Amateur professionals: members of the DUSS Youth Symphony Orchestra, overleaf; Kitchen, conducting center, demands that her students approach music as a dedicated pursuit, not a recreational activity
Amateur professionals: members of the DUSS Youth Symphony Orchestra, overleaf; Kitchen, conducting center, demands that her students approach music as a dedicated pursuit, not a recreational activity

String Theory

The Duke University String School, led by Dorothy Kitchen, has been introducing young people to the joys of the violin, viola, cello, and bass for four decades.
October 1, 2007
Four little boys with violins crowd onto stage left, forming a tight defensive phalanx, and the three young women who rise to play alongside them whisper to them to spread out. The tune is Dorothy Kitchen's "Hiding Song." The tiniest musician, who plays a quarter-size violin, follows with a solo on "Pop! Goes the Weasel." Yards away, looking enisled at center stage, pianist Sam Hammond '68, M.T.S. '96—best known as Duke's carillonneur—accompanies on a concert grand.

The Duke University String School (DUSS) has begun its fourth and last concert of the spring season, some six hours of performing over the afternoon and evening that mark the school's fortieth anniversary. These four decades represent a signal milestone for the school's founder and director, Dorothy Kitchen—she of "Hiding Song" fame—and an invitation to reflect upon the future. Yet the marathon concert is neither unusual nor valedictory, just one more breathing place on the long upward path to helping the world play, and understand, music.

"This school has seen thousands of people go through it, thousands," says Kitchen. "But the school just kind of happened. It was a necessity. When I came here, there was no string teaching—no string teaching done well—for children.

"We're trying to teach them to read," she continues, "to play in tune, to play in a group, to have a sensitivity to rhythm, sensitivity to pitch, appreciation for sound, and an appreciation for the group experience."

Kitchen teaches the beginners, like the four little boys who lead off the concert. Like the rest of DUSS students, "when they perform, it's amazing how well they do, the poise," says Shelley Livingston, assistant conductor of the string school's Youth Symphony Orchestra, the senior-most group.

Presently, the diminutive but poised members of Beginner I Ensemble are whisked offstage to make way for Beginner II Ensemble, evenly split between boys and girls, who render a unison version of "Camptown Races" at about one-quarter tempo. Incredibly, they are in tune. Unlike their casually attired families in the audience, the performers are dressed in dapper white shirts and black trousers or skirts. Their collective bow is practiced. Teachers beam. Video cameras roll.

Kitchen "demands discipline," says cellist and DUSS alumna Brenda Neece. She also commands respect. Whether eight-year-olds with twelve-inch fiddles or alumni thirty years out with professional careers in music, everybody calls the boss "Mrs. Kitchen."

Amateur professionals: members of the DUSS Youth Symphony Orchestra, overleaf; Kitchen, conducting center, demands that her students approach music as a dedicated pursuit, not a recreational activity

Amateur professionals: members of the DUSS Youth Symphony Orchestra, overleaf; Kitchen, conducting center, demands that her students approach music as a dedicated pursuit, not a recreational activity

Kitchen, a violinist who holds degrees from Case Western Reserve and Brandeis universities and was associate concertmaster of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra for fifteen years, launched the string school in 1967 with Arlene di Cecco, then of the Ciompi Quartet. The school has grown from twenty-five students taking private lessons to more than 250 who study with eleven instructors, populate six orchestras and at least ten chamber groups, and learn music theory year-round.

And it was, Kitchen is quick to add, the university affiliation that allowed people to take the school seriously. "The gift that Duke gives us is the use of the space, and the help of the secretarial staff to handle our budget and help us with employees." All direct expenses are covered by the school's tuition and fees—along with grants from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation that enable DUSS to offer need-based scholarships and pursue programs reaching deep into the Triangle community, especially Durham, where DUSS teachers have offered annual workshops. Every Saturday of the academic year, students pour onto campus from surrounding areas as well, including Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Apex, Burlington, Cary, Garner, Hillsborough, Oxford, and South Hill, Virginia.

What makes DUSS unusual, says Livingston, is "the opportunity to study a high-level repertoire. It's exhilarating for them to play challenging music."

