Lynn Blakeslee (1940-2015)

Although I was a composition major as an Eastman undergraduate, I have often joked that I was “yelled at” just as much as the other violinists.  The woman doing that yelling—though always with loving intent—was Lynn Blakeslee, an exquisite violinist and master teacher who died suddenly in August at age 75.  I traveled to Rochester this past weekend to attend a memorial concert in her honor and was moved by the loving remarks and performances by her former colleagues and students.

Looking back on my time at Eastman, it is clear that Lynn had the largest overall impact on my time there.  Part of this was the sheer number of hours we spent together—a weekly hour lesson, technique class, and the 3-hour Wednesday evening studio class—but the bigger factor was the intensity of these experiences.  For all the thoughtful discussion and even argument that takes place in composition lessons, it simply doesn’t compare to the physicality of applied music study and all the hours in the practice room or rehearsing with your collaborators that lead up to the weekly lessons and eventual performances.

As a composer my relationship with Lynn was perhaps different from those whose dream was to have a performing career.  Of course Lynn taught me the technical side of violin playing, and she did so with an uncanny ability to isolate the smallest technical details and explain them and improve them (even with her eyes closed).  But more than technique, Lynn taught me that music making is a process that is passed down through study and performance by individuals.  Music making is about shaping technique so that performers and audiences can create and recreate conversations with specific times and places—a long chain of sounds and gestures and phrases being passed down over many generations—and composers are an important part—the starting point—of this chain.  To hear Lynn play was to hear the voices of music’s past sing through her violin.

The summer following my sophomore year at Eastman I lived on the third floor of her lovely home on Berkeley Street, the site of many unforgettable parties and where she taught me to “appreciate a good glass of wine.”  She was in Europe at “her castle” during part of the summer, but the rest of the season we shared the house and many conversations.  Lynn got to know me in a more personal way than any of my other teachers.  She knew that I had no money while at Eastman, so she invented odd jobs for me to do around her house—painting her white picket fence, organizing her garage.  She let me use one of her wonderful bows from then until I graduated.  And after I graduated she was a force in helping me to receive a commission from Eastman’s Hanson Institute for American Music, which supported the composition of my Chamber Concerto for one of her students.

As part of the memorial concert we heard a recording from Lynn’s final recital at Eastman in 2012.  Listening to her play Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, I was transported back to our times together, and a flood of memories and images flashed through my mind.  Rarely has listening to a single recorded work produced such strong and mixed emotions.  With the dim fade-out of the work’s final cool harmonic, Lynn’s song had come to an end.  But like the generations of violinists who preceded her, Lynn’s voice lives on through all of us who studied with her.  She is part of us.  Listening carefully I can hear her now…“Sing!  Sing like the Italians sing!”

I will, Ms. Blakeslee.  I promise.