Ron Leonard’s Students Reflect on His Influence and Legacy

Ron Leonard speaks with cello students on the Colburn School plaza.

Cellist Ron Leonard retired from the Colburn School faculty in the fall of 2017, and he’s left a lasting impact on countless students and colleagues throughout his long and distinguished career. Three students and alumni, with years of study spanning from the inception of the Conservatory of Music to a current undergraduate, shared their favorite memories of studying with Mr. Leonard.

On Monday, April 9, Ron’s friends, colleagues, students, and more will celebrate with him in a special concert to recognize his six decades as an orchestral performer, chamber musician, and educator. We caught up with three former students to hear how his teaching has had an impact on their lives. Though they are at different stages of their careers, all expressed an appreciation for Mr. Leonard’s complete dedication to his craft, full investment in his students, and playful wit that they will carry with them forever.

Tate Zawadiuk

Third-Year Bachelor of Music Candidate

Not only would he challenge his students, but he also challenged himself. I remember one lesson I had this really difficult piece I was working on, the Ysaÿe Solo Cello Sonata, and he took the score and was frustrated at himself that he couldn’t play it in the lesson. He took it home and practiced it and at the next lesson he had it, much faster than I had learned it. It was extremely motivating for me to get it going and work harder.

He likes to make a lot of jokes. We did a Secret Santa as a studio and he had his name in the hat too. He picked my name, but on the actual day of the gift exchange he forgot my gift. The following week we had a scale class and in front of everyone he handed me this little while box with his very messy handwriting on it that said “I hope this will help you see your way around the fingerboard,” and inside was this really cheap flashlight. He likes to poke fun. It’s slightly embarrassing. Another signature joke he always had was after a student played in a lesson he would ask if they played with a metronome, and the student would say “yes” and he’d ask “was it on?”

Vardan Gasparyan

Performance Diploma, 2013
Master of Music, 2015

To say that he’s inspiring is very, very vague. The amount of guidance and inspiration I got from studying with him and listening to him perform, studio classes, chamber music coaching—it all affected my personality and perspective of music, aside from learning the craft of how to make a good sound.

When I first started teaching, I was facing lots of difficulties, because being a good performer is so different from actually being good at teaching, especially teaching kids. I was going to my lessons and we would work on something, and then I would bring up an issue I was having with a student. He would say, “Okay try this, and if that doesn’t work, try this.” He was constantly guiding me toward my teaching career. I had some advanced students, and he agreed to listen to one of them. I brought him in, and to have a lesson with Ron Leonard—it was a huge deal for him. He got really inspired as well, and started practicing a lot more.

Eric Byers, Calder Quartet

Artist Diploma, 2005

He wouldn’t hold back on trying to catch you unprepared on some spot. I’ll never forget playing the Dvořák Concerto for a jury and the whole first movement is pretty long. I remember starting and I played a few lines and he just said, “now play the coda,” and had me jump all the way to the last page. He was just testing me to see if I really had the whole thing ready to go, or if I was assuming I would get stopped after the first few pages.

One time, we were learning a piece of a quartet and one of us was playing a wrong note—he’d just learned it wrong—and he chewed out the other three of us because we should have known the score better to realize that it was a wrong note. Instead of just turning to the person who played the wrong note, everyone was equally at fault. That went hand in hand with how important it is to know the score and every detail in a score, not just your own part.


If you haven’t gotten your tickets to Ron Leonard’s Retirement Celebration, reserve them online.

If Ron Leonard made an impact on your life or education, consider making a gift to the Colburn School in his honor. Leadership gifts of $5,000 will be added to the Norma and Ron Leonard Endowed Scholarship Fund in Honor of Alice Totten, a fund created last year by Mr. and Mrs. Leonard as a tribute to his first cello teacher. Donate online, or contact Robin Sukhadia at or 213-621-1055.