"In high school they read the masters—James Joyce, Shakespeare," says Kitchen. "Why not do it in music?" DUSS orchestras are known for tackling tough works at their four annual concerts, and today's will be no exception. Its chamber-music groups, whose coaches are paid primarily though an endowment from the Dorothy Fearing family honoring the founder of the Duke Symphony Orchestra, perform at retirement villages, malls, Rotary and Kiwanis meetings, garden clubs, hospital fundraisers—wherever they find an audience, whenever their community needs them, and whatever they dare, from the great Romantics to living composers. Kitchen sees ensembles, not lessons, as the core of the school's program.

"There's a kind of thrill that comes with making music with someone else," explains Jonathan Bagg, the Ciompi String Quartet's violist and a former DUSS parent and coach. "Mrs. Kitchen always recognizes that when people come together to make music, it's something that satisfies in a deep way."

Inside the auditorium—its empty seats littered, though neatly so, with open violin, viola, and cello cases—a couple of hundred parents in sundresses and Capri pants, khakis and Hawaiian shirts fan themselves, babies in strollers look around expectantly, and siblings dangle bare feet in the aisles. A teenage violist klok-kloks by in noisy heels, conversations buzz from every quarter, the doors slam as children run in and out.

David Ballantyne, a British radio announcer for WCPE, a local classical music station, has been tapped as emcee for the day. He had launched the Beginner I performance without much fanfare, except to acknowledge Mrs. Kitchen, who rose hastily to take a bow from the third row. But when the seventy-eight members of the formidable Intermediate I Orchestra rise from their places in the audience, the atmosphere changes. Coaches and teachers spring up and issue commands, chairs are dragged to and fro to accommodate sightlines, and the audience leans forward.

The orchestra features one of its own in a Haydn concerto: Ten-year-old Michael Gao, a violinist in DUSS' most advanced ensemble, is also an award-winning pianist slated to perform in Carnegie Hall later this year. The reedy sixth-grader crosses the stage with his hands thrust deep in his pockets. He has forgotten to button his cuffs, which have been hastily rolled back out of the way. He is so physically unprepossessing and so diminutive behind the grand piano that you find yourself wondering whether he can possibly have the strength to pull off a fortissimo.

Boys with bows: violinists Adren Rigdon, left, and Daniel Lee, members of the DUSS Intermediate II Orchestra

Boys with bows: violinists Adren Rigdon, left, and Daniel Lee, members of the DUSS Intermediate II Orchestra

You needn't have worried. He lights into his piece with vigor. In fact, if you close your eyes, you could be listening to a much older performer with a sophisticated sense of nuance, phrasing, timbre, and touch. Afterward, he bows twice, thrice, accepts a white rose with no evident surprise, shoves his free hand into his pocket and exits without having made eye contact with anyone. He has forgotten to acknowledge the orchestra, a breach of etiquette commensurate with his inexperience.

The slighted orchestra acquits itself with honor in Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite—though a Beginner I violinist has fallen asleep in the back row of the auditorium—and there is a further distribution of flowers and praise, with a presentation to Kitchen of a handmade quilt signed by her students and a public reading of a letter of tribute from the North Carolina representative of the American String Teachers Association. Ballantyne mistakenly invites audience members to head for a reception at the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, but the audience knows better. There is in fact no time for a reception, for the daylong concert is about to move into its second phase: performances by nine chamber ensembles.

I ask the kids, always, ‘Which piece did you like best in our last concert?' " says Kitchen, sitting, weeks later, in her office in the basement of Biddle. She has the orator's knack of building a sense of drama into her conversation and speaks with palpable energy about what she calls students' "trajectory of excitement in music."

"Not just the excitement of learning," she explains, "but the fact that music is a naturally occurring form of expression, and that you learn how to use it by the technique."

Her office is bursting with stacks and racks and cabinets stuffed with sheet music ("Originally it was just piles"), old concert posters, a watercolor ("That's a picture of me teaching, oh, many, many, many years ago"). It's summer, and although Saturdays are a little quieter, the stacks of music are not gathering any dust. DUSS has begun preparing for its two summer chamber music camps, for which it stopped advertising years ago because there was just too much interest. Demand had to be controlled by limiting applications to those in the know.

