I'm at the end of two weeks of teacher training at the Colorado Suzuki Institute at Snowmass, a 15 minute drive from Aspen. When I arrived here, I checked the schedule for the Aspen Music Festival to see if there were any appealing concerts while I was here. My reaction went something like this:
Gil Shaham? Yes!
The Bach Double? Oh, no. It can't be. Not the Bach Double!
Don't get me wrong, I love Bach. But as a Suzuki teacher, I've a bit of an overdose. So far during this Institute, I've helped lead the children through the Bach Double four times. And I'm not even really teaching here, I just happen to be a teacher who has it memorized. As the various teachers discussed going to this concert, one admitted that she just simply could not take it.
“I'm just overdosed on the Bach Double,” she said. “I've been teaching it all week, and I'm just going to have to take a pass.”
I still remember, though, how much I wanted to learn the Bach Double when I was a young student, and trying to get this little girl named Sarah Beck to teach it to me in the hallway of my elementary school. And it is still a jolly ride. As soon as I finish rolling my eyes and start playing it, I realize how much I like it.
Having heard and played the piece literally hundreds of times, I can say that I have never heard it played so beautifully as I did last night, and the whole atmosphere of Aspen made for the happiest experience.
Unbelievably, I'd never been to a concert at Aspen. I never went as a student, and never made the long trip from Denver when I lived there. So I already was rather entranced by the setting: walking through a grove of shimmering aspen trees, sitting on the blue benches with the mid-summer late-evening sun filtering through the white canvas tent, noticing little pieces of cotton from the cottonwood trees floating by as I read my program. At one point a patch of sunlight fell over a tiny bit of the audience, and you could see the shadows of the shimmering aspen it it.
Before the beloved/overplayed Bach Double, the Aspen Chamber Symphony played Haydn's Symphony No. 30, with the cheerful conductor Nicholas McGegan, who conducted with no baton but instead with his whole body. My first thought was, energetic youth! Hats off to all of you who are playing in this orchestra. It's not easy to channel all that energy into something so elegant and delicate as Haydn. And I have to mention the flute soli in the second movement by Martha Aarons. Her runs just spilled over effortlessly; it was lovely.
Then came the much-awaited/dreaded Bach, with Ms. Anthony and Shaham. He came out with a smile that never left during the entire performance. And here was a thrill for the dozens of Suzuki-ites in the audience: they used the music! And of course they would, it is chamber music. But we had to giggle about it, after agonizing over memorizing both parts of the first movement, which is a requirement for Suzuki students.
They took the first movement at quite a fast clip, which settled into a somewhat more easeful tempo by the time the orchestra handed things over to the soloists.
The highlight was the second movement, which had beautiful ebb and flow. Shaham and Ms. Anthony made it unfold, with every sequence calibrated for maximum effect, and the end was a nicely restrained quiet. This allowed them to burst into the third movement, which had so much energy, well controlled and channeled. During a huge crescendo near the end of the movement, they seemed to be enjoying it as a thrill ride.
This sounds like so much hyperbole, but truly, I enjoyed it that much. I had never seen Gil Shaham or Adele Anthony play before, but they were generous performers, joyfully giving it all away on stage. Nothing held back, nothing overlooked.
The concert continued in the same inspiring way. We heard Benjamin Britten's “Two Portraits,” which were published posthumously in 1997. Certainly this piece deserves a place in the repertoire; it features the viola, which was Britten's instrument. The Aspen Chamber Symphony negotiated the piece well, as it was the kind of ensemble playing that leaves little room for straying. And violist Catharine Carroll found the richness in the considerable viola solo, which was a kind of deep weeping over quiet strings and pizzicato. The piece ended with on of those utterly still moments, just low celli and bass, when the entire audience stops breathing and moving until everything truly stops.
Suzuki teacher trainee Melissa Solomon came up to me at intermission and said, “It's so funny, I know so many people in the orchestra!” And indeed there is a connection between the kids at Suzuki camp and the young adults at Aspen Music School. I have no doubt that many of the children who are making their way through the Bach Double over here today, will be over there in the future!
I didn't think one could teach sautille (you know, fast spiccato) to a group of ten-year-olds, but Helen Brunner had a good trick for helping it along. She helped the kids find the “balance point” of their bows, which is the place best suited for a jumping bow. Most people initially think that the “balance point” of the bow is in the middle, but because of the weight of the frog, it is really more toward the lower half of the bow. To help kids find the “balance point,” she had them all put their violins down and hold out their left hands. Then, they balanced the bow stick on their three middle fingers, and the finger in the very middle ends up being exactly at the balance point. This should be the place in the bow that bounces best. It's a nice exercise, as the “balance point” is just a little bit different from bow to bow.
