There are a few people responsible for giving my life the shape and path it has taken, but none so significant as Shirley Givens.
Shirley was my violin teacher at the Peabody Conservatory, and she passed away a week ago at the age of 86. She also taught at The Juilliard School, Mannes College and the New School; and among her many successful students were Pamela Frank, Joseph Lin, and David Kim.
I'm sure than many of her students feel the way I do about her. There were many wonderful life lessons that she taught us all, collectively, through the years. When you are a student at music school, surrounded by the best and the brightest, you doubt yourself and your ability to be competitive at some point during the journey. Shirley used to say, "If you want it enough and work hard enough, you will find your place." When my students come to me now and ask that question, "Am I good enough?" I give them her answer. There is a niche for you if you want it. Those are such important and powerful words coming from a mentor and teacher.
Born in Canton, Ohio, Shirley grew up in Hollywood and was a child actor. It is clear why she began her life as an actress, in the public eye: she had a light within her that burned so brightly that it could not be contained. She had a beautiful smile and electric, focused eyes. Her hair was always perfect. She probably could have continued her life in Hollywood -- besides her obvious stage skills, Shirley had a beautiful singing voice. In fact we sang a lot in lessons! My students can attest that I also sing constantly in lessons, but unfortunately for them, I do not have her lilting voice.
Shirley was also an incredible visual artist. There is a video that she and her husband, cellist Harry Wimmer, made a few years ago that takes the viewer on a tour of her art portfolio, and it is quite incredible. To be so multi-talented must have been exhausting! Her Adventures in Violin Land books are a tribute to her creativity and love for children. She brings children into a whole world of music -- of violin -- and the drawings and exercises are whimsical and exquisite.
Shirley's ability to teach and engage students from age five through 25 was incredible. The majority of teachers specialize in a certain area or feel more comfortable teaching a certain age group. I feel I am at my best with my teenagers. Shirley was her best with everyone, from a 6-year-old playing in ViolinLand Book 2 to Brahms Concerto with a master's degree student (me).
Shirley believed in communicating everything - showing artistry through speaking, practicing, thinking, performing - every aspect of music. One of my favorite memories is of one student (who shall remain nameless, it was not me!) who walked on stage during studio class in Goodwin Hall, and Shirley asked her, "What do you have to say about Tambourin Chinois?" (by Fritz Kreisler). The student answered, "I don't really have much to say about it..." Shirley quickly said, "Then we don't want to hear it. You must have something to say."
I also recall making a mistake in studio class myself. After someone's beautiful performance, I said, "Good job, Jina!" as a precursor to my comments. She interrupted me, looked at me like I was insane, and said, "Elizabeth, performing is not a job. This is not WORK, this is not a JOB, this is JOY." From then on, I was very careful with my approach to music and commenting on others, and even with my way of thinking.
I have asked a few of my studio mates and other students of hers if they have words that come to mind when they think of Shirley. The list is pretty incredible. A few words showed up on EVERY single list: "Warm" is the first one, and she certainly exuded warmth. Even if you played terribly and weren't prepared enough (never me), you could see that she was disappointed and slightly irritated, but she even criticized with warmth. Another word that I heard constantly was "nurturing." We all really loved her, and we knew she loved us, individually. I loved and admired her so much that I asked her to be in my wedding.
Other words were creative, brilliant, quick witted, loving, encouraging, inspiring, motherly, uncompromising, endearing, thorough, cultivating, enthusiastic, patient. I hope that I will inspire half of those adjectives during my career.
Now, my career, like hers, is teaching. Since leaving her studio 15 years ago and having taught for every one of those 15 years, I have thought about my greatest teacher, my mentor, my role model, quite a lot. I also believe in teaching with kindness and in a nurturing way, and I hope my students feel the same love from me as I did from her.
There was a lot of magic in Shirley's teaching. Sometimes, just a story about dangerous elves and gnome statues in an art shop would give the opening of Sibelius the edge it needed -- she didn't even need to spell it out. She knew what was needed and she never wavered.
I am very thankful to have had a dusting of Shirley's magic, and I hope I pass it along to every student I teach. (As well as her bouncy-finger Schradiek. They all will have that as well, of course!)
She was magic in human form. Her inner light and beautiful spirit are so bright that I believe she will continue to shine, even now, and forever, over all of the young violinists of the world.Tweet
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