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Artist in Residence: Marcia Henry Liebenow

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For Marcia Henry Liebenow the violin is just nature

If there is one thing Marcia Henry Liebenow has learned in the 40-plus year she has played the violin, it's that you can't fight nature.

For her, it started when she was growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, a town of about 55,000 in central Ohio. The middle of five children, her father, Percy Hall, taught music and orchestra in the schools there. Her mother was an organist at their church.

Her older brothers played cello and viola, respectively. "So, when I hit fourth grade my parents said, 'why don't you play violin?' I said ok. I didn't know if I would be good at it, but it seemed natural right away. Music was always all around us growing up, so it was very normal to us," Liebenow said.

As nature would have it, her talent was such that she became a concert-level professional violinist and for the last 20 years, Liebenow has been the Concertmaster violinist for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra.

She also teaches strings at Bradley University, brought there in 1992 to build the university's strings program and, in a combination job between the university and the symphony, to be concert master for the symphony.

To this day, she revels in both positions and believes this is where she is meant to be even though she had no preconceived notions about it when she came. "I'm in a place where I have become involved in the community. Things keep developing in the community to keep me interested. It's not easy to pick up and leave a place and I have no desire to, anyway," she said.

She said she is looking forward to the start of another Peoria Symphony season, the 115th of which begins Sept. 22 with a concert titled "Broadway Tonight!" in the theatre at the Peoria Civic Center. "We've been doing some really cool things and the symphony sounds better and better every year," she said.

Liebenow became known in Peoria music circles as Marcia Henry, her face and talents gracing the stage at the Peoria Civic Center or other local venues during symphony concerts. She married writer and poet Mark Liebenow in 2004 and she said they plan to combine their talents in an event soon, perhaps in the spring.

To Liebenow, music and writing are perfect forms of communication, if done well. "I absolutely consider myself a communicator on the stage. I think I'm a good communicator. I know that sounds egotistical but it is important to me to communicate with my music. It doesn't matter how phenomenal your technique is if you can't communicate. I've heard musicians with incredible technique but they are not good communicators. I was left feeling cold and empty," she said.

She plays to communicate, she added, "because it allows people to feel the music. If my music is touching you, then it is touching me. It is important for the public to be able to experience a performance that moves them. That's what I try to do every time I go on stage."

That is why she believes it is essential the arts remain a big part of our culture, that one way or another it must continue to be in the schools. It is a way, Liebenow said, for students to learn to express themselves. "It is essential for a well-rounded society; it's part of the core values society needs. Yes, we are a technology driven world, but we will always need art in our lives. I am hopeful and optimistic about the future because more and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of arts," she said.

Liebenow said she has no idea where she would be if not for the teachers she had from childhood on who helped her develop her skills as a musician and a communicator.

"My parents encouraged my siblings and I but they were never pushy or overbearing. They wanted us to have a well-rounded education and decide what was best for us," said Liebenow, who also can play the viola, piano and French horn. "It was a pretty normal life, I think."

She was good enough, however, to continue playing through college at Ohio University, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees while learning from Howard Beebe, who taught privately as well and was her first instructor. "He laid a great foundation for me that helped me grow. I had some fantastic teachers," she said.

Among them was James Buswell, under whom she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In Boston, she played professionally, mostly as a freelance artist, and later was a member of the symphony orchestra in Portland, Maine.

She has played abroad, as well, including performing a concerto in Russia in 1994. She went there with Bill Wilsen, former conductor of the Peoria Symphony, to work with a Russian orchestra and help them learn classic American symphony music. "They were literally hearing music from American composers for the first time," she said.

Liebenow's connection with Buswell continues today. This summer she earned a teaching fellowship at the Heifetz International Summer Institute in Stanton, Va., and was there with Buswell and other teachers. "There were some unbelievable young players there and I got to observe them with master teachers," she said.

Liebenow said she would like to be thought of as a master teacher. "I think I'm a fine teacher. I've been able to learn from some of the best, including the conductors I've worked with here, and I've taken something from those experiences to help me with my own teaching skills. Some teachers, everything they say to a student makes an impact. I want to be able to do that. To teach you have to be able to know how to explain to a student how to bring the music off of the page," she said.

Playing and teaching go hand-in-hand, she added. "The two things, performing and teaching, really feed each other. If I wasn't performing I would not be as good of a teacher. If I wasn't teaching, I would not be as good of a performer. That's why I love what I am doing with the symphony and at Bradley. It is demanding but I still enjoy it.

"To grow as a musician you have to be open to learning. I am always learning and I hope I always will."

Liebenow said she has composed some pieces, but does not consider herself a composer. She also has no desire to be a conductor one day. "As a concert master I am a leader and that's how I prefer it, to lead with my playing. Conducting and composing? Neither is my specialty."

Playing violin, she added, is in itself "a very intense craft. That's why to have a successful solo career takes practicing eight hours a day, 364 days a year. I prefer a collaborative effort, like chamber music."

Violin also is a two-handed instrument, which is why violinists often build relationships with their instruments. Liebenow has played the same violin since 1984 and takes it with her everywhere.

"The violin, and most strings really, take a lot of fine motor skills to accomplish. Dexterity helps, which is why I think the younger a person is when they start learning strings the better. The older a person gets, the harder it is to learn it. You can't fight nature," she said.

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