A&E: The mother tongue – Keith Cook teaches the language of music to kids

Keith Cook: a violinist with the Louisville Orchestra, established the West Louisville Talent Education Center in 1997 Here he plays with Kevin Porter, a former student at the center who now mentors other students.  photo by Kelly Mackey

Keith Cook: a violinist with the Louisville Orchestra, established the West Louisville Talent Education Center in 1997 Here he plays with Kevin Porter, a former student at the center who now mentors other students. photo by Kelly Mackey

He set up shop in the little blue house on 28th Street, just around the corner from an old Masonic meeting hall, and he gave his enterprise an imposing name, the West Louisville Talent Education Center, just so the people who write the checks will know that he’s a serious man, not just some huckster trying to use kids to rip off the establishment.

It is here, then, that Keith Cook, a violinist with the Louisville Orchestra for more than 25 years, works miracles that go largely unknown and unappreciated. He teaches some 40 students ranging in age from pre-school to college. They tend to be at risk and are often in trouble at school. Every one does not become a budding Heifetz. But every one becomes a smarter and better person, and the problems they may have been having tend to go away.

Cook charges, at most, $40 per month, an incredible bargain, but nobody actually pays that much. His students simply can’t afford it. Neither can Cook, of course, but he continues to pour much of his salary from the orchestra into the center.

He does it because he believes with all his heart and soul in the power of music to engage, enlighten, educate and enrich even the poorest among us. “Throughout history, the arts have uplifted humanity,” Cook says. “Every kid we take off the streets helps the kid and helps the community.”
Lean times
Sadly, Cook lives off a paycheck that has shrunk instead of grown. The orchestra’s future has been put at risk due to dwindling support from government and the private sector, an unfortunate situation that has been exacerbated by a lot of counter-productive bickering within the governing board.

“I was rummaging around the other day and found a paycheck stub from 1987,” Cook says, smiling ruefully. “When the latest cuts go through, I’ll be making now what I did then.”

Besides the orchestra, Cook’s only other source of income is what he gets from the Kentucky Center for being a visiting instructor at three community centers through the ArtsReach program.

If a child at one of the centers becomes interested in learning more, Cook talks to his parents or guardian about continuing his or her studies at the West Louisville Talent Education Center. He gets a lot of his students this way. And once Cook gets them, he tends to keep them — and their parents.

“I started to realize that I’ve really got something here that can bring in parents more and develop minds more,” Cook says. “I’ve gotten a lot of referral students who had disciplinary problems but ended up being model students.”

West Louisville Talent Education Center: students Joshua Shannon, Cory Bowmen and Aaron Smith practice for a recital.  photo by Kelly Mackey

West Louisville Talent Education Center: students Joshua Shannon, Cory Bowmen and Aaron Smith practice for a recital. photo by Kelly Mackey

The walls of the little house’s living room, converted by Keith to a meeting/study room, are adorned with photos of graduates. Sitting there one morning, he got up and pointed to a photo taken two summers ago outside a church in Washington, D.C., where Cook had taken a group of advanced students. At one point on the trip, they performed for some of the music classes at Woodson High School, which is located in a high-crime area of the nation’s capital.

“My kids were stunned,” Cook says. “The place looked like a fortress, not a school. We had to go through metal detectors, just like we did at the airport. Up to the fourth floor, all the windows had bars. You could sense what negative peer pressure and anti-achievement attitudes had done to the kids. Yet they were attentive and asked our kids a lot of questions.”

A pioneer
The trip to Washington was a homecoming of sorts for Cook, who was reared just outside the city in Prince Georges County, Va. Born in 1951, he took up the violin at age 7 and was thought to be a prodigy when, at 14, he did a solo rendition of Vivaldi’s A-minor Concerto at a county music competition.
“It made quite a stir,” he says. “At that time, people my age didn’t play anything that difficult.”
Especially people with black skin.

Back in the 1960s, even more than today, African-Americans were identified with virtually every kind of music except classical. So while it was no big deal to find a black kid who might play the trumpet like Louie Armstrong or the guitar like Chuck Berry, it was definitely different to uncover one who aspired to play the violin like Isaac Stern or Joshua Heifetz.

Looking back, Cook doesn’t believe that he was blessed with extraordinary talent as much as he was nurtured by an environment where his intellectual development was encouraged and where achievement was valued both at home and in the school.

And this is the essence of the Suzuki system that Cook has studied and taught for most of his life. It’s a holistic approach that’s all about expanding the mind through music, beginning at a very young age.
“Suzuki lived in Japan and started this method after World War II,” Cook said. “It’s also called the ‘mother tongue’ method of teaching music. He marveled that no matter how difficult a language was, children could learn to speak it at an early age. How was it they could learn that? He concluded that we’re not born with talent, but that talent must be taught and learned. Parents are the most important teachers we have. You listen to people talk at different levels and that’s how you learn the language.”

Music, indeed, has a language all its own. As Ned Rorem once said, “If music could be translated into human speech, it would no longer need to exist.” This is the rarefied level of communication that Cook probes and plumbs. It’s the sort of communication that he instinctively wanted as a kid, but never got.

His father, Isaac, was the band teacher, and in the summer he would sometimes take his students into the streets and march them through the community, showing off for the merchants and shoppers. Younger kids would fall in behind, squealing and babbling and pointing and saying which instruments they wanted to learn to play.

Around their home, Isaac would play 33 rpm records on his beloved stereo player — or “hi-fi” system, as it was known then. He played classical music, mostly, but also some Broadway show tunes. There was even some Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, although he didn’t care much for rock or Motown or jazz or rhythm ’n’ blues.
Just as today his son doesn’t care much for hip hop.

“Every generation has its music that parents don’t like,” Cook says. “But no matter what music we had before now, it at least had harmony, structure, chord changes, things like that. There was some complexity to it. But hip hop is so simplistic it eliminates so many elements that help the mind to grow. If you only have one line of drums and somebody talking over that, your mind isn’t building dendritic connections. The intellect isn’t being challenged.”

Cook's 2002 students: posed for a group shot at the Church of Our Merciful Savior, after the Center's first church recital.  Photo courtesy of Keith Cook

Cook’s 2002 students: posed for a group shot at the Church of Our Merciful Savior, after the Center’s first church recital. Photo courtesy of Keith Cook

His dad challenged his intellect and he challenged his dad. Isaac was as much of a martinet as a maestro, and he taught music like Vince Lombardi taught football. Sometimes it seemed as if even perfection wouldn’t be good enough. The reason Keith picked the violin instead of the trumpet, his dad’s favorite instrument, was that he relished the challenge of showing his dad that he could play it better than the students he saw laboring to please his father in private lessons.

Why couldn’t they hold the bow like his father told them? Why did he have to keep repeating it over and over? It wasn’t that hard. Look. Let me show you. You don’t have to yell at me, Dad. I can do this.
At age 11, he and a fellow student would take the Greyhound from home to Baltimore to study under William Eyth at the Peabody Academy in Baltimore. Eyth made him aware of the Suzuki system, which was in its embryonic stage. But he couldn’t pursue it at the time because other issues were more pressing.

“We all knew about the civil-rights struggle,” Cook said. “There were certain swimming pools and restaurants that we couldn’t go to, and our schools were segregated and poor. We got the old textbooks and equipment, and our schools didn’t offer the same courses as the white schools. But the community and the schools supported each other and anything positive the kids did. Achievement was a very big thing back then. I can remember it being announced on the P.A. system whenever one of us, or a team of us, won anything. It was all about pride, and a lot of that has been lost.”
The road less traveled
After graduating from high school in 1969, Cook more or less wasted a year in pre-med at Hampton Institute near Norfolk, Va. What he mainly learned was that he was too squeamish to be a doctor. So he got on the Greyhound again and made the 14-hour trip from Norfolk to Rochester, N.Y., to audition for a position as the prestigious Eastman School, which was somewhat like Julliard in New York.

He won the scholarship but not his dad’s approval. Isaac wanted him to stay in medicine because “there was no money in music.” But Keith wasn’t as concerned with money as much as he was with making a difference through making music.

