My beloved violin teacher and mentor died at 1am this morning after battling cancer for years. We said our goodbyes when Audrey was three weeks old, just after she'd been moved to palliative care.
Watching her hold my daughter and having the opportunity to openly acknowledge that she was dying was the closure I needed to make today a little less painful, a confirmation rather than a horrible shock.
She was the kind of person who lived her philosophy; I think she only taught formally for about fifteen years, but she 'retired' to found a new, much-needed school, sat on several boards and advocated for music lessons in schools and the adoption of Suzuki methodology in several of those.
My library of pedagogical approaches owes much to her generosity; there always seemed to be another book that she found of use but didn't much need anymore tucked under my arm when I left her home. The last time I saw her at home she was entirely prepared; the all-encompassing Violin her husband gave to her when they were 'courting' was waiting on the dining table, farewell card carefully tucked inside. The box on top of the book contained a little silver cup that my father (at that point an antique dealer) had engraved and presented to Fay when I graduated Book 1.
The inscription reads:
Congratulations on your
1st graduation student.
Why does a graduation student matter? For a Suzuki teacher starting to teach in a country area where starting ANYTHING before school-age is a revelation, let alone beginning an instrument, teaching is damn hard. Convincing parents their three-or-four-year-old is capable of playing a tiny violin well is the first hurdle. Motivating them to put in the hard yards to enable that goal is an entirely different kettle of slimy things. Having a student graduate is validates one as a teacher. It's knowing that you have educated a family and they have made a commitment to the pursuit of excellence; the Level One Graduation performance is a culmination and a proof of many things, even as it's also just the beginning.
I began violin lessons when I was four (and-a-half; my mother will at this point add I was "a late starter") and I can remember being bribed to put down my book, one of the Enid Blytons that are now on the bookshelf of my own studio. I was blessed with a teacher who taught the child in front of her, regardless of their chronological age.
Five or six years later, working through Book 8, I remember Fay trying to divorce us; for months and months she said I needed a new teacher who could take me beyond the books. She was a source of unconditional support for my mother, who had her ability to homeschool me constantly questioned and who questioned it herself. When I thought I might "do some teaching" age fourteen, Fay handed over copies of all the parent handouts she'd written for her own beginning families; she even handed me a couple of students while she visited Europe for twelve weeks.
Discussing Fay with a fellow student who now lives in Sydney and like me, is now 'grown up' - husband, baby, Suzuki violin studio - she said her husband didn't understand her grief. In his view, this was a teacher she'd had for two years when she was five. In hers, Fay was the single most influential person she'd known.
We're not the only students to have stayed in touch; another of our friends has gone on to work for the Sydney Opera Orchestra, another, now a nurse, also visited her in palliative care with her ten-week-old son; one of the boys called regularly from America, where he works as a NASA physicist. I said today to my best friend (a Suzuki voice teacher) that I'm very grateful. We were so lucky. She gave us so much and nurtured our childhood and adult selves so generously. She will live on in the tone of her students and their students.