Friday, September 18, 2015

The Company of Angels: Dorothy Straub

I learned yesterday of the sad news that my dear friend and mentor Dorothy Straub had passed away. Dorothy Straub is one of the most influential individuals in my teaching life and certainly in my career trajectory in string education. From the day I met her, she encouraged me to think of my work in string education as an opportunity to positively influence lives, and to view my work as a mission, not just a job. As I reflect on my nearly 30 year friendship with her, I feel compelled to tell the story, from my perspective, of this wonderful educator who had so much influence on my life and the lives of other string students and teachers around the United States. 

I first encountered Dorothy Straub in the summer of 1988 when I attended a string pedagogy workshop at Central Connecticut State University. Dorothy was one of three instructors for that workshop along with the great Marvin Rabin and James Kjelland. Each of the three instructors had a specific influence on those in attendance and a clear role to play in the workshop. Dr. Rabin introduced me to the pedagogy of George Bornoff and the concept of finger patterns. Those of you that know me well know that I continue to give workshops built on that foundational material to this day. (In fact, I will be speaking on finger patterns at several conferences during the upcoming school year.) Jim Kjelland provided a more philosophical approach and outlook for those in attendance.   I remember him introducing me to the concept of Gestalt philosophy and thinking.  Again, those of you that know me, know that I have built on many of Jim's philosophical foundations and am a frequent presenter on topics that have grown from his ideas. Some of those include Habits of Mind, Ethics and Leadership, Core Philosophies, and others. I remember many late night discussions with Jim centering on his ideas about string education and larger ideas that could be related to our craft. 

Dorothy, however, had a very different role to play in the workshop. She played, in my opinion, the role of the quintessential traditional school string educator. In fact, I grew to learn that is exactly who she was.  She worked with us on the intricacies of teaching beginners, strong foundational techniques, more advanced techniques, and classroom management. She also introduced us to much of the great standard repertoire for young string orchestras. We dealt with various grade levels of repertoire and the challenges that the works provided for students.  In fact, I am certain that she introduced me to Percy Fletcher's Folk Tune and Fiddle Dance at that workshop. Every time I conduct that work I think of her. She was patient. She was encouraging. And, she was accessible. I asked questions. She offered strong responses built on a lifetime of truly best practice. But, beyond the content, she was so supportive of me as a young teacher with so much to learn. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she had faith in my ability to succeed with students and to become a leader in our field. She affirmed my musicianship and playing ability. Even though at times my ideas that were little bit outside the box, and she allowed me to grow through the course of that week both as a teacher and as a friend. 

Over the years, we've remained in very close touch. She would always attend when I was presenting sessions at conferences when she could. By the early 1990's, I was living in teaching in Maryland and working every day with her sister, Mary Ellen Cohn, the Executive Director of the Maryland Music Educators' Association. Mary Ellen and I developed a strong friendship and professional trust that always had her sister Dorothy at the center of it. That friendship continues to this day.

Interestingly, many years after the fact, Dorothy and I realized that she had an impact on my life even when I was a senior in high school in 1983. I had attended the All Eastern Orchestra Festival held in Boston that year, and she was the chair of that event. As I look back on that event, I can still remember the friendly, authoritative, articulate, sharply dressed woman who was running the event.  I could  tell from the start that she was a person that others respected and looked to for leadership.  Of course, it was Dorothy.

In later years, Dorothy, who served as String Music Supervisor for the Fairfield, CT public schools, invited me to conduct an all district event for her district. I was so honored to be invited to conduct by the great Dorothy Straub. I wanted to do such a good job for her. But of course that is who Dorothy was; someone who supported others and whom others wanted to please. I felt such a great responsibility to be an exemplary conductor and educator at that particular event. Interestingly, I can recall one young student who tested my patience right up to the moment of the performance. My recollection is that I didn't handle the situation very well.  Dorothy, in all of her wisdom, helped me navigate a difficult teaching situation with grace and love as she always did. 

In recent years, Dorothy was recovering from the effects of an aggressive brain cancer. I had the great pleasure of participating in a ceremony in her honor at a recent ASTA national conference. As part of that ceremony, and a new work by William Hoffeldt was commissioned in her honor. He entitled the work In the Company of Angels, and Dorothy was presented with this gift and honor at that time. Just a few short months after that ceremony, I was honored to conduct the first public performance of that work with the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. That piece will always serve as a perfect remembrance of Dorothy and the spirit with which she approached all of her relationships and teaching. Those of us that knew her always felt that we were "in the company of an angel" when we were with her. I know that today I am comforted by the thought that she is now "in the company of angels." ( I have to take this moment to thank Bill Hofeldt for such an insightful title and beautiful piece of music that bears a dedication to Dorothy Straub.)

Of course, throughout the course of her life and career, Dorothy had many other important and influential roles. She served as president of MENC, a leader in the American String Teachers Association, and published many important articles on string pedagogy and education including  “The Impact of the National Standards on Music Performance.” in Teaching Music Through Performance in Orchestra, and "Strategies for Teaching String and Orchestra." She served as Chair of the MENC Committee for String and Orchestra Education, editor for “School Teachers Forum,” in American String Teacher, and Chair of the MENC String and Orchestra Task Force.  She was awarded the American String Teachers Association Citation for Exceptional Leadership and the National School Orchestra Association Lifetime Achievement Award.  

From her MENC vitae: "One of only two American String Teachers Association members to serve as MENC president, Dorothy Straub took office at a time when the national focus was on curriculum and standards. Her presidency was marked by concerns for advocacy and promotion of the National Arts Standards, and in March of her term, the standards were completed and delivered to Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Although many of Straub’s monthly president’s columns in Music Educators Journal and Teaching Music focused on the standards, she also wrote about the importance of providing each child with rewarding musical experiences. In her columns for American String Teacher, she encouraged string teachers to provide students with a challenging and enjoyable curriculum, calling it a “myth” that children learning string instruments could not produce good sounds for several years."

In the end, Dorothy was an advocate, friend, and mentor.  I simply can't articulate how much she influenced me throughout my professional life.  She was a dear friend and trusted colleague.  She supported and advocated for me.  She taught me how to be a whole teacher.   There isn't a day in my teaching life that goes by that her influence isn't felt in some way.  I only hope that I can be the advocate, friend, and supporter of young teachers the way she was for me.

I will miss you, Dorothy.  I hope that we can one day celebrate together again "in the company of angels."


1 comment:

  1. Thank you Scott. A wonderful reflection on one of our greatest visionaries and leaders.