Emotional Strings

Collegiate School’s private music program gives students both the technical skills and the stylistic flair to excel as musicians.
Marla Van Deusen ’24 moves her bow over the strings on her violin and the world begins to take on a new texture. The drama of the piece she’s working on — a sonata by the composer George Frideric Handel — builds with helter-skelter intensity. It’s the kind of piece she loves: pulsing with bursts of energy that move towards a spacious triumph. In each note she plays Marla can imagine a narrative, a story of a great clash, and into this imagination she infuses her own feeling and style, elevating the piece and making it uniquely hers.

This total emotional immersion strikes Marla as the difference between playing notes and playing music. “It’s about understanding a piece — recognizing that there are moments when you should be playing softly and moments when you should be playing loudly — and then really feeling and conveying those emotional differences,” she says. “When you’re playing music, you’re understanding what feelings the music is trying to convey, and through your own playing you try to interpret that feeling.”

Arriving at an intimate understanding of a piece takes time, though. Marla started playing the violin in Kindergarten, when she first began working with instructors in Collegiate School’s private music program, and since then she’s developed both the technical mastery of the instrument and the personal flair of her own style.

Working with her instructor Melissa Jones, a classically trained violinist and Collegiate’s Middle and Upper School Orchestra Director, Marla contemplates the thematic and structural composition of the piece. Marla describes the student-instructor relationship, which they’ve had since Jones came to Collegiate in 2018, as collaborative, open and earnest.

“Each time we sit down to practice a piece, we go over things like measure and how we’re going to approach the melody, and we’ll write down together how to phrase each note in a piece,” Marla explains. “Working with Mrs. Jones is great in that way, because I feel comfortable learning with her. She’s not critical, and she encourages me to make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes. Having that space to play the violin with someone I trust is so special to me.”

Giving students the space to work diligently one-on-one with a skilled musical instructor is the intention of Collegiate’s private music program. The personalized instruction — and the rapport that grows over years of lessons — allows students to learn at a pace they are comfortable with. “It’s my particular hope that students feel confident about what they’re doing with their instrument,” Jones says. “With the help of private lessons, students learn the necessary technique to play well, they learn lots of repertoire and, maybe most importantly, they discover their own artistic expression. And because these lessons are one-on-one, students get to really have a unique musical education that works for them.”

In 4th Grade, Kyla Williams ’26 made the transition from violin to piano and began taking lessons with Connie Tuttle, one of Collegiate’s private piano instructors. Ever since her grandmother placed a violin within the crook of her arm, Kyla has always had a deep love of music. But she didn’t feel that the violin allowed her to appropriately articulate that passion through her instrument. “The piano for me seemed simpler,” she explains, “but there is also this complexity of playing multiple notes at the same time that appealed to me.”

Now, once a week for the last six years, Kyla sits with Tuttle to study the piano. But before they begin their warmups of scales and finger patterns, Tuttle always asks Kyla one question: How are you?

What’s special about Collegiate’s private music program is this sustained connection: students work for years with the same instructor. “The beauty of having just one teacher in a private lesson is you really make that connection — not only from teacher to student but from person to person,” Kyla says. “Your growth is more cultivated, more specific and tailored to your style of playing and your style of learning. Mrs. Tuttle really knows the way that I learn music and the way that I interpret it. And from there, she can see my strengths and weaknesses, the things that I need to work on, which makes the way I learn music more efficient and my trajectory as a performer clearer.”

Kyla’s passion for music has progressed to the point where she now composes her own pieces, often fusing genres such as indie rock with classical music. Showing those pieces — showing any personal art to someone else — might put Kyla in a vulnerable position, but because of the mutual trust she shares with Tuttle she is able to present her work and receive honest feedback. And with this bond, Kyla can fully enjoy the act of making music.

“When I sit at the piano, I feel like I can really escape into the music — I can really embody all the aspects of a piece,” Kyla says. “I love music, and I love practicing the piano. It’s such a safe space — it’s like a haven.”