Stringing them along

Abbie VanSickle

When world-famous violin soloist Rachel Barton first began studying the violin, she was looking for an instructor who would help her perfect her technique. But Barton got more than she bargained for when she began studying with Almita and Roland Vamos. Not only did she get two instructors, but also she also discovered two people who would push her to develop her own musical voice.

Roland’s bright blue eyes sparkled Thursday as he answered questions after a program he and his wife presented at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Roland and Almita, two of the world’s best violin instructors, left Oberlin College on Tuesday and will be joining Northwestern School of Music’s full-time faculty next year – and they won’t be coming empty handed.

Pied Pipers of Oberlin

The Vamoses’ entire core of students, about 60 in all, plan to follow their instructors and transfer to NU next year.

But even though all these talented musicians would like to come to NU, Almita expressed concern that the tuition cost will be too great for some of the students to attend NU. Many of them are international students who will not be able to receive aid from NU’s grant fund, which Rebecca Dixon, NU’s associate provost for undergraduate enrollment, said is offered only to American citizens.

“The university’s grant fund doesn’t have any provision for international students,” Dixon said.

“We don’t have enough funds to go around,” Dixon said. “It’s very difficult to ascertain the need of international students. We are just not set up to do it.”

Music Dean Bernard Dobroski agreed that NU follows a strict financial aid policy about international students, but says he will “continue working with faculty and admissions on this.”

Almita said she foresees her Oberlin students having difficulty paying their NU tuition.

“They all want to (come to NU),” she said. “It’s very difficult because there are so many rules about getting into Northwestern that don’t apply to Oberlin. Oberlin is very generous with its merit scholarships.”

Mike Mandarin, director of admissions for Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music, said international students are a vital part of the Oberlin community.

“Talent knows no geographical boundaries,” Mandarin said. “But you get more bang for your financial-aid dollar for U.S. students. You have to weigh that against the opportunity of enrolling a pace-setting student if the student comes from China or the Eastern Bloc … and has an annual income of a few thousand dollars. You must be sure that it enhances the quality of the program for all.”

Almita said she is concerned not only for their students who want to transfer from Oberlin, but also for international string players considering attending NU.

“The market for string players is a very competitive field – it’s like sports,” she said. When asked if recruiting international students would increase the quality of NU’s string program, she said, “There’s no question.”

Roland agreed that NU needs to step up its recruitment efforts for international students.

“I think the school is missing an international flavor,” he said.

Dixon said that although NU might be missing out on some international talent, NU’s financial aid system is not set up to accommodate international students.

“I’m sure there are good music students all over the world,” Dixon said. “It would be nice if we had a system (for aid), but the grant system at NU is not set up to support international students.”

But Almita remained optimistic that something can be worked out with the university.

“I have hopes that it will work out,” Vamos said. “Every time you make a move you lose some things. It was easier to build a good class (at Oberlin), but I can have a good class here. I live for my class.”

The bride and her bow

Violin teachers Roland and Almita Vamos listen to their student Stephanie Jewell perform a piece from “Schindler’s List.” (Angela Schneider/The Daily Northwestern)

The bond shared by the Vamoses extends into their musical lives.

“We do get along very well in our roles,” Almita said. “We usually don’t have too many differences.”

Both graduates of the Juilliard School in New York, the Vamoses have built an international reputation for developing talented violinists. The Vamoses divide their teaching duties, with Roland working extensively with the students on their technique and Almita focusing more on the interpretation of the music.

They had been teaching in Oberlin, Ohio, for nine years, but when they heard about the opening at NU’s School of Music, they felt it was time for a change.

“Northwestern has a wonderful reputation,” Almita said. “It’s a beautiful school. We want to upgrade the department. Challenge always makes me excited.”

Almita said she thrives upon new situations.

“I like variety in my life – not in husbands, but everything else,” she said. “And I love to work with students who can make a name for themselves in the classical world. After nine or 10 years at Oberlin, it’s nice to have a change.”

Roland was also looking forward to the move. “It’ll be fun,” he said. “Everything we’ve seen so far of the school we’ve liked – the students are really sharp.”

The decision to hire the Vamoses as full-time faculty members was an easy one, Dobroski said.

“Any time we have an opening, we look for the top performers in the world,” he said. “In the case of violin and viola, there is not a question – the Vamoses. For the last 10 years we have talked to them, and last year everything fell in line.”

Although the Vamoses said they are excited about working at NU, they said their move was motivated largely by family ties: the Vamoses’ sons live in Chicago. Working in Evanston also will cut down considerably on the distance they must travel to their other students.

Lessons from the masters

The Vamoses have been teaching at the Music Institute of Chicago each weekend for 22 years. The institute, located in Winnetka, is a magnet for aspiring musicians from all across the Midwest. The community music school offers music instruction for its 2,200 students of all ages – from 6-month-old infants to senior citizens.

“At the Music Institute, we believe that music is a part of everyday life,” said Christa Gutenberger, director of communications at the institute. “The Vamoses have been teaching here for over three decades. They work with all ages. They’re really looking forward to being settled in the Chicago area.”

Ten-year-old Stephanie Jewell, who studies with the Vamoses at the Music Institute, played on Thursday in a presentation the Vamoses gave at Pick-Staiger. She has been studying with the Vamoses for three years. She smiled broadly when she talked about her teachers.

“I think they’re just fun,” Jewell said. “I either want to be a violin teacher or a soloist. I think it’s fun to play because you can express yourself.”

The Vamoses also have been teaching part-time at NU for the past year, giving lessons to about five students every Sunday.

Music freshman David Yeh has been taking lessons with the Vamoses since he arrived at NU. Yeh said he had heard about the Vamoses’ reputation for building world-renowned violinists from his violin teacher at home.

When he found out the Vamoses were coming to Evanston, he jumped at the chance to take lessons with the pair. Yeh said he is glad they came to NU because he probably wouldn’t have gone to Oberlin to study with them.

“I like the diverse student body (at NU),” Yeh said. “Plus, competition at Oberlin is extremely high.”

That kind of competition is exactly what the Vamoses hope to create at NU. In their years at Oberlin, the Vamoses attracted promising violinists from around the world to study in Ohio. They have built strong relationships with all of their students and said they will do almost anything to give students the opportunity to study with them. They have even opened their home to students who need housing.

dedication to their students has produced some of the rising stars in the world of strings. Rachel Barton, selected by Chicago Magazine as “Chicagoan of the Year” in 1996, is one of the Vamos’ biggest supporters. Barton, who began playing violin when she was three years old, studied with the Vamoses until she began her professional career at 17.

“They are absolutely spectacular,” Barton said. “They are very generous to their students. They would always give you extra lessons and were always concerned about your life. They would still love you if you didn’t win.”

She said the Vamoses were interested in her growth as a person as well as her progress as a violinist. Barton said the Vamoses make a great team.

“They really complement each other,” Barton said. “They reinforce each other. Having both of them was just an amazing luxury. Their students are their life.”

Barton also praised the endless amount of time the Vamoses put into there jobs.

“I’ve never met another teacher that works so many hours,” Barton said. “They are full of energy when everyone else is ready to keel over – they’re just superhuman.”