Another thing Helen talked about all week was the difference between “resonant notes” and “expressive notes” on the violin. This is something I was aware of, but never particularly good at describing to students: certain notes on the violin ring very nicely when they are perfectly in tune. If they even a fraction out of tune, they do not ring. The “resonant notes” on the violin are E, A, D and G, and when one plays any of those notes (say, a D played as a third finger on the A string), the corresponding open string will resonate in sympathy with the note. To play one of the “resonant notes” in tune, there is only a 2 mm margin of error for the finger. That means your finger has to be within a 2 mm area, or the note will not resonate; and it has implications for vibrato. Vibrato on a resonant note should be narrow enough to stay within that 2 mm area.
“Expressive notes” are all those notes that are not E, A, D and G. Expressive notes have a margin of error more like 5 mm, and so a wide vibrato can and should be used with these notes. The vibrato makes up for the fact that the notes (B, C, F, etc.) are not going to be vibrating in sympathy with any open strings.
She also talks about phrasing in terms of “the power of three.” In music, patterns and sequences are often given in threes which either increase or decrease in dynamic. “Dynamics” are less about volume than about energy level, so she describes the three energy levels as a “star” (far away, weaker light), “moon” and “sun,” which is the strongest. You can start with the star and increase to the sun, or the other way around.
Since we are learning pedagogy for quite a lot of Baroque music, she emphasized that there are only two basic “tempo” markings in Baroque music: Presto (fast) and Largo (slow). Other words that we tend to automatically think of as “tempo” markings are actually more expressive markings. For example, “Adagio” means “at ease;” “Allegro” means “happy,” “Andante” means “walking.”
Another fun trick was something she used for describing passages that repeat but have different endings. Very often in Bach, there are identical passages in different parts of the piece that end in different ways. But, because sections of the music repeat, the child may be confused if the teacher calls them the “first ending” and the “second ending.” (For example, the child may ask, “This is the fourth time, shouldn't it be the “fourth ending”?) So instead, Helen calls the first ending the “cat ending” and the second the “dog ending.” That way the labels work throughout the piece, and there can be several cat endings and dog endings without affecting some numbering system.
So there are a few tricks for you teachers, parents and students out there. I'm here another week, so I hope to share more. Happy teaching!
In the morning I make my way down the hill with my violin on my shoulder and a heavy pack on my back, filled with music, a music stand, an umbrella for the possiblility of afternoon rain, an extra sweater, a notebook, camera, etc. etc. Then at lunch I climb up the mountain for a class, then back down...I'm beat!
But it is all so worth it.
I've seen many violin lessons, but one particular one really moved me. On Wednesday I was observing a Suzuki Book 2 master class given by Michele George of Cleveland. What a fine teacher, she was so very clear about the instructions she gave both the students and the parents. She would find one thing to work on and make both the parent and student zero in on that one thing. For example, a little girl named Jenna was working on keeping her bow thumb bent, breaking a habit of having it straight.
“Your mom is going to get a stiff neck, looking at your thumb. And you can't get mad at her for telling you about your bow thumb,” Michele told Jenna. “But that is the only thing she is allowed to talk about. She can't talk about posture, just your thumb.”
And it is true, we violin teachers tend to overwhelm a student with corrections, making it hard for them to concentrate on one thing.
What really moved me, though, was watching her work with a girl named Amanda Ransom, who has Down's Syndrome. Her sister is Amelia, whom I mentioned yesterday.
Amanda was working on getting her second finger higher in all her pieces, and she started by playing Lightly Row, a piece in Book 1. I noticed right away that she had a nice, fluid bow wrist, and that the music flowed nicely from her. She skipped a little part of the song, but it was in a logical place, and she did it without interrupting the music. Also, her second finger was in just the right place, as her teacher had requested.
After Amanda played, I noticed that Michele didn't mention the little memory slip, she just had her play it again, this time with Michele playing the duet part. This time Amanda remembered the little part she had left out, with no prompting.
“She responds better to the harmony,” Michele observed to Amanda's dad.
Next came “O Come Little Children,” which Amanda played with the same fluidity and musicality, but she put in a lot of double up bows that were not in the score.
“When you learned 'O Come Little Children,' you didn't know how to do slurs,” Michele said, to her, “So no slurs in it now!”
Amanda laughed. She tried it again, and this time Michele mimed the proper bow in the air, right above Amanda's bow. She still did a double up-bow.
“You really like those double up bows!” Michele said. Amanda's dad conceded that the double ups were rather ingrained.
“We are going to clap when you get it right!” Michele said.
Then they tried doing it with the bow in the air, just singing along. Amanda was able to do it that way. Then they tried doing the bowing just on the E string, which was a struggle, but Amanda did it.
So she tried playing “O Come Little Children” again, and when she got to the place with the bowing problem, Michele said, “Up down up, down up down...” but Amanda played it with the double up again. So they tried it again on the E.
