A Beloved Teacher

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The dazzling violinist Jennifer Koh performs Bernstein's Serenade with The Phoenix Symphony this week. Though it is her first time with the orchestra, it is also a homecoming of sorts, as the trip allows Jennifer a chance to reconnect with her very first violin teacher, Jo Davis. Mrs. Davis joined Jennifer and Sterling Beeaff at the K-BACH studio.

Jennifer Koh performs with The Phoenix Symphony Friday, April 15, 11am and 7:30pm, and Saturday, April 16, 7:30pm at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. For details, visit The Phoenix Symphony.

 Photo Credit: Sterling Beeaff


Sterling Beeaff: Well, I have to say this is a treat. I’m going to defer to age and say Jo Davis is with us. And she is with a pupil of hers, she’s with The Phoenix Symphony this week, and first of all, I’ll say welcome back to Arizona.  I know you played with Arizona Musicfest not long ago, but now with The Phoenix Symphony. Jennifer Koh, it is great to see you.

JENNIFER KOH: Thank you.

STERLING BEEAFF: This is a wonderful story the two of you have. And I know it has been covered before, but I haven’t seen or heard anything with the two of you. Have you recorded before?

JO DAVIS: No, no-we’ve talked a lot but not recorded.


STERLING BEEAFF: Well it’s exciting for us. I guess you have talked a lot, for a long time! [LAUGHTER] The story is the back story here, is you were her teacher-


STERLING BEEAFF: And apparently a pretty remarkable one for a number of reasons, not the least of which, Jennifer says, you were remarkable in her life. But I was impressed because you didn’t have her for long before you handed her off.

JO DAVIS: That’s true. I knew when it was time.

STERLING BEEAFF: A lot of teachers don’t know that.

JO DAVIS. With Jenny it was easy to tell, and I knew my limitations and I was so excited about what she could do that I wanted it to happen for her.

STERLING BEEAFF: Jennifer, you started- you were born in Indiana, right?

JENNIFER KOH: Illinois, yes.

STERLING BEEAFF:  Midwest, I ‘m in the west.


JENNIFER KOH: Yeah, yeah, yeah-western suburbs of Chicago. Mrs. Davis taught out of her home in Wheaton. I was born in Hinsdale and raised in Glen Ellyn, and I think your home was probably like 10 minutes away from my parents’ home. Yeah, if it wasn’t for Mrs. Davis I would definitely not be a violinist. I would not be a musician. I feel that would she did for me shows that one person can change a person’s life. And I believe that you had been telling my parents that I should change teachers already when I was 7.

JO DAVIS: Yes, I had.

JENNIFER KOH: And she did all the research to find the next teacher she wanted me to go to, she went to all my lessons with the new teacher, and, you know, I didn’t come from a musical family so there was no, you know, violin just happened to be one of the hobbies my parents had started me in, which included things that I was disastrously terrible at like ballet and ice skating, and anything like moving around my body. (I hated that) And so, if she hadn’t really-and of course you don’t realize this when you are young, but if she hadn’t advocated that and made that effort, which is a lot of effort actually, my life would be completely different. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like.

STERLING BEEAFF: Mrs. Davis, when did you first learn of Jennifer?

JO DAVIS: I was teaching the Suzuki Program at Wheaton College and she was in one of my group lessons, and I remembered this cute little girl, but hadn’t really picked her out of the crowd.  But her mother called and asked if I would teach her privately, you had a private teacher has well as a group lesson. And of course I said yes, and she started lessons with me.  At that point, I was loving teaching. I loved the Suzuki Method, and I had recently studies with someone who had studied with Galamian so I had all this  that I wanted to pour into somebody and Jenny was definitely able to take it all in immediately. I think it was my husband  that first commented on Jenny…Jenny! At one point, and I have to say this was really a confirmation, I asked Donna Teckell, and she was the faculty at Wheaton College, to teach a master class, and as she went out at the door  she just pointed at Jenny and said, “Watch that one.” And so I was beginning to get a sense of what possibly was here. 

STERLING BEEAFF: What do you remember about your first times with Mrs. Davis?

JENNIFER KOH: I think it was kindness. Also, just literally from the lessons I just remember a lot of talking about bow arm. So that, that is in my mind, being a big part of what I learned. I mean, you don’t remember that much from when you are three, four!


JO DAVIS: I don’t remember a lot either, Jenny!


JENNIFER KOH: But one thing I have to say, because we’ve stayed in touch all this time, and you know, Arizona Musicfest is certainly not the first time I’ve been to Phoenix because I used to come during winter break when I was in grade school and high school, and I think I even came maybe once or twice when I was still in college. I think now, reflecting back, because I know her as an adult, you know, I’ve grown up, I think she is a wonderful human being. So now when I look back I can understand why I wanted to play well.  Also, why I wanted to work with her and why I wanted to practice. Just being around a human being like that is really very special, I think, as a child.

JO DAVIS: Sweet things to hear, Jenny, very sweet to hear.


JENNIFER KOH: I think that the one thing that I concentrated on with my students was tone. And I probably wasn’t as interested in the technical part, but tone was just something I absolutely, even in later years I worked at. That to me was playing the violin, and Jenny did that beautifully.

STERLING BEEAFF: I am kind of, I think between the two of you in age, but, what I remember is there were two schools of playing, there was those who hit all the notes, and there were those who brought all the emotion out. And when I was a kid it was “Stern vs. Heifetz” and we’ve reevaluated all that assessment now, but now you have all these complete players who can do it all. The thing I think that is remarkable to me about Jennifer is , I think it comes back to what you gave her, what you imparted when she was so little, is, how much she gives back to young people, and making your life available. What’s it like to be a concert violinist? The whole series you did, video, right?

JENNIFER KOH: Well, yes, and actually I ‘m developing, so, I mean, I kind of grew up with Mrs. Davis’s kids and grandkids. So, what’s funny is, for example, Ryan, Mrs.Davis’s  grandson, who does live in Phoenix…I knew when they were applying for college, they knew when I was applying for college…I feel like I knew when he was dating his first girlfriend and when I dated my first boyfriend, you know, things like that. So it was really family. And then, [LAUGHTER], Ryan told me the secret, which was that the grandkids would rearrange the pictures on Mrs. Davis’s refrigerator, because there was too much of an imbalance, there are too many pictures of Jenny!


JENNIFER KOH So I was really growing up in a family. Now I forgot the question-


STERLING BEEAFF: That was a really good answer though…It was more about what you have in mind-

JENNIFER KOH: Oh yeah, so actually Ryan is now on- I started a non-profit two years ago. Ryan is now on my board for the non-profit and we are developing a program called ARCOPLAY which we bring in school kids, elementary schools from very, uh, two extremes from the socio econonmic spectrum, so a high end private school and a public schools. We are developing the pilot program to start in the fall in the Bronx, in NY. This sense of not only community, but this feeling that you, it’s – I can never, in a way, there is no way for me to thank Mrs. Davis and my teachers for what they’ve given to me in my life. And the  only way that one can do that is by giving back. It is an importnant part I think, of my life.

JO DAVIS: And Jenny, do you have any idea how rewarding that is to your teachers-


JO DAVIS: I always say, when people often ask me , “Aren’t you proud of Jenny?” I say, “I’m not proud. I just think she is a blessing.”


JENNIFER KOH: Mrs. Davis is very kind.


STERLING BEEAFF: This is a pretty magical thing, and I feel like I’ve been let into a little bit of magic, because when you talk about, well, maybe  the things that stood between you and playing the violin, because you actually wanted to play the cello, from what I remember from your bio, right? Did you go to Suzuki and those were all gone?

JENNIFER KOH: No, I think I was just, you know, my parents are not musicians, so I think it was that they just went to the Wheaton College Suzuki Program and they were like, “Ok, we want to sign up our daughter for something”, and I think the only opening was violin, so they were “Yeah, sure, fine, whatever.“


So that’s how I ended up playing the violin. I think there was probably a waiting list for the other instruments, and they were like, “Yeah, sure, it doesn’t matter, violin is fine.” [


STERLING BEEAFF: The idea of playing the violin as a career…you had a career playing violin? (Jo Davis)

JO DAVIS: I had a career as an amateur playing violin. I had a career raising five kids and moving around the country a good deal, but I always played in community orchestras wherever we were, and I played, I actually played in The Phoenix Symphony in my high school years, and in my first year in college, so that was way back in the early, or the late 40s.

STERLING BEEAFF: The symphony was new-

JO DAVIS: It was in its third year.

