Remembering Violinist and Teacher Shirley Givens

January 18, 2018, 1:32 PM · 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.

Shirley Givens
Shirley Givens.

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.

Replies

January 22, 2018 at 11:06 AM · Dear pupil, Elizabeth Faidley, of your beloved teacher, Shirley Givens ~

Your beautiful Tribute to a Lady of the Violin and far beyond is a loving gesture which like ripples in a pond, spread far and wide ... As long as I can remember, Shirley Givens has been in the core East Coast Group of highly respected and well known violin pedagogues, and as a colleague, learning of her passing of just a week ago, took me by utter surprise and a jolt of 'Oh No ...'

I wanted to reach out to you, Elizabeth, to express my sorrow and sympathies upon the huge loss of your teacher who was much more than a person who guided you through Schradieck and all other Violin Etudes to the point of studying the Brahms Violin Concerto in earnest ~

Her mentoring was multi-faceted and guided you in numerous other area's of your life, which shall always remain permanent parts of your DNA, both violinistically & musically speaking as you continue teaching your 'second generation Shirley Givens pupils' now and far into the future ...

Having suffered the losses of my dearly loved violin mentor's, I know the surreal feelings of disbelief and grief accompanying such loss ~ When losing my principle teacher-father, Ralph, & later on, longtime violin mentor-friend, Nathan Milstein, (both of which took a long while to come to terms with), I wrote down as many of Mr. Milstein's often said advice's to me regarding all things Violin and Bow, and many words he spoke to me to keep close to my inner being for the rest of my life here on this Earth ~ (This has proved to be a great Guide reminding myself What Dad or NM would say and have me do, & especially so if 'stuck' when preparing for major public performance and artist teaching wherever I go ~ )

In writing your loving Memoir, you have brought Shirley Givens right back to many of us here and in so doing, encourage you to keep on going with a "What Shirley Givens Said and Taught Me" listing which shall provide you with great hope, guidance and comfort in future years ...

Please accept my sincere condolences upon your irreparable loss and gratitude for writing to all violin aficionados here about your prized mentor with endearing and enduring love ~

May your treasured teacher, Shirley Givens, rest in eternal peace ...

With musical remembrances ~

Elisabeth Matesky in Chicago

January 25, 2018 at 12:29 AM · I love this. You put everything so very well. Ms. Givens was committed to each and every one of her students and she showed that to me from the first time we spoke on the phone in my search for a grad school. I have no regrets having studied with her only that I wish I could have studied with her longer. - Linda Carmona, Peabody (GPD '96)

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