“I studied the Suzuki pedagogy at the Eastman School,” Cook says. “There were only two or three courses in it at that time. I took it mainly out of curiosity. I wanted to investigate the method more, to see what was going on.”

Deborah Shannon: whose sons take violin lessons at the center, talks with Cook after a rehearsal as student Cory Bowman heads home.  photo by Kelly Mackey

Deborah Shannon: whose sons take violin lessons at the center, talks with Cook after a rehearsal as student Cory Bowman heads home. photo by Kelly Mackey

His curiosity served him well. His expertise in the Suzuki system enabled him to get a job teaching it at the MacPhail Center for the Arts, a division of the University of Minnesota, just after his graduation in 1973. Then, after joining the Louisville orchestra in 1980, he taught the Suzuki method at U of L from then until 1987.

Like most artists, Cook’s life has been a constant struggle to balance his love for music against his need to make a living. He thought about giving up teaching to concentrate more on playing. He thought about giving up playing to concentrate more on teaching. And so forth, ad infinitum.

Finally, after getting his master’s degree in music education from U of L in 1997, he decided to start the West Louisville Talent Education Center. He established it on 28th Street because he remembers the strength and support he got from neighborhood schools. He figured families who live in the West End would find it less daunting to go there instead of to, say, U of L or the Kentucky Center.

When Cook’s center had been up and running for a couple of years, it came to the attention of the Kentucky Center’s ArtsReach program, which didn’t have a violin component. It was what you might call a harmonic convergence. Cook gets a stipend for teaching at three community centers, and the Kentucky Center gets a charismatic violinist who has a proven track record for getting kids involved.

“There’s a starvation among kids for something besides hip hop,” Cook says. “For a lot of kids, there is no other choice. All they hear is hip hop. So it’s not as if they’re saying they prefer hip hop to jazz or classical. They just haven’t had any exposure to anything else.”

As profoundly gratifying as the last nine years have been for Cook, they’ve also been a struggle, especially considering the constant turmoil and upheaval in which the Louisville Orchestra always seems to find itself. Nevertheless, Cook has made it work, even though he has never had a private donation of more than $500.
A non-profit organization, the West Louisville Talent Education Center gets a little money from the state, the city and the Fund for the Arts. (Louisville Metro contributions to the West Louisville Talent & Education Center totaled $13,400 in 2004-05 and $7,800 each in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Fund for the Arts contributions totaled $5,000 in 2004 and $2,500 each in 2005 and 2006.)
Mostly, though, it stays open because Cook donates his time and talent, not to mention property and equipment.

“It’s pretty amazing to find a musician at Keith’s level who’s still willing to teach little kids,” says Berry K. Sosa, the center’s business manager. “He teaches 3-year-olds up to the college level, and he’s so good with them. The parents and kids all speak so highly of him. They really love him.”

The right touch
Unlike his dad, who died in 2000, Keith is soft-spoken. He doesn’t yell or intimidate. His patience is as infinite as his kindness. A basic tenet of the Suzuki method is that parents become involved to the point of attending practices as well as performances. Parents never attended his dad’s practices.

To get the most from the Suzuki method, students need private instruction. Some of Cook’s graduates have come back to help out as volunteer instructors, but they come and go pretty much as they please. Right now Cook needs the money to hire another instructor. He also would like to eventually move the center into larger quarters. The little house on 28th Street only has room for two studios, an office and a meeting room.
One of Keith’s students loves the violin so much that he goes all over town, looking for places to play. You may have seen him at Border’s or a Kroger’s or Fourth Street Live! He opens his case and lays it on the street so passersby can toss in donations.

Sadly, the kid is a metaphor for both the Louisville Orchestra and the West Louisville Talent Education Center. Both are doing extraordinarily worthwhile work that costs a relative pittance. Yet both must virtually beg for survival.

“The public here is very supportive,” says Cook. “It’s a joy to play here. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be enough appreciation on the part of those who can make the financial situation better. I wish we could turn the public support into dollars.”  

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