The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented music teachers. In this interview we spoke with violin, piano, and composition instructor Sarah Summar about her approach to teaching and the ways that even beginners can use composition and improvisation in their music studies.
Center for Musical Arts: Hello! My name is Erica Reid, I’m with the Center for Musical Arts, and one of my favorite parts of my job is talking to our faculty members to get to know them better. Today, I’m here with Sarah Summar. How are you doing, Sarah?
Sarah Summar: I’m great, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Center: Yeah! I am excited to be interviewing some of our newer faculty members to the Center. Can you tell me a little bit about your path and what brought you to the Center for Musical Arts?
Sarah: Sure! For the past 10 years, I’ve been living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee with my family, and it was during that time that I started focusing on teaching, mostly pre-college age, but all the way up through adult students. I did some group classes, but mostly piano and violin instruction. And previously, I’d mostly taught at the collegiate level, but I just really fell in love with working with kids.
So when my family had the opportunity to move to Colorado, when I learned about the Center for Musical Arts and their mission to make music available to everyone, that really spoke to my heart. And I was lucky to know an instructor who teaches the Prelude classes, and so she connected me. And I’m just so happy to be starting out at the Center. It’s been a great step.
Center: Wonderful. We’re so glad to have you. So as you mentioned, you teach violin and also piano, and I also have that you teach composition and songwriting. Can we start just with the violin and the piano? What brought you to those instruments? Why are they a passion for you?
Sarah: Well, my first musical lessons were on piano. I started at age six, and I had a wonderful teacher, Debra Nicodemus, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And I didn’t know or appreciate at the time, but she gave me a wonderful foundation in rhythm reading and sight reading in general, and that still serves me today. So it was around age 10 that a teacher came to my elementary school and demonstrated all the string instruments, and I absolutely fell in love.
I have to say, I actually was most in love with the cello, but when I looked at the high school students, I noticed all the cello students were extra tall [laughs], and I was not a tall kid, so I thought, “Well, I guess maybe I should play the violin.” And I loved all the strings. So I stuck with it and ended up being a violin major in college.
But that was also when I had my first composition instruction, and it felt like a natural fit for me. I realized that, all of my years, all the way down to when I was just a little kid listening to records in my parents’ living room, that I listened like a composer. I like to hear all the different parts and how they interact and listen to the big shapes that the orchestra makes. And so, yeah, it’s not a case of losing interest in this and shifting to that. I’ve always stayed interested and just seen each new thing as a way to expand my interest in music as a whole.
Center: Oh, I love that story. I love the concept of “hearing it as a composer.” At a young age or when you first encountered your first composition classes, did you recognize that ability right away, as something — like a special talent that you had?
Sarah: No, I didn’t think of it that way. It felt more like a personality trait. And a lot of people will tell you that, if you walk into a music school — stereotypes are obviously very problematic. But we do, as you get to know musicians, different instrumentalists, there are certain stereotypes of the brass player and the string player, and sometimes, not everybody fits those.
What happened is I went and I heard the string quartet at my university, which is Vanderbilt University. The Blair String Quartet was the resident quartet, and they were just wonderful. And all of us string students just really admired our teachers and loved to hear them perform.
But I noticed the conversation coming out, they had played a Beethoven quartet, and I listened to how the other string students talked about the performance. Like, “Oh, when John got that viola solo, he was just rocking out. It was great.” And I definitely heard it that way and enjoyed the quality of the performance. It was top notch, but mostly, when I was sitting in my seat hearing it, I was recognizing, “Oh, I didn’t know that Beethoven was going to go that way with this, but now that I hear it, it sounds perfect.”
And so, I think that I remember that moment clearly as when I recognized that slightly different focus in how I listen.
Center: Interesting, interesting. At the orchestra where I used to work, there were actually, in the hall, there were — some of the cheaper seats were on a balcony that sat kind of over the orchestra just a little bit. So you’d lose some of the section violins or something, but you were kind of perched over them. And it was only sitting in those seats, those were my favorite seats, where I could really watch what was happening where, that I started to learn how to put all of that together.
Because prior to that, I was just hearing music coming at me. And from that seat, when I was able to watch, those were my friends on stage, when I was able to watch certain people on the oboe or the clarinet or the percussion, to be able to actually visually watch what was happening, in order to bring it together, that was a big learning point for me. Because it’s not automatic for all of us to be able to parse even a quartet, even four pieces.
So it’s really interesting that you recognize that and recognize that you hear differently and that that might be a skill, you say a personality trait, but also something that ladders you up to understanding composition and engaging like that. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’ve done with composition since that and how you teach that to students who are interested?
Sarah: Sure. So I see composition and improvisation pretty much as the same thing.
Sarah: But one is an instant process, and there’s no opportunity for revising. You have to take what you already have and figure out what’s the best next step.
With composition, you have the opportunity to sleep on it, reflect, and go, “Oh, I could make better use of this moment right here. I’m going to change it a little bit.” So I see composition as just slow motion improvisation. So all of my students, from day one, I always get them improvising. This is something piano instructors, I think, tend to do a little more often. In strings, it’s very hard to, one, fit that into a beginner lesson, because the beginning technique of strings is quite complex. But it’s worth taking the time to help the student get it just right. So it saves them some headaches down the road.
And two, it’s hard to know how to do it. That part of music education dropped out for a couple generations, I think. And I think it’s making a comeback. But I think, if you weave it in with understanding music theory concepts, like a simple (singing) do-re-me-fa-so chord, if you can play five notes, then I can establish just a rhythm on that do and keep it simple. And the student can decide for themselves when to go up, when to come down. Do they want to skip around? And it’s a great way for me to get to know the student, because their personality comes out.
