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May 2005

May 28, 2005 23:41

I have been practicing with great enthusiasm in the last weeks...on Suzuki Books 7 and 8!

In two weeks I'll drive to Snowmass, Colorado, for the Colorado Suzuki Institute, where I will take two weeks of teacher training courses, one on Book 7 and one on Book 8. My teacher will be Helen Brunner, who, as I understand, sold all her worldly possessions so she could buy a Amati violin. And she wears striped socks. And teaches marvelously, from the one time I observed her. I adore her already.

She e-mailed to add some supplemental pieces that we should learn as well as the Suzuki pieces. I'm finding this to be no short-order task, learning all this music. I knew some of it, but honestly, I never studied either book as a student. And I've never taught either book in its entirety. I've avoided them by assigning things like Accolay, etudes, scales, and other concerti. It seems that once a student has reached Book 5, he or she starts needing an individual prescription for building on strengths and resolving difficulties. The prescription has to sustain the student's enthusiasm while also exposing him/her to a range of styles and techniques.

The Suzuki books are heavy on Baroque. While I take great issue with a lot of the “Suzuki” fingerings and bowings presented, the pieces themselves are all quite worthwhile. Though I might have trudged with dragging feet through this sequence as a teenager, these pieces somehow suit my current frame of mind. They include things like the Bach Violin Concerto No. 1, the Handel Sonata in A, an Eccles sonata, and much Bach.

I was tickled to find a watered-down movement from the Bach C major Sonata in Book 8, what is that doing there? I'm not tickled that it's watered down, though perhaps that serves some purpose. I'll try to be open-minded. It's the third movement, which may be my favorite, tied only with the Adagio, Fugue and Allegro Assai. :) I have an excuse to practice my Bach even more.

I can see, though, how going straight through these books might render a student crossed-eyed and craving a bit of ear candy, maybe a show-off piece? Which is undoubtedly why our teacher gave us a De Beriot concerto and some other romantic pieces to chew on.

I'm eating it up! I thought I was jumping through hoops, going through this Suzuki certification process. After all, I teach at all these levels, and I teach well. But I am learning a great deal, widening my own world as I expand on what I can offer my students. It feels fantastic.

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May 6, 2005 23:34

Today as I stood with my violin in front of a class of 20 first graders, I realized I was about to speak the first words that many of these little six- and seven-year-olds had ever heard about Beethoven.

Weighty responsibility!

I was back to help Mrs. Rose Walker introduce Classical music to the kids, as they'd just completed their unit on Baroque. Mrs. Walker is the fabulous – and ambitious -- teacher my daughter had last year at McKinley School. Under her guidance, my daughter and her classmates each wrote a book on “The History of Western Music,” including one-page written and illustrated biographies on Machaut, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The books also had some introductory lessons on note reading, instruments of the orchestra and more. This year Mrs. Walker aims to get to the Romantic Period and beyond.

“Last year we just ran out of time,” she said apologetically, “this year I'm going to do better.”

Better!? This woman is a hero! I'm just happy she continues to teach this topic to the children at our little American public school, as she is in no way required to do so. I'm also happy she continues to use me to help in the effort. It's so important, and as a professional violinist, it's so easy to help make it into something the kids will remember.

Today I came in first thing in the morning, and the kids gathered on the floor in their spots on a colorful alphabet rug. Mrs. Walker informed me that she had not yet told them anything at all about Mozart or Beethoven, so I was getting the first pass at it.

For my part, I came with what I have in my head, plus a recording of Beethoven 7. It just does not take a whole lot more than that.

After making them say, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” a few times, I told them that Mozart started playing instruments and writing music when he was about their age, and even younger.

“I play the piano!” blurted out a little boy.

“Okay then, I want everyone who plays an instrument to raise their hand, and when I point to you, tell me what instrument,” I said. Up went most of the hands in the classroom. The school, which started just three years ago, is meant to be a performing arts school, though it seems to have a bigger emphasis on doing plays than making music. I took this show of hands to be a good sign! Most played the piano, with one violin, a trumpet, drums, and a guitar.

I explained to them that Mozart's music tends toward the sunny, with only the occasional and brief peek into the dark side. “Whenever it starts to get sad, it usually turns right around and gets happy again.”

After making them say “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” a few times, I played about the first page of the violin part. Though this piece can start to seem like hack gig music to us, it is wonderful in a demonstration. Many of the kids had heard it before, and now they could associate it with Mozart. Before I played the “Romanza” movement, I explained that this was slow, but not really sad, music. When I finished, a girl raised her hand and said, “I heard it! I heard the part where it started to get sad but then went back to being happy!”

Really! Thinking it over, there is a place like that. Kids can be awfully bright.

Next came my Beethoven moment, when I realized I was about to make a first impression on them. I told them that he was a great composer, that he wrote many wonderful things for piano and for symphony orchestra, then I said with some drama:

“But something very sad happened to Beethoven.” Suddenly, 20 pairs of young eyes fell upon me with rapt attention. “In the middle of his life, he started to go deaf. You you know what deaf means?” They did. “After a while he could not hear at all. Here is a man who loved music so much, it was his whole life. He didn't even get married. And he couldn't hear it any more. And do you know what he did, after he couldn't hear at all?”

