance. Last year we did this with Klezmer music, and several years before we held a Mariachi workshop. We want the kids to experience the many ways the violin has evolved in various cultures!
The kids had been learning music for this occasion all semester long: the Irish Washerwoman, Swallowtail Jig, Bile Them Cabbage Down and more. This presented a unique challenge for the band, a professional group so steeped in their traditions that it wasn't easy to explain how to make our extremely vanilla rendition of the tunes more like their highly sophisticated ones! But this is where a group of teachers came in, we did our best to extract and break down some Celtic decorations and mannerisms for the kids to try with the pieces.
While one group of kids worked with the Irish band, the other group took a dance lesson, learning some traditional steps that go along with the kind of music we'd learned. I never realized how hard it is to keep one's upper body straight and arms locked down while doing a lot of fancy footwork, a la Riverdance! The dance instructor showed us a jig (I think!) as well as a skipping step, and these musical kids caught on fast.
After this came a large pizza party (hey, you try to get kids to eat corned beef and boiled potatoes), and after the pizza party, the final concert of the year, a Suzuki play-in combined with an Irish jam session, culminating in, of course, the Twinkle Variations.
The band was fantastic, and I enjoyed the fact that the fiddler held the violin quite in front of her, definitely holding it with the left hand, with a very pronated bow grip. It's good for the kids to see that there are different ways, even though we teachers will continue to work on their “set up” in our tradition! Her bow inflections and Celtic decorations were obviously the product of a lifetime, so ingrained and easy they were for her. Then at one point she got up and danced, too! This is not to mention the rest of the band, a drummer playing a goatskin drum (which could change pitches), the flutist and guitarist. The kids and parents clapped and smiled ear to ear.
What shall we do next year? The possibilties are endless!
Well, once again I have to report that I'm NOT the newest member of the LA Philharmonic...
What a process we musicians go through to get a job. While I was waiting for a practice room, I chatted with a woman who had flown to LA the previous day from Chicago, via Phoenix. Her advice: never fly American West! Some very bureaucratic gate agent actually forced her to put her violin in the belly of the plane.
"I was crying," she said, "I thought, it will be smashed to smithereens!"
Then, a steward intervened, and made them bring the violin back up into cabin, but the bureaucrat "wrote up" the steward! I had not heard of such things happening in quite some time.
Again, the auditions were run quite professionally, at the beautiful Disney Hall, a place that softens the edges of even a very hard audition. We were each given a practice room, where we could warm up, and the required rep was posted inside on the mirror, as well as instructions for stage decorum. As I walked into the room, the friend I'd practiced excerpts with was walking out! Small world, very small.
And yet there were quite a number of violinists there, from all over. As I overheard this excerpt and that, I thought, not one person here is a slouch. Depending on levels of performance anxiety, there must not be too radical a difference between one person's Schumann 2 and another's.
I saw a few local people I knew, but I also met people who'd flown in from New York, Boston and Chicago.
I was really happy that I'd brought my tuner and been tuning to 442 for some time: they actually had a 442 bell right outside the stage area so people could tune up to pitch!
I walked onto the the stage, being careful to stay on the carpet (they do this so that jury members won't hear the click of high heels. Of course I wore something akin to slippers!). I felt a little more comfortable all alone in the middle of Disney Hall than I had two years ago for the same occasion, but nonetheless I had that shot of adrenaline as I walked out. I took a few deep breaths, and though my heart was still pounded pretty heavily, I knew I had to play. It went okay. I had some moments where I reminded myself that I could control things. And yet I was still a bit shaky, a bit hesitant. I felt this slight hesitation killed my chance, that I didn't really get to make my case before I was dismissed.
I went to the Green Room knowing that I hadn't played long enough; I was definitely getting the boot. After the nine people in my group had all made it back to the green room, they came in and announced those who would go on, and I was not among them.
Yet I really didn't feel bad for having tried so hard. I got to know my Italian, which I almost certainly will buy. I gave this audition my full respect and prepared seriously. My playing improved, my outlook grew, I feel slightly wiser. Even though I'd rather have advanced at least one round and made my way closer to a sub list!
I picked up my kids from school later in the day, after a nice lunch with my hubby and also the obligatory vanilla latte, which I didn't finish. It just didn't taste that great.
I told my kids that I did my best, but it was over, I really didn't get too far. My five-year-old son, who has been playing the piano for more than a year and knows just a bit about performance, tried to make sense of it. He asked earnestly, "Did you play any wrong notes, Mommy?"
"No sweetie," I laughed, "Everybody played all the right notes. They just wanted something different, I think some other people just played all those notes better!"