STERLING BEEAFF: Yeah, man. You guys have kept in contact always, there’s not been a time you’ve lost contact-

JO DAVIS: We have. If we don’t keep in contact  somebody who knows us sends messages


STERLING BEEAFF: When from the outside you think of a fiddle player’s career, obviously, when you can start buying things, it’s a cd, it’s reading a review in the NY Times about a performance, a breakthrough Carnegie Hall performance or something, when did you know, “Wow, it’s gonna work. She’s really made it”. Was there a time, or did you just always know?

JO DAVIS: I had just a deep feeling when you were young, Jenny, when you played at Ravinia, that you had a long, good career in front of you. I always felt that you might not be the child star that would hit the scene, but that you just have a long career because of the way your mind worked, your intellect, that, along with your playing, I thought, was going to make a deep and rich career.  You’ve way surpassed what I thought, but I do remember saying that to you.

JENNIFER KOH: You know , I have to say something, because when you are a young musician it is not, especially having come from  a non musical family, and it was in a way, it was completely bizarre  in my family to go into  music and and to be a musician. And so there is no idea of how does this work…And I believe this not only from Mrs. Davis, but teachers I had later, Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir, that part of what made me continue was that they had faith in me before I had faith in myself, so that was-because it is not an easy life, and it is certainly not easy to start in the field, and also I had no idea how to make a career. That was so foreign- how do you make a career in music? It was really quite foreign. So I am incredibly grateful to not only Mrs. Davis all the mentors I’ve had in my life. Because they’ve really…if it weren’t for them, I’d never be here. And in fact, you know, some of the times of comfort for me, during harder periods, were that, well, ok, if they believe in me, then I should continue. Also I’ve been so blessed in my life, that I even encountered them in my life, so it gave me strength to continue, if that even makes sense.

JO DAVIS: Jenny is just always a person I know, even as a young girl, asked so many questions: well, what if?  Why? How?  And I can remember reaching as deeply as I could to try to answer some of this, but I also know her as a delightful fun person, and I think all of that is reflected in her music.

STERLING BEEAFF: IN your life, in your educational life, you consumed more than just, “just”, I don’t mean “just”, than music.

JENNIFER KOH: Yes, I got an English degree from Oberlin College as an undergraduate and then I continued to Curtis. While I was at Oberlin I went to Marlboro Music Festival, and that is simply due to Felix Galimir having heard me and then saying’ “You are going to Marlboro”. And again, coming from a non-musical family, I was like, “What is Marlboro?”

And Felix was like, “Well you are coming.” And I was like, “Ok”


And I just had no idea about anything, you know. If I hadn’t had these people kind of guiding me…I remember playing in the orchestra break room in Detroit and with the Detroit Symphony and Isaac Stern  happened to be playing, and he was like, “I want to hear you.” And then he told me, “You need to go study with Jaime Laredo.” Had I not had all of these, and then Jaime and I now joke that it took me five years to walk to Curtis because I was like, “I want to get a college degree first”. [LAUGHTER]

But I did get there eventually! I did get to Curtis eventually. But yes, if I didn’t have all those people kind of guiding me along the way, I would have never gone into music. I think that is a huge part of the mission for my non-profit, this realization that it just takes one person to change your life. So the idea of trying to offer that to younger kids is incredibly important to me. Because it really, it does, it just takes one person. And you’ll have more people coming into your life, but especially at that young age, it just takes one person.

JO DAVIS: And I think Jenny sometimes that you are that light, you are that person so often now, you don’t even realize within yourself what you are doing. And as a teacher I think that is often the case. You are just busy doing what you love to do and it is affecting somebody else.

STERLING BEEAFF: I want to back up a little bit, because you mentioned Suzuki, we talked about your parents not having any musical background. When I first learned about the Suzuki Method I had already been studying privately for a long time. When did you start teaching (Jo Davis) the method?

JO DAVIS: It was when I joined the Suzuki Program at Wheaton College and that was, well, about the time Jenny came to study with me. I was fairly new in that approach, and I absolutely loved it, because it is a difficult instrument to learn. I loved the fact that these little bodies had to become familiar with it, and everyone was different. You could work with them just in that format.

STERLING BEEAFF: Maybe it was just some teachers, but when I remembered the program, friends that I had, I went by myself and maybe my mom sat in the anteroom well I was taking my lessons. But moms went in with kids.

JO DAVIS: Absolutely.

