I first heard of Joey Corpus, the Filipino-American violin pedagogue who passed away last month, from a visiting violinist from London some years ago. A seasoned orchestral musician and violin teacher, she would make periodic trips to New York City to take lessons from him. I was intrigued that although based in London, a city steeped in music, she still found it worthwhile to invest the time, effort and expense to learn from him.
I looked him up, and it was a truly fascinating story. Joey Corpus was born in Manila, the eldest of six children, to a family in which music mattered a lot: his father Hector was a jazz pianist, and both grandfathers were violinists. But he was just ten when he and his mother Anita Aguilar Corpus were involved in a tragic car accident that killed her and left him a paraplegic.
Joey was the nephew of renowned artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, and was set upon becoming a visual artist himself, having apprenticed with his uncle for a while, even selling a few pieces of his work, though, as he admitted in an interview to Violinist.com, “I wasn’t very good at it.”
Then, at age thirteen, he discovered his grandfather’s violin, and “thought it would be great to learn how to play it.” This was a child who, at age eight, prior to his accident, had been told that he was “hopeless” at piano.
The violin needed repairing, and his father took his time doing it, so a year went by. As Joey himself told it at the interview, “The reason for this delay was that as a kid I’d taken piano lessons. After a year my teacher told my father to save his money. She said I had no musical talent whatsoever! So when I expressed an interest in playing the violin my father assumed it was just a short-lived whim. “
This story only reinforces my dislike of the word “talent” when describing a child’s musical potential, and how crushing it can be when a child or a family is told that the child doesn’t possess this mysterious commodity. A child may merely be a slow learner, or not possess enough interest at that particular point in their life, or not being taught in a stimulating way.
Thankfully, that verdict didn’t discourage Joey Corpus in his pursuit of the violin. “Even after a year of piano I didn’t really know how to read notes. I knew where middle C was, found it on the violin, and taught myself how to read notes, and to vibrate.” In six months, he played Elgar’s Salut d’Amor well enough to win an audition and begin formal violin lessons. But he was still largely self-taught, and not by choice. “For reasons still not completely known to me I was rejected by a couple of teachers. But I wasn’t going to let that deter me, so I worked things out on my own, with lots of help from the Flesch and Galamian books.” He does add that he wouldn’t recommend teaching oneself, and that it was only necessity that prompted him on that path.
He won a violin competition aged 15, which caught the attention of Edgar Schenkman (from the Juilliard School of Music), who was visiting the Philippines. Schenkman offered Corpus a full scholarship to go to New York and study with the great violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay, but he was physically still too unwell from his accident injuries to undertake the twenty-hour flight.
As he could only sit up a few hours a day during his recovery period, Corpus taught himself to practice even while lying down. “I would lie on my side, my left elbow propped up, and just practise because I like to do it so much. I would practise scales and rhythms. I practised a lot by just looking at the music.” This problem-solving capability was a training ground for when he would become a pedagogue himself. “Truthfully, I did not think of ‘career’, I just wanted to learn how to play better. That was my idée fixe,” he said in an interview.
In 1982, aged 24 and with a scholarship from the Philippine government, Corpus began to study with Jascha Brodsky at the New School of Music, Philadelphia. As he said in an interview to The Strad magazine, “I don’t mean to be arrogant, but many of the things I was learning I had sort of figured out, or come to very similar conclusions, working on my own.” He very quickly began to teach at the school himself, and was much sought-after by colleagues for advice in solving problems in their own playing.
Joey Corpus earned a formidable reputation as a violin pedagogue, and was known in the world of string-playing as the ‘Underground Guru’, or the ‘Secret Weapon’, in working intensively with professionals, preparing them for auditions. His roster of celebrity students reads like a Who’s Who of the violin world, and includes Lara St. John, Louise Owen, Wen Qian (assistant concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), Chuan Yun Lee, and Katharine Gowers.
Something that Lara St. John said to the press about Corpus’ teaching resonates within me deeply: the importance of scales. “When I was a kid, I thought I was being made to do scales as a punishment. Joey explained to me that intonation is all in the ear. If your scales are not in tune, your ear is not learning and you will play out of tune. I had an instant realisation of what he was saying.”
Too many of us in our growing-up years also look upon scales as ‘punishment’, but that training to our inner ear is so crucial, and it can be achieved by slow, thoughtful, attentive practice of scales.
Joey’s brother Rolando Corpus paid an emotional tribute to him at the memorial service. In particular, he reminisced that 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the car accident that changed the family’s lives so drastically, but there was not an ounce of self-pity in his brother’s attitude to life: “Fifty years tethered to a wheelchair. Fifty years of wheeling himself around. Of not being able to reach things. Of always looking up during a conversation. Of not being able to get in and out of a bed or a car in under 3 minutes. And yet, in all the years I’ve known him, he never questioned why his life was different. Not once did he ever complain about the struggles of daily life, or complain that he couldn’t do this or that, or that life for him was harder than most. Not once did he ever show self-pity. He took what was given, accepted it, and made the best of it.”
Joey Corpus is an inspiration to us all, in so many ways, and on so many levels.
(An edited version of this article was published on 21 January 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)