Nell Novak Memorial Scholarship

Nell Novak

The Nell Novak Memorial Scholarship is awarded biennially in even years to a cello player for Suzuki teacher training.

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Prepared by Gilda Barston

My first encounter with Nellie Novak was in 1973. I had met Kal at an informal chamber music gathering, and we discussed the emergence of Suzuki cello. I was interested in the method, as was Nell, and in the fall of 1974 we began team-teaching a Suzuki cello group class at the Skokie School. This was the beginning of a long friendship and teaching collaboration.

Nell was active in the Suzuki movement from 1973 through her association with Dr. Milton Goldberg. She implemented the Suzuki cello method at what was then the Music Center of the North Shore (now the Music Institute of Chicago), and joined the faculty of the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point, WI in 1974. The teachers at Stevens Point were revising the Suzuki cello materials, and Nell was instrumental in the development of what is now the Suzuki Cello School repertoire. She served on the SAA Cello committee for over 10 years (several years as chair), and was also on the SAA Board of Directors from 1980 to 1983. Nell was appointed as a teacher trainer in the early 80s and spent many years sharing her love and knowledge of the Suzuki method with aspiring teachers. She received the Suzuki Chair Award at Stevens Point in 1993 and was awarded the Suzuki Association of the Americas Excellence in Teaching Award in 1996.

Nell Novak, August 1993

Nell Novak, August 1993

Image by Arthur Montzka

Nell was a devoted teacher. During her tenure at the Music Institute of Chicago, she worked with students of all ages and abilities. She was equally effective with young Suzuki students beginning at age 3, serious pre-professional cellists, and adults. She spent many hours at the school, often ending her teaching as late as 10 pm. Nell held performance classes (she called them “workshops”) every Saturday afternoon, so that her students would have the opportunity to play their pieces and hear the other students perform. Nell’s students were frequent winners in local, national and international competitions. Whenever possible, she attended performances of her students, often traveling to hear them play with symphonies and in major competitions. Her students were devoted to her as well, as you can see by the large group of cellists who are here today. Among her “graduates” are Ani Aznavoorian, Amy Barston, Joanna Felder, Brenda Huang, Jun Jensen, Nicole Johnson, Kate Kayaian, Kathy Lee, Peter Seidenberg, Jay and Jonathan Venzon, Wendy Warner, Ingrid Williams and David Ying.

As friends, Nell, Kal, Gene and I were frequent dinner partners, often going out to eat following the Saturday “workshops”. Nell was an avid “Do-It-Yourselfer” building cabinets, laying flagstone in the yard, and assembling audio equipment. Nell lent Gene a tool needed for assembling cabinets, and we joked that she always knew where the tool was, as it took Gene 10 years to return it.

Nell and I traveled together to Japan to teach at the 1983 World Convention in Matsumoto. As part of the trip, we traveled to Hong Kong (minus husbands). We were joined by Lynn Sengstack. The trio of women (each 20 years apart in age), did extensive sight-seeing and shopping. My role on that trip was to select the activities, Nell picked the best places, and Lynn figured out the transportation. We had a blast!

When we first arrived in Tokyo, we stayed overnight at a large hotel. This was during a period of severe earthquakes in Japan. When we arrived at the hotel, the bellman dutifully showed us the stairs to use in case of emergency. Nell missed the emergency part, and indignantly told the young man that she “intended to use the elevator, thank you!” She was a little embarrassed when she realized what he meant. We all had a good laugh.

Nell Novak & Gilda Barston

Nell Novak & Gilda Barston

At the Music Institute, Nell and I were very close colleagues. In many ways, she was my mentor. I was very fortunate to be able to “pick her brain” by consulting with her about teaching issues, and by watching what she did when she was teaching Amy. We often joked that working with Amy was one of her most challenging teaching situations (sorry, Amy, but you were a handful!). I still hear her voice and use many of her ideas while working with my own students.

One time at a Suzuki faculty meeting, we were talking about teaching challenges. There were a number of younger teachers at the meeting. Nell was bemoaning the frustrations of working with students who were not practicing consistently. She turned to one of the younger teachers and announced that “It is your turn, now!” He was quite embarrassed, but we all knew that Nell was just venting and that she would never lose her infinite patience!

Nell and Kal were major influences in the growth and success of the Music Institute of Chicago. They were both visionaries in music education—Kal in his passion for musicianship studies and his leadership as Executive Director of the Music Institute of Chicago, and Nell in her role as a teacher. We see their contributions daily as we continue their work at the MIC. I continually feel Nell’s influence in my teaching, and I am proud to say that she was my good friend, colleague and mentor.

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