Although the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is temporarily on hiatus, its members are usually busy almost every day with performances, rehearsals and practices. And some don’t stop there. They also teach, squeezing lessons into whatever free time they can find.
Most CSO members conduct their lessons on college campuses, at Symphony Center or at home. Because of the COVID-19 public health crisis, however, instruction has gone online with the musicians using FaceTime, Zoom or some similar video-conferencing platform. “I would prefer not do it this way if it were possible,” said Robert Kassinger, a CSO bass. “It’s just not the same as being there. There’s no substitute for that.”
Kassinger, who has about a dozen students between DePaul University and his private studio, works seven days a week, usually scheduling sessions on Mondays (the orchestra’s off days), Fridays and weekends. “I just try to fit them in where I can,” he said. “It’s a big workload, and that’s the absolute maximum I think I could deal with.” His parents were both musicians and they worked constantly. “That’s one of things I picked up from them,” he said. “If you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do it right, you’re going to be very, very busy all the time.”
CSO trombone Michael Mulcahy, an instructor at Northwestern University, won’t begin online teaching until April 6, when the school’s spring semester begins, and he said it will be difficult to assess such aspects of musicianship as posture or the embouchure (the way the mouth forms and functions at an instrument’s mouthpiece). “It’s very exacting work,” he said. “When you are in a room with someone and you are standing right in front of them, you can really see and you can really hear in perfect detail exactly what is going on. I will do my best with the remote teaching, but I can’t wait [for it to end].”
As would be expected, virtually all the students the musicians teach are hoping for orchestral positions of their own or performance careers of some sort. “They need, of course, to work on their general musicianship,” said CSO horn David Griffin, an adjunct faculty member at Roosevelt University, “but specifically on making sure they have the right concept and a good solid technique for getting out there and being successful at auditioning.”
Nearly all of the CSO musicians who teach can boast of successful alumni who have landed posts with major orchestras, like the principal trombone of the Boston Symphony, principal percussion of the San Francisco Symphony and a bass in the Houston Symphony. Cynthia Yeh, CSO principal percussion, who teaches at DePaul, has a student who reached the finals for a position in the Philadelphia Orchestra before the auditions had to be suspended because of COVID-19 health crisis.
Mulcahy calls teaching one of the most important aspects of his life and something gives him renewed energy. Teaching and performing drain and nourish him in different and what he called “compatible” ways. “They take care of different parts of you,” he said, “and so I feel that I’m more whole having both of those experiences.” CSO percussion James Ross, who teaches at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., has much the same view. “Hopefully, I’m giving them a lot of information based on my experience,” he said of his students, “but also it really recharges my batteries. So it’s a two-way road.”
Kassinger finds it rewarding to see students improve under his tutelage. “I enjoy the interaction,” he said. “I feel like I have a lot of good experience that I can impart, and that’s kind of how I look on it. I’m trying to pass on what I’ve learned and the things I’ve experienced.”
Griffin loves his job at the symphony, but he sees teaching as way to have a longer-term impact on the field. “Teaching is where your legacy is,” he said, “passing on your knowledge, your view of music-making. And little tips and techniques that helped me become a better horn player, I’m happy to pass those on.”
Griffin and Yeh also believe that teaching has helped them be better musicians, because in helping their students solve problems, they learn more about and improve their own musicianship. “It’s been great for my own playing, because it makes me analyze some of the things I do and how I listen,” Yeh said. “The things I have to explain to the students I’ve always just taken for granted.”
David Griffin, horn
After previously teaching at McGill University in Montreal and Northwestern University, Griffin moved to Roosevelt University in 2013 when the school had a surplus of horn students and asked him to help. “I considered it and thought it was a great match for me,” he said.
He has two students he instructs one on one each week, plus a one-hour chamber music class. Griffin conducts most of his private lessons in a room at Symphony Center, usually trying to schedule them around his CSO commitments. “So I’m down there for rehearsals and teaching all in one fell swoop,” he said. Because his teaching hours are limited, it’s not as big a challenge to fit them into his schedule. That could change next year when his course load is set to jump to four or five students.
Robert Kassinger, bass
Kassinger has been teaching on an adjunct basis at DePaul University for at least 20 years. “I just started teaching, and the students kept coming,” he said. He has eight weekly students there, and he also gives lessons every couple of weeks or so to four private students at his home. At DePaul, Kassinger prefers to have about six students, but he had several promising bassists who wanted join his studio and he couldn’t say no. Both of his parents were musicians in Boulder, Colo., and both gave private lessons at home. His father taught all the stringed instruments, except bass as well as trumpet, and his mother focused on the clarinet. “Every day after school, I’d come home and I’d hear a violin scratching away in one part of the house and my mother’s clarinet students tuning away in the room next door to my room,” he said. “So it just seemed like a very natural thing for me to start working just like I had grown up hearing them work with kids.”
Michael Mulcahy, trombone
Since 1999, Mulcahy has directed the trombone studio at Northwestern University, which has 20 students and four other instructors, including three who travel to Evanston from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra. It took Mulcahy several years to get his footing and to institute the kind of teaching approach he wanted. It includes having the students prepare written reports on each lesson and rotating the students among the instructors, something he believes might be unique to Northwestern. “I found, particularly with undergraduates, that over the course of four years, the relationship between the teacher and the student gets a little bit worn, and at its worse, a little bit stale.”
Mulcahy usually has six to eight students he works with one on one during each quarter. In addition, he leads a 90-minute class in which the student trombonists meet and perform for one another at 5 p.m. each Monday when school is in session. “You get a sense of the esprit de corps, camaraderie and just the positive energy that all these passionate, talented young people have,” he said. “And that nourishes me a lot.”
James Ross, percussion
Ross taught at Northwestern University for 15 years alongside Michael Burritt, who switched to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Burritt invited Ross to join him on the faculty there, so he travels to the school seven times a semester for lessons, usually every two weeks. “The commuting is not much fun, but I’m really happy when I get there,” he said. “I enjoy it a lot.” He described the Eastman percussion studio as competitive but in a friendly way. “The standard is very high,” he said.
Ross has eight students, so he typically flies out on Sunday morning and teaches four students that day and instructs another four students the next day, an off-day for the CSO. The wrench in the works, of course, could be a canceled flight or a storm delay. “I’m always a little bit paranoid about that,” he said, “but strangely enough, in the last five years, I haven’t encountered one problem as far as anything weather-related.”
Cynthia Yeh, principal percussion
Four years ago, DePaul University asked Yeh join its percussion faculty. She had previously taught at many summer music festivals and conducted occasional one-off lessons. She had never done instruction on an ongoing basis, however, and wasn’t sure if she would like it. But she does. Yeh has two full-time students and two part-time students, working them around her symphony commitments. “Whenever we’re both in town, I’m teaching,” she said. While lessons are often on the DePaul campus, she sometimes has them come to Symphony Center. Unlike other kinds of musicians, percussion students have to learn a multitude of instruments, Yeh said, and it’s a constant challenge to make sure that no instrument, like the cymbals or triangle, gets overlooked.
TOP: During the CSO’s recent Florida tour, bass Robert Kassinger leads a class of middle-school students. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2020