Martha Herrle: Stringing Along
Martha Herrle has a babysitting story to top all babysitting stories. She cared for a 10-year-old who later went on to win American filmdom’s most prestigious award: an Oscar. Martha called her babysitting charge Sandy. People now know her better as Sandra Bullock.
Martha, who teaches violin at the Community Music School (CMS) in Centerbrook, also directs the school’s string ensemble and two string quartets. The string ensemble has more than 30 musicians on violin, viola, cello, and bass.
“It started out with four,” Martha says.
Sandra Bullock is central to the story of why Martha became a musician in the first place. She had intended to go to college and major in chemistry. Then, her high school German teacher, also a professional singer, asked in class if there was anybody who would like to go to Salzburg, Austria with a family for one year to act as a nanny for two young girls, ages 3 and 10.
The German teacher was a student of voice coach John Bullock, married to Sandra Bullock’s mother, opera singer Helga Bullock. She was to be the featured soprano during the 1973-’74 season at the Landestheater in Salzburg, a city that is a renowned venue for classical music.
“I was the only one whose parents said yes,” Martha recalls.
The three-year-old that Martha watched, now Gesine Bullock-Prado, is a pastry chef, cookbook author, and television personality.
Martha remembers Sandra Bullock as “amazing, full of life.” During the year in Salzburg, Martha recalled that she performed in a children’s chorus in two of the operas that featured her mother. Bullock came to Martha’s wedding when she was 17 years old, but more recently, though Martha has tried to contact her, she has had no response.
After a year of immersion in classical music, Martha returned to the United States and decided that music, rather than chemistry, would be her focus. She graduated from the Hartt School, the performing arts conservatory that is a part of the University of Hartford.
With a major in music education and a concentration in violin and viola, Martha embarked on a professional teaching career. Marriage and children forced her to take a break.
“It was a big break,” she says.
She didn’t teach for 15 years and she returned in a way she had not planned. The family moved from Hartford to Old Saybrook, but the sale of their Hartford home fell through. Faced with two mortgages, Martha knew what she needed: a job. She wanted to teach, but was so hesitant after her two-decade break, that she waited until evening so she could leave a message on an answering machine at CMS rather than talking to a person. To her surprise, she got a call back that night. CMS had a waiting list of violin students and needed another teacher.
Some 21 years later, Martha, who now lives in Westbrook, has over 40 string students at CMS, both adults and children. Her youngest student at the moment is four years old. Regardless of age or skill, all are welcome to play in the CMS string ensemble.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” Martha says.
Ensemble members range in age from 10 to senior citizens.
“As far as I know, it is the only intergenerational string orchestra in New England,” she adds.
Martha thinks there is a reason other than the beauty of its sound that explains why youngsters start violin so early.
“They make small instruments. You can get a 1/16th size violin. You can’t get a 1/16th size tuba,” she says.
Still, whatever the age, the same basic rule always applies.
“You teach the person, not the instrument. You relate to them. You make it fun,” says Martha.
On her own, Martha describes herself as “smitten” with fiddle music. She is a member of the Shoreline Fiddle Club, which meets Sundays, but only when the weather is warm enough.
“We play in an unheated barn,” she explains.
She goes to fiddle camps, one in Westboro, Massachusetts, where some 600 fiddlers take over a hotel for four days of playing, workshops, and seminars. She also fiddles at Ashokan summer camp in upstate New York. (It was at this camp that the tune that became the theme song for Ken Burns’ Civil War PBS series, Ashokan Farewell, was written. It was not an old Civil War song, but a tune written by Jay Ungar, one of directors of the camp, to end the 1982 camp session.)
According to Martha, every week at least one person tells her that somewhere at home, often the attic, there is an old violin.
“I want to tell them to get it out and play it,” she says.
She herself has no plans to stop, either playing or teaching.
“I am 67 and I am never going to retire. Never,” Martha says.
For information on the Community Music School, visit cmsct.org