Suzanne Smith closes her eyes, dips her head slightly, and sends her bow smoothly across the strings of her 250-year-old cello. A melancholy riff, low and resonant, fills her cozy living room near Haisley Elementary School.

Smith’s path to teaching cello in this tidy, Cape Cod-style home passed through grand institutions. She has degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory and SUNY Stony Brook, where she studied with Bernard Greenhouse. After she finished her master’s, Greenhouse, a cofounder of the Beaux Arts Trio, taught her for another year at no charge, to further build her skills and confidence.

But personal and emotional issues remained locked up inside. Once, while she was playing as the principal cellist at the Tanglewood Music Festival, conductor Seiji Ozawa told her, “When I look at your face while I’m conducting, I get nervous!”

“That’s how scared and messed up I was,” Smith laughs.

Smith, sixty-four, grew up as the adopted child of a family in Neenah, Wisconsin. Her adoptive father was a surgeon; her mother was an amateur cello player who encouraged young Suzanne to play. “I was pushed out at an early age,” she says, performing in public from age ten. But the pressure–and issues surrounding being adopted–negatively affected everything she did. Performance anxiety, difficulty focusing, and other tensions resulted in inconsistent playing. “I was basically falling on my face,” she says.

At seventeen, she went to India as an exchange student. She lived with a family of “very educated Syrian Christians [who] had an extensive library with an open roof with vines growing over it,” she recalls. There, “I read and read about Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism … I could go on. I had an otherworldly sort of experience over there, and it started me asking all the usual big questions” about the meaning of life.

It was in Zen Buddhism that Smith found the peace she needed. Back in her Ann Arbor studio, cello still nestled in front of her, Smith points to a framed photo of her mentor, the late Zen master Sheng Yen. Introduced to his books at the Ann Arbor Zen Temple, she made retreats at his centers in New York from the early 1990s until his death in 2009. “The combination of Zen study, meditation, and hard work broke the mold,” she says.

Though she’s continued to study with famous cellists, including the late Janos Starker, her focus now is teaching. Her home-based school, �xADCelloChan, retraces her own path, combining technical skills with spiritual insight. She turns her gaze from the photo of Sheng Yen to her hands, which are clasped together like a tight bud. As her fingers unfurl, she explains how performers blossom when musical drills are combined with self-understanding.

She doesn’t use the words “Zen” or “Buddhism,” but draws on that philosophy to engage her students’ self-awareness. Smith believes the Zen practice of “silent illumination,” which she defines as a wide-open mind in a calm, quiet state, allows creativity to come forth.

Smith has been in Ann Arbor since 1984, when her then husband was hired at the U-M’s school of music. She taught at the Center for Creative Studies and Emerson School before focusing on CelloChan, which opened in 1993. “Chan” is the Chinese name for Zen–it translates literally as “insight”–and Smith seeks to give her twenty-eight students skills in self-exploration as well as music.

Silent illumination is a cornerstone of Smith’s lessons. Fourteen-year-old Kepler Eberle has been studying with her since he was five. She taught him to meditate, and he says it helps him focus and play better. “Meditation is being able to calm myself down and relieve stress–and it’s fun to do,” he says.

“Suzanne put the joy into playing cello for me,” says filmmaker Char DeWolf. When she was learning cello in high school, DeWolf says, her teacher enforced strict rules and never smiled. With Smith, DeWolf says, “You’re playing with a phenomenal talent sitting right next to you and encouraging you to come along with her. I just love her. She doesn’t need you to believe what she believes. She just takes what she believes and helps you.”

Each summer, Smith holds a six-day retreat, CelloChanWoods, that “focuses on removing players’ physical and mental blocks.” Drawing on Zen retreat practices, Smith requires that all campers remain silent through breakfast and through their first music lesson each day to promote an inward focus.

At the Michigan Friends Center near Chelsea, where the retreat is held, campers are encouraged to go off and play their cellos by themselves. Once, a student ended up in the midst of a honking flock of geese at the pond’s edge, playing honk-like notes back to them, the cello’s end pin stuck in the sand. Another time, the dozen campers participated in a play-off under the trees where each came up with an original piece on the spot.

That’s the creative freedom Smith seeks to release in her students. From her own experience, she’s convinced that skill alone is not enough: “The whole thing ripens and rots if it’s not balanced.”