Sunday, July 05, 2015

Robert Koff Remembered and Honored

Back in my high school years, I knew I wanted to be a music major, but I didn't have a very good idea of where I should think about going to college. My flute teacher, Beverly Radin, strongly advised me against going to a conservatory. She felt that a conservatory education was too limited and regretted that she hadn't attended a general university or college. I took her advice, but still didn't know where to apply; my high school guidance counselors were nice people who had no idea of where you went for an art or music degree.

So come the fall of my senior year, I had a couple of obvious candidates picked out, such as Yale and Cornell. I got recruited pretty heavily by Bryn Mawr on the basis of my SAT scores and applied there. I went to visit a few friends here and there, including an ex who was an MIT student and a good friend at Brandeis. While I was there, I wandered into the music building and somehow - I really don't remember how - I was invited to chat with Robert Koff, who was then the music department chair. I told him about my musical background, which included a shockingly small number of years of flute and piano lessons, but, unusually for the 1970s, a year of introductory music theory. I had also played in my high school band and sung in the chorus for a couple of years.

The next thing I knew, he told me he was writing me a letter of recommendation, a great kindness and something I had not asked for. It was a remarkable vote of confidence, the sort of thing I didn't get much of in high school. I was, and remain, grateful for this help.

It was only one of many kindnesses I have heard of Mr. Koff performing for other music students at Brandeis. He was deeply involved with teaching and coaching chamber music and had strong and lasting friendships with many other Brandeis music students. I wasn't that interested in chamber music, although one friend does remember us playing Mozart flute quartets together, and I do regret that I didn't get to know Mr. Koff better. I could have used a performance mentor at Brandeis, but I figured it was all my own problem.

In his career before Brandeis, Mr. Koff was the founding second violinist of the Juilliard Quartet; he is on several of their earliest recordings. I don't know any specifics about the reasons he did not continue; I do know that it's not at all unusual for a prominent chamber group to have personnel changes, and also that life on the road - and the Juilliard toured, and tours, a lot - is extremely difficult.

Mr. Koff died a bit over a decade ago, at 86. His family, friends, and students came together last year to found the Robert Koff Scholarship in Music, to support music students at Brandeis. At the scholarship web site, you can read more about Mr. Koff, his career, and the myriad ways he helped music students. There is a link to a site with many lovely photos of him, and a link to a recording of him in Bach. You can also make a donation to the fund.

If you know any Brandeis graduates, especially musicians who knew Mr. Koff, please do spread word of this scholarship.

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