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Suzuki Teacher Training at Stevens Point: Part 2

  
  
  
Lucy Lewis

We're grateful to have Lucy Lewis, a trained Suzuki teacher and doctoral student in musical arts at the University of Iowa, share a series of blogs about her experiences at American Suzuki Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Every summer, the Suzuki Institute hosts a teacher training session at Stevens Point, and this summer Ms. Lewis is one of the teachers-in-training.This entry is Ms. Lewis's second dispatch from Stevens Point and, though it's hard to believe, it's even richer than her first. In this entry, Ms. Lewis shares her admiration for two master teachers at Stevens Point and describes their successful approaches to instruction. It's truly amazing to observe a master teacher at work; what's even more amazing, however, is to observe a developing master teacher – Ms. Lewis – learn her craft.   

Since the last time I wrote I have completed the Suzuki teacher training for Violin Book 8 with Carol Dallinger (Oramay Cluthe Eades Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Evansville and founder of the University of Evansville Suzuki Program), and I am currently in the midst of doing the training for Violin Book 5 with Nancy Lokken (Director of the Augsburg College Suzuki Program). Both of these ladies are incredible people and masterful teachers, and it has been a privilege to train with them. However, before I detail some of the things I have learned, I would like to share with you some thoughts of wisdom that were passed on to all the teacher trainees in our orientation meeting.

On the eve of starting our first week of teacher training, Pat D’Ercole (Director of the Aber Suzuki Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point) held a meeting which all the teacher trainees were required to attend. In this meeting she discussed the benefits of doing Suzuki teacher training and encouraged us all to approach our classes and observations with an open mind, no matter our background or current mindset about teaching. She acknowledged that we might see some things that would challenge our beliefs, but cautioned us to be willing to try things before making a judgment call. Evidently, John Kendall once told Waltraud Suzuki (the wife of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki), that he was not sure whether American mothers would be willing to do all that this method required and she replied to him in a heavy German accent – “Why don’t you try it first and then say something!” I for one, am grateful that he took her advice.



Suzuki Teacher Training at Stevens Point: Part 1

  
  
  
Lucy Lewis

We're grateful to have Lucy Lewis, a trained Suzuki teacher and doctoral student in musical arts at the University of Iowa, share a series of blogs about her experiences at American Suzuki Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Every summer, the Suzuki Institute hosts a teacher training session at Stevens Point and this summer Ms. Lewis is one of the teachers-in-training. In her first entry, a reflection before she begins the training (to be followed by two more blog entries, one during and one after), Ms. Lewis explains her love of Dr. Suzuki's method and her high expectations for the training. Ms. Lewis admires Dr. Suzuki's commitment to every child's musical development and hopes that by observing the master teachers at Stevens Point she'll become a better teacher herself. By the end of the blog, Ms. Lewis confirms that she sees the Suzuki method not only as musical training but as "life training." 

As I am writing this blog, I am currently en-route to the American Suzuki Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (with eager anticipation!) to do Suzuki violin teacher training for Volumes 5 & 8 of Dr. Suzuki’s “Mother Tongue” method. This summer will mark the fourth year in a row that I have been attending the American Suzuki Institute to do Suzuki violin teacher training and I have grown to look forward to these two weeks out of my summer more than anything else. “Why?” you might ask.

First, let me share with you a bit of the history of this particular institute. This institute was founded in 1971 by the late Marjery Aber, who was one of the first to study with Dr. Suzuki in Japan. This is the first institute that Dr. Suzuki visited in the United States and under Ms. Aber’s leadership (and currently that of Pat D’Ercole’s), it has since become a flagship model for other institutes that have spread across the nation.

Every summer world-class faculty, along with students, siblings, parents and teacher trainers gather together to play, teach, grow and learn from each other in this little town affectionately known as “The Point.” The atmosphere is charged with positive vibes and I firmly believe that one would have to go a long ways to find a happier group of people than “Suzuki-ers.”





