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The following article was written by Mimi Zweig, founder of the String Academy, for publication in the summer 1991 issue of American String Teacher Magazine, where she describes the inception and foundation of the String Academy of Wisconsin.

On Our Own: The String Academy of Wisconsin

by Mimi Zweig

Editor’s Note: For the past 20 years, Mimi Zweig was worn many hats in different parts of the country.  She began teaching at tire North Carolina School of the Arts in 1972 and continued her teaching career at Indiana University in 1976, where she is currently professor of violin and viola and director of the Young Violinist Program. For tire last seven years, Mimi was also been director of the Indiana University Summer String Academy. Her track record as a studio teacher is nothing short of amazing. Her students play in major orchestras and string quartets around the globe, as well as having won major competitions and performed as soloists with all of tire world’s major orchestras. What follows is a story about what she does with her spare time. -Stephen Shipps, Editor
Mimi Zweig, founder

Mimi Zweig, founder

From 1982 to 1990, in addition to being a Professor of Music at Indiana University, I was director of the Young Violinists and Cellists Program (YVCP) at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Mu­sic. It had developed into a thriving program, with 200 pre-college  students studying the violin, viola, and cello in private and group lessons; master classes; and theory, history, chamber music, and chamber orchestra classes. I had gathered a young, highly qualified faculty from all over the country to teach in this program. Over the years, the conservatory had suffered from many financial problems but had al­ways managed to survive. Last June, however, it looked as if the last rites were ready to be administered. The decision of whether to stay at the con­servatory or to start a separate school had to be made. The YVCP faculty and I elected to leave the conservatory and form The String Academy of Wisconsin. I embarked on a new career, that of president of a non-profit educational organization, and this is the story that I would like to tell.

Starting Out

It is fortunate that we live in an age of high-tech machines, because my faculty was scattered all over the country teaching and playing in sum­mer festivals while our school was be­ing  organized. Between telephones, car phones, FAX machines, computers, an­swering machines, and airplanes, the String Academy of Wisconsin was created in the months of July and Au­gust and opened its doors in September to 160 students. Fortunately, with 160 serious and talented students came parents with diverse skills, energies, and desires for quality education. One such parent, Dan Kapustin, emerged in the opening days and master-minded the foundation of the String Academy. He is a brilliant man who works as a venture investment banker. Even though he had never dealt with a non­profit corporation, he learned quickly, as there was very little time.

The first challenge was to find a home for the academy.  Jerry Horner, violist of Fine Arts Quartet and professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), sug­gested his school as the new home. The Young Violinists and Cellists Program had established itself as a major center for string study in the Milwaukee area.  UWM saw the advantages of a con­nection with the String Academy: the academy would be a source of recruit­ing new students to the university, would justify the use of space, and would serve as a community outreach program.It was determined that UWM was interested, and a commitment was made to the String Academy.

Then began the detailed negotiations between Dan Kapustin and the UWM lawyers. As musicians, we are accus­tomed to working through the minute details of getting from one note to the next, and our patience is stretched to the limit with infinite repetitions. But this was not adequate preparation for the patience required in the negotiation process. Each detail that fell into place was cause for celebration.

Finally, a satisfactory contract was signed with UWM on August 3. The agreement specifies the exact use of teaching space, administrative space, telephone requirements, mail require­ments, insurance requirements, keys, student conduct, and so on.

We were in business. A long list was made of what needed to be accom­plished in August. Every day offered a new challenge. A Mission Statement to describe our obligations to the  students, faculty, and community was written and rewritten with the help of Dan and the faculty. Finding and setting up fac­ulty benefit packages, getting a post office box, filing for a tax-exempt number (many trips to the local IRS), negotiating teacher contracts, hiring an administrative coordinator, stocking an office, dealing with the telephone com­pany to install a telephone line to our office, and looking for a donated com­puter were all pieced together in four short weeks.

Then the sleepless nights began: Would our former students follow us to our new home? Would new students know where to reach us? How does one publicize a new school? Is it possible to get articles into the local newspapers? How does one design a registration form and brochures? How can tuition fees be intelligently set? And the most frightening aspect of a new enterprise, would we be able to meet payroll at the end of every month?

Early one Sunday morning towards the end of August, the newly formed Parents Organization, headed by Ruth Kapustin (wife of Dan), gathered at my home to send out registrations for the fall semester, which was scheduled to begin in 10 days. Up until the last mo­ment, we were in telephone and FAX contact with Dan to set the tuition fees. The academy was offering half-hour to one-hour private lessons in combina­tion with group lessons, theory and history classes, chamber music, cham­ber orchestra, and master classes. The fees needed to be affordable, yet able to cover our expenses.
A temporary brochure (hurrah for the Mac Plus!) was designed and sent out. The Milwaukee Journal did a de­scriptive and helpful article that ap­peared on’ the back page of a Sunday entertainment section. (One learns that back pages are  better than inside pages.)

