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Notes from a Suzuki Mom: Strengthening Family Bonds Through Music

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Sep 14, 2012 1:37:00 PM

We've had some great discussions on our blog about the value of a music degree, the difficulties of earning a living as a string player, and the importance of early music education. But what we haven't talked about is how much playing music can bring families together. Nerissa Nields of the folk band The Nields writes this on her blog: "There really is nothing like music to strengthen family bonds." She's reflecting on time spent with her parents, her sisters, her children and her niece, an evening in a mountain cabin when all three generations played and sang together, talked to each other with and through music. We're not sure there's a better argument out there for music education.      

Last night, Katryna and I played a show for the Williamsburg elementary school – a sort of pre-opening end-of-the-summer hurrah. Because of the rain, the event was held indoors and families spread their blankets out on the floor of the gym to have their picnics. But within minutes, Katryna was teaching everyone "A Ram Sam Sam," and the room was full of big arm movements and waving. Hard to eat pizza that way. A little later, the sixth graders had bounded down from their seats in the stands and were front and center dancing to "Going To Boston." I kept thinking, "What an easy way to make people happy – just add music and dancing."

It’s been a very musical summer. We started off at Kripalu the week of July 4th and led a Family Music Camp there, complete with drum crafting, harmony singing, a trip to Tanglewood to see and hear James Taylor, and a performance at the conclusion, complete with a (Suzuki) string section and ukulele Orff. A few weeks later, we took our four kids to Falcon Ridge where they reprised their guest appearance with Guitarchestra (and violins) and joined us on "Mango Walk" – including the grandparents.

Most recently, we spent time with our sister and her kids and our parents in the Adirondacks. One night we put on a play for our father in honor of his turning 70; the kids made up most of it (it was a sort of hybrid of Harry Potter – the hero was Granddaddydore – and our own family mountain climbing lore). And we three sisters sang him a song with new words to "The Unicorn Song" (a feat taught to us by our dad and written about extensively in our book All Together Singing in the Kitchen). Later that week, we pulled out guitars and violins and Loogs and sang together: "Red River Valley," "Sweet Baby James."

There really is nothing like music to strengthen family bonds. I know we say this all the time – in fact it’s our mission in life to live this truth and teach it to others – but sitting there in our shared house in the mountains, playing guitar across from my niece, whispering the chord changes to her so she could follow along, and having that long, never-ending musical conversation, I was so grateful for every music class I have taken, every time I really listened to a record album, every scale I played on guitar or piano.

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Topics: Suzuki, Beginner Violin, Guitar

Used Violins – The Best Deal?

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Aug 31, 2012 11:30:00 AM

Getting set up with a good instrument when you first start out can be confusing, stressful, and expensive. If you are on a budget, finding the most bang for your buck can be even more overwhelming. What to do?? Before you delve into the realm of “Violin Shaped Objects” on ebay or craigslist, first think about getting a used or blemished instrument.

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Topics: Beginner Violin, Violin-Shaped Object, Used Violins, Cheap Violins

Suzuki Teacher Training at Stevens Point: Part 2

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Aug 13, 2012 3:35:00 PM

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.

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Topics: Suzuki, Violin, Beginner Violin, Education, Stevens Point

A New School Year Full of Opportunity, Not Frustration

Posted by Guest Blogger on Aug 9, 2012 11:52:00 AM

Paula Leshkevich has been a member of SHAR’s Educational Sales Department for over four years. Having taught in both private and public schools, she understands many of the challenges facing instrumental music teachers today and works to help teachers spend more time teaching and less time with common frustrations. In her free time, Paula enjoys writing, travelling, and kayaking.This is her first blog entry for the SHAR site.

The first strains of “Twinkle”. A prize-winning bow grip. Ear-to-ear smiles on the first note. The anticipation of a concert. A new class of beginners picking up string instruments for the very first time.

As a new school year approaches, teachers have so many exciting moments to look forward to. Enthusiasm for helping students unlock their musical potential is strong and anticipation of the coming class sessions is mounting. The promise of a fresh start with a new school year is one of the joys that both teachers and students look forward to across the country.

Students file into the room. The bell rings. Bows are tightened. Music is put out on stands. Pencils are ready. Students hold their instruments patiently as you go around the room checking for tuning accuracy. Molly’s pegs keep slipping. Zach’s fine tuner snapped off. Sarah’s bridge is crooked. David’s strings are too high to press down.

Teachers often tell us that much of their teaching time is taken up fixing problems of V.S.O.s (Violin Shaped Objects). Unfortunately, the problems that come up with inferior instruments or problematic set-ups frustrate not only the teacher, but the students who deserve high-quality, functioning instruments to properly learn the basics of string playing. Many teachers can attest that students who experience frequent or serious instruments problems are far less likely to continue in orchestra.

We invite you to share your experiences with V.S.O.s in the classroom.

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Topics: Violin, Beginner Violin, Education, Violin-Shaped Object

Suzuki Teacher Training at Stevens Point: Part 1

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Aug 7, 2012 4:14:00 PM

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.”

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Topics: Suzuki, Violin, Beginner Violin, Teaching, Stevens Point

Are You a Creative String Player?

Posted by Guest Blogger on Aug 6, 2012 4:55:00 PM

We're very pleased at SHAR to share our first guest blog from the talented violinist and educator Christian Howes. Although a classically-trained musician, Mr. Howes made a name for himself in the New York jazz scene in the '90s, playing with renowned musicians such as trumpeter Randy Brecker, pianist D.D. Jackson, Bill Evans’ Soulgrass, crossover pioneers Spyro Gyra and the legendary guitarist-inventor Les Paul. In addition, Mr. Howes is a former associate professor at the Berklee College of Music and was the founder of the Creative Strings Workshop in 2003. It's fair to say that all these passions – classical music, jazz and rock, and teaching – show up in Mr. Howes's fascinating blog article. The article asks an essential and important question for music today: Is it possible to bridge the cultures of rock and jazz with the culture of classical music education? And if so, how can classical musicians harness the creative energies of rock and jazz?   

We tend to ascribe values to ourselves which don't necessarily coincide with how we spend our time. For example, even if I really wanted to, I couldn't call myself "athletic" if I only exercised once every other week. It wouldn't matter how much I think, deep down inside, that I'm athletic.

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Topics: Violin, Beginner Violin, Education, Violin Method, String Community, Christian Howes

Exploring Home: The Mark O'Connor Orchestra Method

Posted by Guest Blogger on Jul 25, 2012 1:42:00 PM

We were overjoyed to read this guest blog from Melinda Rice, a violinist and teacher for the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles Program at EXPO (which is a partnership between the LA Philharmonic, Harmony Project, and the LA Department of Recreation and Parks) and Harmony Project. Not only does Ms. Rice's entry convey her passion for music and teaching, it makes a compelling case for learning American music through the O'Connor Orchestra Method. When Venezuelan musicians visit the LA Philharmonic and honor the musical traditions of their homeland, Ms. Rice realizes that through the O'Connor Orchestra Method she is teaching her American students their own native musical language.    


I want to tell you about something wonderful that is happening with children who want to play a stringed instrument. If you are a string teacher who works with group classes and orchestras, like I am, then I think you’ll want to know about this. If you are a private teacher, like I am, then I think you’ll want to know about this. If you love classical music, and long to internalize theory more, then I think you’ll want to know about this. If you are an adult learner who always wanted to play the violin/viola/cello, then I think you’ll want to know about this.

It was two-and-a-half years ago that I was introduced to Mark O’Connor and to his method for teaching string playing through the classics of American music. The method seemed simple and logical – foundational instruction in string playing using songs from the rich American heritage of old time tunes, negro spirituals, jazz, mariachi, and songs from composers from Europe inspired by America. Simple and logical is exactly what I strive for in teaching, and I was inspired to start using the method right away. It has only been two and a half years, but I want to share what I have learned as I taught foundational skills through the American music tradition.

