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    This story originally appeared in our July 2018 issue. Click here to subscribe to Louisville Magazine and receive exclusive content. 

    Photo by Danny Alexander

    Ruth French sits at a piano in her soon-to-be-former classroom at the Louisville Academy of Music. The space is layered in shades of purple: pastel walls and windowsills, lavender-colored plants, floor-length curtains with toile-style flowers, even a cushiony purple carpet. On this spring day, the 86-year-old is dressed in a purple sweater — a coincidence, she says — and talking about her upcoming retirement in June, after 62 years teaching at, and later running, the music school for kids. “I think it’s time to maybe have a couple of years where I don’t have to work so hard,” French says.

    In 1954, Robert French and an associate founded the school in an apartment on Bardstown Road, where they taught vocal and instrumental lessons. From there, operations moved to South Fifth Street and then, in 1957, to the former Old Louisville home of businessman and philanthropist James Breckinridge Speed on West Ormsby Avenue, where the school reached its peak at 450 students. It’s there that French also founded the Louisville Youth Orchestra, which continues today under different ownership. (The Kentucky College of Art + Design recently acquired the same Old Louisville home.)

    In 1961, French married Ruth Scott, who had been teaching violin at the school. Ten years later, the Louisville Academy of Music settled into its current space. It’s a 112-year-old former home set back from Frankfort Avenue in Crescent Hill, across the parking lot from the public library.

    In its 64 years, the school has taught roughly 11,000 students, including some who went on to join the New York Philharmonic. Ruth French taught violin to hundreds of those thousands, nearly 80 students per week — a full 40 hours of lessons — during what she calls her “heyday.” After graduating from high school at age 17, she auditioned for the Louisville Orchestra and was accepted. She’d spend summers in Aspen, honing her craft at the city’s renowned classical music festival with teachers from Juilliard and the like. It wasn’t until after the birth of her son that French left the orchestra to teach full time. She’d come home each night around 10 and wake her son just to spend time with him.

    When Robert died in 2011, Ruth continued to run the school while also teaching full time. She had been considering retirement for years but needed to find the right person to continue the school. She found that in violinist Sara Callaway, who had been teaching at the school, and her husband Daniel, a French horn player. Callaway, 29, was in fourth grade when she started violin lessons with French nearly 20 years ago. “In high school, she stated it was her ambition to run a school like the Academy someday,” French says.

    Callaway’s curly, deep-red hair sits piled atop her head in a bun. She tears up looking at French, her mentor and friend. She remembers French being someone she could confide in through her teenage years. “Her big thing is taking care of the whole student,” Callaway says. “It’s an unusual relationship (because) you’re seeing someone once a week in private. She set an example of how she does things — being dedicated, passionate, patient and kind. And she has a very distinctive laugh. She laughs a lot. She’d always call it a fiddle. She’d say, ‘Get your fiddle out.’”

    Callaway left town to study violin and music performance at the University of North Carolina, but the teacher-student bond between French and Callaway continued to run deep. The pair would meet for lunch whenever Callaway was in town during college breaks, discussing everything from family to politics. It’s a ritual they continue. “She’s almost like a daughter,” French says.

    The Callaways met while performing with a traveling orchestra in China, prompting Daniel to end his tenure with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and move to Louisville. After the couple’s engagement party two years ago, French jokingly mentioned her plight in finding new leadership for the school. Sara and Daniel were silent. The next morning, they called French and said, “We want it.” Earlier this year, French sent a letter to parents and students, informing them of the leadership change. She wrote: “I feel…grateful for the chance to turn it over to one of my most talented and loyal former students and her very intelligent and charming new husband.”

    “It’s kind of been a dream for a really long time, so it doesn’t feel real,” Sara Callaway says. “I’ve already thought how crazy it’s going to be teaching in that (purple) room because I have so many memories of being a student in that room.”

    Inside the school’s office, National Geographic magazines stand in a yellow row, all issues dating back nearly 40 years. (Robert French, an organist and composer, was also a collector, amassing some 18,000 books and records, many of which have been donated to the Filson Historical Society, the Speed Art Museum and the University of Louisville School of Music.) In this office, Callaway has been learning the business end with pencil and paper — there hadn’t been a computer or Internet until she and Daniel took over in June. She’s been loving the porch. “You’re next to the piano and cello studios and can hear the trains go by,” she says.

    Along with updating technology and building a website, Callaway has hired a few new teachers and brought on more students. The school’s 16 instructors currently teach 230 students everything from violin, piano and guitar to flute, cello, French horn and saxophone. Though the school has always attracted students through word of mouth and has never been in financial trouble, Callaway, formerly the education program manager at 90.5 WUOL, has a running list of innovations: summer camps, percussion ensembles, children’s choir, weekend workshops, a space for visiting musicians.

    French will now have time to visit her son in California, though she’ll continue accompanying recitals on the piano at the academy. “It’s home,” she says. “It’s a bittersweet thing. It’s kind of like starting over.”

    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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