Have you ever felt so focused on the project in front of you that the rest of the world seemed to disappear? Perhaps time stood still? You felt in complete harmony with things around you? This place is a source of personal satisfaction and great creativity. Today we talk with Alice Ann O’Neil about how she attains this state of being, explore what it is, and find out how her Ministry as a Sister of Charity informs her teaching.

Music and Clips


MWR: Did you have thoughts about becoming a nun when you were little?

AAO: I did feel a call when I was a teenager to be a Sister. When I was 18 I told my parents that I wanted to be a Sister of Charity. We had Sisters of Charity in the town I where I grew up. They were convinced I was wrong about this, and so my parents actually forbade me from doing it and insisted that I go to university. They said, once you go to university, you will see what the whole wide world has to offer and you won’t want to do this.

I’ve been a Sister of Charity for 14 years now.

MWR: Alice Ann O’Neil is a Catholic nun who belongs to the religious community of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati founded in 1809 by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. She performs and teaches cello, and trains cello teachers. I met Alice Ann a few years ago when she taught some of my students, and she might have felt me staring at her a little longer than was socially acceptable. I had never spent time with a Sister of Charity, especially one who taught the cello. I didn’t want to be rude or nosy, but I had so many questions I wanted to ask her: How did you decide to become a Sister? How does being a Sister affect your teaching? Are there things you have learned from your ministry that I could apply to my own teaching?

I finally had a chance to ask her these questions during a series of phone conversations.

You’re listening to Building Noble Hearts, a production of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. I’m Margaret Watts Romney. Here, we take a look at the learning environments in which children, parents, and teachers gain new knowledge, and how they’re encouraged to become fine individuals. Throughout this series, we speak with members of the Suzuki music community inspired by humanitarian violinist Shinichi Suzuki, and we’re finding themes of good teaching everywhere; themes like listening, community, creativity.

This is our last full episode of Season One. In the upcoming weeks we will occasionally release more Matsumoto Memoirs, then in early 2018 return to our regular episodes exploring the current Suzuki teaching community of teachers, parents and students.

This season we’ve explored many of the pillars of Suzuki teaching—personal growth, community, listening, holding a vision of the future, and the value of an early start. For one final pillar, we are going to hear from a psychologist, a rock climber,, and a humanitarian violinist, but mostly from a Sister of Charity.

AAO: I started playing the cello in public school in 4th grade. I had a very incredible experience the very first time the teacher put the cello into my hand. I just felt like never I wanted to let it go. It was an immediate thing. Almost like love at first sight.

There was a very strong belief that you were either born with talent or not. My teachers had decided that I was born with talent because my Great grandfather had had a doctorate in music.

My great grandfather was a famous Canadian musician and most people knew him. He had written the march for the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

They play his march actually every day for changing of the guard in Ottawa, still.

I, of course, had never met him, but somehow this concept was that talent passed down through DNA and your genes.

My sisters both played violin also. One of my sisters was deemed having talent, and one other sister was not. So she was put in the back of the second violin section and not treated very well by our teachers. I was sitting principle cello and given every opportunity that could possibly be given. Even as a child I thought, “This is not fair.”

MWR: She had an instinct that the musical system she was raised with wasn’t fair, but she didn’t yet have information about any other way to teach and learn music. She loved her cello very much, had a life filled with students, and then a birthday present changed her world.

AAO: 1994 I was Living in Baltimore MD, and a friend of mine’s mother who was a Suzuki teacher in L.A., she bought me three books for my birthday that year: Nurtured By Love, Ability Development from age Zero, and To Learn With Love. I thought, “This is a very strange gift, but thank you.” Then I threw the books on my shelf. Then my friend’s mother decided to call me just about every day for a couple of months because she really wanted to talk to me about Nurtured By Love. So finally she wore me down, and I thought, “well if I just read it she will stop calling me every day.”

I read it in one sitting. It was so inspiring to me. I think it instantly changed my life. When I read the words of Dr. Suzuki that every child can learn, anything is possible; it changed my whole belief in my own potential. I was teaching at the time and I thought, “Boy, this changes the potential of every student that I teach. It’s not that they’re born with talent. They just can develop talent, and then I thought, “I need to go get training.”

