Teaching to the Very End, Literally!

June 8, 2012 James Knapp
Roman Totenberg teaching a violin student
Photo credit: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As musicians and conductors, we are artists and educators. Teaching has always been one of my greatest joys in life. Whether in a classroom, in rehearsal or on a concert tour, doing my part in shaping not only the music but the also hearts and minds of those performing has been a lifelong gift. I am so grateful for this continuous opportunity.

In 2012, Boston lost one of the most influential violinists and teachers of the 20th century: Roman Totenberg, who passed away at the age of 101. A remarkable performer who debuted at the age of 11 with the Warsaw Philharmonic, he worked with distinguished composers, such as Samuel Barber, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski. He performed on music tours for kings and presidents, toured with musical royalty and befriended geniuses such as Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein. He began teaching at the very early age of ten and was a faculty member of Boston University for over 50 years. His former students play in most major U.S. orchestras and many other cities around the world.

"He was lying in bed with his eyes closed and conducting them. As soon as the violin and music started, he kind of found a little more energy.”

The hours leading up to his passing were spent doing what he loved more than anything: teaching. Students flocked from all over the country to pay their final respects to their master teacher and friend. His daughter recalled, “He was lying in bed with his eyes closed and conducting them. As soon as the violin and music started, he kind of found a little more energy.”

One of the works that was being played was Johannes Brahms' Concerto in D Major. This is a piece that he has played several times in orchestral concerts and he has, in fact, made the definitive recording of this work. As one of his students played on, Totenberg said, “Slow down; too fast”, then to another student, “This fingering works best,” and at another point, stopped and tried to communicate what seemed to be an important comment. Not being able to quite understand from afar, his daughter leaned down to discern what he was saying. Apparently the D natural in the previous measure was in need of being tuned! Intonation, please!

He passed away the following morning surrounded by adoring students, a loving family and the music which flowed through his blood for over 100 years.

I have been so moved by this man’s passion for music-making and teaching. May we all strive to be this kind of educator to our students and performers. May we also be blessed to tune a note at the age of 101!


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