A Performer with a Passion for Teaching

By: Edna Landau

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Anyone who has read my blog over the past year knows that I am fascinated by the career trajectories of successful people. This week, I have chosen to spotlight a much admired viola professor.

My first introduction to Barbara Westphal was in the early 1980’s when she was violist of the Delos String Quartet, based at the University of Delaware, and Charles Hamlen and I signed them to the Hamlen/Landau Management roster. There was no way to predict at that time that she would become one of the most prominent and sought after viola teachers of our time. She left the quartet in 1985 and I totally lost contact with her. When I started teaching at the Colburn School in 2008, a number of students who were moving on to graduate studies spoke about her with considerable reverence and mentioned that they hoped to have the opportunity to study with her. Curious about her personal journey since the time our communication left off, I decided to call her recently and make up for lost time. Thanks to her American manager, Melody Bunting, I was able to accomplish this rather easily.

One need only look at a picture of the medieval North German city of Lübeck to understand why Prof. Westphal has been teaching there since 1989. The Hochschule, which is situated inside of 17 old merchant houses, looks out on a river and on a 1480 city gate. This picturesque location was once captured on the face of the DM 50 note. A native of Germany, Prof. Westphal came to the U.S. in 1974 to study violin with Broadus Erle at Yale University. He passed away in 1977 and she moved to Delaware in the following year to join the Delos Quartet (after having switched to viola during a summer at the Marlboro Music Festival). However, Prof. Erle had a profound influence on her teaching philosophy which has remained with her to this day. She spoke to me of how “he burned for his calling. Teaching was his whole life, not something he did simply to earn a living.” She admired how “he could say very much without saying hardly anything at all.” She loved how he pointed his students in the direction he thought was right for them while challenging them to find the right solutions for themselves.

After winning the Munich International Competition and the Busch Prize in 1983, Germany seemed a logical destination for Prof. Westphal. She settled in Munich in 1985 after leaving the Delos Quartet and getting married three days later (!). Although she had regular opportunities to perform, she felt the need for a steady and reliable income. She found the opening at the Lübeck Hochschule in the job listings of the German weekly paper Die Zeit and started there in 1989. The schedule was flexible enough to allow her to keep performing but after a time, she was totally taken by surprise to discover that she had found a new calling. Despite various job offers over the years, she has remained in Lübeck ever since.  However, she has maintained her contacts in America, visiting the Heifetz Institute in recent years and returning to the Sarasota Music Festival for the past 22 years, where she has treasured the opportunity to perform alongside admired colleagues such as Claude Frank and Neil Black.

When I asked Prof. Westphal about her proudest moments as a teacher, she cited the joy derived from performing chamber music with former students and being swept away by their artistry. Needless to say, she is also thrilled that a significant number of her students have found jobs in leading orchestras in Germany and abroad. How many students have actually had the benefit of being exposed to Prof. Westphal’s passionate calling? She told me that she doesn’t believe in just filling spaces in a class. She has to feel a chemistry with any student she accepts and, based on meeting and talking to them, must feel convinced that she can help them accomplish their goals within four years. At the same time, she tends to exceed the number of students that she is legally required to teach because she believes that there is so much that students can learn from one another and often it is not even about their instrument. Spencer Martin, a teacher at Luther College in Iowa, spent the summer of 2006 taking lessons with Prof. Westphal and observing her with her students and in master classes at the Oberstdorfer Musiksommer. He wrote a lovely profile of her for the Journal of the American Viola Society in which he highlighted “the nurturing environment that she creates, which heightens the chances that her students will blossom and feel accepted”. In a blog post of the American Viola Society,  another former student, David Lau, now a violist in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, spoke of his time in her studio as “one of the greatest learning experiences of my musical education”. When I contacted him via Facebook, he was inspired to elaborate further: “ I felt she heard all of her students as the individuals they were. Everyone has his or her own needs, strengths and weaknesses, and she never tried to fit you into a mold. The aim was to explore who you were and what you wanted to say, and together to find the most effective way to achieve those goals. She is also incredibly honest and didn’t feel the need to sugarcoat things. It was never negative, but she said exactly what she thought. If it was bad, she told you, but then when she told you it was good, you really believed her. She, herself, is very active as a performer as well, and it really helped that she had the chops to back up the things she taught. Her studio, when you are there, becomes like a family and her students are not only very successful, but also kind people. I have never seen anyone invest themselves so wholeheartedly in other people like she does. I will cherish my time as her student forever.” From what I can tell, Mr. Lau is not alone in these sentiments. Broadus Erle must be smiling from on high.

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© Edna Landau 2013

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