Kitchen describes herself as partially retired but quickly adds, "I cannot imagine that I would ever stop teaching. I'm happy with what I do."

 "There's no next Dorothy," says DUSS assistant director Stephanie Swisher, director of the beginning ensembles and conductor of the Intermediate II Orchestra, a full-time DUSS employee who has been with the school for twelve years.

One of the things that has made the program so successful—and that will make replacing her difficult—is her philosophy that the teaching staff should be given plenty of latitude. "We have a good deal of autonomy," says Swisher. "At the same time, Mrs. Kitchen's very helpful in working with us, giving us feedback whenever we need it. She's been a mentor to me."

"I have a couple of really strong teachers," says Kitchen, "who are also really good organizers, and who also have generosity of spirit. We've been trying to create a base of people who are interested in the forward motion of the student, as opposed to their forward motion." Asked whether she watches the teachers teach, she instantly responds, "No, I watch the students learn." She is confident that DUSS will continue if she ever retires. "And you can't say, ‘Well, it'll be better next year,' " Kitchen says. "You have to say, ‘This is what I'm going to do now.' And so, in a way, success is having a continued now."

The school's ongoing success has led to comparisons with conservatories. Kitchen characterizes it as "a mini-conservatory based on the New England Conservatory of Music model." By definition that would limit it to the elite, inviting comparison to tennis camps where hard-driving parents send prepubescent prodigies in the pursuit of fame.

But there's something different going on here—a sense of creative tension between ambition and fun. "There's no audition process," says Kitchen. "If you want to study the violin, you study." But, she adds, make no mistake: "This is a school; it's not a place where you're coming to do a recreational activity on Saturday mornings. Our primary purpose is not enjoyment. It's learning."

Unlike the vast majority of conservatories, DUSS is not competitive. The orchestras, for example, do have principal players in each section, but they rotate. "The people who are soloing are not necessarily gifted," explains Kitchen. "They are competent or hard working or interested. When you have faith that they can come through, they come through."

The evening concert, featuring the Intermediate II Orchestra and the Youth Symphony Orchestra, is festive. A photo collage and poster in the lobby proclaims "Mrs. Kitchen/DUSS 40th Anniversary!" It's almost a full house now (if you include the violin cases), and the auditorium feels more welcoming than in the stark daylight, its dome tastefully lit, and the evening air cooler. Surprisingly, the house lights never go down, perhaps in testament to the fact that the parents, alumni, and siblings in the audience have made as many sacrifices as the performers themselves to create this moment, and so, in a sense, it is their performance, too.

Kitchen is more in evidence tonight than during the day. She is the general directing her troops, which include the audience. She waves to indicate chair placement, issuing commands and marshaling her lieutenants with a practiced air. As the evening goes on, she periodically seizes the microphone from the emcee. "I want you to clap for these kids like crazy," she says after one piece. "I think they deserve another round of applause," after another. "Stand, Bill!" to composer William Robinson after a third.

Musical acclaim: Kitchen receives bouquets and applause from admirers

Musical acclaim: Kitchen receives bouquets and applause from admirers

She proves a deft conductor, using just her right hand at first, the baton balanced between index finger and thumb, until she needs to call forth a crescendo, jab an accent, or perform an arabesque cutoff. But the hands are only the beginning. Her style is exaggerated, a whole-body approach. "When you're standing up in front of an orchestra of eighty or ninety teenagers," says Jonathan Bagg, "you gotta put out a lot of energy. She knows what's important in a performance, which is the emotional. Underlying a great piece of music is something powerful, and she wants the students to recognize and get that."

"Children sing before they talk," says Kitchen, "so that has to say something about the value of music to a human being." After one work, she blows the orchestra an audible kiss before applause can begin.

While she may at times play the general, Kitchen is the embodiment of Tough Musical Love. "Go to a rehearsal," says Bagg, "Listen to her talking to the orchestra and working them up so they really understand what the music that they're playing is capable of, and what they're capable of when they play it."

