My recent visit with my violin teacher Fredell Lack, who taught me in my high school years, brought back many memories. Recently I had been thinking about visiting her, but when she contacted me via Facebook, I jumped on a plane to see her. She turned 94 this year.
Miss Lack taught me only for three years, although I had already been studying violin since age 7. (We always called her by her maiden name, which was her stage name.) In my short time with her, I improved by leaps and bounds. Her training made it possible for me to be accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadlephia, one of the finest music conservatories in the world. I am truly grateful for this wonderful jumpstart she gave to my life in music. My sister, Ellen-Maria Justen Willis, also studied violin with Miss Lack and attended Curtis.
It was a joyful reunion. We had lunch, talked about the last 28 years, and I played a bit for her. I asked her to autograph a couple of pieces I had studied with her. The sheet music represents her legacy: the lessons she conveyed to me and her many other students. I’d like to share with you a few of the lessons I learned from Miss Lack, which remain ongoing gifts in my life. I will start with number 4 and go up to number 1.
Gift (Lesson) No. 4: Dedicate yourself to the highest standards and give passionate attention to every detail.
Fredell has impeccably high standards. Of course I was expected to play perfectly in tune and in rhythm, but that was just the starting point. Miss Lack expected her students to remember and practice all the details of technique and musical phrasing until they were firmly memorized. If you didn’t remember something, she would write it again (and again!) in a different color. More importantly, the principles were to be absorbed, and we were to play with awareness of the historical period from which the music originated.
A few of the phrases scribbled on the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin:
“Keep a steady pulse” “close vibrato for Bach” “trills not too fast” “SING”
“All Bach is a progression from one chord to another.”
“don’t rush” “don’t let down” “gentler” “Sh!” “VELVET”
“don’t swallow the little notes” “build up” “keep up” “EVEN”
“take time” “bring out low notes” “softest” “articulate”
All those details and techniques don't happen overnight. One must work toward a goal which will be realized later. The practicing taught me that improvement happens over a period of time, and that if I stick with the practice, it will bear fruit in time. To be honest, I did not practice enough in my teenage years, and Miss Lack threatened to quit teaching me at a certain point. I did work harder after this threat, and I improved tremendously under her tutelage. So then, Gift No. 3: You may have some innate aptitude, but your success is determined much more by your determination, patience and perseverance. To achieve excellence you must cultivate these qualities. As they say: it’s more perspiration than inspiration!
Gift No. 2 (which is really multiple lessons): Tell a story through the music. Every phrase says something. Every note has meaning. The most important thing is the expression! Strive after beauty of tone and search for the appropriate phrasing. Dress the part - your presentation is very important. Put it all together and create an exciting, beautiful, dramatic experience for your audience!
When I meditate on Fredell Lack’s way of living and teaching, I feel her deep love for music and for her students. This is all part of her greater love for people and all living things. She has always been extremely generous with her students, and she has always been an animal lover.
Gift No. 1: Why are we doing this thing, making music? Why are we practicing so hard, and exposing ourselves to so much critique, and braving the stresses of performing? The reason is, plain and simple: LOVE. Miss Lack’s love for people and for the art of music, expressed in her many actions, will always be an inspiration to me. Her greatest gift to her students is the reminder to do what we do from a place of love and generosity.