Teaching Across Towns

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Debbie Jellif teaches in towns and villages across Long Island.

Debbie Jellif had always been surrounded by music. Her mother was a pianist and her two older sisters, being violinists, inspired her to pick up the string instrument 52 years ago. In fact, there is not a time Jellif can remember when she didn’t know how to play the piano.

But it wasn’t until March 2002 when the mother of four began giving lessons on the side out of her Massapequa home. Yet in a matter of six months, the small group of six pupils multiplied five times over, and by the fall, Jellif, who has a background in secondary education, was an instructor to 30 students.

“I was teaching at a small Christian school there in Port Washington so I had another six, seven students there,” she said, “and then when I went to check out this music store that was just a block away…they said, ‘Oh, you teach,’ and got talking to me and said ‘We’ve got a waiting list, could you help us out,’ so I started teaching there and it just mushroomed after that.”

What had started out as a means to earn some extra money, as two of her daughters were halfway through college, had become a quickly growing business, Jellif said. Since then, she has had students varying from age 3 to full grown adults and averages between 45 and 50 pupils a year. She offers 30, 45 and 60 minute classes for violin, viola, cello and piano, six days a week.

Students play primarily classical — while also researching composers and pieces — but also folk songs and fiddling thanks to instructional books, and even selections from movies such as the hit film Frozen, she said. But where her students are from is just as diverse as the genres they play.

Jellif not only has musicians from Massapequa come to her, but also Plainview, Glen Head, Amityville and Lindenhurst with the majority being from Manhasset and Port Washington, she said. There are also two recitals a year, one in the spring and one in the winter right before Christmas, held next door to her home at the First Baptist Church of Massapequa, where she is an active member, according to Jellif.

“I also stress to the parents that my recitals are very supportive,” Jellif said. “It’s a very warm, supportive environment and I have a lot of parents, who are excited to see their children perform, but they will come up and say, ‘You know so and so really made so much progress’…it’s great.”

As a parent, Rebecca Hirschwerk agrees 100 percent with this sentiment, she said. Her daughter Sally, a violinist, has been seeing Jellif for lessons for about four years.

“[Jellif and her daughter who has helped at past events] are so kind,” Hirschwerk, a Port Washington resident, said. “They’re so happy for their students and I think that comes across…They set up little bags of candy for the kids when they’re done and it’s just a lovely environment.”

Jellif said first year students and adults do not have to perform, but she holds the concerts to promote proper stage behavior with those who do take the spotlight. When asked about a crowning moment as an educator or musician, Jellif struggled to select a singular specific instance, noting she has had many.

“One of my favorite notes I’ve ever got was from a high school student. She gave me a Christmas present and she wrote in the card: ‘Mrs. Jellif, you are the reason I love violin,’ and that made me so happy,” she said, bursting into laughter. “I have never forgotten it.”

Frann Ziskin, one of Jellif’s former adult piano students, said she went to Jellif for six years after attending classes Jellif hosted at Ziskin’s local high school. For Ziskin, studying piano was a return to an activity she once had as a child, determined to fulfill one of her interests that fell by the wayside in time.

“It was enjoyable to be taught by somebody,” the Port Washington resident said taking time to search for fitting words, “[who has] no criticism, just positive reinforcement. She has this really great knack, a skill with people.”

Ziskin said this kind of trait is rare from what she’s seen.

“She just insinuates the positive,” she said,” and that’s a really great skill that I’ve really haven’t experienced too much of in life.”

When asked about any plans for the future, Jellif said there isn’t too much she looks to change. It comes down to wanting to have her students love music and be the best they can be, she said, herself included.

“I just keep trying to improve,” Jellif said. “You’re always learning yourself, always trying to do that.”