Teaching Lessons

Mentors Inspire by Example

By Larry Bitensky | April 25, 2016


For 18 years I have been fortunate to be a professor at a liberal arts college that places a premium on outstanding teaching. I’m surrounded by wonderful teachers, and I’m lucky to have studied with a few great ones, who led by example.

Steven Stucky is high on my list of mentors. Like many other people, I was shocked to learn of his untimely passing last February. A major composer and Pulitzer Prize winner, Steve received the highest accolades of his profession. His music is emotionally forthright and often sonically beautiful, exceedingly well crafted, and always rich in textural detail and color. It is no surprise that Steve’s music garnered the admiration of audiences, musicians, and colleagues alike.

Despite his success, Steve possessed a humble and generous spirit. A natural teacher who genuinely cared about his students, Steve spent nearly 35 years teaching generations of aspiring composers at Cornell. I studied with him in the ’90s as a grad student, and I could go on about the countless hours he spent advocating for us students—writing recommendation letters, inviting us to his home, providing encouragement and support, and impressing us with his seemingly effortless command of musical technique. Dealing with young creative minds who are uncertain of their place in the world and their artistic mission can be a delicate balancing act. Steve somehow always knew when to push a student, when to hold back, when to speak in generalities, and when to say, “This chord needs more tension.” But beyond that, it was Steve’s attitude and comportment that made the strongest imprint on me as a teacher.

A small observation. Steve had an encyclopedic knowledge of the music repertoire and would often casually refer to a specific piece or passage. This was not pretension; I am sure that he assumed all his students shared his knowledge. My recourse was to nod and pretend—of course I was familiar with measure 60 of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony! But there was something about his attitude that never made me feel small. In fact, his gentle nudges always inspired me to seek out a score and recording.

It came down to respect. Perhaps Steve knew that I wasn’t familiar with a particular passage. But his belief in me as a person and a musician empowered me to use these moments to enrich myself rather than go down the nastier path of self doubt. And sensing the respect he had for me deepened the respect I had for him. I simply wanted to know what he knew.

Not surprisingly, I find myself using this “teaching technique” with my own students. Sure, the average sophomore isn’t going to be completely on board when I make a casual reference to early 20th-century modernism or Mahler’s Fifth. But I hope that my remarks are seen as a sign of mutual respect that inspires my students to grow as people and musicians. I have learned much else from Steve, but I think it’s the accumulation of these sorts of small details that ultimately affect one’s success as a teacher.

A side note. The music of Sibelius left me cold during my time at Cornell, but Steve’s love for it kept me listening. A few years after graduating, it simply clicked. Ever since, the radiant trombone solo at measure 60 of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony has never failed to give me goose bumps.


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