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Teachers Who Made A Difference: Marin Alsop's Math and Music Mentors

This week, our topic is "Teachers who made a difference." In the comments section, tell us your own story of a teacher or mentor who made a difference in your life. Baltimore Symphony conductor Marin Alsop, who recently won a Gramophone award for her recording of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass",  recalls two teachers who did that for her: her high school algebra teacher, and Bernstein himself.

Teachers can make or break lives. Their influence cannot be overstated.

I have experienced teachers who were destroyers and teachers who were builders; teachers who caused me to doubt my own passions and abilities and teachers who could inspire me to find new, hidden passions and abilities.

Leonard Bernstein and Larry Hopkins rank side by side in my memories of life-affirming, life-changing teachers. Larry Hopkins certainly had none of the notoriety or charisma of Leonard Bernstein, yet he gave me confidence and validation in much the same way as Bernstein did.

Leonard Bernstein was my hero. Growing up in NYC, he was head of the home team, the New York Philharmonic.  My father took me to one of Bernstein's Young People's Concerts when I was nine years old and I immediately knew that I wanted to become a conductor.

Becoming his student at Tanglewood in 1988 was a dream come true. To have a hero exceed my expectations was too much to hope for, but Leonard Bernstein certainly did that and more. I loved being around him, soaking in his way of looking at the world and connecting the dots in life. His encouragement and support were invaluable on every level.

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The only other teacher to come close was my high school algebra teacher, Larry Hopkins. I struggled to understand the concepts behind algebra yet he refused to give up on me. Every day after school we would sit and review problems until one day it all clicked.

Mr. Hopkins saw an aptitude in me that I couldn't access. After I became his star algebra student he started showing me this new world of computing that was just taking off. Together we wrote rudimentary computer programs for answering a telephone call and other seemingly banal tasks. It was thrilling and liberating and I will never forget him for believing in me.

Like Leonard Bernstein, Larry Hopkins awakened a spark in me that went on to ignite a lifetime of enjoyment and fulfillment. What an incredible gift to give a young person!

(Marin Alsop is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She conducts Beethoven and Mahler on Nov. 4. Her recent release of Bernstein's "Mass" just won the 2010 Gramophone "Editor's Choice Award.)

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