I started apprenticeship style training with Alice Vierra in Virginia. My first lesson with Alice Vierra was so nurturing, and her voice was so calming that I just thought, “Is this actually teaching?” I had only known that teachers kind of raised their voice and pushed you and spoke strongly.

What blew my mind was at the very end of my first lesson, Alice Vierra said to me, “Well, I have this binder with all of my resources, let me just go copy it for you right now,” and I said, “You would do that for me?” and she said, “Of course, all Suzuki teachers share all of our knowledge with each other because it’s for the good of the children.”

I just broke down crying. I couldn’t believe that someone could be so generous and want to help me so much. Then, I understood it better the way she said it: it’s for the children.

MWR: This concept of caring for the children of the world has become a central part of Alice Ann’s teaching philosophy.

AAO: Suzuki teaching to me, and the way I define it is caring for and teaching children of our world. I see that is the whole point of Suzuki teaching—how we care for the children that we have been given the responsibility to care for. But by caring for these children that we teach, we are in fact changing the world and caring for many people. Not just their families, our communities and our studio, but the children of the world are affected when you care for one child.

MWR: Understanding this connection between teaching cello and serving the children of the world makes Alice Ann’s decision to become a Sister of Charity a natural step. She was first interested when she was 18, her parents forbade it, so she listened to them and went to Boston University, but the church was never far from her mind.

AAO: I did go to University and was a cello performance major to Boston University. I had a Spiritual director, all through the time that I was living there. She happened to also be a Sister of Charity. We would meet every week and talk and share about how God was moving in my life.

After I was finishing graduate school, I don’t know what exactly sparked it. It started when I was 30 and I thought, there is something missing. There’s something not right. It wasn’t about the fact that I wasn’t married. Because I was very fulfilled in my life with my career. I was praying about this, wanted some guidance, and I felt a very strong call to be a Sister.

I don’t know if I really can explain that very easily. So I started talking to some Sisters. I started exploring different communities to see which community matched my spirit. I was very happy when I found my family which is the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati.

MWR: It’s common to think of Sisters being teachers or nurses, but not cello teachers. What other occupations can Sisters hold?

AAO: Any job you can think of under the sun. There are Sisters who are police officers, fire men and fire people, administrative work, presidents of universities, nurse practitioners, psychologists, psychiatrists.

Basically, Ministry is meant to be taking your gifts and feeding a hunger that the world has.

Alice Ann’s work as a cello teacher is her Ministry. I asked her if she noticed a difference in her teaching after she became a Sister of Charity.

AAO When I begin teaching, I always take a few moments to prepare myself for the new people entering my studio and my presence. It’s taking care of my own stuff so that I can just clear the space among us. So I begin every period before lesson with prayer, and centering myself, and becoming fully present in the moment that is going to be with these people. I think what happens then very, very often in my lessons, I experience a feeling of flow.

MWR: Flow. Clearly, flow is a powerful experience. I had heard this word used in the context of psychology, but it seemed like Alice Ann was coming from a different point of view.

AAO: The word flow to me means tapping into some kind of universal energy. Which in the Catholic faith we might call the Holy spirit. It is a spirit of Creativity. By opening yourself and just placing yourself truly present in the moment you are in and going moment by moment, there’s so much ability to tap into the universal idea of creativity.

MWR: A focused concentration, a feeling of being connected to things around you, the loss of ego, a suspension of the cares of time. Alice Ann relishes this state of being. It sounds very similar to a state of consciousness defined by Hungarian Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who is known for his studies of happiness and creativity.

Csíkszentmihályi interviewed experts in many fields, and reported what they described.

M.C.: For instance, you are so involved in what you do, that you lose your sense of time. You are so enraptured by your doing, you are completely caught up in what you are doing, you don’t think about the past, the future. It’s like a present that is stretching out,

And one way of saying it is the condition, the state in which we are feeling fully alive. We are fully involved in what we are doing and in harmony with the environment around us.