Finally, after much work, Amanda did it right! Everyone in the room clapped.
“You will probably have to do that 18 times to get that straight,” Michele told Amanda.
“Perfect!” Amanda smiled, “I am almost that age!”
That was the moment when my heart was suddenly in my throat. Eighteen? It came to me how hard her parents and her teachers had worked with her, how hard she herself had worked, and for how long.
Amanda Ransom with her mother
In this short violin lesson, Michele gave Amanda the ultimate respect: she demanded something of her. Then she worked to make it happen, and she worked with patience and persistence. She had faith in her progress, and then the progress came.
One item of news from the Colorado Suzuki Institute: after 12 years in Snowmass, the Institute will move next year to Estes Park, Colo.
This is the question Helen Brunner asked the three girls her Suzuki Book 7 repertoire class today.
I could almost see their eyes brighten and their pulses quicken. These may be 10- and 11-year-olds, but they are no ordinary kids. They know the value of an Amati! And they are among the few of us who understand it for its real value and not the number on its pricetag, though that is rather astounding as well!
Amelia Ransom was the first person to take the fiddle in hand, to play La Folia. After a few minutes, a smile crept across her face. It reminded me of meeting someone for the first time, someone whom everyone has told you is a wonderful person. You don't really know it until you introduce yourself and ask this person a question. When the person smiles at you and answers with the most amazing and unexpected response, then you know she is your friend!
Next came Kaelyn Quinn, who played the Rigadoun part of Kreisler's Sicilienne and Rigadoun. She's been playing it at lightning speed all week, and the Amati had no problem with this concept. The most amazing part to me, actually was the end, the way her effect of sweeping off the string and doing two pizzicati just sounded like something off a Heifetz recording!
“I want that violin!” Kaelyn said emphatically after tossing off those last notes.
Then Mia Buettner played the first movement of the Handel Sonata in F, which she had just worked on so effectively with Helen. It was so evident that she has a deep pool of musicality waiting to be tapped into, and Helen, in just three days, helped her iron out some rhythms, open up her vibrato and start following what Helen calls the “organic dynamics” of the piece. The Amati could show her even more about this, the way it responded to her.
All the while, Helen sat by the window, taking in the girls' playing. Helen is the type of teacher that does more than just look, she sees, and she does more than just listen, she hears.
I have this sneaking suspicion that, when she sold her estate to buy the Amati, she did not do it just to make herself sound fantastic all the time, or just for the shear pleasure of being able to play on such an instrument.
I have a feeling that she had just these kinds of moments in mind, that she wanted to use it as a way of showing children their potential.
Would you let a room full of 10-year-olds students play your Amati, if you had one?
She would. What a wonderful gift.
Later in the day, Helen did the same thing again with eight children in her Suzuki Book 7-8 repertoire class. They had been working on standing perfectly straight and producing a beautiful tone with their violins, playing the Chorus from Judas Maccabeus.
“Let's try it on this violin,” said Helen, handing her Amati to the first person in the line.
“Should I just breathe?” asked the girl.
“It's just a normal, 1683 Amati violin,” Helen assured her. With that came the girl's Chorus, after which she handed the violin to the person next to her. Helen did not even touch the violin, she just let them hand it to each other.
“I know it's a bit big, but just go for it Christopher,” she said. “And use the whole bow.”
“By the way, you wouldn't think of dropping it as you pass it from person to person, would you?” she said, smiling.
When every child in the room had taken a turn with the Amati, she had them all stand up to play together.
“Now,” she said. “Nine Amatis in the room!”
My second day at the Colorado Suzuki Institute in Snowmass started with a wonderful coincidence for me: a student whom I'd started on the violin some nine years ago just happened to be in Helen Brunner's repertoire class! I was trailing Helen all today because she is my pedagogy teacher for my Book 7 training course, and today was the first day of student classes.
My former student lives in Denver. I was terribly sad to leave her, and all my students, when I moved to California five years ago. I had not seen her since leaving!
The Nicole I knew was a cute little seven-year-old, with lots of curly blonde hair. She took to each piece very quickly, and she learned things so well that we could talk about musical ideas, even in Book 1 and 2.
The Nicole I saw this morning was a young woman, certainly as tall as me, maybe taller! And she played quite beautifully, with a lovely vibrato and ease in her technique. Even though I taught her for only a few years, I was quite proud.
I had known yesterday that I would see her, as I asked Helen to check her list. I had also shown Helen something that I'd carried around in my case ever since leaving Denver, a small yellow strip of paper, upon which a little girl had written in brown marker, “Best music teacher.” A shiny star she had glued onto it had fallen off a few years ago.
“Do you have the paper?” Helen asked me suddenly, at the end of today's class. I was a bit surprised, but I fished it out.
“Look at this,” she said to Nicole, “Do you remember that?” Nicole smiled. “I remember making this!” Well, of course I kept it, it meant a lot to me, coming from her!
Another class I observed was actually a lecture Helen gave for parents , “Sharing Responsibility.” Her main point was that a teacher should set the parameters for home practice, and a parent's role with a young Suzuki student is to keep those parameters in place. A parent should not, however, make up the parameters. For example, a parent should not decide that the child is ready for the next piece and go on. The parent also should not negotiate over the rules the teacher has set. For example, if a child want to sit while practicing even though the teacher has said he should stand, the parent should not negotiate this point. A teacher, in turn, must make the rules clear and explicit, and be willing to entertain the parent's concerns. Many times, it simply involves reiterating rules, to make it clear to the child that yes, the teacher wants him standing for practice.
During Helen's afternoon repertoire class, nine children traversed the long and tricky Bach A minor concerto first movement together. I find it rather difficult to work with a group on such a long and tricky piece, but Helen had the right idea: keep it simple. After they had played the whole piece, she explained that she wanted longer and better crescendos. To achieve this, she had everyone sit on the floor.
“I'd like you all to count to eight,” she told them. They all counted to eight, in the usual classroom-type chant. Then she told them to count to eight but to make a crescendo, starting with a barely audible, “one,” and going all the way to shouting at the top of their lungs for “EIGHT!” They then started quite softly, but did not make it all the way to the loud eight. Also, their “five, six, seven” all sounded the same volume.
She then asked each student to try it individually. As soon as they said two numbers at the same volume, without a crescendo, she cut them off, “No, your four and five were the same,” and she'd point to the next student. I was watching at the side of the class, so I was a bit startled when she turned to me and said, “Laurie? Let's hear you do it.” Wow, this was harder than I thought! I was determined to do it, though, which meant I was shouting at the top of my lungs by the end.
When the students stood up and played again, they paid much greater attention to their crescendos, watching Helen for clues, but with a greater understanding that they could take something like a crescendo to another level. And that is such a big part of being a teacher: it's not completely about getting it right, now, but it's also about showing students the possibilities. It's about making them interested in and excited about delving in deeper.
Helen, of London, is my Suzuki pedagogy teacher for the next week. I can already say that I adore her.
I do not know if everything in her life just happens to be amazing, or perhaps it is more her knack for finding meaning in things. She is absolutely spellbinding, and I think is is because she so deeply appreciates every person, every happy coincidence, every point of inspiration in her life. Then she takes all this and gives it to the people around her.
Helen went to Juilliard in the 1960s, then became deeply interested in Shinichi Suzuki's philosophy after seeing a film about the way he taught, his idea that children can be taught violin in the way that they learn language, and that this process can be loving and nurturing.
She wanted this kind of experience for her four children, who were born four years in a row and were all under five. She looked and looked and looked for a Suzuki teacher in London. Or even someone who might be willing to become a Suzuki teacher in London. Then when she was on a plane, she had a realization: “*I* am the person I am looking for!”
She took it upon herself to bring Suzuki to London, personally inviting Suzuki greats such as John Kendall and Kenneth Starr to come teach, train, and even stay at her house all the while.
When her children were old enough, and she went to meet Shinichi Suzuki himself, he recognized for the missionary she was. The first thing he said to her was, “What took you so long?” She told him she had four children. “Okay,” he said, “You get a 50 percent discount!”
Helen's passion for this philosophy lies in the fact that she understands Shinichi Suzuki's greater vision for his work. It was not about making little kids play the Vivaldi Concerto a certain rigid way, it was not about getting a lot of teachers to buy into his “system” of graded books. Suzuki's philosophy was, and is, about bringing beauty into people's lives, and doing it in a meaningful way. It is about making children fluent in something beautiful, something with higher meaning, so that they could draw on it for the rest of their lives. He truly, and profoundly, believed that music could save us all, could help us learn peace.
“Many people say Suzuki was a genius,” Helen said to us today, “But personally, I think he was a saint.”
It sounds like an extreme statement, but not if you understand the way Suzuki felt about music. And music truly is at the core of our existence. Helen talked about having played for her brother's funeral, then playing the exact same piece at a friend's wedding.
“Even the same piece of music is used for the greatest grief and the greatest celebration,” she said.
The power to bring that music to people is indeed something that is worth all the insanity we go through, as students, as parents, as teachers, and as performers. Really, it's quite amazing!
This is the third year I've attended this Institute, to study one of the 10 Suzuki books so that I will be able to relate the techniques therein better to my students. It's always a shot in the arm, to see so many gifted teachers, students, parents, and aspiring teachers in one place.
Everything starts tomorrow, so I'll keep you updated!
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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