Written by Lauren Carrane
Education is an important part of Civitas’ mission. That’s why, besides coaching chamber music groups, members of the Civitas ensemble also teach lessons to students from high school to graduate school.
Winston Choi is the Head of Piano at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. Clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom is a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, and violinist Yuan-Qing Yu is on faculty at Roosevelt University.
All three say they get immense satisfaction from teaching younger musicians.
“I love the continuous optimism of young people,” Bloom says.
Choi says he likes watching his students grow both musically and personally. “I like helping a student teach themselves, so that they become empowered to find their own musical solutions,” he says. “Ultimately, the teaching of piano and music may help them grow as individuals.”
In addition to teaching individually, Civitas also serves as the Ensemble-in-Residence at Valparaiso University. At least three times a year, the group travels to Indiana to teach master classes and coach chamber ensembles.
Yu says she enjoys teaching the students at Valparaiso because of the dedication from both the students and the faculty.
“The students at Valpo are very motivated,” she says. “Most of them do not major in music, but rather in engineering, biology, math, etc. But they choose to continue playing their instruments. You can sense the love they have for music.”
For Civitas members, teaching is a way of giving back to the musical community that gave them so much.
Bloom says he was incredibly grateful to his two mentors, Roger W. McKinney, a longtime teacher at the College of New Jersey, and Anthony Gigliotti, principal clarinetist at the Philadelphia Orchestra and one of the most well-known clarinet players of the 20th century.
“Gigliotti showed me that it was possible to play at the highest level and be a wonderful human being,” Bloom says. “McKinney, who guided me from 6th grade until I studied with Gigliotti, taught with firmness, kindness, incredible knowledge, humor, and any other attribute you could wish for in a teacher.”
Choi says he was influenced by two great mentors as well: Menahem Pressler, who taught Choi as an undergraduate and graduate student at Indiana University, and Ursula Oppens, who guided him while he was studying for his doctorate at Northwestern.
“The most impactful part of Pressler’s teaching was to impart upon me the importance of loving and cherishing the composer’s intentions. A perfectionist with sound, he never let me get away with just moving my fingers on the keyboard for even one note. Everything had to have a purpose, be played with color, conviction and beauty,” Choi says. “Oppens helped me define my musical personality and inspired me to refine my own artistic voice. She had high ideals, then very effectively and efficiently pushed me to reach and surpass what I thought was my own potential.”
Yu says that one of her most influential teachers was her father, who was her first violin teacher.
“Given the very limited resources during my childhood in China, my father taught me to appreciate what I had, regardless of how little, and to persevere,” she says. “During my Shanghai Conservatory years, my professor Zheng Shi-Sheng showed me what it truly meant to be a musician. Professor Zheng dedicated his life to music; he lived and breathed music at his every waking moment.”
Of course, just because you are a talented musician doesn’t mean you are going to be a good teacher. Bloom says to be a good teacher, you have to not only play well yourself, but also to communicate effectively, analyze other people’s playing, and inspire.
Choi agrees. “A great teacher is somebody whose words ring on far past the lesson,” he says. “Piano lessons can be life lessons — teaching you the importance of sincerity, dedication, confidence in yourself and your beliefs, respect for the great art and traditions in front of us, while opening up doors of poetry, creativity and artistry.”
Good teaching also requires that you find the balance between being encouraging and giving direct feedback.
“You have to care without coddling,” Bloom says.
Yu says when she was growing up in China, she was not used to getting positive feedback during a lesson the way American students are.
“I always encourage my students, in terms of believing in them,” Yu says. “But as far as verbal praises during lessons, I personally did not grow up with that. I was used to my teachers being very direct with me, and at times, very critical of my playing. After all, that was the reason for my having lessons. But with many of my students here, I do see the value of positive reinforcement.”
And if there is one piece of advice that the Civitas members would give to students who want to get better, it’s to come to lessons prepared and to practice, practice, practice.
“Practice more, and actually listen to yourself — not just through a tape recorder, but really learn to hear what you are doing,” Bloom says.
Yu agrees. “Set high standards for yourself, while having realistic short-term goals. Practice with a mindset of problem solving rather than mindlessly playing through. Believe in yourself and keep reaching for higher goals.”