An honor for leading musical mentors

Byrnina Socolofsky has trained "thousands."
Byrnina Socolofsky has trained "thousands."

Byrnina Socolofsky and Hirono Oka have trained so many musicians that they have lost count.

Posted: June 02, 2014

Byrnina Socolofsky relocated to South Jersey from her native Kansas. Hirono Oka hailed from Japan.

No matter the miles apart and the cultural differences, both women have become mentors in the lives of young musicians in the region.

"There are so many different ways you can play," said Oka, 56, who lives in Cherry Hill.

Oka and Socolofsky, a violist, are among 10 finalists for the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra's first-ever Ovation Award at the group's Annual Festival Concert on Sunday in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center. The award was conceived to offer top music instructors from the Delaware Valley a moment of applause, said Louis Scaglione, PYO president and music director.

"We were trying to figure out a way to recognize one of our greatest constituents," he said, adding that instructors are key partners in referring students to the organization.

Perhaps telling of the breadth of their impact, neither Socolofsky nor Oka can say how many students she has trained.

"I should try counting one day," Oka said, with a laugh, from Shenzhen, China, where she was traveling with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"Thousands," Socolofsky, 96, answered from her Glassboro home.

But organizers of the award guess the nominations from current and former students for both women and the other finalists indicate a deep impact on the music community.

Helenmarie Vassiliou, 18, wrote in her nomination of Oka: "Hirono believed in me when no one else did."

"She's very in tune with her students," Vassiliou, of Berwyn, said. "Not only musically, but their lives outside of music."

Vassiliou and Oka have worked together for seven years.

"I think she's matured, she's happy," Oka said. Vassiliou will graduate this year from a Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School scholars program to attend the Juilliard School in New York.

While many of Oka's students come from supportive families, Oka's childhood in Tokyo was defined by her own youthful persistence. Her mother approved of her learning the piano, but rejected the sound of the violin.

At 5 years old, Oka saw a televised lesson on the instrument and spent a year trying to persuade her mother to let her take violin lessons. Eventually, her mother conceded and, by age 20, Oka had received a full scholarship to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

"Once I started playing, I was just determined to defeat her," said Oka, now also a Temple University instructor. "She still wishes that I was a doctor."

Socolofsky, too, started playing at a young age. Born in Iola, Kan., she grew up in Ottawa, Kan., and attended Ottawa University. Part of the trouble with counting her students is that she began teaching others early, too.

"I started when I was in high school," she said, "and I'm 96."

After teaching at a high school in Westmoreland, Kan., she married her husband, John, and the two moved to Woodbury about 1941 before settling in Glassboro. Her husband, a chemist, headed product development at Mobil Oil; his team would develop the synethic oil Mobil 1, said the couple's son, David.

Socolofsky, meanwhile, launched the Youth Orchestra at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, and became the All-South Jersey High School Orchestra's first female conductor. She created her name for herself.

"All teachers knew who mom was," David Socolofsky said.

Taking on about 30 students per year, she taught the violin and viola to students - some went on to play with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra; others now play in Europe - from a bedroom-turned-studio in her Silver Avenue house. She is affectionately known as "Mrs. Soc."

Elisabeth McPeak, 27, took weekly lessons from Socolofsky for a decade, beginning at age 6. "She was very stern," McPeak, of Mickleton, said. "I wanted to show her that I would do my work, and I did practice my music."

In addition to nominating Socolofsky for the Ovation Award, McPeak has continued her former instructor's practices as a high school strings teacher in Perth Amboy.

"If I had a really good lesson, I would get a sticker," McPeak said, recalling her smiley-face rewards. "I actually did the sticker method with my students" this year.

After 70 years, Socolofsky reluctantly stopped teaching nearly three years ago.

"She taught until she was just physically unable," said David Socolofsky, who plays the cello for the Oregon Symphony. Because his mother is bedridden, David Socolofsky will stand in her place Sunday. Oka, traveling with the Philadelphia Orchestra, will also be unable to attend.

The two from South Jersey were selected along with eight others from Pennsylvania and Delaware from nearly 130 nominations. The grand-prize winner will receive $1,000 in cash, a $500 gift card to the music store J.W. Pepper, and a trophy.

"This award can and probably should be given in every community across the country," said Richard Dammers, a judge for the Ovation Award and chairman of Rowan's music department. "There's many people who have spent their lives in the studio changing lives."

The influential relationship is often reciprocal, Oka said. It became apparent in 2011 when her husband, Wilbur Wamsley - a noted repairer of violins, violas, and cellos - died of cancer.

"While that was going on, my students were one of the major sources that kept me going," she said. "I help them, but they help me, too."

Days after her husband died, Oka said, she returned to her lessons.

Additional Ovation Finalists

Derek Barnes

Merion Station

A Philadelphia native, Barnes is a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and was co-principal cellist of the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia, now the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. He was also a member of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and the New York String Orchestra.

William Cain

Willow Grove

Cain leads a handful of bands at the Wissahickon Middle School in Ambler and is principal percussionist with the Kennett Symphony of Chester County.

Thomas Elliott


Elliott has been director of Instrumental Music at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore since 1989. He has been a trombonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and many other ensembles.

Elizabeth Kaderabek

Bala Cynwyd

Kaderabek is the assistant principal second violinist with the Chamber Orchestra and first violinist in the Pennsylvania Ballet. She is also a professor at the University of the Sciences.

Anthony Prisk


Prisk spent 11 seasons playing trumpet with the Houston Symphony and joined the Philadelphia Orchestra last year. He has won two international trumpet competitions.

Angela Riggs


Riggs got her start in bands and orchestra at Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote and was the first clarinetist in the Philadelphia Archdiocesan band. She has taught a number of instruments to children for more than 40 years.

Kimberly Rowe


Rowe in 2008 founded

Temple University's Music Prep Youth Harp Ensemble under the Music Preparatory Division's Center for Gifted Young Musicians. In 1993,

she started, and is editor

of Harp Column, a magazine for harpists around the world.

Shelley Beard Schleigh


Schleigh is the head of the Suzuki Academy at the Music School of Delaware, which begins training children as young as 2. Schleigh was also president of the Philadelphia Viola Society and vice president of the Greater Philadelphia Suzuki Association.



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