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2009 UC|21 President's Excellence Award: Kurt Sassmannshaus

Kurt Sassmannshaus' ability to procure excellence, in projects both within CCM and outside of the college, helped earn him this year's UC|21 President's Excellence Award.

Date: 5/21/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Katie Syroney
Phone: (513) 556-9484
Photos By: Dottie Stover

UC ingot   Kurt Sassmannshaus, MM, has devoted his career to creating unique learning opportunities for young musicians.

Sassmannshaus holds the distinguished Dorothy Richard Starling Chair for Classical Violin at the College-Conservatory of Music, and since 1984 he has been chair of CCM’s string department. He has earned an international reputation as an outstanding pedagogue—each year violin students from around the world compete to study with him. His students have won prizes at major competitions, and alumni lead major symphony orchestras and teach at many universities and conservatories spanning the globe.
Kurt Sassmannshaus
Kurt Sassmannshaus

Sassmannshaus’ work within CCM, while impressive, fills just a portion of his agenda. He is clearly focused on the global arts community, and has developed an array of innovative solutions that position UC and CCM squarely at the center of international educational excellence. This is one of the many reasons Sassmannshaus has been selected as this year’s recipient of the UC½21 President’s Excellence Award.

Sassmannshaus began his violin studies in his home country of Germany with his father, Egon Sassmannshaus, a respected teacher and author. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Cologne Conservatory while studying with Igor Ozim. In 1977, he entered The Juilliard School for graduate studies, where he began a long association with the legendary violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay. At that time, DeLay divided her time between New York and CCM, where she was the first holder of the Starling Chair. By 1981, Sassmannshaus had joined DeLay at CCM to become her teaching assistant.

“I spent a lot of time sitting in Miss DeLay’s studio observing lessons,” he remembers. “Observing her was an incredible education in great teaching. There was such simplicity and brilliance in her approach. She used to say that teaching is not important, but learning is. Miss DeLay always placed the student at the center.”

In 1987, Sassmannshaus made his first visit to China. Accompanying him was Robert Jewett, a trustee with the Starling Foundation, the organization that had established the Starling Chair at CCM. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, interest in studying classical music had been increasing greatly in China. Sassmannshaus noticed the impact of this shift on a local level as well, as evidenced by a steady growth in applications from Chinese students to CCM.

Recalls Sassmannshaus, “Mr. Jewett and I saw that all Chinese music conservatories had attached middle schools. These schools were offering advanced musical training to students as young as 10 years old.”

This emphasis on early instruction was consistent with what Sassmannshaus knew about some of the most successful violin teachers of the 20th century. Some of the most famous and successful teachers (Otakar Sevcik, Carl Flesch and Leopold Auer) spent fully half of their time teaching children under the age of 18.

Sassmannshaus believes that for an artist to perform at the highest level, “He or she must master the instrument as a child. This mastery has traditionally been achieved with the help of a great teacher.”

In the fall of 1987, with the support of the Starling Foundation, Sassmannhaus founded the Starling Preparatory String Project, based at CCM. The program is geared toward outstanding young players ages 10 to 18, offering opportunities for intensive study and solo performance in preparation for professional careers.

Since that time, the Starling Project has flourished. Its flagship program, the Starling Chamber Orchestra, has gained international recognition through recordings and performances in the U.S., Europe, Asia and at New York’s Lincoln Center. Participants have included students from the Greater Cincinnati region, as well as some that travel to the area from other cities and countries.
Kurt Sassmannshaus

Despite the Starling Project’s success, however, it eventually became clear that an educational program based in Cincinnati could only reach so far. Sassmannshaus began to think about incorporating Internet-based technology into his teaching; he recognized the potential to create relationships with aspiring violinists not just in Cincinnati, but also around the world.

By 2004, with funding from the Starling Foundation, he launched the Web site, a worldwide multimedia resource for violin technique. The site is geared toward students of all ages and skill levels, offering 175 streaming video lessons in three languages, all at no cost to the user. In its first year, it was an immediate success, receiving over 22 million hits along with numerous design awards and industry accolades. Last year, the site reached over 32 million hits with 250,000 unique users from throughout the United States, the U.K., Australia and Asia.

Sassmannshaus is quick to point to the impact the Web site has had on enrollment at UC. It has exposed his training methods and the caliber of the CCM string program to a new audience. “The site works as a recruiting tool,” he says. “The Starling Chamber Orchestra been approached to present concerts because of the site, and I’ve been approached to lead master classes.”

Throughout his work with the Starling Program and development of his Web site, Sassmannshaus had been continuing to teach and perform in China, where he cultivated relationships with some of the most respected teachers and fastest rising young students. He realized the incredible depth of talent that existed there and a demand for classical music training that continued to grow.

“In China, you’ve got 45 million kids either studying violin or piano,” says Sassmannshaus. “This staggering number creates a future audience and a future concert market. I believe that 10 years from now, Western musicians will compete to play in Asia.”

In 2005, Sassmannshaus founded the Great Wall International Music Academy in Beijing. The four-week festival with 80 students, ages 10–25, from both China and Western nations, is now in its fifth year. The Academy provides study and performance opportunities for a select group of young artists through lessons and performances. Sassmannshaus has recruited internationally renowned artist faculty members from the world’s top conservatories to teach and perform.

“Because of the Great Wall Academy, we have a large number of applications to CCM from the very best Chinese talents,” Sassmannshaus continues, “and the teachers at these major conservatories know about us. We have many more applications than we can possibly accept.” CCM has repeatedly been the school of choice for winners of China’s National Violin Competition.

Sassmannshaus has served to enhance UC’s international visibility through his reputation for teaching excellence and innovation.

“We live in a globalized world where all of us are interdependent,” he says. “I am a fervent believer in the magical soft power of music. The arts’ ability to transcend any agenda can keep us connected by celebrating the highest achievements of human potential together. I am happiest when I see young musicians from around the world enjoy and understand each other through music.”