Every time Jenna Stufkosky brings her violin to her chin, she thinks of Debra Remson.
Stufkosky, a 17-year-old senior at Grand Island Senior High School, began taking private music lessons from Remson nine years ago, and continued under her tutelage in high school, where Remson was a popular music teacher.
Remson, a former orchestra director at Grand Island Senior High, succumbed to cancer in October at age 60. But it’s clear her legacy lives on in the students whose passion and talent she nurtured.
“She taught me what strength is,” said Sarah Dollendorf, another 17-year-old senior, before breaking down in tears. “She was so much more than a teacher. She was our biggest advocate, not just in music, but in life. She genuinely loved us.”
Grand Island orchestra students in grades four through 12 remembered Remson as they performed their Kaleidoscope String concert Thursday night in Remson’s memory.
“We want to keep her memory as positive as possible and keep the focus on the kids she cared so much about,” said Matt Ells, Grand Island’s current orchestra director who took over for Remson when she retired. “It’s a celebration of her life.”
One song the seniors played was Bedrich Smetana’s “the Moldau,” one of Remson’s favorites.
Students recalled how Remson always told a story about each piece of music to get her students feeling the music instead of just going through the motions. They remembered how warmly Remson described the Vltava River that inspired the music and how vividly the piece came to life as a result.
“You can’t play music without expressing something personal,” said Alex Cousins, a 17-year-old senior cello player. “That was how she taught us to do that.”
Her influence also kept several students going when they were ready to give up, even calling students at home after she retired.
In class, she talked about the many times she wanted to call it quits, and told stories of how she would hide her instrument in the bushes before school in order to get a break from rehearsal.
But that perseverance paid off for her, and for the students she encouraged, when they were invited to perform at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in 2009. They were conducted by Remson.
“She used to say that nothing in the world can be achieved without passion,” said Zachary Jones, an 18-year-old senior who plays violin and viola. “Those are words I live by.”
Thursday’s concert closed with 30 of Remson’s former colleagues and students who returned to the school to join the school’s current students on stage to perform Remson’s favorite piece of music, Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”
“There’s that saying, 'Where words fail, music speaks,’” Jones said. “That pretty much sums it up.”