A Brief Personal History of the Blair School of Music’s First 50 Years Through One Musician’s Eyes and Ears
By Cornelia Heard
John “Del” Sawyer [MMus’54], director of the school, set the tone for Blair when he hired Wilda Tinsley to teach violin. Miss Tinsley at the time was assistant concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony and was teaching some outstanding young musicians, including Ron Copes, now of the Juilliard String Quartet. I had lessons twice a week and string quartet every Saturday morning. I didn’t realize until years later that it was unusual to have string quartet as part of the curriculum at such a young age.
I can picture the living room and fireplace in the old building, Roland Schneller’s piano studio on the left, the central staircase that switched back on both sides at the top, and Miss Tinsley’s studio on the second floor, next to the room with the balcony that would later become Stephen Clapp’s and then Christian Teal’s studio.
Miss Tinsley was a fine teacher. She was an elegant person, never a hair out of place, and was organized and meticulous in her teaching. I still have the spiral notebooks she wrote in each lesson. Gold stars marked good lesson days, and red stars with pluses and minuses signaled the less satisfactory days. I show these notebooks to my students today to illustrate how the fundamentals of the violin are the same, whether one is a beginning student or an advanced young artist.
After Miss Tinsley left Blair to marry Mr. [William] Moennig of Philadelphia, I studied briefly with Art Lewis and Pierre Menard, and then Stephen Clapp became my violin teacher at Blair. He had a significant impact on me as a precollege student. Not only was he my violin teacher, but he was also my mentor and, at times, my counselor during my teenage years. He formed and coached the Blair Student String Quartet, consisting of myself, Mary Kathryn Parker (now Vanosdale, also on the Blair faculty and concertmaster emerita of the Nashville Symphony), Steve Wittrig (viola) and Andy Cox (cello).
We played together five years. I remember the hours we spent in Mr. Clapp’s studio and in the underground chamber-music room at the old Blair, rehearsing and coaching such works as Dvořák’s American Quartet, Haydn’s Lark Quartet and Schubert’s Cello Quintet. We had the opportunity to represent Blair at the Music Educators National Convention in Daytona Beach, Fla., as well as at the local Rotary club and Nashville’s Cheekwood Mansion and Travellers Rest Plantation.
During my senior year in high school, Mr. Clapp left Blair to teach at the University of Texas at Austin and, later, Oberlin and Juilliard. Christian Teal replaced Stephen Clapp. Chris quickly showed himself to be a creative and analytical teacher, as well as an excellent violinist and musician. He has helped define the culture and standards of Blair for 42 years.
Through the years I’ve worked with many faculty members at Blair—theory teachers, composition teachers, music history teachers, class piano teachers, chamber music coaches and conductors. Del Sawyer believed in a comprehensive music education for the precollege students, and he structured the Myra Jackson Blair Honor Scholar program accordingly. Then, as now, the MJB students were required to study music history and theory, as well as have private lessons and play in the youth symphony.
Early during Blair’s evolution, Del determined that the core of the string faculty would be a performing string quartet. A trumpet player himself, he valued the aesthetic inherent in string chamber music, working together in a small group on great repertoire. He formed the Blair String Quartet in 1967.
My mother had been a violinist in the North Carolina String Quartet before my family moved to Nashville in 1963. It takes a certain kind of person to want to play in a string quartet. Working closely with three colleagues on a daily basis, thrashing out ideas, rehearsing, and building a repertoire, a rapport and a career together can be challenging, as well as stimulating and exhilarating. It has been remarked, somewhat humorously, that playing in a string quartet is like a marriage without any of the benefits. As I look back at the history of Blair and at my own history, the string quartet looms large. Performances by the Juilliard and Guarneri string quartets at Underwood Auditorium each year I was in high school further enhanced my feeling that chamber music was an exciting art form and even a possible career choice.
“Working closely with three colleagues on a daily basis can be challenging as well as exhilarating. It has been remarked that playing in a string quartet is like marriage without the benefits.”
Chris Teal’s arrival at Blair in 1972, along with that of violist Jean Dane, marked the beginning of a new chapter in the musical and professional life of the Blair Quartet. The quartet, which also included cellist David Vanderkooi and violinist Carl Gorodetzky, became keenly musically focused and developed more of a national profile. I remember well their intense performance of the Fifth Bartók Quartet. After I left Nashville to go to Sarah Lawrence College and The Juilliard School, I continued to have periodic lessons with Chris and keep up with what was going on at Blair.
Blair had been part of the school of music of Peabody College but became independent in 1977 when Peabody decided no longer to offer performance degrees. As an independent music school, Blair offered lessons and classes to a large precollegiate population and to students of all the area colleges and universities. When Peabody College merged with Vanderbilt to become its school of education and human development, the door opened for a long-held dream shared by my mother and Director Del Sawyer. That dream was for Blair to become the school of music of Vanderbilt University. In 1980 the Vanderbilt Board of Trust granted approval for the Blair School of Music to become the university’s 10th school. Sawyer served as dean until his retirement in 1993 and was succeeded by our current dean, Mark Wait.
Today I spend my time at the Blair School of Music on Blakemore Avenue, teaching Vanderbilt music majors and talented precollegiate students, rehearsing and performing with my colleagues, and coaching chamber music. I am privileged to hold the Valere Blair Potter Chair and look back on my time at Blair with wonder and affection. It was a great joy for many years to take my students to perform at the Nashville retirement home where Wilda Tinsley Moennig was living and introduce them to my first violin teacher. It also has been a joy to work alongside Christian Teal all these years and to see Stephen Clapp in New York and occasionally share students with him. I was greatly saddened to learn that Steve passed away Jan. 26.
Being at Blair for the past 32 years has been a rich, rewarding, challenging and endlessly evolving adventure. The combination of teaching, performing, and pursuing professional opportunities in the larger music world has proved a nearly ideal balance.
The school where I began lessons in 1964 is my musical home today. Blair has had a profound effect on my life. A school with only two leaders in its 50-year history is an extraordinary place—a place that will continue to have a profound effect on those who interact with it for many years to come.
Watch Dean Mark Wait talk about Blair’s 50th anniversary and more:
Cornelia Heard is the Valere Blair Potter Professor of Violin at Blair, where she serves as chair of the string department and performs with the Blair String Quartet. During the summers she is a member of the artist faculty of the Aspen Music Festival. Connie Heard was among the first students to study at the Blair School of Music, and she returned to join its faculty in 1982. She is the daughter of former Chancellor Alexander Heard and Jean Keller Heard. Her husband, bassist Edgar Meyer, an adjunct associate professor at Blair, was the subject of Vanderbilt Magazine’s Winter/Spring 2001 cover story.