Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
Bonnie Ward Simon: A great hodgepodge... At age 3, [I remember] marching around the living room to “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.”... Later on, I met Burl Ives. My father met him before he was famous -- he invited him to sing for his high school English class.
My parents were serious listeners of classical music. They listened to their 78 rpm records the way people watch TV today. Father took his violin lessons... There were string quartets [at home] every Thursday night -- Father would play the violin and viola; Mom, the cello. I’d go to sleep listening to them playing Brahms quartets.
The thing I miss most is “family orchestra.” We had 4 children, and we all played instruments. After Thanksgiving, Dad handed out Christmas carol parts to all of us. At Christmas, we played them. We kids grumbled [about doing it], but there was lots of laughter, too. Growing up, I thought every child played instruments.
But your parents weren’t professional musicians?
No, my father was an English professor and poet, and my mom was a biologist. They were avocational musicians.
You have backgrounds in both music and education -- in which door did you step through first, professionally?
I was genetically predisposed to education. My grandmother was an elementary school principal at a time when it was unusual for a woman to do that. My father and mother were both educators. My sister was a dancer, but then taught at the American Ballet Theatre, and later in south Florida. So music was a... pleasant thing.
After college I got a job at Carnegie Hall -- this was in 1968 or 1969. At the time, it was run by 9 people, and I lucked into a job as an assistant. After close to a year there, I was told, you’ve worked less than a year here, so you get one week of leave. I was in shock -- “What!?!” -- after years of long vacations.
So I got a Master of Arts in Education, and taught at 2 different middle schools. I remember there was an 11-year-old [named Jason, whom I failed], and... after I talked with him, I wrote a note to his parents that said, “Jason says that neither you or he cares if he fails music.” And I never heard back from him or his parents. It was hard for me to teach in a place where music wasn’t as important as math and as important as I thought it was.
I heard there was a program at Cornell to teach Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, a la the Monterrey Language program, to teach those languages in a year. I never worked so hard in my life, but in 12 months I could read Chinese. Then I got an MA in Chinese Literature. I liked Japanese, too. I had majored in Japanese studies, so went back and worked on a dissertation.
I’d had one child, but wanted another child, but I was heading west [to Asia] while Stephen was going in the other direction [east, to Europe]. So I got back into music.
We had a no TV rule in our house, but a friend gave us a copy of “The Red Balloon,” and [my son] Basil loved it -- every time he got a balloon, he’d let it go because he thought it would follow him. So I thought it was OK to let him watch the ABT version of “The Nutcracker” with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Then I got other copies.