Mary Lou Gotman | Webster University

Mary Lou Gotman

Mary Lou GotmanMary Lou Gotman is a Suzuki Cello teacher and the Conductor of the String Orchestra.  She has been a faculty member for over 35 years.  Mary Lou sat down with me to discuss her career at the CMS, her former students, and her musical background.   

Q:  When did you start working at the Community Music School?MLG:  1978.  I came here when my husband at the time had just won a viola job at the St. Louis Symphony.  I had wonderful job in Richmond, Virginia.  I was teaching during the day and playing in the Richmond Symphony at night, which was the best of both worlds.  I didn’t want to leave, but I had no choice.  I looked for a public school job in St. Louis and could not find anything.  Rosie Martin was someone I knew in St. Louis and she suggested I interview here at the Community Music School.  So I did.  The Director, Shirley Bartzen was wonderful. 

Prior to moving here I was working a public school job and I had an education degree, so Shirley and I both came to the conclusion that there needed to be an orchestra at the school.  The String Orchestra was started in 1978 and I am still conducting the orchestra today! 

Q:  Tell us more about the orchestra.Mary Lou Gotman conducing String Orchestra
MLG:  It’s a lot of fun!  Every year the kids are different and great.  They come and play in the orchestra because they want to.  And they meet new friends. 

I have some memorable situations about the early days of the orchestra.  One time we were rehearsing in our old building, 560 Trinity Ave., and the ceiling tiles started falling right where we were.  We all took our instruments and ran off the stage! 

The orchestra was originally called the “String Training Orchestra.”  From the String Training Orchestra the other Young People’s Orchestras formed. 

Q:  What was the process of your Suzuki training?
MLG:  Since there was not an established Suzuki Teacher Training program at the time, I took lessons from Mr. Kataoka, who was in the St. Louis Symphony.  His wife, Eiko, a violinist in the symphony, studied with Dr. Suzuki growing up in Japan.  Through their visits back to Japan to visit family and Dr. Suzuki, I would learn many great teaching tips direct from Dr. Suzuki and Matsumoto.  I got to visit Matsumoto myself to observe his teaching.  He was incredible.   

Q:  Tell us about your family.
MLG:  I have a daughter and a son.  My daughter, Tessa, is a musician.  I can’t imagine her doing anything else.  Right now she is playing in the Phoenix Symphony.  She is married a fine tuba player. 

My son, Nathan, is the other side of the brain.  He is a biostatistician at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  He was always the math guy in our family.  We used to tease him that one day he’d have to support his sister. 

Q:  What is your favorite thing about working at the CMS?
MLG:  All my wonderful students and their parents, who dutifully bring them to lessons and take so much interest in them.  It’s a family affair.  If you don’t have the cooperation of everybody it does not work.  I don’t think anybody realizes what a commitment it is.  It’s a tremendous commitment, but what everyone in the family gets out of it is irreplaceable. 

Right now, I am teaching a second generation of CMS Suzuki students.  Mrs. Unseth took lessons with Rosie and I am teaching three of Mrs. Unseth’s boys. 

Peter Martin, well-known International jazz artist, was in my orchestra.  Kristin Alhstrom, who plays in the St. Louis Symphony, was also in my orchestra.  There are many others who have gone on to highly successful careers. 

Daniel Kopp, one of my former students just graduated from Rice University and going to graduate school.  Teaching him was so fun!  I remember him playing in a lot of master classes at the CMS.  He was playing at this master class led by an International German cellist.  Daniel played Kol Nidrei.  And the cellist asked him if he was Jewish and if he knew what Kol Nidrei meant.  And what came out of Daniel’s mouth was incredible, the way he explained what it meant to him was amazing.  He had everyone on the edge of their seats. 

I have had so many wonderful students.  What motivates kids is being around other kids that like what they are doing.  When James Perretta came to me about switching to my Suzuki studio, he was very talented but not stimulated enough.  But once we brought him into the fold, he soared!  He was smart academically too.  James is about to graduate from the University of Michigan. 

The Groesches are a terrific family.  I’ve taught 2 of their children. This is the first year I haven’t had a student from that family in 13 years.  The Riews (Grant), the Lees (Dylan), the list goes on and on.  I have had the greatest families and students!  There’s something special about kids who want to learn how to play cello.  First, not many kids know about the cello. Everyone knows about the violin, but not everyone knows about the cello. 

One of my former students, Mary Ann Ramos, has a doctorate and is teaching at Northern Arizona University.  

One of my very first students is now is running her own music school in Manhattan called Silver Music.   Her name is Ellen Rose Silver.  When one of your former students is teaching Suzuki, it makes you a Suzuki grandmother.

Q:  Tell us about how you started playing the cello.
MLG:  I was in the fifth grade.  The orchestra teacher and this girl came in who was playing the cello.  The girl was a bore!  She spoke in this nasal, whiney voice and said “my name is Janet and I play the cello.” And I was thinking what a bore!  I don’t want to play that instrument.  The principal was in the room and she was terrifying.  When she was in the room you sat up!  Her name was Ms. Kratovila.  She could see that I was tuning out and she came right up to me and said “wouldn’t YOU like to play the cello?”  And I said “YES Ms. Kratovila!  Yes I would!”  And that was that! 

I really loved playing and then the world of classical music opened up.  I think in the 8th grade I decided I wanted to be a cello teacher.  I always liked kids.  They are so genuine and funny.  

I studied music education at Bowling Green University in Ohio.  Lucky for me, I had a wonderful teacher, Peter Howard, who was a real performer. He won a prize in the Tchaikovsky competition.  He was really fabulous!  He told me “you are going to be a teacher/cellist.  You are not going to put your cello in the corner after you graduate.”  I took an extra year because I wanted to be able to play before I left.  It really paid off.  My teacher believed in me so much that motivated me to work hard.  People that do not study music do not understand that you have such an intimate relationship with your private instructor.  There’s nothing like the relationship between a student and teacher.  Wanting so much to do it for that person, because they believe you in, you are doing your best. 

After college, I got a job in Richmond, VA and spent 7 years there.  Then moved here and the rest is history. 

Q:  Tell me about your quartet.
MLG:  Quartet Seraphin was such an important part of all of our lives.  Quartet Seraphin included Wanda Becker, violin; Rose Martin, violin; Sara Pandolfi/Holly Kurtz, viola; and Mary Lou Gotman, cello.  We did educational concerts for young audiences called “Meet the Composer.”  We had the most wonderful playwright – Sue Greenberg.  Sue watched how we all interacted with one another and she wrote a script for each program, with us in the story and a professional actor who becomes one of 3 composers, Mozart, Beethoven, or Haydn.  One of my students was our original Mozart, Daniel Estrin, now an international journalist. I’ve heard him many times on NPR’s “The World.”  I learned so much about acting from Sue, as director, and the three actors.  It was so fun!  Our quartet was together for 25 years!  It was like we were all married!  And for many years we did recital programs at the Sheldon and other venues.  I don’t know how we did it with teaching and raising kids.  We had a great run!