Friedson shares musical life with Westport community
A passion for music -- in particular, playing the violin -- has been an integral part of Bernice Friedson's life for more than 75 years.
When she first moved to Westport in the 1950s, Friedson successfully juggled raising a family and tending to their Bayberry Lane horse farm with performing classical music on New York and local stages.
Although her children are now grown, Friedson's musicality continues to thrive as she divides her time between teaching aspiring young violinists and performing with the Connecticut Chamber Orchestra. She is also the group's concertmaster and associate conductor.
"Creative people don't ever stop," Friedson explained during a recent interview with the Westport News. "You may cut back a little but you never stop doing what you love because it's not so much what you do, as it's about who you are."
Inheriting a love of string instruments from her father, Samuel A. Stochek, a fellow musician and also talented craftsman who made violins, Friedson started taking lessons when she was in kindergarten. (Today she exclusively plays only on her father's handmade violin.)
Despite her youth, music professionals quickly recognized Friedson's innate talent and she began performing in recitals by the time she was 7 years old.
Friedson said she now feels a strong responsibility to share her love of music with local young people. "We must pass this on to the next generation," she noted.
Whether its in her private studio, located at her Westport condominium, or at the Music and Arts Center for Humanities (MACH) in Bridgeport where she also teaches on a part-time basis, Friedson's protégées have the unique opportunity to experience a more traditional mentor-student relationship as they work with this violin master.
She prefers this "hands-on" approach, where students learn through "teaching by example as well as explanation" rather than more contemporary styles of learning by rote.
"Ear training and learning to read music is absolutely essential," Friedson said.
Not surprisingly, Friedson is also a strong advocate for early music education in the public school systems. In particular, she supports fourth grade strings programs, which have recently been cut from many school districts.
"Fourth grade is the latest that you should begin to teach them these instruments," she noted. "You teach them what you need to know. By sixth grade, though, it's sometimes too late."
Although Friedson welcomes students at every level, she especially enjoys working with young people who are beginning their musical journey.
"I will take any student, wherever that student is at the moment, however it's almost better to have a beginner because they don't come with any problems that I need to correct," Friedson said, smiling.
She also admitted to being a bit of a taskmaster. "I have a reputation as being a fairly hard teacher," Friedson noted. "I won't cater to any old playing. You need to learn the skills."
Friedson is pleased, though, to presently have several "wonderful" students under tutelage.
"I have had many students over the years who have become professional musicians," she said. "And, I have some really wonderful students right now who are exceptional players. They play in the Bridgeport Youth Orchestras and various regional ensembles."
In the past 40 years, Friedson has held several leadership roles in music education. In the late 1960s, she was involved with the music department at University of Bridgeport, and in the 1980s helped to create a strong music presence at Sacred Heart University with the founder of the SHU-String School.
When its director, Rubi Wentzel, moved to California, Friedson took over administrative duties and eventually moved the program to MACH.
Years earlier, Friedson and Wentzel, a cellist, met at the Westport Music Store, which was owned and operated by Stochek. The two strings players, joined by Miriam Giannone and the late Cynthia Prentice, founded the Connecticut String Quartet. They were also members of the Bridgeport Symphony Orchestra.
Wentzel, now 95, continues to offer cello lessons on the west coast. She also is working on a book about music.
And, although some of its original musicians have changed, the Quartet continues to perform at local Connecticut venues, including a performance at Westport's Levitt Pavilion last summer which received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Friedson said that the group has already been asked to return for an encore performance this season.
"You never stop playing because you can always get better," Friedson explained. "I especially love to play shows, and I have conducted them as well."
She is also undoubtedly happiest when the violin bow is in her hand.
Friedson and her husband moved to Westport from their Easton home in 1959. The custom-designed homestead would eventually be filled with her four sons -- John, Charlie, Russell and Ron -- and several horses.
Ron and his family now live on the property and operate the farm, along with the family business, The Tack Room of Westport.
Shortly after her husband opened The Tack Room, Friedson convinced her father to open a music store in the shared retail space. As a professional musician, she knew firsthand that the town needed a business where musicians could purchase supplies and have their instruments repaired.
Whenever she could, Friedson helped out with both retail ventures. Although the Tack Room recently re-opened at its original Post Road site, Friedson leaves its day to day operations to Ron and his family.
Although all of her sons and several of her grandchildren have studied various instruments, Friedson points to young Evan, an eighth grader at Greens Farms Academy, as having the most musical promise right now.
"He is now in his third year studying the violin and he is doing very well," she noted.
And, Friedson should know. After all, she is, of course, his teacher.