I started off working with two beginning violin classes of about ten students each, and each of these students received a Level 1 book and CD. We met bi-weekly. The kids really liked learning the violin, and many of them started coming to both classes. Most of them got to class early, stayed in the building late, or played music with each other outside in the courtyard after their group class was done. These students are part of an orchestra program, and when they started orchestra, the skill of reading translated into reading skills in orchestra. The skill of adjusting pitches in class while listening to accompaniment translated into adjusting in orchestra. Before rehearsal, I often saw a few of them jamming on either an orchestra tune, or jamming on a tune from the Mark O’Connor method books. Even now, when many of them have moved to other group teachers (this is part of the structure of our program), I still hear them playing improvisations on tunes like Boogie Woogie in between orchestra rehearsals.

As an American, I appreciate that this method begins with a song first sung and played by African Americans who were slaves in this country as recently as 150 years ago. Not only is Boil ’em Cabbage Down a terrific song and a piece of our history, sharing it with students communicates a message of transcending circumstances, and living with our history. I also appreciate that the method continues with pieces from across the genres of music developed in America – from old time tunes and bluegrass to negro spirituals to boogie woogie to jazz to American composers like Joplin and Europeans like Dvorak writing with the influence of America. The music that this method draws on is a unique American heritage, a blend of styles that come from the convergence of African, European, and Native American tradition in one place, communicating with one another in the language of music. I have been richly rewarded with a more colorful and nuanced understanding of the country I live in as I teach from the O’Connor books, and my students get excited to find out that some of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence were playing tunes that they are now learning.

This past semester, I lead a beginning string orchestra in playing Mark O’Connor’s arrangement of Boil ’em Cabbage Down from his orchestra series that corresponds with the method books. Students worked on their parts in group classes, and came together to play in orchestra. We talked about structure, melody and harmony, and root notes in I, IV and V chords through this one piece – the arrangement made it easy for the students to demonstrate these concepts within their parts.

The students are also building foundational skills in creativity. They practice improvisational soloing in class, and they get to make simple and small choices about dynamics, rhythm, and pitch. In parts of the American tradition (and in fact in many traditions around the world), a piece of music can be arranged authentically in different ways, depending on how the musicians want to communicate the music, including factors like the instrumentation available. This is reflected for the students as we listen, practice, and talk about the piece in different ways.

At the site in Los Angeles where I work with these young musicians, we have been given the gift of inspiration and aspiration by the LA Philharmonic’s conductor Gustavo Dudamel and by Venezuela’s El Sistema. Our students hold memories of and treasure the mentors who join us from the Phil, and our visitors from Venezuela. As a teacher, I am inspired by the joy and vivacity and virtuosity of our visitors from Venezuela. When our orchestra plays arrangements of a Beethoven symphony and of Gerardo Matos Rodriguez’s La Cumparcita, we are exploring different musical languages together, striving to understand what each is communicating. Our own musical experiences are our preparation for understanding these languages. When two violinists learning fundamentals pick up their violins and arrange the classic Oh! Susanna as a duet, choosing the number of repeats, who will play the melody when, and who will play the chords when, they demonstrate tools for engaging with structure and harmony that can develop their love of music from around the world, from many times in the history of the world. At the same time, they are following in the steps of other musicians who have honored the musical traditions of their homeland, just as we have witnessed in the Venezuelan youths who visit and perform around the world.

I am taking a moment away from working with the young musicians who are my students to write this because I want to share what I have witnessed. I am grateful for the tools for training that I have been given from so many generous musicians, and especially from Mark O’Connor. I am sharing this because it has been truly wonderful in my teaching and musical practice, and when something is wonderful, it is important to share.

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Topics: Violin, Beginner Violin, Teaching, Mark O'Connor, Orchestra Method

Learning to Jam: The O'Connor and Suzuki Methods

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Jun 29, 2012 4:48:00 PM

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.   

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Topics: Suzuki, Violin, Beginner Violin, Violin Method, Mark O'Connor, String Community

Notes from a Suzuki Mom: Alignment Enlightenment

Posted by Guest Blogger on Jun 26, 2012 12:56:00 PM

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.

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Topics: Suzuki, Violin, Beginner Violin, Parents, Education

Shinichi Suzuki – The Man and the Violin Method

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Jun 1, 2012 7:00:00 AM

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Topics: Suzuki, Violin, Beginner Violin, Parents, Education, Practice

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