STERLING BEEAFF: So (Jennifer Koh), was it your mom or your dad that went in to the Suzuki with you?

JENNIFER KOH: My mom. My mom is super responsible.


JO DAVIS: Dr. Koh took voluminous notes.


JENNIFER KOH: IT was interesting, because I think the still have- in Suzuki the parents are supposed to learn alongside the kids and so we still have her full size violin. I don’t think it has been played for, well, lets pretend it was ten years ago.


JENNIFER KOH: I do remember that a little bit.

JO DAVIS: I don’t remember your mother playing at all.  I just remember her taking notes.


JENNIFER KOH: She’s a professor after all, so- [LAUGHTER]

JO DAVIS: You know, Jenny, something that I think that have been, even though you may not realized it at the time, but it might have been an inspiration for you was the little French fiddle that I found for you. And that was—before that you had just played little Suzuki instruments, and I think it was probably a half size and it was a lovely little instrument, and just the tone was beautiful, and I think a good instrument can be a teacher all by itself.

JENNIFER KOH: Oh yeah, absolutely.

STERLING BEEAFF: The first time you pick something up, even if someone else doesn’t recognize it, if it matches you, all of a sudden you are hooked.

JO DAVIS: Right.

JENNIFER KOH: I also think when it is a better instrument you have so much more palatte of color, so then you can actually explore and learn from that instrument, because if you are just playing a little factory made box you might only have primary colors. But once you start moving to better instruments, you realize there is an entire spectrum, a whole world out there.

JO DAVIS:  Well, I have to ask you, Jenny, when did you first feel excited about what you can do?

JENNIFER KOH: I remembered when I was younger I liked the challenge of learning stuff. But, in a weird way, when I look back now, the age when I really made a full commitment that this is something that I really love doing and this is something I have to do, I was probably around 13. It was a different world for me, it wasn’t a known thing you could make a career out of it. So I went through different stages different cycles of being like, “Yes, this is my life, I am dedicating my life to this.” Now I am very comfortable with that, but I think there were different stages with it. I remember also talking with both to Mrs. Davis and as well with Jaime, as it was a actually a little hard for me to go to Curtis. There was a huge part of me that wanted to go to graduate school for literature. Still I had to make a literal decision to not pursue something else because this is what I am going to do with my life. So I went through different kinds of stages.

JO DAVIS: And I can look at it from a different viewpoint; it isn’t what you wanted it is what the world wanted.


STERLING BEEAFF: Parents, usually those who have no background, and you tell them you are going into music, the first questions is “What are you really going to do?”

JENNIFER KOH: I think it was horror in some ways. Both of my parents grew up in the Korean War, and my mom was a refugee from North Korea. A lot of the conversation was “Who needs musicians? We need doctors in this world!” Music is kind of frivolous, especially if you grow up in life and death situations. So I remember that that was definitely part of the conversation as well.

STERLING BEEAFF: As a follow up to what Mrs. Davis asked: You made a commitment to the instrument. A lot of parents don’t understand there is more than one path to playing the violin. Were you committed to being an orchestral soloist, a recitalist, a solo violinist? Or would it have been chamber music, teaching, or could it have been being an orchestral player?

JENNIFER KOH: I think for me, again, because nothing was defined very clearly, I didn’t realize there were such set pathways. Going to Marlboro is a chamber mlusic festival, right? And so I didn’t really know that I could do this, could be a musician, so maybe in some ways that was very lucky, as I didn’t see it as a, “You have to go do path A, B or C. “.  So I remembered, maybe this sounds pretentios, and it always does if you quote Proust, but from Swan’s Way there is this quote that you need to uncover your own path. And you make your own path, and it might be more difficult, and it might be more painful, but in the end it is more satisfying. I remember I actually wrote that quote out  and I would just look at it every single day. I think that was through probably though my college years and my school years at Curtis. Because I didn’t know what path I was going to take, I didn’t know what path was available, and it was certainly a very new path. I didn’t know how everything worked. So even now I am still learning while I am going along the way. Somebody else asked” What does it feel like to have made it as a musician? “And I was like, “You never feel like you’ve made it. God, I have to work more! I have to work on this! I have to get better at this.”


STERLING BEEAFF: I think your teachers would say that is a hallmark of the quality of person you are.

JO DAVIS: Jenny, I think I can remember an interview with you as a young girl saying “When I grow up I would like to be like Heifitz.”

