Posted by Michael Harrison on Dec 23, 2019
Long before Mimi Zweig launched her ground-breaking website StringPedagogy, she developed a teaching style that blends her own ideas with her past teachers’ influences, as well as elements of other philosophies she admires. The result is a method that has helped guide generations of students to successful music careers as performers and teachers.
As a professor of violin at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (JSoM) and the director of the JSoM String Academy she founded in 1976. The String Academy has 160 students studying the violin, viola and cello between the ages of 4 and 18. The Summer String Academy attracts pre-college students from around the world for four weeks of intensive study with renowned faculty.
As noted in part I of this three-part series, Zweig was influenced by her own teachers (Louis Krasner, Samuel Kissel, Tadeusz Wronski, and mentor Josef Gingold) and early in her teaching career by the late Paul Rolland’s emphasis on freedom of movement. She also was struck by the results Betty Haag, a Suzuki method adherent, had with young students. To these influences, Zweig added her own gentle, nurturing style. In addition to the work she does as a professor, Zweig has made her lessons accessible to any other teacher or student who wants them through her website www.stringpedagogy.com.
Continuing to Evolve
After more than 40 years at the JSoM, Zweig, who is nearly 70, easily could rest on her laurels. She does anything but. In fact, she continues to evolve her method.
“I still look for new ideas that help to put pieces of the puzzle together,” Mimi says, candidly.
For an acclaimed professor who has launched string programs in different regions of the country and takes students on classical music outreach missions to Europe and South America, she is remarkably open to learning from her students. Zweig expresses unbridled admiration for her students, especially when talking about certain nuances she observes and passes on in subsequent lessons.
“I hear beautiful ways to shape a phrase that are personal,” Mimi explains, “or how a student obtains an expressive vibrato with a slightly different finger angle.” One thing she’s observed that helps inform her method has nothing to do with technique. “I’ve learned how determination results in progress,” Mimi says.
A major aspect of Zweig’s method is patience. She believes children — as well as older students — respond better to a kinder, gentler approach. She creates a non-judgmental environment where mistakes are neither good nor bad — they are simply treated as information. She helps students know mistakes occur between two notes and that with enough repetitions, everything can be fixed.
Drawing on what she adopted from Suzuki, Zweig believes that these repetitions are key to learning. That, and support and reinforcement from parents. And taking her cue from Rolland’s teachings, she strives to make students physically aware and comfortable while playing their instrument.
She remains extremely conscious of making sure students feel relaxed with healthy expectations. That includes reminding students not to compare themselves to others. It is important to understand that students develop in different ways and speeds. Managing these expectations, and wisely giving young students a little more than they can handle, keeps them on their toes.
“If you put too much pressure on a child (and for that matter also older students) they will tighten up physically and psychologically,” Zweig says. “So, we keep the environment healthy. Patience leads to progress.”
Helping students find a comfortable way to hold and play their instruments is one of Mimi’s missions. This involves understanding the physical relationship between the head, neck, and back resulting in good form. “Playing the violin has to be comfortable and pleasurable,” Mimi says. “Helping students to find that comfortable place unlocks the untapped talent and frees the inner musician.”
Parents Have a Role
The role of parents in students’ progress is critical, Zweig explains. Before she accepts young students, Christina, Mimi’s assistant, speaks with parents to make sure they have an understanding of what will be expected of them. If a parent can’t commit to attending their child’s lessons, taking notes, and practicing with the child at home, it’s a deal-breaker. That’s one reason she lays out lessons in a pattern of “logical steps” — to make it as easy as possible for students as well as their parents.
“The simplicity of it helps parents repeat the lesson at home to the best of their ability,” she says.
Once students reach adolescence, “We start to wean the child from the parents,” Zweig says.
Parents are no longer required to attend the lessons and are asked to assume more of a support role by providing transportation, proper instruments, and encouragement.
When it comes to her younger students, counseling parents is also important.
“I try to make it clear to parents that there are no guarantees that their child will be the next Josh Bell,” Zweig says. “There are so many variables and changes along the way. As we move forward, we will take pleasure in observing the journey as it unfolds.” Parents can understand this, Zweig adds.
The Difficult Times
After nearly half a century of pedagogy, Zweig can take pride in the number of students she has mentored toward distinguished music careers. However, there are times when she has to have an honest conversation with a student she feels does not have the ability and drive to succeed professionally.
“Sometimes, one’s own personal assessment is not in line with what the reality is,” Zweig says. “When we as teachers have to make that clear to a student, I find that very difficult.”
She lowers her eyes and shakes her head. It’s one of the few times she doesn't smile. It’s as if the emotional pain of delivering a disappointing assessment is palpable. In fact, she shares during our interview that she’s preparing to have one of those difficult conversations.
Steering Students Forward
On the other end of the spectrum, Zweig works with many advanced violin students and teaches pedagogy courses which are attuned to the digital age. The String Academy, she says, “Acts as a laboratory for university students who are taking our (she shares the courses with Brenda Brenner) String Pedagogy classes. They attend lectures, observe private and group lessons, do supervised teaching, and study the website which is their textbook.”
Zweig wants her music majors to be beautiful players and informed musicians. Being well-prepared on their instruments is a given, but that’s not where it ends. At the JsoM they get experience with orchestra playing and chamber music, are exposed to old and new music, take music theory, music history classes, and academic classes — all contributing to becoming a well-rounded adult.
