Thursday, September 1, 2011

Nokuthula Ngwenyama: 'I am deeply moved to be invited to participate in the memorial for Karen Tuttle'

[Karen Tuttle]

Nokuthula Ngwenyama is President of the American Viola Society. When she announced her participation in the Faculty Tribute to Karen Tuttle (1920-2010) being held at the Curtis Institute of Music September 18 at 3 PM, AfriClassical invited Nokuthula to share her memories of her former teacher:

I am deeply moved to be invited to participate in the memorial for Karen Tuttle being held at Curtis September 18th. She requested that the second and third movements of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by Bach be performed, and several former students will speak about their experiences with her beforehand. I remember fondly working with her on this piece. It was pure joy from beginning to end; each time she sang or gesticulated a phrase the lines soared with ecstasy and beauty.

For Karen music was physical, sensual, and inevitable. There was something special about the way she transmitted freedom from inhibitions on both the instrument and in life. She was liberated in everything she did, from the tone of her voice, her smile, her motions, her singing, her playing, her choices, and the way she lived. She embraced the physical and emotional world, not delineating between them and the creative musical process.

Her freedom was contagious if somewhat shocking at first. I remember playing for her as a 16-year-old visiting from the west coast. My mother and I were welcomed by her and her husband Morty into their inviting brownstone and ushered upstairs.

She asked, “Ok dearie, what song do you have to play for me today?” A question her many students know so well. I responded and played what I could.

Afterwards she said with a smile, “I think you could audition for Curtis this year,” then continued speaking in detail about the process, what to expect, etc. Her presence was a winning combination of generosity, kindness, and exuberance. She cut straight to the bunch and had great radar for any BS floating around. My reserved mother hardly knew how to react, but I instantly fell in love with this free-spirited force of nature and felt confident in her presence.

She was the perfect teacher and guide for my undergraduate years as I began my professional performance career. Even though she is well-known for her method of coordination the thing I loved the most was that she tailor-made that approach to fit each of her students. If you observe her students today none of them approaches this philosophy in exactly the same way, and that is to her credit. Conviction was the key. Music wasn’t something to be toyed with, a wishy-washy elitist expression, but rather heroic pacing and sincere phrasing from deep within brought out.

Many a time I would prepare a lesson – for which she encouraged sleeveless attire so as to work with the arms and shoulders – only to hear, “It’s not convincing. Try it again.” She forced me to dig deeper to express that which can only be communicated without words. Her uncanny ability to tear down walls and promote connections with deep emotion and sensitivity purified the conduit between myself and the instrument and released tensions and inhibitions from my playing. The place she helped every one of her students find within ourselves sustains our playing – of that I’m sure. I cannot count how many times I’ve been on stage and “dug deep” into that well only to feel the release of the music through my body and the sound open though the phrase. Karen opened the window of honesty and truth in her students’ playing and inspired us to attain more with love and encouragement.

I miss her deeply, and my heart goes to her immediate family who continue to grieve the loss of this dynamic and beloved woman. Her joy continues to be carried by all who worked with and knew her vitality. She is an example and inspiration to us all.

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