Learning to Jam: The O'Connor and Suzuki Methods

  
  
  
Mark O'Connor

I've been thinking a lot lately about Mark O'Connor's blog articles, especially his most recent ones "The American Violin" and "Suzuki Has Gone Fiddlin'." The comments section of Mr. O'Connor's blog, especially the "Suzuki Has Gone Fiddlin'" article, show just how much disagreement there is in the American classical community on our preferred teaching methods.

Plenty of folks swear by The Suzuki Method, which was revolutionary when it took hold in the United States through John D. Kendall in the 1950s and '60s. At its core, The Suzuki Method believes that music education functions a lot like early language acquisition: if you create a vibrant musical community through teachers, recordings, concerts, and peers, then there's no reason your child can't learn to play the violin. Or, that learning the violin is as easy as learning to speak and read. (Which is still pretty hard sometimes. More picture books, Dad!)

So why do we need to change anything? Why does O'Connor want to rethink the way we teach our kids to play the violin?

While appreciative of The Suzuki Method's faith in each child's musical ability, Mr. O'Connor wants more. His O'Connor Method focuses on traditional American music like blues, folk, jazz, and spirituals; by making these genres the focus of his method, O'Connor opens the door to imrovisation and thus to individual creativity. (You simply can't learn to play jazz without learning to jam.)

That said, the more articles I read by O'Connor, and the more I examine his method books, the more I'm convinced that he wants just one thing to happen for his students: for them to find their voice. One of my favorite poets, Seamus Heaney, has written on the difference between "craft" and "technique," and I think it's relevant here if only to freshen to conversation about the Suzuki and O'Connor methods. For Heaney, discovering your "technique" is pretty much what most of us would call "finding your voice":

I think technique is different from craft. Craft is what you can learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making … It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self. It knows how to keep up a capable verbal athletic display; it can be content to be 
vox et praeterra nihil—all voice and nothing else—but not voice as in ‘finding a voice.’ Learning the craft is learning to turn the windlass at the well of poetry. Usually you begin by dropping the bucket halfway down the shaft and winding up a taking of air. You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself. ("Feeling Into Words," pgs. 20-21)

Craft looks a lot like technique, but we certainly know technique when we see it. You get goosebumps when you witness technique; you feel like you're hearing something no one has ever heard before. Or, as Emily Dickinson said, you feel like the top of your head has been blown off. And when you learn technqiue, you're finding your voice, which can be as distinct as the way you walk, speak, or dance.

O'Connor's deep fear is that we're teaching children craft but not technique. We're teaching capable musical displays but not equipping our students with the true creative potential of technique. (It's a heavy moment in your artistic life, when you've broken the skin of yourself and you're no longer pulling up air, but it's one that is worth the wait.)

There have been plenty of counter stories, though, from Suzuki graduates about how their violin teacher included American genres and encouraged creativity. They narrate a more complex Suzuki Method, a hybrid method. On his blog, O'Connor recognizes the potential of a more hybrid Suzuki Method but worries about the lack of real commitment to creativity in this approach and the dangers of a hodgepode approach to musical education. He's put serious thought into the progression of his method and it's distressing, I think, to contemplate a buffet approach. Fair enough.

In the end, I'm not sure anyone can tell you which method is right for your child. But I do believe techique is necessary to any serious creative endeavor. If you want your child to write American music, then your child needs to find his or her American voice. That begs the question, however, if creativity and finding a voice are always what we want from art. Those things can be frightening in a way that performance isn't.   



















Notes from a Suzuki Mom: Alignment Enlightenment

  
  
  
Nerissa Nields

I'm in awe of Nerissa Nields's latest post for our music blog. It's perhaps a cliche these days among teachers and parents to say – however true it may be – something like "My students (or daughter) actually teaches me." Nerissa certainly borrows that approach, but her entry doesn't stop there. She goes on to talk about music, yoga, and her daughter's violin lessons as practices where chasing perfection only distracts the practitioner. In the end, Nerissa's approach is both terrifying and peaceful: it suggests that if there is a goal to our dearest pursuits, it's not conventional success but the humility that comes from struggle.   

Each week, our violin teacher gives us a practice plan, a sheet with a grid on it with the days
of the week horizontally across the top and various items listed vertically on the left hand side of the page.