“These classes are very involved. It is an intense and thorough education,” Zweig says. “We’re giving them as much knowledge as possible and the String Pedagogy class is one part of that. Occasionally we’ll find someone who totally loves what we are doing, and they say, “This is what I want to do!’ We help to mentor and prepare them for their future teaching careers."
And despite all the education, preparation, and talent in the world, it’s harder than ever to make a living as a professional musician, Zweig says. Compared to when she was entering the profession, there were fewer musicians vying for the same jobs. Zweig estimates that today it is not uncommon to have 200 or more applicants for any given orchestra opening and for university teaching positions.
One thing is certain – students who go on to successful music careers must be passionate. “So passionate they can’t see themselves doing anything else,” Zweig says.
Besides talent and education, today’s students “need to be more entrepreneurial” and consider possibilities other than being an orchestra musician to make it in professional classical music, she says. Classical music offers several career paths, such as teaching in many different venues, chamber music, conducting, music therapy, working in the music industry, administrative positions, and more.
What the Future Holds
Looking back, it seems Mimi has seen it all. Once, she had a gifted student she believed had what it took to become a professional violinist, but that student was determined to become a doctor. She also points out that modern lifespans are typically longer than they were just 30 or 40 years ago and that means mid-life career changes are much more viable than they used to be. A violinist in her forties can switch gears, become a doctor, and enjoy a decades-long career in a new profession. (The opposite scenario will not work.) Zweig shared a story about a professional pianist who went back to school at age 45 to become a veterinarian.
It also begs the question about what she sees for herself down the road. Eventual retirement? New projects? Mimi is somewhat reticent on that subject. She thought about working with the National Endowment for the Arts, but decided government jobs are probably too bureaucratic for her taste.
She’s not thinking too far ahead right now, chuckling, “I don’t know if I’ll just drop dead in my chair.” Which fits as Zweig could go on all day about the joys of teaching and what she gets out of it. “The students give us energy!” she beams. They keep us young!”
The String Academy is now in its 44th year and the Summer String Academy celebrated its 35th anniversary last year. Zweig says she might organize an event for the 40th Summer String Academy. She also talked about how she has reached out to various composers to write pieces for the String Academy — Atar Arad, Don Freund, and William Harvey to name a few.
There could be more travel in Zweig’s future. For the past 10 years, she has been taking her String Academy Virtuosi students (ages 13-18) on tours of Argentina and she says she would like to spend more time in South America — Argentina, especially. “I’m drawn to this part of the world because people are hungry for information and I have grown very fond of the country – the people, the sights, and the food.”
Over the years, she has also taken students to perform in Chile, Brazil, France, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Germany, Holland, Spain, and Italy.
Mimi at Home
Mimi is proud to consider herself integrated into a “famous family” through Atar and Ron Arad and mentions that her sister Irene Gallas Zweig, a visual artist, has two accomplished daughters. One niece, Sydney Gallas, is a costume designer in New York and the other, Geri Gallas, writes graphic novels. She loves to dote on Atar’s two grandsons.
“I share them with the mother of Atar’s children, so this equals two grandmothers on one side of the family,” she says, with obvious joy.
Given her work and the fact that she and Atar attend two to three concerts a week, Mimi doesn’t listen to much music at home. Instead, she catches up on news. She gets the print version of her local newspaper and the New York Times delivered to her home, watches Rachel Maddow nightly on MSNBC, and NewsHour on PBS. Also, “I’ll listen to the BBC at night if I can’t fall asleep,” she laughs.
For entertainment, she enjoys “any movie or TV show with Helen Mirren,” Saturday Night Live, and listening to podcasts. Some of the shows she subscribes to include Hidden Brain, the TED Radio Hour, The Moth, and Serial.
As much of a homebody as someone with such a busy schedule can be, Mimi and Atar enjoy hosting dinner parties for which Mimi prepares gourmet meals.
“I have about 300 cookbooks that are now sitting on the shelf after years of collecting, reading, and experimenting,” she says. “Now I use my intuition, go to the food markets, and create intuitively with whatever catches my eye — which is probably how I teach the violin!”
Words to Live By
Having passionately taught string musicians all of her adult life, Mimi offers sage advice for students.
“Strive for excellence,” she says. “It’s not about the end product. It’s about doing something to the best of your ability that will give you the most satisfaction and this will launch you successfully into whatever you want to do.”
And for teachers — or future teachers — she shares one of her secrets for success.
“Surround yourself with people who are going to collaborate and produce at a much higher level than any one individual can do.” This is what she has done at the String Academy with Brenda Brenner, Susan Moses, Christina Hightower, and her team of teachers.
Mimi plans to continue doing what’s brought her so much success – teaching and nurturing. And like it has since the turn of the 21st century, her String Pedagogy website plays a central role.
“I think to be successful in working with children there has to be a sequence to the journey,” she explains. “You can’t start the journey and hope to finish it unless you know how to get there. String Pedagogy lays out a roadmap.”
All that’s left to do is follow it. And practice, practice, practice.
Above photo: Mimi and her virtuosi, that performed at Carnegie Hall (Weil Hall) in March, 2013.
Michael Harrison is a lifelong journalist, currently living in Fort Mill, South Carolina, where he was the editor of the local newspaper, the Fort Mill Times, 2004-2018, and earned dozens of South Carolina Press Association Awards. A native New Yorker, he was once first runner-up for the New York Press Association Writer-Of-The-Year award. He’s currently a freelance writer/content creator and runs a local news site, the MillTown News.