starling-delay symposium on violin studies 2023

Last week I enjoyed being a participant of the Starling-Delay Symposium at the Juilliard School. It left me overwhelmed to say the least – I haven’t felt this inspired and lit on fire in a very long time. In the spirit of Ms. Delay’s legacy, much of the Symposium revolved around discovering “one’s own truth”; self-discovery, authenticity, possibilities, and purpose. Over 150 participants from around the world gathered to learn, play, absorb, interpret, and exchange ideas and personal experiences. Within this review and reflection, I decided to share some (paraphrased) quotes and notes I took. I hope that they inspire you too.


Blues within Classical Music

Multi-time Grammy nominee (and a fellow colleague from high school) Curtis Stewart engaged us in a discussion called “A Place for the Blues in Classical Music.” We began with a few questions for us to ponder, such as: “What does authenticity mean to you?” The line between “classical” and “non-classical” music is more blurred if we consider the fact that a big chunk of western classical music stemmed from the use of national folk tunes and local cultures (ie – Bartok, Stravinsky, and even Bach if we think about the roles of the dance suites during his time). Also, given that improvisation was common practice during the baroque and classical eras, the line becomes even more blurred if we were really to define where classical music lies in the grander scheme. In this sense, “The blues are American Classical Music.” We participated in a little call-and-response version of the spiritual Wade in the Water and it was fun to hear it evolve into a micro-improvisation of sorts. Some of the exercises in the class helped us to sense each other and listen to the room very intently. It also helped me notice where I was and where my sound was within the space.

Personal Development & Career Coaching

Career coach and licensed psychotherapist Dana Fonteneau taught two classes called “Activating Genius and Fulfilling Potential” and “Addressing Fear After COVID-19.” Much of it was based on her book It’s Not (Just) About the Gig, which I happened to own from a few years ago! One of the most important things she addressed was how to define our own version of success so that it’s in alignment with “being able to express and say what we want” and how one’s perception of a challenge can help turn a situation around. We went over several pointers to help us look inward and understand our own values better. For me, this is a personal development exercise that’s helpful to do at least once a year.

Body Mapping

Jennifer Johnson taught two body mapping classes and quite frankly, I was shocked that so many people have never heard of it! This is probably the most important knowledge for anyone looking for longevity and injury prevention in themselves and in their students…according to current statistics around 85% of musicians will experience some form of injury. I think that’s absolutely insane and the fact is, many cases can be prevented before they even start! In fact, I will be taking another seminar on body mapping next week, online. If you’re new to body mapping and would like a “quicker and easier read” before diving into the depth of What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body, I recommend to first start with Jennifer Johnson’s second book, called Teaching Body Mapping to Children. I found its exercises very useful even as an adult, and it’s a great starting point for any instrumentalist, conductor, or vocalist.

Music of Amy Beach

Finally, Brian Lewis had us join him in a group reading (singing, for anyone without an instrument in the room) of Amy Beach’s Romance and Berceuse, with Pamela Viktoria Pyle at the piano. I have never heard these pieces performed by more than 1 violinist, so this felt very special and even brought tears to my eyes. The part that surprised me the most was that with a certain interpretation of dynamics and rubatos, the writing of this American composer reminded me very much of the lush, lyrical movements of Gustav Mahler. But perhaps it’s because we all played as if it was a giant violin section in an orchestra.

Student Artists

The student artists, who ranged from age 12-25, demonstrated full commitment to their art and interpretation. I was especially impressed by everyone’s stage presence and how comfortable some of them felt on stage. They were able to let go of any obvious insecurities at the door when it really mattered. Some seemed to be on another planet during their performance – in true “Flow” state… In addition, they expressed great respect for one another and all showed immaculate response and ability to adjust their playing, breath, and movement on the spot at the masterclasses. Not an easy feat when there are hundreds of professional violinists in the audience from around the world and a first-class artist teaching you at the same time!

Key Pointers from Masterclasses

Daily masterclasses included guest teaching artists Joel Smirnoff, Francesca dePasquale, Li Lin, Catherine Cho, and Danielle Belin. We also had the pleasure to meet Itzhak Perlman for a super fun Q&A! I just felt so much joy and something very special from everyone. To read detailed write-ups about the masterclasses, click here: Laurie Niles Blog Archive for May 2023 (

From Joel Smirnoff:

  • Dorothy Delay had 2 books on her table: An Actor Prepares and The Inner Game of Tennis.
  • “Create your own personal territory on stage, about 6 feet in diameter. Allow yourself to move within the territory”
  • Importance of “Mastery of controlling our breath” – just like an athlete or vocalist..
  • Legato is a lot of work – to project a good sostenuto into the audience, work on downbow crescendos. Also, feel the plane of the string in the first inch and a half of bow at the frog. Continue developing this!

From Francesca dePasquale

  • To create a longer line, ironically we need to pay even more attention to the subdivisions and “fill in the space” to hear the connections between notes, slurs, etc.
  • Be specific about what composers’ markings mean to you from piece to piece. Ex – “What does piú tranquillo mean? Is it a tempo change? A mood change? Sound quality?” Similarly, “take articulation markings to heart” and really identify what they mean from piece to piece.
  • For good sostenuto: practice portato bowing to subdivide longer notes within a phrase. As a second step, keep the portato but add phrasing and expression.
  • When there’s too much energy in performance, don’t try to “put out the fire.” Instead, feel where in the body the excess energy is and transfer it down to the legs and feet to be more grounded. We can choose to send the energy outward or inward, depending on how we feel on a certain day. Everything is energy – mastery of channeling energy is an art in itself. “Imagine your energy is collected in a bowl.”

From Itzhak Perlman

  • Dorothy Delay taught the process of learning – this is a huge part of her legacy. For example, she would never say something like “It’s out of tune!” Instead, she’d ask something like “What is your concept of G# here?” She would really make you listen by asking “What did you think?”
  • Trust your practice! Listen to the music and listen to what you’re doing!
  • In some ways, performing something for the first time can be easier. The challenge is finding ways to keep yourself interested during the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th performances. We must find something different; different shades of phrasing or dynamics.
  • If you’re going to do something, that’s your favorite thing to do in the moment.
  • Don’t just put in the hours. If you have no goal and not listening, it’s a waste of time.
  • It’s normal for a piece to sound worse on day 2 than day 1. (This was a relief for me to hear!)
  • Slow learning = better retention. Quick learning = quick results, but will be soon forgotten.
  • Believe in what you do, and don’t look around at what others are doing.
  • Career-wise in the current times, someone who can “change lanes” is in a great position.

From Li Lin

  • It’s easier to analyze a piece by responding to the piano or orchestra rather than just score study. You’ll get more information that way. (He encouraged several students to stand closer to the piano, to get more surround sound.)
  • The sound is 80% instrument and 20% room acoustics; feel the piece in the audience rather than by itself. (ie – Use the room as part of the instrument)
  • Play “from the hip” and make a connection between upper and lower bodies. (lots of concepts inspired by Tai Chi in this class!)
  • Feel it in the body before you play.”
  • Have a real inner vision of the music. Don’t “make” or “manufacture” the music. Let it be, directed by your vision. Then, it’ll be authentic.

From Catherine Cho

  • Enjoy the “now” with the audience as much as possible before any judgmental brain kicks in.
  • Exercise for bringing out authentic expression: Inflect the melody with the voice while air-bowing and still using left hand but without vibrato. Free up the hips/lower body and bring voice to top corners of the room, using natural vibrations from the body. Then, add sound with the bow but still using voice at the same time.
  • For staccato: Imagine how every bow stroke is a bottom of a circle. Staccato is a bow divider while still singing through legato line. Sing all the notes in the mind’s ear. Then sing “between” the notes – this will help make staccato more lyrical and create more resonance between the notes.
  • Breathe with character and feeling. Say out loud, with expressive inflection, your intention for what you’re about to do. Notice how it makes the body move. This creates an inspiring feedback loop. Also, don’t say “hopefully” or “try” – careful with language! Articulate intention in a full statement. Be specific.
  • Imagine a 3D world for the dynamics.

** Catherine Cho’s masterclass was most unique, and she truly demonstrated how to teach with the spirit of Dorothy Delay’s legacy – she asked the students a LOT of questions, and the class was build around a conversation in which the students’ visions led much of the music making. She held a pop-up studio class for one of the performers, in which she was surrounded by colleagues on stage. Ms. Cho asked each student a question for feedback after the performance, and each question followed up the previous person’s answer. The goal was to explore or improve on one pointer while sharing ideas. This created a very student-led, supportive, and respectful environment. I felt that Ms. Cho helped the students find self-realization.

From Danielle Belin

  • For vibrato, spend some time listening to the note below the pitch within the oscillation. Also, to have a good vibrato, one must have a very beautiful non-vibrato.
  • Tonal exercise – use random fingerings to listen to intonation differently.
  • For a good pianissimo: more concentrated at the tip, and more bow speed in lower half. Floating elbow. Explore relationship between bow and string.
  • Importance to warm up with perfect 5ths and 4ths.
  • The further we grow as musicians/artists, the more we need to be diligent at practicing the basics.” (I couldn’t agree more! It’s something I believe very strongly, especially through personal experience.)

**There was one moment she mentioned the famous quote from Michelangelo:

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it’s the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

I felt that this was very much in line with the spirit of the Symposium – that our artistry is not really created out of nothing and then built up piece by piece. Rather, it’s discovered and continuously refined from within.


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