"I was always terrified of Mrs. Kitchen," confesses Brenda Neece, now an adjunct assistant professor in the music department and curator of the Duke University Musical Instrument Collection. Neece—Dorothy Kitchen insists on calling her Doctor Neece —still keeps a copy of the DUSS twentieth-anniversary program from 1987, in which she performed. "The cello is my life, so of course the string school was important. I tell my students just to do what she says, shape up, behave. They can't be as slack as they are with me." (This from a teacher who ends one-hour lessons after fifteen minutes if she finds out her student hasn't practiced.)

"She knows how to challenge each student in the right way to get the best out of them," Neece continues. "It's really about the music."

"What she likes least," adds Bagg, "is a student who appears to be sleepwalking through his lesson or rehearsal, people who would turn off their brains and go on autopilot. That would get her angry."

"Each lesson is actually hard," acknowledges Kitchen, "because you're driving toward something new. The lesson is not 
for your comfort zone.  If you're tired at the end, that's normal." She grins. "So I provide chocolate."

Toward the end, tonight's program evolves into something of a family affair. Kitchen's son, Nicholas, a world-class violinist; his wife, cellist Yeesun Kim; and their colleagues from the Borromeo String Quartet join the ranks of the Youth Symphony Orchestra for Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence. "I wondered what would happen if we triggered them with these brilliant players in their midst," Kitchen later chuckles.

What happened was "amazing," she says. "It just turned them on. And all the work that they had done just coalesced." The visiting professionals play a movement from a Brahms double concerto with the orchestra, then an Elgar quartet during which the members of the orchestra remain rapt, motionless—their bows, their feet, even their eyes.

For an audience to get to watch, closely, as musicians listen to other musicians is a rare accident. Not stirring, not counting, they seem lost in thought even at their tender age, with not only a heightened sense of discrimination but of imagination. These ten-, twelve-, fourteen-year-olds are not just modeling good behavior; it's easy to see that they are moved by this string quartet, which the Boston Globe described as "simply the best there is." It is startling.

The standing ovation begins with the children themselves and quickly infects their parents. The presence of a talent like Nicholas Kitchen, himself of course a DUSS graduate, shows that skill is a continuum, that every musician was once a beginner. "Gifts are not things that you earn," as Dorothy Kitchen once told NPR, "but if they're yours, then it's your job to use them." As if to drive the point home, her four-year-old grandson comes out attired in a white linen suit to play a 20-second micro-performance. The room bursts into friendly applause.

At the close of the concert,  there are, inevitably, speeches,and a mayoral proclamation, as well as a letter from Dean of the Humanities for Arts & Sciences Gregson Davis and an engraved crystal token of appreciation from the music department. One of Kitchen's first students, Beth Levine, presents her with a fat scrapbook of clippings and remembrances recalling DUSS' hosting of an orchestra from Port-au-Prince, Haiti; an exchange program with the Laredo Institute of Cochabamba, Bolivia; work (and play) with a music school in Cork, Ireland; and DUSS students' 1993 candlelight performance in the White House.

Only once is Kitchen at a loss for words: when Livingston presents a $5,000-plus check, the gift of appreciative parents and alumni, that will enable her to travel to overseas music festivals and even fly up to Washington for Nicholas' performance at the Library of Congress on an eighteenth-century Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù violin.

"People," she gasps, "this is above—this is amazing." She stammers, pauses, then gathers herself and announces, "And now … we're going to play the Bach Double!"

At her signal, DUSS alumni rise as one from the audience and, bearing their instruments, advance toward the stage. Additional stands are magically produced, but as there is no room onstage—the youth symphony alone has 115 members—they take up positions in what would otherwise be called the orchestra pit. There has been no rehearsal, but everyone is game for a round of sight-reading. They have some sense, after all, of how to read, to play in tune and in a group, to have a sensitivity to rhythm and pitch, an appreciation for sound and the group experience.

A violin materializes in Kitchen's hands. She raises her bow, nods, and  the whole room erupts into the vivace from Bach's Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, with Dorothy and Nicholas Kitchen standing alone together at center stage as if in a spotlight all their own.

Mother and son take the solos.