BOOK REVIEW (Nancy Robinson) - Teaching genius: Dorothy DeLay and the making of a musician is a biography of this legendary Juilliard faculty member written by Barbara Lourie Sand. The author guides you through DeLay's life as a prodigious musician, her time teaching and mentoring, the talent development model developed by Juilliard, and finally the empowering teaching style of DeLay.
Reviewed by Nancy Robinson.
This highly readable biography of the legendary Juilliard faculty member, Dorothy DeLay, currently active into her eighties, is well worth the attention of anyone engaged in the field of giftedness. DeLay has taught and mentored innumerable talented violinists over her more than half-century teaching career. Both she, as a highly gifted individual herself and as a gifted teacher, and her remarkable students provide much of interest for our field.
First of all, DeLay was a precocious child herself who read at age three, began violin lessons at four, and gave her first concert at a local church at age five. Her family included teachers and ministers; her father became superintendent of schools in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, where she grew up. During high school, which she entered at age 11, she is reported to have earned an IQ of 180 on the Stanford-Binet (pretty difficult to do at that age, given the low ceiling of the 1916 Stanford-Binet) and was the top student in all her classes. She graduated from the Michigan State University in 1937, at age 20, and then enrolled at Juilliard as a graduate student for four years during and after which she appeared as a solo and chamber-music performer. In 1946, she was enticed to teach at the Henry Street Settlement House in Manhattan. Subsequent teaching posts other than Juilliard have included Sarah Lawrence College, summer programs at Meadowmount and Aspen, the University of Cincinnati, the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts, the New England Conservatory, and the Royal College of Music. Despite the obvious complexity of her career, she has been happily married since 1941 to Henry Newhouse, a novelist and former short-story writer with The New Yorker (and now an active participant in the support system for DeLay's students). Their son is a professor of radiology and their daughter, a children's librarian and storyteller.
A significant shift in DeLay's career came when, in 1948, she was invited by her then-professor, Ivan Galamian, to shift from teaching in Juilliard's Pre-College Program to serve as his teaching assistant. She continued that role until 1970, when she assumed a senior faculty position herself. Her life trajectory epitomizes one way in which prodigious talent as a youthful performer can be metamorphosed into consummate musical talent as a teacher with even greater impact on the field than if her line of development had been a straighter one.
Second, DeLay has taught and mentored a number of violin prodigies (including, for example, Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and Midori) whose own beginnings and development the book also describes. Brief but fascinating biographies of each of these and other gifted young performers not only reflect DeLay's impact on their lives but also what it takes from the performers, families, teachers, and even managers to maintain a young person's optimal progression. Some parents are described who manage to scuttle the process through their own ambitious and control, but most families are much more supportive as their young children engage in the rigorous education, training, and practice needed to develop their ultimate talents and careers during the flowering of their musicianship and passions.
Third, the book describes the coherent framework developed at Juilliard for the selection and nurturing of talented musicians, a systematic model of talent development almost unequalled anywhere else. A graduated system exists to discover promising young children, provide lessons for them while they attend elementary and secondary school, and then to take those few most-talented potential professional performers into the enormously demanding full-time programs at the college and graduate level. Only the most committed survive. Some exceedingly talented students move through the system at an accelerated pace and earn entree to the best teachers while they are still quite young.
Finally, Sand provides us a picture of DeLay's teaching style, distinguished from the styles of many of her colleagues in the extent to which -- while never neglecting the more technical aspects of music -- she empowers students through her positive regard and targeted problem-solving to find their own voices and musical insights. While she may nominally be the teacher for as many as 160 students at a time (students who work with her assistants, see her occasionally for individual lessons, or attend group lessons), she devotes most of her energies to the nurturing of the most talented, whom she sees regularly at Juilliard and at home in Nyack. For many of these students she plays an active mentoring role in career development, teaching them showmanship as well as musicianship, helping them obtain effective managers, recommending them for suitable positions, and so on.
DeLay is notorious for her utter disregard of the clock in order to meet the needs of the moment. Her chronic lateness is the source of the most consistent criticism she receives from others, although those among the inner circle of her students seem to accept this foible without much concern, and make use of the wait-time to slip in a few more hours of practice.
In short, this book is not only a good read, it is also an important contribution to the literature on giftedness. Would that our schools had as coherent a set of structures and goals for identifying and developing talent and commitment in our youth as does Juilliard! Would that there were more Dorothy DeLays teaching, strengthening, and empowering our gifted young people!