Alison Fujito, a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, has sent us a tribute to her high school teacher, Stanley Mark Ackerman, who has died aged 78. He raised generation after generation of dedicated musicians. Here is her account:
Last night, my high school conductor, who inspired me to become a violinist in the first place, passed away. There are lots of people who remember special teachers in their lives, but I don’t know if there is another teacher who has had such a major effect on so many.
Musicians with the orchestras in Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Columbus, Florida, Lexington, and even the Oslo
Philharmonic; teachers at music schools across the country; a well-known violin expert and appraiser; a conductor who recently conducted the televised Les Miserables 25th anniversary concert… sounds like the alumni roster of a prestigious music conservatory, doesn’t it?
But there are also college professors, architects, writers, doctors, veterinarians, attorneys, even the current dean of Harvard Law School.
Now it sounds like the roster of a prestigious prep school.
But it’s neither. These are the careers of the former music students of Stan Ackerman.
When I was a student at The Juilliard School, there were 6 of us there. 6 of us–from ONE PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL. So what exactly did he do that was so different from what other public school orchestra directors and strings teachers do? How did he achieve such a stunning rate of success?
He started teaching at New Trier in 1966. He was, by all accounts, a first-rate violist; he’d been offered a chair in the St. Louis viola section, but turned it down, because back then, it wasn’t possible to be an orchestral musician and still be able to support a family. So he turned to teaching instead, teaching at Willowbrook High School before moving to New Trier. In addition, he played for a season with the Lyric Opera, and both played and acted as manager with the Grant Park Symphony for several years.
By the time I was a freshman at New Trier East High School, he’d been teaching there for a decade, and there were FOUR orchestras. There was
a full symphony orchestra, which played the standard symphonic repertoire–overtures, symphonies, and tone poems by Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.. We also played the first movement of Mahler 1 and the last movement of Shostakovitch 5, Bernstein’s “On The Town,”
Charles Ives’ “New England Tryptich” and “Variations on America,” Rachmaninov Piano Concerto #3 (with a student soloist), Debussy’s “La
Mer,” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade,” “Russian Easter Overture,” and “Capriccio Espagnole.” These weren’t dumbed-down student
arrangements, either. We played the real thing.
But there were also 3 other orchestras. There was a chamber orchestra, which played overtures and symphonies by Mozart, Haydn, Rossini,
Bizet, Mendelssohn, as well as Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella.” And there were not one but TWO string orchestras, which played mostly Bach,
Vivaldi, Handel, and Corelli, but also Bloch concerto gross and Mendelssohn string symphonies.
Sometime during my first semester, I was informed that I was no longer to go to my study hall, but instead was to report to Mr. Ackerman.
Upon doing so, I found him setting up a couple of chairs and stands in the hallway. He pointed me to one chair and Steve Garrett (a cellist,
now teaching and performing in San Diego) to the other, and had us learn duets by Beethoven and Bréval. Other kids came in during their
study halls to play trios and quartets.
On Saturdays, most of us came to the Music Center of the North Shore (now known as Chicago Institute of Music) to play more chamber music.
Mr. Ackerman was there all day, coaching the quartets and quintets. At the end of each semester, the Fine Arts Quartet would come down from
their residence in Wisconsin to work with us for a day. At the end of the day, we would all perform–including the Fine Arts Quartet. I
played Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann quartets–and also the Schubert cello quintet and the
Mendelssohn octet. This was heady stuff for a high school kid!
I also performed concertos by Bruch and Mendelssohn, Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole,” all 4 Vivaldi Seasons, with the orchestras, and we
accompanied other students playing Barber and Mozart violin concertos, cello concertos by Haydn and Lalo, Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations,”
and piano concertos by Grieg, Rachmaninov, and Gershwin.
He left New Trier a couple of years after I graduated. It had always been his dream to move to Los Angeles and “play jingles,” as he called
it–free-lancing and playing for movies, productions, commercials, recordings, etc.
But he missed teaching, and eventually came back to the North Shore, teaching at the Waukegan public schools until illness forced him to
I recently asked Mr. Ackerman how he got us to play at such an amazing level, and he said that chamber music was the foundation of any good
music program, but that also it was important to give us good music (as in, not dumbed-down arrangements) to play, and that the students
would always, ALWAYS rise to the occasion.
(How I wish someone would tell this to whoever designed the curriculum
taught to music ed majors over the last few decades…)
Last August, I took my oldest son on his first college trip. He won’t be majoring in music, but wants to continue violin lessons, and have a chance to play in a college symphony (because his own high school, not having a Stan Ackerman at the helm, only has a string orchestra). Our first stop was Otterbein University, just north of Columbus, Ohio. He decided to take a lesson with the teacher there, which went very well, and we stayed after the lesson to chat. The conversation turned to school orchestra programs, and I (of course) talked about the high school orchestras and quartets I had played in and the wonderful conductor we had. The teacher gave me a rather strange look, and said, “WHERE did you say you grew up?”
As it turned out, he’d grown up 5 blocks from me. And he was a Mr. Ackerman alumnus.
More tributes can be found on a Facebook memorial page.
Here’s one from the program manager of Chicago radio station, WFMT:
Hardly a day goes by in my profession (radio announcer for 25 years at WFMT) where I don’t think about “Mr. Ackerman” or draw on something I learned from him. Although I never played violin well and only was in the orchestra at NTE for one year, the amount of repertoire (and important repertoire!) that we went through and how thoroughly he taught us to play and love it was astonishing. I can’t imagine succeeding in my profession without the grounding he gave me in that short time & I will forever be in his debt.