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Teacher Spotlight: Vannia Phillips, violin & viola

Teacher Vannia Phillips adds yoga to her teaching repertoire

Interview by Erin Cano

Vannia Phillips has been a Suzuki violin and viola instructor at MIC since 2002.

What inspired you to become a Suzuki instructor?
The Suzuki philosophy that "every child can" is deeply meaningful to me. Growing up in a rough neighborhood in West Philly, I did not have the opportunity to start an instrument at a young age. Given my timeline, I really should not be a professional musician and teacher. The fact that I am is evidence of how enthusiastic, well-trained instructors and  sustained effort over a long period of time meant that "I can" play an instrument.

My high school offered a beginning-level orchestra, so at fourteen years old, I began playing viola in a group setting. I did not receive much training in posture or technique. The nun who conducted the orchestra  took me under her wing, however. I would visit her convent in the summers where she would play through pieces with me on piano. I eventually studied privately with teachers, continuing while I was in college working toward a philosophy degree.  My lessons in posture and technique did not really happen until I decided to pursue a second undergraduate degree in performance at Oberlin Conservatory, where I was lucky enough to study with Jeffrey Irvine.

What is your favorite Suzuki piece to teach?
I do not have a favorite. I do enjoy seeing students reach milestones - playing Twinkle Variation A for the first time, starting the first piece in Book 2, 3, etc. because they are so excited. The pieces themselves are only vehicles for a student's joy, or sometimes for suffering!  I say that jokingly, but the music itself only happens through the student. When a student creates a beautiful tone or meaningful expression and is clearly enjoying him or herself, in the moment, that is my favorite piece. When a student has spent a lot of time and sustained effort to master a difficult piece that they can now play with ease, in the moment, that is my favorite piece.

You have performed extensively with chamber ensembles, orchestras, and pop artists. What are your most memorable performance experiences?
I have two very different experiences. The first was the opportunity to play the opera The Flowering Tree by John Adams with Chicago Opera Theater. The orchestra itself was a mixture of Chicago freelance musicians and players from Lyric Opera of Chicago. The music was incredible and very challenging. John Adams himself came and conducted us for several of the rehearsals and performances. He was charismatic, musical, and enthusiastic.  I remember studying him in Music History in college, so it was like having a classical musician rock star work with us!

And speaking of rock stars, my recent performance with a performer named Kishi Bashi ("K”) falls into one of my more memorable concerts. "K" was voted NPR's "New Artist of the Year" in 2012. He plays violin (he was Suzuki trained and his wife is a Suzuki violin instructor), plays with loops, and sings. I was part of a string quartet that accompanied him. The music was great,  and "K" was a delight to work with. The event was memorable because it is rare for classical musicians to be stars in a rock show. The quartet was front and center.  Behind us were stage lights changing into crazy colors and a dry ice machine billowing out fog. The incredible banjo player had a light-up banjo that changed colors. It is sometimes fun to be part of a spectacle!

You also play the Baroque viola and perform in period music ensembles. What do you enjoy about that style of music?
I remember the first time I heard a baroque cellist play. Anner Bylsma came to Oberlin to give a masterclass/performance. He took requests from the audience for different movements of Bach cello suites, kind of like a jazz pianist might. Someone asked for the E- flat prelude, which caused me to groan. I didn’t think I liked that piece. Bylsma played it like he was composing on the spot. The music was spontaneous, like he was improvising.  

There is so much open for interpretation in baroque music. Composers were less specific about articulations, dynamics, etc. Like jazz musicians, the rhythm on the page is a guide rather than set in stone if you are a soloist. The performers choose if they are going to play “inegale”, the baroque version of swing, or straight. I love the fact that baroque players can add their own flourishes: a trill here, a scale there.

 In addition to teaching violin and viola, you are a yoga instructor. Have you found any parallels between playing music and practicing yoga?

When I was taking yoga teacher training a few years ago, I remember being struck by the parallels between the Suzuki philosophy and the style of yoga I studied.  In Suzuki education, the songs are a vehicle for developing the whole person as well as becoming a more accomplished musician. Similarly, yoga involves observing and learning about yourself. Yoga Journal pictures and crazy contortions do not need to be the goal.

Vannia Phillips

Violin and Viola Faculty (Suzuki)