JENNIFER KOH: That’s funny. [LAUGHTER]  I remember the big Christmas present one year that I asked for my parents and this was years and years and years ago, was there was a whole Heifetz collection that was released on CD. It must have been a long time ago, and I think it was quite a lot monetarily, but my parents  did get it for me, which was really great. And then I started, a few years after that I started collecting historical records. And I think I was like, “I think I like Bronislav Huberman more!”


STERLING BEEAFF: The quality of  you as a person, and you mix that with the quality of teachers you had… I think the ability to establish with Mrs. Davis gave you good grounding not only in her own wisdom and knowing that it was time for you to go on, but then making sure you got there, and partaking in how you proceeded. When you are working with someone like Jaime Laredo and you are learning not only about the instrument, but how to play the instrument in recital, what to do with the conductor when you are playing this piece, how you approach it. All those lessons you can’t get unless it is from somebody who has done it for years and years and years.

JENNIFER KOH: Well,I have to say,  I think one of the things of the mentors- I call them more than teachers, because they were really mentors. I think Mrs. Davis, Laredo, with Felix Galimir, they are incredibly generous, kind and empathetic people who also know how to live life fully. That was, I think in a way, the greatest lesson for me. And that kind of warmth, and the importance of not only interacting with younger kids when you are doing master classes or anything like that, but it is basically a lesson in how you live your life. And of course, Jaime was incredibly helpful because working with someone that exists in the music world, it was a lesson. I didn’t know how that happened, how do you function inside what is considered a career, a performing career? Felix did pass away, but you know, I still go to Jaime, I still go to Mrs. Davis for advice about a lot of things, not just playing, violin, or music stuff, just about life stuff.

JO DAVIS: Jenny, I think the choices you’ve made, I’ve always felt that you are in good hands. I love your Jaime and I just feel like you are in very good hands. It is a comfortable kind of family around you.

JENNIFER KOH: Yeah. I feel lucky because in my life it is just having good people around you, you know? In the end, isn’t that what life is about? It’s about having a great community of human beings.

JO DAVIS: That’s why you have longevity, Jenny.


JO DAVIS: You are not just looking at a narrow version of “I’m going to play with a symphony and this orchesta and this orchestra. You are so creative now, your bridge, your whole work that you are doing is so creative in the big picture on Earth. It is!


JENNIFER KOH: You are very kind.

STERLING BEEAFF: Well, it’s, just being with you both, it is just remarkable. Some of us think, “Maybe someday I’ll be a footnote in the Grove Dictionary.” The thing about teachers, especially now when the discussion is the lack of education in schools, music education, the lack of children being introduced, modern music, forget about it, Bach, for crying out loud…the gift that a teacher gives, and now, here in this room it is palpable: What you have done, what you have set up, the time you had with her, and then “Jennifer, it is time you go to somebody else.” It never went away. That’s just remarkable.

JO DAVIS: No, it hasn’t.

JENNIFER KOH: I think that is do to her-

JO DAVIS: No, it’s maybe my husband and I.


JO DAVIS: We’ve probably done all the same encouraging with our five kids. But you were right in there. They did maybe rearrange the pictures a little on the refrigerator.


JENNIFER KOH: I have to say, a lot of your kids have told me that! [LAUGHTER] But it’s great, because I feel like I grew up with her kids and grandkids. I see them, I saw her daughter, I see her daughters in different cities, if I perform there. It’s really like family. And maybe part of that is my parents were the only ones of their siblings to settle in the US and so from the beginning I learned, through all Mrs. Davis, you build your family, and the people who are bound to you. Now it’s great having Ryan on our board.

JO DAVIS: It is a very sweet story, that is very sweet.


STERLING BEEAFF: Well, I am standing not far from Hutch, your husband of how many years?

JO DAVIS: 64-close, 63.


STERLING BEEAFF: Having just met him I realize “Ok, you are a remarkable lady, because he is a pretty cool guy. You’ve raise 5 kids, one of your students is sitting next to you in a classical radio station talking about her career…it is  a pleasure to be with you.

JO DAVIS. Well thank you, I’ve enjoyed doing this very much, and being with Jenny.


JENNIFER KOH. Thank you.

STERLING BEEAFF: It’s always easy to say thank you to the artist, and usually I get a chance to do that, but a chance to thank the teacher, not so much.


 Produced by Jane Hilton