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Sarah Leonard

An Interview with Sarah Johnson

December 8, 2007 at 5:57 PM

Sarah Johnson is the violin professor at both Converse College, and the North Carolina School of the Arts. She has taught at Duke University and the Eastman School of Music. She graduated from the Curtis School of Music were she studied with the legendary Ivan Galamian. She was a former member of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the founding concertmistress of the South Carolina Chamber Orchestra. She made her European debut at the world famous Spoleto Festival in Italy. She premiered a concerto written by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Ward in 1994. And she also just happens to be my violin teacher (and hero). I have been her student for almost three years, and I love her to death. I interviewd Mrs. Johnson for a paper I am writing, but thought that maybe those of us who are worrying about college would like to read this.

Sarah: What are the most important aspects of a college to look into?

Mrs. J: Ah, as a musician? For a musician. The number on thing is going to be your relationship to your teacher. Very important to go and have a meeting with them before you even audition, you’ll need to have some contact. Write to them, if possible, go there way a head your audition. And you want to go and meet many different teachers because you just don’t know if you’re going to click or not. And then you trust your instincts on that. Oh, don’t forget to write a thank you note, don’t forget always to offer to pay them. Almost always they say “No, that’s part of my job.” Offer. And then I would say there are very personal choices of things. Where do you want to live? For example, you could never have gotten me to Eastman. I just can’t, I don’t want to live in that cold, snowy, awful, endless winter, you know? I don’t care if God were teaching there. Um, but that’s me. Plenty of other people don’t mind that. So that’s important. Do you want to live in a big city? You have to really have to think about yourself, and be honest about your limits as far as the environment. Then you ask yourself whether, and this is a toughie, at this stage, for you, is it better to go into a huge talent pool and just kinda, sink to the bottom and spend four years trying to come to the top, or whether it’s more important for you to go into a certain area were you might not be at the top, but you have a certain feeling of identity and that you can grow really strong in yourself before you go onto the next step. Which you will absolutely have to do everybody does now days, to go on to grad school. And then of course whether or not you want an academic environment, do you want to have access to academics? Or do you mostly want to focus on the instrument? But almost every single conservatory now has some relationship with the universities so you can take other academics, so that’s not so much a choice.

Sarah: What are the music professors looking for when a potential student is auditioning?

Mrs. J: We’re looking for… dedication. Enthusiasm and certain basic attributes of, well you know, a good sense of pitch, good sense of rhythm, um, sound. And a good set up. We always interview students after the audition to talk to them, to see how articulate they are and how we might be able to communicate. We’re looking for someone who is well prepared for the audition. If they have nervous problems, that’s not necessarily a turn off at all. If they come and they kinda bomb, a little bit, but we can tell, if they’re just nervous.

Sarah: So… what comes after college? For a musician who wants to go into a performance major?

Mrs. J: A masters.

Sarah: A masters?

Mrs. J: Even if you just want to be a performer.

Sarah: A masters in performance? (Stupid question on my part)

Mrs. J: Yes. And you would be wise to combine it with some kind of pedagogy. Because we all teach, if we’re lucky. Ok? If we’ve had good teaching we are responsible, it’s a responsibility, to carry that forward. So you know, you become a link in a long line, from back to Mr. Galamian, and before that Carl Flesch, and before that, you know, all the way back to Tartini. It’s amazing, that would be a question to ask, although they don’t usually, other graduate programs dot usually have a pedagogy emphasis, there are maybe two schools in the country that I know of, were you can get an undergraduate degree in performance, and a concentration in string pedagogy, and I hope to say that Converse will be the third one.

From Joe Fischer
Posted on December 9, 2007 at 3:52 AM
Really Great !
Thanks !
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 9, 2007 at 5:00 AM
I'm way past college age, But I'm familiar with these issues from reading and writing to students who are selecting a college. This sounds like very, very valuable advice. Thanks for posting the interview.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 9, 2007 at 5:04 AM
PS. I love your flower photo. Is it a magnolia blossom?
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 9, 2007 at 12:42 PM
I really liked her comments about the student needing to decide whether they want to be a small fish in a big ocean or a medium-sized fish in a more specialized lake. That is a very important choice, but I think it takes a great deal of maturity to know that about oneself, especially as a student.

And it can apply to many types of talent. I'm a scientist as a career, and I see students come and go and wrestle with that kind of decision in science too. Many times they have been encouraged all their lives to be "the best," whatever that is, and go to "the best" schools, and it's hard to see past all that to find the right individual fit that is really going to nurture your talent, not just as a scientist, or as a musician, but also as an all-around person. She sounds like a great teacher!

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on December 9, 2007 at 5:45 PM
Thank you for posting this - I remember meeting Ms. Johnson many years ago (I think I was ten) and she was playing with the Charleston Symphony...very vise advice.


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 9, 2007 at 10:35 PM
> really liked her comments about the student needing to decide whether they want to be a small fish in a big ocean or a medium-sized fish in a more specialized lake.

Monday mornings I feel like a dead fish in a polluted pond;)

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on December 10, 2007 at 8:59 AM
Girls, that's a woman.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 12, 2007 at 6:58 AM
Buri, thanks for the laughs.

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