Renowned electro-acoustic violist Martha Mooke has toured the world with Barbra Streisand and the North American continent with Star Wars in Concert. She has played on Broadway and in Carnegie Hall. She has accompanied a dream team of musicians, among them David Bowie, Tony Bennett, Patti Smith, Andrea Bocelli and Philip Glass. But to this day, the acclaimed musical pioneer respects no one more than her Staten Island music teacher at IS 34, the late Leonard Ogren. With his booming baritone and accent straight out of “A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor,” Mooke considers the Minnesota native her musical hero and mentor. “I can still hear him, ‘Arm underneath! Arm underneath!’” Mooke recalls, laughing at his insistence on proper handling of instruments and performance posture. “Like the viola, there was something about Mr. Ogren — I still call him Mr. Ogren — that resonated immediately with my soul.”
I’m a native New Yorker. I went to PS 106 in the Bronx, where I had my first musical experience playing the guitar and recorder. When I was 10, my parents, younger sister and I moved to Staten Island, and I remember it was also when I’d begun to read music. My mother and father did not have a musical bone in their bodies, but they encouraged me and my sister, Susan, who also played viola and guitar. We would sing and play for company, and my parents would look on proudly.
When I entered the 5th grade at PS 4, there was the most amazing music teacher named Mr. Ogren, who would come from IS 34, where he taught, to our school. He was starting a string program at our school and would come early in the mornings before regular classes started. Mr. Ogren was an organist and pianist but knew enough about strings to teach us. He was just so passionate, and he gave his all for us. I wanted to play the viola, not that I knew what it was. All I knew was it was bigger than a violin and could still fit under my chin. For those who don’t know, it’s a fifth lower than the violin and is known as the alto of the string family.
When I got to IS 34 in the 6th grade, I developed a very strong rapport with him. Many of us spent our lunch hours and any other spare time in the music room. We would hang out and rehearse. He spoke to us as though we were musicians, not children. He loved the Goldenberg Peanut Chews my mother would put in my lunchbox, so every day she put in an extra one for Mr. Ogren. I would just hand it to him without comment. He is still such a vivid presence, and he had a major impact on my musical development and career. In fact, if not for the terrific music programs in IS 34 and Tottenville HS, where I went next, I probably would not have the career I have today.
In the 9th grade, a lot of my friends auditioned and went to the HS of Performing Arts in Manhattan. I didn’t feel the need to travel an extra two hours each day. At Tottenville, I took music theory and was a member of the orchestra and played chamber music. I received the music award when I graduated.
I believe in music education and I try to give back by getting grants to hold workshops and sessions in the schools. One of my favorite sessions is what I call “Am I allowed to do that?” The answer is yes, yes, yes! I’ll bring my electric viola and make all these strange sounds and the students will look around to see if the teacher is watching. Of course, you have to master the rules. Then you have to bend and break them. I want to give them the tools and the permission to improvise and to access their creativity. I want them to have what I had.
A year ago, a man came up to me at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and asked if I was from Staten Island and did I study with Leonard Ogren. I said yes and yes. ‘I have a picture of you and David Bowie on my refrigerator,’ he told me. It turns out he is married to one of Mr. Ogren’s daughters. Such an odd experience because I was in town to premier a new piece that I had dedicated to Mr. Leonard Ogren. — As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos