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Laurie Niles

2011 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard: Sarah Chang and others remember Dorothy DeLay

June 2, 2011 at 4:40 AM

NEW YORK - Some of the Dorothy DeLay's most celebrated students showed up today at Juilliard to talk about their late teacher, including a surprise appearance by Sarah Chang.

The Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies was actually started by Ms. DeLay in 2001, and Wednesday morning was dedicated to remembering her legacy, starting with the presentation of a CBS Sunday Morning interview with Dorothy DeLay that originally aired on April 17, 1991.

I have heard so many people speak of Dorothy DeLay, but I never met her. So I enjoyed hearing her words -- straight from her.

"Words are so powerful," she said early in the interview. "It's important to speak carefully to students. I think there are much better ways to motivate students than fear, and success is one of the big ones."

The film showed 20-year-old footage of many DeLay students, including the very young Sarah Chang, college-aged Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Brian Lewis. It documented the fact that on Ms. DeLay's birthday, "there can't have been many celebrity violin recitals that night," as they were otherwise engaged, throwing her a party and playing for her. Itzhak Perlman even impersonated his teacher for the occasion -- it was on film!

After the video came a panel discussion about Ms. DeLay with our surprise guest, Sarah Chang, violinist Ray Iwazumi and collaborative pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle.


Photo by Nan Melville for The Juilliard School.

Sarah spoke of how Ms. DeLay struck a "beautiful balance" when teaching her, between nurturing the child that she was and respecting the musician she was becoming.

"She was the gentlest, most generous, loving person," Sarah said. "You just relaxed in her presence. But she was tough, she did expect excellence."

Sarah recalled how Delay once took her music and pointed to one note in it, saying, "this note was beautifully in tune," leaving her with a happy feeling. But later, by herself, she realized: "That meant every other note sucked!"

The video showed Sarah, at about age 11, making a recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, with Ms. DeLay present for the recording. Sarah wanted to experiment with how narrow the vibrato should be in a certain passage, and Ms. DeLay said, "Why don't you experiment with that?" Looking back now, Sarah knows that a recording session was not exactly the time to be experimenting! But Ms. DeLay gave Sarah ownership of her interpretation.

Having Ms. DeLay sometimes travel with her and go to her rehearsals and performances was a comfort to the young Sarah. "It calmed my nerves, knowing she was there to support me," she said. After the concert, Ms. DeLay would say, "Great concert!" Then she would call the next morning, "Could you come over for about an hour?" and give her about 12 things to change for the next concert. After Sarah grew older, the advice started coming sooner and sooner after the performances, until DeLay was talking with her about what to change in the dressing room right after the concert.

Walking into Ms. DeLay's studio, "you were the most important person in the world, and time just stood still. She did not teach by the clock," said Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis, who was Ms. DeLay's assistant. The line of students waiting for lessons often stretched down the hall, and sometimes a student with a 11 a.m. lesson scheduled would not get that lesson until 4 p.m.

Brian described a lesson he had on Paganini Caprice No. 5: the lesson began at midnight.

"'Honey, you got 95 percent of the notes,'" Brian recalls her saying. "I thought she was complimenting me, because I didn't see how it was possible to get 100 percent of them!"

But Ms. DeLay did, and she was going for 100 percent. She had him start with the last single note of the Caprice, then the last two notes, then the last three notes…adding each note until every last note of the Caprice was there. It took until 2:30 a.m.

"Then we went for a pint of ice cream, each, at Ben and Jerry's, until 3 a.m.," Brian said.

Ms. DeLay had no problem sending a student to another teacher if the student needed it. "I remember her taking me to Isaac Stern," Sarah said. Ms. DeLay warned her: "He can be tough, but he means well." When the student before Sarah came out of her lesson crying, "I was thinking, 'Ms. DeLay, let's go! I don't want to be here!'" But Ms. DeLay knew she needed what Stern could offer, and she made sure Sarah went.

Pamela played for Ms. DeLay as a pianist, accompanying many violinists. Once, a student was unable to do something, and Pamela just assumed that the student was deficient in that area. But Ms. DeLay would never make any such assumption She said, "They can't do it because someone told them they can't." Words should empower, not disempower.

Ray said that he and Ms. DeLay "didn't agree on sound production, and at one point, I said that I just want some freedom. She said, 'Honey, you can do it, but if it's not good, I'm going to tell you it's not good.'"

"For the next three or four years, I had a lot of 'Honey, that's not good,'" Ray said. When finally, while playing Beethoven for her, she said, "Honey, that's good," it was a life-changing experience.


From John Labilles
Posted on June 2, 2011 at 1:42 PM

Ms. DeLay was apparently a very nurturing and caring teacher.. I like how she never thought a student was a deficient one. I loved that story about the "note that was beautifully in tune"! My teacher kind of did that to me! She was making a facial expression and then at one note she made a happy face and then I realized.. 'were the other notes bad?'. And Laurie thanks for sharing this and you should have shot a video!


From Kristen Bomberger
Posted on June 2, 2011 at 2:58 PM

" But Ms. DeLay would never make any such assumption She said, "They can't do it because someone told them they can't." Words should empower, not disempower."

Love that she never assumed the worse of any of her students and made them the center of her attention. Thanks so much for this article! :)


From Nathan Kroptavich
Posted on June 2, 2011 at 7:13 PM

Ms. Delay's teaching philosophy, as described, is very admirable.  These student reflections challenge me to be a teacher that balances honesty and kindness. 


From Jack Shepard
Posted on June 3, 2011 at 4:05 AM

She sounds absolutely amazing.  Who do you think are the "Dorothy DeLay"s of today? 


From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 4, 2011 at 1:52 AM

The "Dorothy DeLays" of today? Well, she was one of a kind, but I've certainly seen some great teaching this week and at past symposiums!  


From Clayton Tillotson
Posted on June 7, 2011 at 6:22 PM

I think a lot of people would like to watch that interview--is there any chance of finding it?

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