We invited Leslie Zander to sit down and chat about her multi-faceted role in classical music in the Brainerd Lakes area. Music teacher in multiple roles, trio member, concertmaster, and Festival volunteer—her activities are far-reaching. Tell us about where you are from and your involvement in music while growing up. “I’m from Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, a town the size of Brainerd/Baxter on the Wisconsin River. I got involved in music at the age of 3 ½ when my parents first signed me up for Suzuki violin lessons. The philosophy behind the Suzuki method is the ‘mother tongue method;’ this is the belief that small children can learn music the same way they learn to speak their native language. Mom and Dad did not have any intention of raising two professional musicians (Leslie and her brother, Steve) when they signed us up. It just looked like something fun to do as a family.”
Were your parents musically-inclined? “My mother took piano lessons and my dad played guitar and sang with his brothers growing up – and they’re actually both taking lessons again now as adults! I’m sure those experiences influenced their decision to make music an important part of our family’s life.”
How did playing the Suzuki violin method at age 3½ translate into an appreciation of music where you thought you would pursue it professionally? “Because I started at such a young age, I don’t remember not playing the violin. So it was always just part of my life. I remember wanting to be a teacher from the time I was a very small child. When I was in elementary school I thought I would probably be an elementary school teacher. But around junior high, music started to mean more to me. I started to be more motivated to practice and do well. I started to see private or public school music teaching as an alternative.”
Leslie eventually completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education, studying with Mark Bjork at the University of Minnesota. At the suggestion of a student teaching observer at the University with outstate roots, she pursued a job opening in Brainerd. She has taught middle level orchestra here since the fall of2000. What is it like to introduce stringed instruments to a large number of sixth graders every fall? “Honestly, it’s stressful at first because I meet 60-70 kids in just a few days and they don’t know where to sit, where to store their instruments, how their instruments work, or that they have to be tuned every time. So the first couple weeks are a little wild. But the process itself, to me, is just amazing… to watch the different ways kids learn, how quickly they progress, and how that light bulb comes on. Some kids progress rapidly if they have a music background, if they are good readers, or if they have a good ear. Some kids struggle with it for a longtime and then there is a switch that flips, and all of a sudden they get it.”
What is the teaching process like for these beginning students—these are not 3 ½ year olds, and they don’t have a “mother tongue” using your former phrase? “My goal with beginners is to get them making music as soon as possible… to get them to play an entire song as soon as possible. The first song in our method book is ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’ I color code it for them so they know what string to play on. There are numbers over all the notes so they know which finger to use. Once you boil it down to colors and numbers, most kids can figure out all of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ after just a few minutes of instruction. Then they feel they have accomplished something right away. It’s about making music.”
”We have a rather unique approach in Brainerd in the way we teach. A lot of my friends from high school or the University who are now teaching strings, they teach whole group instruction, where the whole group is in front of them, and everyone is on page 6 and we all play page 6 together. But in Brainerd we teach our kids on an individualized level. It is kind of a lab setup and each student is playing at their own pace.”
I am going to change the topic a little bit. Tell us about the Trillium Trio. “This is the string trio I am a part of. Sandy Larson is the other violinist. She is a media specialist at the elementary level. Brea Hollister is our cellist. She is a Brainerd grad, a product of the Brainerd orchestra program, and now a mother of four. We’ve been together 6 or 7 years. We play mostly weddings, many at Grandview Resort in the spring and summer. We have a lot of fun together. We’re a diverse group in that we came at music from different places – Brea started playing the cello in ninth grade and Sandy in the Bloomington school district – and we’re at different places in our lives – Brea with her small children and Sandy with her two grown daughters.”
Tell me about the Heartland Symphony. How long have you been involved with them? “Ten years. I’ve always played in the first violin section, and four years ago I became the concertmaster. There are around 50 players in the orchestra and they come from all over….Brainerd, Wadena, Pequot Lakes, Crosby, Little Falls.”
So I ask this question, and you probably think it is really funny, but what do concertmasters do besides getting everyone in tune before a performance? “(laughing)I am the leader of the string section, so in addition to the conductor’s feedback, I am also listening to all the strings to be sure we are playing in tune, matching our articulation, and using the same bowing. I sometimes consult with the conductor about repertoire choices or what needs attention during a rehearsal. I have to be really prepared for rehearsals. In order to be a good leader, I have to know the music very well before the first rehearsal. We have just seven once-a-week rehearsals before our concerts. It is kind of amazing how it all comes together. In a community symphony, some players drive long distances to rehearsals and all have lives beyond the orchestra – kids, families, jobs, etc. It is hard to get everybody together in the room at the same time…and sometimes it doesn’t happen until dress rehearsal. But everyone works hard and it always comes together! We put on quality performances.”
What is your role with the Music Festival? “The first year Scott (the Artistic Director) and I planned the Community concert together. We thought about what a Community Concert should be. Last year, I took on more of the responsibility. We try to get a balance of instrumentation, different sizes and types of groups, and different ages of people. This year, the Legacy Chorale, a brass quintet, a string quartet, a flute/violin/piano trio, and a clarinet with string quartet will all perform.”
“I also get to play on the last two Festival ensemble concerts! I get to play with Steve and Maia (Leslie’s brother and sister-in-law). I have played at festivals with them the last few summers in Chelan, Washington(Maia’s hometown)and Mammoth Lakes, California. My parents (Tim and Barb) are coming up from Wisconsin Rapids to be with us that week too. They are so excited! And I’m excited to share this festival with them. It’s become an important part of my summer.”
Thank you Leslie!
Return to Home Page.