Catonsville resident finds harmony as violin tutor

Catherine Gates is trying to establish a small violin studio in Catonsville, focusing on instilling a love of music and good character in her students.

On a side street about a mile away from Music City's heart on Frederick Road, a tiny violin studio, run out of the owner's home, is trying to grow.

Catherine Gates has been through the brutal cycle of perfecting an instrument. She started playing the violin around age 5, and as her desire to improve drove her to study music in college, too much practice led to overuse injuries and three wrist surgeries while she was in her early 20s.


As a teacher she is still trying to perfect her own method, though she now knows how to work along with her body and not against it. And the lessons she has learned, about patience, persistence and taking time for yourself, she passes along to her students at Catonsville Violin Studio.

One evening in early February she is teaching a new student, 7-year-old Katie Snow, of Catonsville, who has had lessons with Gates for about a month.


The focus of the day is posture and finger placement. Snow keeps wiggling, Gates explains, slouching and letting her violin slide out of its proper position by her neck. Contributing to this problem is the fact that instead of looking down the neck of the violin to find the proper finger position, she is trying to look at it from the side.

Gates adjusts Snow's violin and helps her put her finger in the right place. To help her student's stance, Gates has a chart on the floor with green footprints beneath the shoulders to show the right position, and red footprints closer together to show the wrong position.

It's important to learn those things early, and to not fall into bad habits. When Gates first picked up a violin as a young child, it didn't take long for her mother, a pianist, to put her in classes.

Gates, now 33, credits her decision to pick the violin over the piano to youthful rebeliousness — her mother was a piano teacher, so she wanted to play the violin.


"I've tinkered with some other instruments here and there. This is by far the most complex, and I'm still sometimes learning new things about violin I didn't know, every day," she said. "My destination has never been reached, and it won't be, because I'm always working on the next project and the next piece. I've not given up after 30 years of studying music."

Violin in the attic

At age 5, Gates found her paternal grandmother's violin in her parents' attic. It was in "horrific shape," she said, with three out of four bow hairs and no shoulder rest. By that time Gates had been playing the piano for about three years — and since she was born, she'd heard classical music around the house, she said.

A few years later her mother placed her in lessons so she wouldn't develop bad habits.

"If you start playing around, it's going to be more work to undo something," she said.

Her mother placed her in Suzuki lessons — a style of violin instruction that teaches music the same way children learn to speak. For example, students are encouraged to listen to music every day, the same way children learning to talk hear language every day.

"It's the most popular violin method there is to teach," she said.

The first thing that got her working hard to practice the violin was hearing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto around age 12. Written in the mid-1800s, the piece is considered innovative for its time, starting immediately with a solo violinist. It is widely considered one of the greatest violin concertos of all time.

"Once I heard that, I was like, 'That's what the violin can sound like.' I think that was the piece that kind of lit the fire," she said.

And then Gates practiced constantly.

"I was extremely competitive as a young student," she said.

Her first time teaching was in high school, when an orchestra instructor asked her to help fellow students out. She didn't want to do it — nobody wants to take advice from someone their own age — but is ultimately glad she did.

She was also bullied in school over her love of music, partially because she was better than the other students because of her experience and private lessons. At music summer camps she learned that there were other people out there just like her, however.

"I remember I would come home crying a lot because of bullying, but I'm actually kind of glad they did it, because I'm a stronger person now," she said. "I don't care what people think."

She went to Catholic University of America in Washington, where she got bachelor's and master's degrees in music. At that school Jody Gatwood, now concertmaster emeritus of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, was her primary teacher.

That's also where she began to practice too much — no fault of Gatwood's, she added.

She was spending seven hours a day practicing violin, sometimes going for hours without even putting down the violin. Gatwood was mortified when he found out.

"I remember one day he asked me, 'Don't you go to parties?'" she said. "That was an eye-opener."

Gatwood also helped Gates recover from her surgeries. She learned to take breaks in her practices and to incorporate other activities like swimming and yoga to stretch and keeps her arms in healthy condition.


After college Gates spent seven years teaching elementary music in Prince George's County. She now works for Baltimore City Schools as an elementary music teacher.

"Right now I'm on some leave and I'm working on a Fulbright application to study in Austria for a couple months," she said. "So I've been practicing up a storm lately and trying to get back in top playing shape."

For a while she lived close to her parents in Carroll County, where she started a private studio. She moved to Catonsville in 2011 for her husband's career and has been trying to rebuild her studio. She has six students right now, but would like to have about 20, she said.

She has become particularly skilled at teaching beginning violinists, she said. Along with the basics of the instrument, she has tried to impart some of the lessons she has learned in her journey as a musician.

"Nothing worth doing is ever easy. And you're going to have times when you want to throw your violin across the room," she said. "Take a break, end the practice on a positive note and come back the next day."

And because she still considers herself a student, always learning, she tries to relate to her students and tell them about parts of pieces she has struggled with.

"I want them to know that even though I'm an adult, I still have the same practice problems," she said.

She teaches children as well as adults, and can tailor her lessons far more in private courses, compared to her day job in the school system, she said.

"My goal is to teach them as well as I can and develop good character and instill a love of music," she said.

She also tells her students that they're all on a path toward their goals — it may seem she's reached her destination already, she said, but she's not even close. Some days she is still not happy with the way she sounds.


"But I haven't given up," she said.


As far as rebuilding her studio goes, she has a lot of time.

"I know I'm going to be teaching until I'm like 90," she said. "There's always going to be someone who is going to want to come study."


To contact Gates for lessons, call her at 410-259-8303 or go to her website at www.cagviolinstudio.com.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun