Monday, December 13, 2010

Violinist Phyllis Fleming: 'A lesson with Emily Mutter Austin was more than worth waiting for.'

Phyllis Fleming is an African American violinist who has written a tribute to the late Emily Austin, who died Nov. 28, 2010 and who helped her and many others learn the violin:


by Phyllis Fleming

Emily Mutter (Adams) Austin was a dedicated and highly acclaimed private violin instructor in Detroit for many decades. Her students were often concertmasters of their local school orchestras, graduates of prestigious conservatories and universities and winners of national and international festivals and competitions. Many have joined the ranks of symphony and opera orchestras around the world. Others are renowned soloists, recording artists or chamber musicians. Certainly there are those in other professions who carry a part of her wherever they are engaged.

My introduction to the violin was with Mildred Bachellor, a longtime friend of Mrs. Austin who was a devoted teacher in her own right. She taught group string classes in the Ferndale Public Schools. As a fourth grader, I was very enthusiastic about the violin and quickly completed the required material. Mrs. Bachellor gave me individual sessions during her lunch hour and urged my parents to send me to Emily Mutter "Adams", a Detroit Symphony Orchestra violinist, for private instruction.

My Dad was a factory worker and my Mom a homemaker. We lived in a very economically depressed community between the boundaries of Detroit and Ferndale, Michigan. It was the mid 1950s and my sister and I were already taking private piano lessons (at $2.50 each per week). Adding private violin lessons was not a possibility. Mrs. Bachellor helped me apply for a scholarship from the Ferndale Kiwanis Club. That award paid for my initial lessons with Mrs. Adams. After that, my mother informed Mrs. Adams that I would no longer be able to study.

Mrs. Adams insisted that I must continue. I'm not sure how the arrangement was made, but my mother agreed to alter and repair her clothing, including elegant performance gowns, in exchange for my lessons. Each week, I would return a finished garment and bring another one home. Years later, I realized what a challenge it must have been for my dear teacher to "find" tasks for my mother to complete. I'm not even certain that she ever wore all the items. It was a labor of love from two of the most important women in my life.

Students of my generation can remember when we first saw Emily Mutter Adams in the company of a very polite and distinguished gentleman, Carl Austin. We secretly whispered about the two of them and were delighted when they announced that they were getting married. It was a rare and perfect match. He was an accomplished, professional violinist-- a well respected recording studio musician and theater orchestra leader. My memory seems to recall that he studied at one time with the legendary Leopold Auer.

Mrs. Austin maintained a large studio and never seemed to be able to turn away a capable student who was eager to learn. All were fortunate to have had the opportunity to partake of her infinite knowledge and expertise. Although she was not formally a pianist, she was able to play the accompaniment to any violin concerto or concert piece, using only the violin part as the score. What a gift! On any day of the week, there was a constant flow of students in and out of her home. There was rarely time for her to eat, so she kept a bowl of dry cereal on top of the piano. She was very thorough and never watched the clock. Somewhat like a physician's waiting room, there was always a backlog. Everyone brought homework or a book to read, because we knew she was always running against time.

Even so, when you finally started your lesson, it was as though you were the only other human in the universe with her. When the old grandfather clock struck 8:00pm, reality would set in. Sometimes she would sing out in a sweet, pleading voice, "C-a-r-l, d-e-a-r...would you please work with (_____). It's getting late and I'm afraid..." Although unexpected, a lesson with Carl Austin was a lasting and meaningful learning experience. Even so, there might still be two or three students "on the couch" in the living room. Very apologetically, Mrs. Austin would appear with her appointment book in hand. Nearly every line was already filled for consecutive days on end. She would flip through the pages and try desperately to find an opening to take care of the remaining students. If you were among those few, you didn't really mind. A lesson with Emily Mutter Austin was more than worth waiting for.

She was very supportive of school music programs. All of the teachers knew her and referred their most promising students. In the 1950s, she was one of three women in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, quite an achievement in that era. She was also concertmaster of the Detroit Womens' Symphony Orchestra, of which I became a member--along with several other young ladies who looked up to her with the deepest admiration. She saw to it that we were exposed to unique musical ventures during the summer, such as Interlochen (MI), Meadowmount (NY) or the Congress of Strings, sponsored by the American Federation of Musicians.

As an undergraduate at Wayne State University, I received a four-year scholarship from the Higgins (Pontiac) Foundation and continued private instruction with Mrs. Austin. She continued to encourage me in my career goals and assisted me in the selection of my first "serious" violin from William Moenning & Son in Philadelphia. She counseled me about each shipment. It wasn't until my adult years that I was finally able to fully understand the role that she played in my formative years and to appropriately thank her for her care and concern. It's been 22 years since I left Detroit and relocated to Washington, DC. I kept in touch by phone and greeting cards.

Last night, when a dear friend and fellow student called to tell me that our beloved teacher had passed away, I was reminded of how fortunate I am to have been touched by a great, kind and generous soul, who will live forever, not only in my heart, but in the hearts of more people than can ever be identified.

Requiescat in pace.

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