At the top of every sheet, as you can see, is something Suzuki teachers call Main Focus. One week the focus might be on the bow hold; another week it could be getting the hand and wrist aligned. Recently we were focusing on intonation (getting the notes in tune, which is no small feat when there are no frets, sez this guitar player–and made me realize how like singing violin playing is since one needs to rely on one’s ear for pitch.) This week the Practice Point is about getting the fingers to stand up, so that the tips touch the string and are not flat like pancakes.

We practice to make it easy, says our teacher Emily Greene. And we make it easy by doing alittle every day, not forcing perfection (which is the enemy of the people, as the great Anne Lamott is fond of saying) but nodding at improvement. OK, wildly applauding improvement. With a six-year-old, it’s pretty stunning how quickly the brain absorbs the teaching, and how, when guided gently, the playing grows and improves. On the other hand, a phrase learned with a wrong bowing and not corrected is fairly difficult to unlearn. We tend to have the same “sticky” passages everyone else has, but if we learn them right the first time and go slowly to learn them, we pass by these obstacles with ease. If I let her play them over and over, knowing vaguely there’s something wrong but not having the energy to get off my seat and check the video (yes, I video the teacher playing the piece correctly during the lesson), then Lila will have to do many repetitions later on to get it right.

Shinichi Suzuki – The Man and the Violin Method

  
  
  

Notes from a Suzuki Mom: Keeping Joy Alive

  
  
  
Nerissa Nields

In today's post, Nerissa Nields talks about the big fear every music-loving parent encounters at some point: If I push my child too hard, will he just end up hating music? For me, the highlight of Nerissa's post is the moment she realizes that both grace – the thing that happens when you least expect it – and hard work make music (and teaching music) possible.  

Johnny had been showing up for his guitar lessons like a mini-brunette normal-eyed Johnny Winter. He continues to hone his moves, if not his chops, on his little acoustic, or a boom whacker, or what appears to be part of a Hot Wheels racing apparatus. At a recent lesson, he was given this for homework:

-Stand in zero position (feet to the right of the stool)
-Now move to one position (left foot moves about a foot to the left, so legs are wide)
-Pick up guitar with right hand
-Hold guitar with the head up.


Also, he can clap back rhythms that I or Lila clap or play for him. I was pretty sure he was well on the way to superstardom. Or at least maybe eligible for this month’s Suzuki Springfest, a heart-lifting end of the year all day extravaganza held in Downtown Northampton. Suzuki students from every studio mass together in various outdoor locales and play through their repertoire. Lila did this last spring on the courthouse lawn. I noticed that Jeremy, Johnny’s teacher, had a group of his guitar students participate. I dreamed of Johnny sitting on his tiny guitar stool, holding his guitar in place as the older guitarists played. He’d be watching them all, with a mix of reverence and chutzpah, thinking, “Next year, man, I’ll show you all!”

Well, this didn’t exactly happen. Instead, Johnny watched for about ten seconds, then kicked off his shoes and ran across the lawn to slide down the stone banister in front of the courthouse.

Instead, we walked into Jeremy’s classroom today, and after about ten minutes, Johnny lay on the floor. “No,” he said to everything Jeremy asked him to do. “Dat is so boring.” When Jeremy asked him to clap, he lay on his back and idly swung his arms together so that his hands missed each other. When Jeremy asked him if he’d like to learn “two position,” Johnny said, “Dat is so boring.” (Two position is when you sit down on the stool. I have to agree; pretty boring.)

It came up toward the end of the lesson, when I mentioned to Jeremy that I’d been away for the past two weekends doing gigs, that perhaps there was some general free floating anger that had attached itself to the guitar. “You went away and I didn’t even wike dat,” Johnny said from his side lying position on the floor.

We called it a day a bit early, and actually decided to take a hiatus from lessons until September. I felt a heaviness in my heart. Had I pushed him too hard? Should we quit now before we squeeze all the love out of the guitar for him?

