‘Never stop learning’: 91-year-old violin teacher behind Arlington Heights’ Betty Haag music academy prepares to retire

Nearly 80 years ago, a music teacher changed Betty Haag-Kuhnke’s life.

As the violin instructor and founder of the acclaimed Arlington Heights music academy that bears her name prepares to retire, the 91-year-old recalled a moment that set her professional life’s course.

The LaPorte, Indiana, native was supposed to be taking violin lessons with Mrs. Hobbs one summer. Instead, the 11-year-old would stash her violin under the porch and head for the pool, park or tennis court. She spent money meant for lessons on candy.

One day, rain thwarted her routine and she went to Mrs. Hobbs for a lesson. The teacher had given her time to another student but offered her a second chance. If Haag-Kuhnke showed up every day at 6 a.m. and practiced for one hour, she could play the teacher’s prized violin, with one caveat: “If you miss one day, you’re out,” she said.

Haag-Kuhnke didn’t miss a day.

She went on to give lessons to generations of suburban music lovers. But while Haag-Kuhnke steps back from the Betty Haag Music Academy, the Long Grove resident won’t give up teaching entirely.

“I can’t see myself not teaching,” said Haag-Kuhnke, whose intention has always been to fill the hearts of students “with beautiful music so they’ll be good people.”

  Renowned violin instructor Betty Haag-Kuhnke holds her violin during a recent lesson at her Arlington Heights studio. Joe Lewnard/

Lifelong passion

Haag-Kuhnke’s teaching career — which began when she coached fellow orchestra members in high school — spans more than seven decades. It includes DePaul, Northwestern and Stanford universities where she taught violin pedagogy. Her students — former and current — number in the thousands.

Many played with The Magical Strings of Youth, an ensemble comprised of Haag Academy students who have performed all over the world for presidents, popes and royals at venues including Symphony Center, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The White House and The Vatican.

On Saturday, about 11 alumni will join about 100 current students for a concert at Chicago’s Symphony Center.

Eighteen-year-old Kaylee Kim will be among them. A student at the Betty Haag Academy of Music since she was 3, the Vernon Hills teen says music allows her to express herself in ways words don’t.

“I love playing in front of people. I love having the spotlight on me,” said Kim, an award-winning violinist who will double major in music and psychology at Northwestern University this fall.

She’s unsure if she’ll make music her career, but says it will always be part of her life. And for that, she thanks Haag-Kuhnke.

“She has been such an important part of my life,” said Kim. “She helped me become the person I am.”

Betty Haag-Kuhnke, founder of the Betty Haag Academy of Music, talks with her students at Symphony Center in this undated photograph. Courtesy of Margaret Waltmam

A lifetime of devotion

After earning bachelors and master’s degrees in music from Indiana University, Haag-Kuhnke played professionally with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and toured as a soloist before marrying and returning to the Midwest to raise her family.

In 1961, violin teacher Mrs. Hobbs changed Haag-Kuhnke’s life a second time.

She invited her former student to a concert by students of pioneering Japanese violinist Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who believed very young children developed musical ability the way they acquired language — through listening, repetition, encouragement, group lessons and, finally, by learning to read music. The concert featured a Suzuki-trained 10-year-old playing “Chausson Poeme,” an Ernest Chausson composition Haag-Kuhnke was preparing to perform with the Elmhurst Symphony.

“I openly wept,” recalled Haag-Kuhnke, who subsequently traveled to Japan to learn from the master himself.

Around 1970, the then-superintendent of Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 asked her to establish an instructional program for string players. She agreed and began teaching children the Suzuki method.

Pope John Paul II is among the many dignitaries who have experienced performances by The Magical Strings of Youth, the ensemble comprised of students from the Betty Haag Academy of Music in Arlington Heights.

Two hundred District 25 students enrolled in the program the first year. The next year, 700 enrolled. prompting Haag-Kuhnke to hire two more teachers.

Several years later, she left the district and opened her own school in Mount Prospect. It later moved to Arlington Heights, then Buffalo Grove and back to Arlington Heights.

Students range from 3 to 18. Haag-Kuhnke instructs all ages but especially loves teaching toddlers.

“That’s where I feel I’m doing the most important work,” she said.

Some former students perform with major orchestras, including violinist Stephanie Jeong, Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s associate concertmaster, and award-winning soloist Rachel Barton Pine. Some teach at colleges and universities.

Her legacy

Seventeen-year-old Katherine Mrugala was 2 when she began lessons with Haag-Kuhnke.

  Inspired by her longtime instructor Betty Haag-Kuhnke, 91, Katherine Mrugala is considering becoming a violin teacher herself. Joe Lewnard/

“She has a way of making little kids play like professionals,” said the Arlington Heights resident, who is considering becoming a violin teacher.

  Betty Haag-Kuhnke, founder of the Betty Haag Academy of Music, works with 15-year-old Elena Mrugala, who has studied with the celebrated teacher for 12 years. Joe Lewnard/

Watching Katherine play, her younger sister Elena thought “I want to be like her.” Elena Mrugala was 3 when she began studying with Haag-Kuhnke.

“She’s very patient. She always will spend time to fix things,” said Elena, 15. “She’s very kind also.”

While Haag-Kuhnke eschews false praise, she always finds a way to ensure her students feel good about themselves.

“This week you sounded really good,” she tells them. “Next week you’ll sound better.”

<strong id="strong">The Magical Strings of Youth (featuring students and alumni from the Betty Haag Academy of Music)</strong>

When: 1 p.m. Saturday, May 25

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. (312) 294-3000 or

Tickets: $20-$35

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