A well known Rock climber that I interviewed, he was going up Yosemite. He says, “You are so involved in doing this thing, that after a while you are not thinking that you are climbing the rock, you are just oozing up, trying to find the little nubbins of rock that will allow you to go up a few inches here a few inches there. It becomes like you are dancing with the rock. You’re both involved with this climb. You’re in harmony with something else that you’re a part of. That is all of these flow experiences, whether it is music, or or chess, or science. You are part of something that you feel in harmony, either intellectually or cognitively or emotionally a part of.

MWR: Whether flow comes from a universal, mystical place or a psychological state, flow is clearly a desirable place to be and a marker that you are achieving your personal top performance. I asked Alice Ann what she does to get there?

AAO:The number one thing that you need to not do when you’re teaching is worry. Because worrying takes you out of the present moment. If you are younger teacher, I often remember I felt this in my 20s, I worried that I was doing the right thing or choosing to work on the right thing in the right way. Worrying immediately pulls you out of the present moment and takes you out of the possibility of truly inspired flow. So how do you not worry? You have to have more experience. You have to just keep trying. Every day teaching, trying to be better. Setting your intention is very important before hand.

Having the best training you can have is excellent. In our Suzuki association our training programs are so wonderful. And we have very detailed information that we share with people about how to teach well, but we continually change it and develop it and evolve it and then we share that too. We also do that through attending conferences, and talking with one another, observing each other’s teaching, experiencing different types of teaching from people. All of this helps you grow. Then you need to let it go and trust yourself that it is in there and you can pull on that experience to help you in the moment.

MWR: Alice Ann had one experience in particular with a student where she learned to trust herself and stay in the moment.

AAO: I had a student in Columbus whose mother called me for three years and asked me to teach her. I said no because she was severely disabled and had no use of the left side of her body. So her mom had called me for several years and asked me to teach her and I did not believe in my own ability to teach her, and that’s why I said no, because I thought I couldn’t know how to teach her. So that’s an example of not trusting myself.

So finally the mother said to me, “My dream is that my daughter could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. That’s it. All I want is for her to be able to play that.”

There was something about the sincerity of her dream which touched me, and so I said yes. And she started bringing her daughter to me. So because I had virtually no expectations of my own ability to help her, and we had no idea, the mother and I, how we would help her to to play Twinkle, we were just present in the moment together and we went with whatever we felt drawn to do with her.

So I started with my pre-twinkle steps and I just would try to have her move her fingers and try to have her sing and try to have her do all the things the pre-twinkle kids do, except I had more patience said, “I don’t care how long it takes, we’re just going to stay here and we’re just try.”

Three or four years into this process this girl learned to play all of her Twinkle Variations.

As musicians we think it’s very powerful if you’ve elevated your playing to concertos or solo Bach but Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is truly the transformative moment when everyone learns to play.

That’s an example of what can be created if you have the intention of bringing your gifts to share with whomever you’re working with.

MWR: THAT is flow. Trusting yourself, being in the moment, creating new approaches—Helen Higa, who we heard from in our first Matsumoto Memoir episode, observed the same process from Shinichi Suzuki.

Helen.Higa: It was just very in the moment and it was just him watching and observing and then trying something out and it would work or it wouldn’t. I think that’s his legacy, that if we stay constantly in the moment and we constantly are observing and reflecting and thinking, we’re going to come up with new ways and fresh ideas and this is what he wants.

MWR: Whether we are teaching students, practicing with our children, studying music, climbing rocks, or writing poetry, a creative flow state is possible. Take a few moments, clear a space, be in the present moment, trust yourself, and then give your whole attention to the project in front of you and start creating.

Do you have questions for Alice Ann or any of our other podcast interviewees? You can reach them in the General Suzuki Forum under the Discussion tab at suzuki association.org.

Have special teacher like Alice Ann in your life that you would like to honor?

Stars have been recently named for The Chaparral Suzuki Academy Faculty and Michael Sutton. Also, a star in memory of Ms. Jenny McGraw has recently been added to the Giving Galaxy of stars on our website. Go to Suzukiassociation.org to view the galaxy or dedicate a star. We may feature them here on the podcast as well. 5:40

Thanks for listening we’ll be back in a few months with a brand new season of inspiring conversations with people touched by Suzuki. But keep an eye on the podcast feed in the meantime. We’ll be releasing gems periodically.