On September 1, 1990, we opened the String Academy of Wisconsin with eight faculty members, an administrative coordinator, and 160 students intact and ready to embark on an exciting first semester. School was in full swing.

Forming The Boards

The next project was the formation of an advisory board and a board of trustees. Forming the advisory board was a pleasure. It was an opportunity to speak with friends and colleagues who were unanimous in their support of the String Academy. This gave me the confidence to continue. Members of the advisory board are:

  • Carl Becker
  • Joshua Bell
  • James Oliver Buswell
  • David Cerone
  • Eileen Tate Cline
  • Fine Arts Quartet
  • Miriam Fried
  • Raya Garbousova
  • Josef Gingold
  • Kim Kashkashian
  • Yo-Yo Ma
  • Zdenek Macal
  • Donald McInnes
  • Marvin Rabin
  • Janos Starker

Putting together a board of directors whose job it would be to over see local operations, however, was not an easy matter. A good board consists of a collection of people who have fund-raising and publicity skills and have knowledge of law, business, and marketing. I had lived in Milwaukee for eight years, but because of a busy teaching schedule, I had not had time to cultivate friend­ships in the Milwaukee community. Many phone calls were made to find the first board members. I found that potential members were already in­volved on other boards and were too busy to take on another obligation. The word “NO” became the only word I would hear from day to day. There were days when I felt total despair and yearned for the solitude of my Indiana University studio.

The first two board members signed on after hearing a few students per­form-and after a good lunch. .I was elated and knew that the board was on the way to being formed. Each new board member responded to a particu­lar element in the String Academy. One member made a commitment to our Inner-city Program, which provides scholarships for gifted students. Other members were impressed by the stu­dents serious dedication to their studies and the poise and self-confidence they exhibited during performances. In January, the board met for the first time. It consists of one faculty repre­sentative, a parent representative, me, my husband, and four other members of the community. The other members are two lawyers, a retired dean of stu­dents from the Medical College of Wisconsin and a Milwaukee Public School social worker, who is also a realtor.

A Never-ending Story: Fund-raising

By January, the school was thriving. Enrollment had increased to 180. Then the next project began in earnest, and I am afraid this project has no end. I now took on the role of fund-raiser. The annual budget of the String Academy is approximately $200,000 for a school year that includes two 17-week se­mesters and a 7-week summer program. Fund-raising accounts for 15 percent  of this amount. I learned quickly that in the arts, fund-raising is a necessity and. a skill that takes time and patience to cultivate.

The String Academy is fortunate that the overhead is extremely low (the yearly rental of space at UWM is minimal). The budget was arranged to bal­ance itself if all students were paying full tuition. Unfortunately, this denies many gifted young people without sufficient resources opportunities for professional study. We had developed an inner-eity program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and we were determined to continue this program when wemoved. Hence,our15percent shortfall is our scholarship fund.

The question became, How do you fund-raise? We divided our efforts into three categories: grants, private sponsors, and Parent’s Organization fund ­raising. Many hours were spent in Marquette University’s Foundation Library trying to understand how grants work and how to write for them. The library produces a book every year entitled Foundations in Wisconsin. This book became and still is my constant companion. It became evident after a the young students perform. With the help of the board, many noon concerts were arranged at my home for poten­tial grant donors and private sponsors. These people often were very moved by the performances and impressed with the level of musicianship. After the short concert, lunch was served (cooking is my second passion) and the merits of the String Academy were dis­cussed. The luncheons ended with promises of support and with a list of more people to contact who might be willing to support scholarships.

The Parent’s Organization orches­trated a spring flower sale. The String Academy makes an arrangement with a nursery and receives40percentofthe profit on sales of impatiens, petunias, and other such flowers. This year the students sold $18,000-worth of flowers by going door to door and by parents selling flowers to their colleagues at work. Also, a scholarship benefit con­cert was given in May (see sidebar).

Thoughts for the Future

Our goals for the future are to continue to develop an environment where both students and teachers can realize their full potentials. We would like to expand the Inner-city Program, offer scholarships for summer study at music festivals,expand our curriculum, and increase faculty salaries to reward teachers who have   devoted their careers to working with children.

If I had known what I know now, would I have embarked on this adven­ture? The answer is a resounding yes. The String Academy became a chal­lenge that consumed all of my creative energy, and I promised myself that it would succeed. After two semesters, more than70concerts have been  given, students have won competitions and have performed (and will be performing) with the Milwaukee Symphony, more than 25 school demonstrations have been given, and our 13 high school seniors were all accepted into universities, many pursuing music at major music schools. More important, the musical growth and high level of performance of the students has been reward enough. Creating a professional music school is a worthwhile addition to the commu­nity, enhancing the lives of the young stu­dents, their families, and all who come in touch with their music making.