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Meet the Musicians

Musicians Shout Out Their Teachers

Sifei Cheng (left) and his high school viola teacher, William Kennedy (right).

Next week, the Orchestra Hall stage will be graced by some extraordinary guest artists: 54 music educators representing 37 school districts across Greater Minnesota will join our ensemble for a unique Side-by-Side experience. The educators will work with Music Director Thomas Søndergård in two rehearsals, playing alongside their professional Orchestra counterparts; the experience culminates in two concerts on April 27 and 28 when they perform a movement from Gustav Holst's The Planets together.

The project is meant to uplift dedicated music educators across our state and advocate for music programs in schools. “It’s really important for me from the start of my tenure to say a big thank you to all the music educators, the teachers, the people who influence kids at a very early age to bring music into their lives,” says Søndergård. “I believe that really changes us within.”

In preparation for the week, we’ve asked a few of our musicians to reflect on the teachers that impacted them early in their lives. Here’s what they had to say:


Sifei Cheng, viola

William Kennedy was more than just my high school viola teacher; he was like a second dad. When my parents had to move away from our hometown of Irvine, California, to make a living for us, he took my brother and I in to live with him. He never pressured me to become a musician, but he encouraged me because he knew I had talent. He believed in me long before I believed in myself. The picture [above] is from when he visited me at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1990. 


Kathryn Nettleman, associate principal bass

Unlike many of my string-playing peers in the Minnesota Orchestra, I did not begin learning an instrument in early childhood. However, as a 4th grader, like every kid in my district, I was given the opportunity to learn a band or orchestra instrument. I chose to play the violin, and Mrs. Sweger-Lutz was my teacher for group lessons at Jennings Elementary School in Haddon Township, New Jersey. She also led the district-wide beginner string ensembles, giving me my first experience in group music-making. I still remember the way playing that beginner string arrangement of Brahms’ Haydn Variations made me feel—it was absolutely exhilarating!  

In 7th grade, I heard and saw a bass for the first time. It was being played by an 8th grader named Nicole in the junior high string ensemble. I began scheming ways to get hold of a bass at my school, Haddon Township High School (which was at that time a combined school, grades 7-12). By the 8th grade, I had officially switched to bass. Band director Joe Fallon took note. Insanely, he had me prepare to play the book for Annie in the high school's spring musical. He told me to work hard and figure it out—and I (kind of) did! 

It was Mr. Fallon who told my dad: "Get this kid some lessons!!" It was Mr. Fallon who nudged me every day at school, saying things like, "There's some kid in Bolivia/Japan/Egypt playing on his bass right now, practicing his tail off—so get busy, Fuddlenut!" (For that's what he called me.) "What are you doing here in the hallway, Fuddlenut—get practicing!" Mr. Fallon had me playing bass in the school's orchestra, of course, but also: jazz band, concert band, even electric bass in the marching band one year (for heaven's sake!) By high school, he was recommending me to area teachers whose schools needed a bassist to play Fiddler, West Side Story, King and I, Pippin, etc. 

Mr. Fallon—himself an in-demand trumpeter from Philadelphia to Atlantic City—connected me to my first bass teacher, the fabulous jazz bassist Craig Thomas. He connected me to pit orchestra work at local and summer theater companies. He introduced me to professional musicians he worked with in jazz combos and touring Broadway shows in Philadelphia theaters. He brought our music department to attend Philadelphia Orchestra concerts and to perform in "days of jazz" all around the state of New Jersey. He urged me to begin teaching bass lessons to younger kids, which in turn taught me so much! He kicked my butt and, for all his gregarious joking, he took me and he took his work very seriously. When I got a full-tuition scholarship to Juilliard, he was so proud. 

Were it not for Joe Fallon's absolute excellence as a high school music teacher, I probably wouldn't have understood one could be a professional musician.

Kathryn Nettleman

While I've been helped, pushed, and championed along the way by dozens of music teachers, I'm a musician today because of Mr. Fallon.


Valerie Little, assistant principal librarian

Kathy Yeater ran an exemplary school orchestra program for 32 years in Southern York County School District in south central Pennsylvania. In 1996, she received the National School Orchestra Director of the Year award, of which only one is awarded per year. Our orchestra and string quartet regularly represented our state at Pennsylvania Music Educators Association conferences and many of my peers and I represented our high school at district, regional, state and all-eastern states orchestra festivals.

Valerie Little (left) with Kathy Yeater (right), who ran the school orchestra program in Pennsylvania's Southern York County School District.

She was also a beautiful violinist, playing chamber music in our area and as a member of the York Symphony. She also conducted the York Junior Symphony (grades 3-8) for 27 years. Kathy died in 2021 and at her service, her husband and I counted up that at least ten of us [former students] went on to jobs in professional ensemble and college teaching positions, while dozens more carry on Kathy's work teaching in public school music programs and continue to play as adults working in other fields. Pretty great for a school orchestra program in a town with no stoplights!

Regardless of our level of investment in orchestra, Kathy made us laugh, shared her knowledge of classical music and string-playing, taught us discipline and good manners, warmly supported us as young people in and out of rehearsals, and stayed close with many of us years and years after graduating.


Charles Lazarus, trumpet

I spent my first two years of high school at R.S. Central High School in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, before going to the North Carolina School of the Arts and Juilliard. My band director Dr. Leonard Starling would let me into the band room to practice before, during and after school, and would take extra time to coach me and help me with anything I was trying to learn. He was always happy that I had questions for him and never tired of giving me his best answers.

One thing I remember him saying in regard to kids goofing off, being rowdy and unprepared in band has stuck with me all these years. He said: “A sign of true discipline is when you choose to make the right choice even when no one is watching. If you apply this to your practicing, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish!” I always loved that focus on the positive and have tried to make that part of my own teaching and parenting!

Last year, I got a call out of nowhere from his widow, Mildred, letting me know that she was finally cleaning out their house as she prepared to move to assisted living. She had found scrapbooks she was sending me that Dr. Starling had kept.


Erich Rieppel, principal timpani

My first percussion teacher in the Marshall, Minnesota, public schools, Chad Przymus, gave me deep inspiration and insight into the variety and colorful world of percussion at an early age. He was the middle school band director, percussion instructor and drumline teacher, but his influence was stronger than these titles. He had such a light ease with motivating, discipline and fun for middle and high school students—a rare talent. I have tried to retain that character throughout the path in becoming a better musician and certainly as I teach my current students.

Catch music educators performing with their Minnesota Orchestra counterparts during our 2024-25 Season Sampler concert on Saturday, April 27, at 7 p.m.

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