Dorothy DeLay (March 31, 1917 – March 24, 2002), or "Ms. DeLay" as her former students call her even today, made an indelible stamp on the violin world. Beginning at Juilliard as the assistant to Ivan Galamian, DeLay went on to establish her own reputation and teach there for more than 50 years. The list of her former students is vast and impressive, including many of the world's top violinists and pedagogues: Itzhak Perlman, Midori, Sarah Chang, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Shlomo Mintz, Gil Shaham, Cho-Liang ("Jimmy") Lin, David Kim, Kurt Sassmannshaus, David Kim, Chee Yun, Kurt Nikkanen, Philippe Quint, Anne Akiko Meyers, Brian Lewis, Nigel Kennedy, Alyssa Park, Simon Fischer, Frank Almond -- this doesn't even begin to include everyone.
On Sunday a number of those students, led by New York-based violinist Philippe Quint, will gather for a Dorothy Delay Centennial Celebration at 7 p.m. at Le Poisson Rouge. Quint, along with violinists Chee-Yun, Kurt Nikkanen, Paul Huang, Randall Goosby and John Novacek, will perform some of DeLay's favorite works, including pieces by Sarasate, Mauer and Moszkowski. They also will present video tributes from superstar former students Itzhak Perlman, Midori Goto, Jimmy Lin and David Kim and have a panel discussion with former students as well as DeLay’s children, Jeffrey Newhouse and Alison Dinsmore.
"I want the world to remember Ms. DeLay, a visionary who affected hundreds of musical lives," said Quint, who was among the last generation of violinists to study with her, from 1991 to 1999.
"When I started studying with her, I was still a Russian kid who had just come from Soviet Union," Quint said. "I did not speak English, was extremely stubborn, and did not quite understand what she was trying to convey." When Quint arrived in the States, he felt his priority was simple: to immediately conquer the world's top virtuosic violin concertos: Paganini, Sarasate and Wieniawski. But DeLay had other plans. "Suddenly she said, 'Sugar Plum, you're going to have to do some exercises. Sugar Plum, you're going to have to do some scales. Honey, here, I'm going to give you Yost exercises.'"
"I thought to myself, 'She's embarrassing and humiliating me!'" Quint laughed. "What is going on? I'm so ready to play the complete Paganini concertos, why do I have to do open strings and scales?'"
"It took me a while to adjust, to understand that this was actually the teaching method," Quint said. "Even winners of the Queen Elisabeth and Tchaikovsky Competitions, or super-accomplished soloists -- would come to her and play a big concerto, and she would immediately say, 'Why don't you play a scale?' or 'Why don't you do open strings?'"
DeLay, famous for her kind and grandmotherly approach, was nevertheless fastidious in her attention to detail and sharp in her assessments, if you knew how to listen. She might say, "Sugar plum, what is your concept of F#?" It meant: you're playing out of tune.
"She had sheets of paper, where she would mark down what a person needed to study or improve," Quint said. And nobody escaped it; Quint remembers when the winner of a major competition came to study with her "and walked out of the first lesson with all kinds of markings about intonation, articulation and interpretation. This was her way, but in the kindest, most generous, simple way, without humiliation or insult."
"She was sort of a human X-ray; she knew who needed what," Quint said. "A student might come in and play Paganini. If it wasn't good, she wouldn't say anything. She just would mark all the spots, circle everything, write down everything in her journal. Then this same person would play Bach, and Ms. DeLay would immediately perk up and say, 'Sugar Plum, you have to move into the direction of Bach.'"
"She immediately recognized that this person had a particular affinity and natural ability for Bach," Quint said. "And the same was true for people who played contemporary music, or Mozart or Beethoven, she would immediately say, 'Ah, this is something you should develop. Move in that direction.'"
"She had the ability to see a person's individuality, pretty much right at the start," Quint said. "She developed that, and she nurtured it. She did not run a cookie-cutting factory, it was not one of those studios where somebody develops a system and everyone in that studio sounds the same. If you look at her former students, from Perlman to Zukerman to Shaham, Midori, Sarah Chang, Robert McDuffie, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Schlomo Mintz...everyone sounds so different."
"Sugar Plum" was a new term for Midori, who began lessons with DeLay at age nine. Those lessons were the highlight of her week, she said in a video message for the Centennial celebration. "She was always gentle, always smiling, always very encouraging." Midori continued to meet with DeLay for an annual lunch together, long after their lessons were over.
Perlman, who now teaches in the Juilliard studio where DeLay once taught, admitted in the video that he did not understand DeLay's teaching at first. He had been accustomed to a teacher who told him what to do, and "she didn't tell me what to do; she asked me what I should do," he said. In other words, she taught students to teach themselves.
Cho-Liang ("Jimmy") Lin said that DeLay welcomed him like family. "I learned a lot about life -- about how to teach myself not only to be a better violinist, but a better person."
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