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Why a Violin-playing Chinese Teacher from Chicago came to Grand Rapids

By Larry Herzberg


The day after I was born, it was decided I was to be a violinist.  My mother had enjoyed a brief career as a solo violinist.  Her teacher, Amy Neill, was one of the world’s greatest violinists in her day and was like a second mother to my mother.  When she visited my mother in the hospital the day after I came into the world, Amy Neill declared that I was to be a violinist.  After I entered grade school and learned to play the piano for five years, I was deemed ready to begin lessons with my “Aunt Amy”.  She was my only violin teacher and taught me from when I was 10 until I entered college at age 17.


Both of my parents, as well as my violin teacher, wanted me to be a really fine violinist.  But I wasn’t to become a professional violinist.  I was to be a lawyer, like the men on both sides of my family.  That was a profession that would put bread on the table, which a musical career likely would not.  After all, there were few orchestras in the 1950’s and 1960’s that paid a living wage.  And so I entered Northwestern University as a pre-law student.


I soon discovered, however, that I had little interest in pursuing a legal career.  My interests continued to be in music and in literature and languages.  I was the only non-music major in the Northwestern University Orchestra and took every literature course I could.  After my sophomore year, I transferred to Lawrence University in Wisconsin.  I had changed my major to English, but spent the majority of my time playing concertmaster of the university orchestra and playing chamber music, particularly with the piano student, Robert McDonald.  Bob later became the main accompanist for both Isaac Stern and Midori, and is now on the faculty of both Julliard and Curtis.


When I graduated from Lawrence University in 1971, I wanted to pursue my education in languages and literature, but needed to pay for my studies.  I managed to get myself hired as Assistant Concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony, while for five years I took a full load of courses at Vanderbilt University in many different languages, including Chinese.  During that time, I played in the Nashville recording studios accompanying Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Olivia Newton-John, the Bee Gees, etc., which helped me pay my tuition.

When I told my violin teacher how much I was making in the recording business, she rather quickly changed her mind about me not pursuing a musical career.  But playing Mozart and Brahms in the symphony paid only a small fraction of what I was able to make playing easy pop music in the studios.


In 1976 I left the lucrative recording business behind to do graduate work in Chinese language and literature at Indiana University.  But I continued to play violin, joining a quartet of graduate students who were music majors.  After finishing my Ph.D. course work in 1980, I accompanied my wife to East Lansing, Michigan, where she had been hired as a professor.  The Grand Rapids Symphony had a much fuller season than the Lansing Symphony and was in the process of growing further.  When I contacted the Grand Rapids Symphony to ask for an audition, I learned that they had just hired the young conductor, Semyon Bychkov, soon to become world famous, and that the maestro insisted on hiring ten more full-time string players.  The season was about to start with the orchestra short one new full-time violinist.  On the basis of my having been Assistant Concertmaster in Nashville, I was given a private audition and was accepted to play with the orchestra until a national audition could be announced later in the season. 


Fortunately I won that national audition and found myself in a very fine orchestra of mostly very young players, recently graduated from top music schools.  At the same time, I was able to convince Albion College to allow me to create a Chinese language program for them.  From 1980 to 1984, I commuted from East Lansing to Albion three days a week to teach a growing number of courses in Chinese, and spent five days a week driving to Grand Rapids to play in the orchestra.  The symphony season then was only 35 weeks, with less than half the rehearsals and concerts as we now play.  If the orchestra were as busy then as we are now, I would never have survived such a schedule.


When I finally had enough of all the commuting, we moved to Grand Rapids in 1984.  I convinced Calvin College to let me establish an Asian languages program here.  I originally taught both Chinese and Japanese there for many years, until today the program has grown to include five of us teaching Asian languages, with 55 students majoring in either Chinese or Japanese, and with as many as 200 students per semester studying either Chinese, Japanese, or Korean at Calvin.  During that same time, I have been thrilled to see the Grand Rapids Symphony become a truly “major” orchestra, which now plays as many as 130 concerts a year for tens of thousands of people. 


I would never have come to Grand Rapids, were it not for the fine orchestra that was made possible by strong community support.  And Calvin College would most likely not have become the leader among Christian colleges in teaching Asian languages were it not for a quality orchestra luring me here.  Grand Rapids has other fine colleges and universities of which to be proud, but only one professional orchestra.  I pray that orchestra will continue to grow, entertaining and inspiring people in West Michigan and helping to attract talented people in all fields to our fair city.

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