Elspeth Iliff

Europe-wide violin teacher


Elspeth Henne, violin teacher: born St Gallen, Switzerland 25 May 1930; married 1950 James Iliff (marriage dissolved); died London 8 October 2006.

The violin teacher Elspeth Iliff was one of those remarkable human beings who work behind the scenes to provide wider access to learning facilities for students in countries where music lessons are often a privilege enjoyed only by the affluent.

As a member of Esta (the European String Teachers' Association), in 1981 she had taken over two workshops in Denmark and Belgium at the last minute, owing to a colleague's becoming ill. The following year she was asked to go to Berlin, Spain and Poland; and for the next seven years she took summer schools in Poland all on her own. The summer school consisted of master-classes for children aged 7-14 and a special small additional course for teachers.

Iliff subsequently did courses in all the Baltic states, Russia, France and Holland. Not all had Esta secretariats - East Germany did, Poland did not, so that was the first she started from scratch. The Baltics, Russia and Albania soon appointed secretariats and finally Iliff helped with bringing Albania into the fold.

She was born Elspeth Henne in St Gallen, Switzerland, and had her first violin lessons from a teacher who had studied in Budapest. But, when as a teenager she expressed the desire to take it up as a profession, her parents were opposed to a girl's becoming a musician. She came to the UK as an au pair in 1949, ostensibly to learn English, but soon realised she was not happy with the family for whom she worked.

A chance meeting on a London bus changed her life. She was travelling to a violin lesson when another woman, also carrying a violin case, stepped on to the bus platform. They looked at each other and laughed. The other violinist was Kay Hurwitz, recently married to Emanuel Hurwitz, who would become one of the great British chamber musicians. Kay Hurwitz invited the young girl to their home, where Emanuel Hurwitz gave her some lessons, and they offered to take her as an au pair. This was the birth of a lifelong friendship.

In 1950 Elspeth married James Iliff, also a musician, who taught at the Royal College of Music. Elspeth Iliff had no ambitions to be a performer but greatly enjoyed teaching. She was very interested to discover Esta and became a member. At an Esta conference in Canterbury in 1975, she remarked to a colleague: "I am only a little teacher, but I was smitten with the whole thing."

Later she had the opportunity to attend summer schools given by Paul Rolland, author of Teaching of Action in String Playing (1974), and became converted to his method. By coincidence he had been a contemporary of her Swiss teacher when he was a student in Budapest. From this time she founded all her teaching on Rolland's principles.

At the time of her first workshops, she was working as a peripatetic teacher and was just about to start with the pre-school children at Guildhall School of Music. She had also taken on some remedial tuition at the Purcell School. Later invited to sit on the management committee of Esta, she became a valuable member with her language skills - which included German, French and Italian. In 1996, when the post of International Vice-President fell vacant, she was invited to take it on. She threw all her energies into organising branches worldwide.

When asked how she had found eastern Germany she said that they had so little and were starved of musical material. There were no photocopiers - everything was copied by hand. She was very enthusiastic about Russia:

The teachers there were very helpful and were always asking me to give their children some lessons. I learnt a great deal from these children - four or five years old - they never needed an interpreter. They imitated and that was it.

Margaret Campbell

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