Emily, our violin teacher gave us some perspective. “When I started, it took me six months just to stand still for one minute” [which is part of the Suzuki teaching pedagogy.] “I used to hide under the piano bench. It took me another two years to learn my Twinkle variations. But I knew the music because my parents played it every day. You have to take the long view. You are giving him invaluable life skills that will apply to every aspect of his life.”

I looked up the word “student,” as I noticed it shared a root with “studio” and also, of course, “study,” which is what we called the room my father worked in, a room we’d refer to nowadays as his office.”Study” comes from the Latin studere, to apply oneself with diligence; or earlier to what’s known as “Proto-Indo-European language, or PIE: to “to push, stick, knock, beat.” I like this. Sounds like music. Next fall we’ll come back to Jeremy and we’ll push the tiniest bit more. Or maybe we’ll just knock out the beat with a couple of sticks. Either way, nothing worthwhile comes without an application of some kind of diligence and then that magic Other: grace.

After Springfest, post-dinner, Lila and I practiced her violin, and Johnny joined us, red boom whacker air-guitar flailing along to “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie” through Brahms’s Waltz. And then, for the first time ever, he pulled his little guitar stool out of the music trunk and set it up in front of his stool, picked up his real) guitar and set it carefully on his left knee. “Wook, Mama!” And he began painstakingly to pluck out notes on the strings.

So far we haven’t knocked his love affair with the guitar out of him yet.

Why You Should Listen to Music

  
  
  
Nerissa Nields

Today's post from Nerissa Nields compares exposure to music to exposure to language: for her, and for Suzuki teachers, musical fluency happens for any child with enough practice and exposure. Nerissa, however, also brings up a bigger and more troubling question: What is the difference between giving your child the gift of musical fluency and raising her to be a prodigy? And is the latter even something we would wish on our children? As always, Nerissa tackles the topic with grace, humor, and insight.

I had the good fortune to attend a Suzuki parent talk by my old friend fellow guitar teacher Dave Madsen. Dave and I knew each other 20 years ago when we were both working at the Loomis Chaffee school in Windsor CT, where our band The Nields got its start. Dave is a father of two, and though he was a professional guitar player and “regular” teacher, it was through his exposure to his daughter’s Suzuki violin lessons that he got interested in the method, and eventually trained. He is now the foremost local Suzuki Guitar trainer and teacher; he teaches at the University Of Hartford.

There is much to recommend the Suzuki method, but what I want to write about today is its foremost innovation, which is to understand music as a language and to therefore teach it to children in the same way we “teach” them how to speak and later to read.

For Violinists, How Young Is Too Young to Go Pro?

  
  
  
Nerissa Nields

Thanks to Nerisssa Nields for another thoughtful blog post about the adventures of being a Suzuki Mom. In today's post, Nerissa describes how her daughter Lila busked – without realizing it was illegal!  in the Charlotte Airport. In recounting the story, Nerissa grapples with the complications that face the young, ambitious violinist. In her words, "when, if, and how" do we decide to earn a living from "the gift" of our talent?
     

How a Three-Year-Old Has a Suzuki Guitar Lesson

  
  
  
Suzuki Guitar Lesson

Nerissa Nields, one of our regular contributors, writes about Suzuki guitar lessons with her son Johnny. Nerissa describes how Johnny, initially uninterested in guitar lessons, comes around to them and even says that he "wuvs" them. Nerissa's thoughtful entry shows just how impulsive and lovely kids can be, though it also expresses faith in music's hold on us, whether we're three-and-a-half-years-old or parents ourselves.
 


So we started Johnny on Suzuki guitar lessons. Yes, he is three-and-a-half. No, he can’t understand the difference between my gently suggesting that he might not want to dump his glass of watercolor paint wash all over the table and cruel and unusual punishment. (At the top of his lungs: “Mama, you are being SO mean to me!”) Yes, I am probably crazy.

For Parents: Why Music?

  
  
  
Money

Playing a string instrument is a tremendous investment for both the student and the teacher. Money, time, energy ... so is it worth it? Based on my own experience, I believe that this sacrifice is one that reaps endless rewards.

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