There’s no possibility of making a mistake, if they play one of the notes that’s not part of what I prescribed, usually, they notice and go back to where we were. But even if they don’t, it’s just an opportunity to discuss, “Wow, that F sharp sounded really interesting, and I noticed you went back to it. How did it feel for you?”
So it’s just all about helping them find their voice. And that comes out when they’re playing Bach or Duke Ellington, how they want to interpret. That’s what makes… Otherwise, you could just get a computer to perform the traditional pieces. There’s a reason that we still have human beings doing that.
Center: Yes, yes, I agree. So it sounds like, if I come to lessons with you, this is going to be an element of my lessons no matter what. I don’t need to come to you and say, “I’m interested in composition and improvisation. Can we add that to my lesson?” It sounds like it is part of the way you teach. Am I understanding that right?
Sarah: That is true, but I definitely do have, I had a student this last week who brought an original composition with her that she’d done with a previous teacher, and I’m so glad that she shared it with me and played it for me, because I just got so much from that, in terms of understanding how she hears music, what her understanding of musical structures is.
And so, yeah, if a student has a particular interest, that’s definitely something I like to know from the start, so we can really dig into that.
Center: Okay. So I always ask about teaching philosophy, and I feel like we have covered a lot of that, but is there anything else you’d like to say about your teaching philosophy and sort of the foundations you like to set?
Sarah: I think that the simplest way to put it is just I’m all about meeting the student where they are. It’s very important for me to, first and foremost, listen and observe, not just to what they say, “I like this kind of music, I want to do this,” but also, what they say with how they play, even the body language they walk in with.
And I feel like not only is music for everyone, but I feel like we all need some kind of music in our lives. And if I read them well, I hope that I can figure out what they need from their musical experience and their learning experience. What goals can we set that they can work towards, that are just going to make them feel great about their abilities and make them feel — music has the power to connect people.
I had another young student this week — I taught her how to play a scale, and she just was so excited. I could tell she felt like it sounded good, and it did sound good, and she couldn’t wait to turn to her mother and say, “Did it sound good?” She’s wanting to connect, and music can help us do that in a really special way.
Center: Oh, it sounds like you’re in the right place to me.
Center: I can see why the mission resonated with you, and it sounds like you’re just a wonderful fit for the Center for Musical Arts. When you are not teaching or listening to music, what are you up to, Sarah?
Sarah: Well, my hobbies have been gardening, and sometimes, I do some jewelry making for fun. It’s creative stuff, that’s not music, because if you study something seriously like music, it can start to get hard to detach your judgment self from your free spirit creative voice.
And so, I do like doing, especially with my family… I am lucky. I married a man who has a very playful personality, and we have a son who is, without a doubt, the most creative person I’ve ever met.
Center: How old is your son?
Sarah: He is nine.
Center: That’s a creative age.
Sarah: Sometimes we’ll just draw together, and “Let’s all come up with a monster or a kaiju.” And that’s totally outside of my comfort zone, but it’s such a good thing for me to do, because I’m asking people to do things outside their comfort zone all the time as a teacher. But it’s just all about having fun and being creative.
Center: Wonderful. I feel compelled to ask if you ever got a chance to play with the cello. [laughs] Now that you’ve grown up, and you got a little taller… did you ever, in your life, get a chance to play the cello? Do you own one? I need closure.
Sarah: I did, actually. A couple of things happened along the way. When I was in college, I learned to play viola da gamba, which is a Renaissance instrument, held upright, similarly to a cello, but not quite the same way. And so, that, combined with my violin knowledge, helped me understand a little bit about how the bow works on the cello.
So I taught myself cello about 10 years ago, when I had a family, and they really wanted their children to learn cello, and the kids were interested in it. And so, I rented a cello and taught myself, and I eventually bought myself a cello. But now, I want a better cello. [laughs] So yeah, sometime in the future I hope to buy a better one. And so, yes, I did get that chance. I’m not nearly as good. It’s hard when you’re pretty advanced on one instrument and then, you’re trying to learn one. It can be frustrating, because you want to jump to step 10.
Center: I was so hoping to hear there was a cello in your house, even if it’s a fun instrument. I talk to a lot of faculty members who have their primary or even their secondary instrument, their violin and their piano, but then, there’s a ukulele somewhere, there’s a flute somewhere. I don’t know. There’s just something that they like to play.
Sarah: I have a tenor ukulele that I just love the sound of. That was a graduate school congratulations gift from my husband. And I just love playing it and the sound of it.
Center: Yeah, because I think, like you were saying, you can get so focused, especially if you’re getting serious about your studies. It’s nice to have a fun instrument or a “I can’t hold myself to that same standard” instrument, “because this is not the one I’ve studied for so many years.” And I think that that sort of sense of exploration and play sounds really important to most musicians, I think.
Center: Well, Sarah, it was just wonderful to get to know you today. Before we close out, I always like to give the chance, is there anything else that we didn’t talk about, that you think it would be important for a prospective student, someone who’s thinking about studying violin or piano, somebody who maybe has that same compositional listening personality trait and recognizes that in themself? Is there anything that a student like that might like to know about you or your lessons?
Sarah: I think I’ll just reemphasize that I am always willing… There’s nothing better for me than a student coming in and already having an idea what they want to talk about or ask me about. So my favorite style of music is whatever style of music I’m listening to now. So if you love ambient electronic music, come tell me about it, and I will love to hear what… We’ll listen to some things, and I can help you. If it’s sound — if it’s art made from sound — I can help you understand what makes it sound the way that you hear it and that you love it. So yeah, I think that’s what I would like to end with.
Center: I love that. I think that’s a great way to close. Thank you again so much for your time. It was great to meet you.
Sarah: It’s great to meet you too. Thank you, Erica. I’m very happy to be here.