It's rare when you can hear the cars on the streets going by outside in a first-grade classroom, but here was one of those moments.

“He still heard music in his head,” I said. “And he still kept writing it down so that other people could play it and hear it, too. Do you know what else? When he was totally deaf, he wrote the biggest symphony that had ever been written, for a big orchestra and even a choir, and it was all about JOY.”

I felt compelled to add, “If I had lost my hearing and couldn't hear music any more, I probably would have written a symphony about how sad I was, or how mad I was.”

Then I played for them the Ode To Joy, and they all knew it. They just did not know it was Beethoven. They ought to know now!

After that, I took them on a stroll through the slow movement of Beethoven 7. As I did last year, I told them the beginning was like a heartbeat, then I had them tap softly on their hearts, to the music. Then, somehow, we just ended up listening to the entire nine-minute second movement, as I narrated everything that was about to happen. “Here, it sounds like the heartbeat, but with somebody tip-toeing around in the background,” I said, singing along with the violin spiccato and also tip-toeing. “But here comes the elephant, get ready!” I said, anticipating the entrance of the winds at the end. Really, the weirdest stuff came to me as I was talking to these kids, but it all seemed to work!

As I left, Mrs. Walker decided to go with the momentum and read them a kids' book on Beethoven called, “The Heroic Symphony.”

I do think they will remember enough to recognize these composers' names as they come up during their lives, and hopefully they will become interested enough to want to listen to classical music. It's up to us, fellow musicians! Share our love of this music with the next generation!

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May 2, 2005 23:57

“We be jammin'!”

This is what I said tonight to several of my fellow teachers in the middle of our Suzuki group's great big final event of the year: a Klezmer workshop and final concert.

Our group invited members of the Hollywood Klezmer Band to show us a little about this form of Jewish music, characterized by schmaltzy violin playing. We also had a dance instructor come show the kids how to do Israeli dance. Plus we tacked on our final play-in concert of the year, where everyone gets up together and plays repertoire from the Suzuki books, plus a few other pieces.

Crazy? Certainly! But I'd say we all had a blast; everyone I saw was grinning ear-to-ear. And we got to jam!

The church where we hold weekly group classes alllowed us to use more of its rooms this week for Klezmerpalooza. We even got to use their special meditation room, covered in not-to-be-soiled light blue carpet, which we reverently referred to as the “Wonder Room.”

No one was allowed to wear shoes in the Wonder Room, where the dancing was held. So the first thing I did was to kick off my shoes and join the kids for a dance lesson with Mr. Zimmer, a dance instructor and also former Suzuki violin student. We all stood in a circle and held hands, stepped to the right, clapped, and kept going around. Then we learned some fancier footwork, and soon enough he had us circling to the left in a kind of Hora step, all going to the middle of the circle and back, jumping and tapping our toes...quite a workout! He reminded us to be in unison, as we are when we played. The kids took to it easily.

I stepped out of dance class to teach a few minutes of a big Book 1 class, for which I came with no plans whatsoever but somehow ended up with a roomful of kids playing Twinkle while lying on the floor. Don't ask, it just kind of evolved...

Then it was up to the church sanctuary to practice with the Klezmer band.

“Klezmer music,” explained violinist Robert Korda, “ Is like Jewish Dixieland.”

The kids had miraculously memorized three Klezmer pieces in about a month, and now Korda was ready to deconstruct it all, adding trills, tremolos, crazy bowings, slides, etc.

“But Mrs. Niles,” protested Sara with the long blond hair, “That isn't the way it was in the music...”

“You can pretty much play it any way you want to,” I assured her, “Just go with it!”

Then one of the other teachers piped up, “ But you just can't do this in the Vivaldi concerto!”

After our lesson in Klezmer, we enjoyed a potluck together. Parents brought cookies, fruit (wow, fruit kabobs, all stuck in a head of lettuce), chicken, sushi, you name it.

Then came the big concert, for which we all wore jeans and our Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena (STEP) T-shirts.

We started with the Bach Double, which I'm happy to say, I remembered in full. Happy because I had to lead the seconds, and it's always nice to remember it!

Then the older kids played some supplemental pieces, the Mosquito Dance and Hungarian Dance. I'd been working with these kids all semester, trying to get them to play together and not have a race to the end of each piece. So I was thrilled that they played every rubato in Hungarian Dance very nicely together!

Then four Pre-Twinkle kids sang the Rest Position Song, remembering their words, singing in tune and looking adorable.

More and more kids came to the stage, and we played Suzuki music until it was time to jam with the Klezmer band, which now had its clarinetist, Leo Chelyapov, and guitarist, Jordan Charnofsky. The teachers and kids played the tunes (Papirosen, Odessa Bulgarish and Freilach) fairly straight, while the Klezmer band improvised. After that the band played on its own, while the kids sat on stage and watched. The clarinet wailed over the violin and guitar, and the kids clapped, laughed, nodded their heads.

And then, we ended with Twinkle. By this time, anyone who could play a violin was on stage, meaning that half those present were on stage! Even the dance instructor had joined us by now. Teacher Cheryl Scheidemantle led us on a nutty ride through Twinkle, complete with leaning this way and that, making faces, and jumping in place through an entire variation.

After so much serious work, what fun!

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