At 90, she teaches music, and love

January 20, 1993|By Gary Soulsman | Gary Soulsman,The News Journal

WILMINGTON, Del. -- It's an old but inspiring story to Stella Frankel.

She plays "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on her violin for a 3-year-old. And, God willing, the youngster plays it back -- though often with sounds akin to a cat being strangled.

You might think this happy ditty would be the most dreaded song in history to Ms. Frankel.

But when a pupil imitates the melody for the first time, Ms. Frankel can't help feeling excited, even after 70 years as a teacher.

That's because she's tried to make herself the best friend a violin could have. It's also because she sees herself as the ally of children.

"Everything you teach has to be taught with love," she says.

Estella Hillersohn Frankel, who turned 90 Dec. 20, is the embodiment of music to hundreds of pupils. For 35 years she taught in Wilmington public schools.

But not content to rest on her laurels, she's still teaching students from her Arden home.

"When I think of Estelle I smile inside and out," says former student Robin Mayforth. "She's so close to my heart. She's a woman of extreme strength, love and dedication. She expresses her love by giving everything she can to children."

A graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, Ms. Mayforth, 30, tours the world as second violinist with the Lark Quartet. But, should she become a teacher one day, she knows exactly whom her role model will be.

"I would hope to be as dedicated and passionate as Estelle," says Ms. Mayforth.

Ten years ago, friends gathered for a large 80th birthday celebration and established a music scholarship in Ms. Frankel's name. This year, because so many of her older acquaintances have died, Ms. Frankel asked that fanfare be avoided in favor of a quiet get-together with family at the Hotel du Pont.

"I've had lots of memories," she says. "I've learned to pile them up. They're wonderful for when you can't sleep at night."

But, however pleasant her memories, any conversation with Ms. Frankel inevitably turns back to music. To her, "Music washes from the soul the dust of everyday life."

In the 1930s, she performed seven days a week on WILM radio for an hour a day. In the 1960s, she met Shinichi Suzuki and with her friend, Peggy McCluskie, became a leading advocate for the Suzuki method in Delaware public schools.

She has long believed the brain is willing to learn music in the same way it learns speech. Children first speak by hearing parents repeat words and phrases, she says. The Suzuki method asks children to repeat melodies they hear. But to play simple tunes, there's more than memorization. There's technique.

"This doesn't mean you abandon traditional teaching later on," she says. "If you play in an orchestra, you still have to read music."

Ms. Frankel was the daughter of Russian immigrants and her father owned a cigar store at 217 N. Market St. It was above the store -- in the family home -- that 7-year-old Stella Hillersohn first practiced violin.

She went on to study music at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Even today, Ms. Frankel claims the only time she's really alive is when playing or teaching music.

But even shopping can give her a thrill.

"I went haywire the last time I went looking for a dress," she says. "I bought five. At 90, don't you think I'm an optimist?"

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