An Ode To My Teachers, Part 2: Mr. B

On Wednesday, October 29, 1975,  I had my first violin lesson.  On that day, I met the man who would change my life forever, and the lives of many, many other young string players in the DMPS:  Jim Brauninger.

It is nearly as difficult for me to articulate the depth of my feelings for Mr. B as it is to explain what the violin means to me.  After all, people are supposed to elicit different responses, emotions, and feelings than objects.  But, for me it’s hard to separate them; it’s on a different level than just being sentimentally attached to an object, or even perhaps a toddler’s security blanket.

I’m pretty sure Mr. B would be initially embarrassed by my paraphrase of Saint John:  in the beginning was the Word and his name was Mr. Brauninger. But, I’m pretty sure he would also understand both the humor and the significance of the event.  When I stepped into that storage room at the end of the second-floor hallway for that first lesson, Mr. B ranked right up there with God in my myopic fourth-grade worldview.  I was in total awe of the violin and the sound it made;  Mr. B was able to put what I wanted to do into words that I could understand, into actions that I could perform.  He gave the violin, and my inarticulate feelings about it, a voice.  He understood me, completely.

Thirty six years later, I am not only still at a loss for all the necessary words to describe my relationship with the violin, but his violin is still The One I hear in my head.  For me, his sound is The Gold Standard. That sound — sweet, honeyed, pure, mellow, rich, burnished, velvety — came out of any violin he played, including my $100 bargain purchase from my older sister.  I get goosebumps when I hear it.  I strive for that sound still, but something remains missing.  It’s as if he was granted some kind of heavenly patent on it.  I’ve heard thousands of violinists over the years, and none of them sounded like Mr. B.  Not even close.  If there is one thing I would desperately love to share with my students, Mr. B’s sound would be it.  If they could hear it, they would enter a new realm of possibility, of knowledge, of passion for learning. If only…

My lessons started in a group class.  There were four of us.  And then there were three.   At the end of the first month, I was moved into a private lesson.  By the end of the school year I had finished book 2.  After that, my lessons were at the Brauninger’s house, which worked out well because the summer between fourth and fifth grade, we moved to West Des Moines.  For a little over five years, he was by turns an encourager, writing silly notes and drawing pictures in my music as reminders of various technical points; a finder of performance opportunities, such as inviting me to join the Greater Des Moines Youth Symphony as a sixth-grader, which exposed me to a whole new world of music and musicians I’d never dreamed possible, and helping me get ready for Bill Riley’s State Fair Talent Search (and then consoling me when I didn’t even receive an honorable mention;) and a procurer of a better instrument when the time came, discovering a lovely 1917 Lyon and Healy violin that needed a new home, for a budget price.

Mr. B coached me from Twinkles through book 9.  I was motivated and competitive.  One of my most desperate wishes from the end of fourth grade forward was to keep up with the older kids:  Jana, Paula, Brad, Krista, the other Brad.  When I performed with them as a “Super Star” on the West Des Moines Spring Suzuki Concert the next year (and for several years after), it was another amazing experience.  It was fun to be “special,” one of the advanced kids.  I wanted to be famous, because I felt noticed and people enjoyed listening.  At the time, local fame was good enough, but I yearned for more.  It sounds very juvenile now, but at the time it was what it was.  [Truth be told, fame is still there in the back of my head. Yes, I still want to be famous, but for very different reasons and in a much different way. And it’s another story for another day.]

Because of his gentle spirit, Mr. B saw things a little differently.  For him, music was an extension of, a release for his relationship with God, an easy, natural, even organic form of worship.  And teaching was his ministry.  He knew I went to church, so I’m guessing that he thought that I was on the same wavelength, that I could understand the concepts of relationship he pulled out of his violin so effortlessly.  Unfortunately, I was not even on the same planet and began to become uncomfortable with the assumption that I too should/could express my relationship with God through certain pieces of music, specifically Bach.  I couldn’t do it.  Maybe I just didn’t want to.  I chalked it up later to being a wildly-hormonal teenager.  Not long after I started complaining about lessons being too “religious,” a spot suddenly opened up in another studio in town and I switched teachers.

Many years later, when I had reflected on my life to that point and decided that I needed to apologize to many people, I wrote to Mr. B. When I left his studio, he never said a word, even though I still sat in orchestra for him and such.  I had much to apologize for. In his reply, he was quick to laugh off my bad behavior and humorously pointed out his own shortcomings in the temper department.  His graciousness and wisdom taught me more about the violin I think than all the years of actual instruction I’ve had ever did.

Mr. Brauninger passed away a few years ago.  I miss him, and regret that I had not been able to tell him in person how much he meant to me.  I often wish for his advice, his counsel, his friendship, his wonderful sense of humor and occasional silliness.  I am grateful for the time I was able to spend with him, though, and I pass on as much as I can to my own students.

To be continued…

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3 Responses to An Ode To My Teachers, Part 2: Mr. B

  1. Thank you so much for this. I grew up in Des Moines, where I studied violin with Roy Shaw and Mary Sexton, then went to Interlochen — camp and academy — Oberlin, and University of Michigan. I played professionally in Toledo and Ann Arbor symphonies and taught lessons in the 70s, but after that I went through various career changes, ending up as a social worker/author who has published three books. Musically, I no longer play the violin due to arthritis but take voice lessons and sing in an Episcopal Church choir. I’m now working on a memoir about my years at Interlochen which begins with the point in Des Moines when I started violin lessons. I’m now up to the point when I started high school at Roosevelt, where James Brauninger was a brand new string teacher. At that point I was a bit spoiled by being a star in junior high and consequently upset when Mr. Brauninger didn’t instantly recognize my genius and made me share first chair at Roosevelt with three other students. I never felt like he liked me much, but I believe now that was due to my own hypersensitive adolescent ego. In trying to write honestly about this in my book, I don’t want to just bash Mr. Brauninger, so it’s great to read the view of someone who adored him, & I would like permission to quote your blog in my book. My email address is cindyglovin@sbcglobal.net. Please write to me, as I would love to hear from someone who grew up as a Des Moines violinist!

  2. Ed Walker says:

    Julie, this is a beautiful tribute. Jim was my teacher briefly, and although I never achieved the kind of rapport you had with him, I admired the man so much, and still believe that he was the single most important force in music education Des Moines has ever seen. Sad to say, there is no one like him today, and the arts in central Iowa is worse off as a result. I went to Jim’s memorial and wept.

    Fred Biel was my Jim Brauninger, the greatest teacher and one of the greatest human beings I ever knew. He respected my playing, even though I was a mediocre talent at best. He made me a better player and a better person, and I’m in his debt forever.

    Ed

    • Thank you, Ed.

      I didn’t know Dr. Biel well — only in passing. I heard he was a really tough teacher and was always kind of scared of him. LOL.

      I wish I could have gone to Mr. B.’s service, but didn’t find out about his passing until several months after the fact, and I was living in Tennessee at the time.

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