What is the Suzuki Method? As a Suzuki teacher for about 20 years, as well as the editor of Violinist.com for the past 15, I have tried to make this guide to the Suzuki Method both simple and comprehensive, to help you understand the Suzuki Method and have access to more information about it.
The popular 'Suzuki Method' grew from the educational philosophy of Shin'ichi Suzuki (1898-1998), born in Nagoya, Japan. He was one of 12 children, and his father owned a violin factory. Shin'ichi began playing the violin at age 17. In his early 20s, he studied with violinist Karl Klingler in Germany, where he met his wife Waltrud, who also was German. His struggle to learn to speak German gave him the idea that sparked his philosophy of teaching: that every child easily learns his or her native language.
Suzuki's "Mother Tongue" approach to teaching music builds on the principles of language acquisition. Those principals include an early beginning, listening, loving encouragement, parental support, constant repetition, learning with other children and then learning to read. Because all children learn and master their own language, Suzuki believed all children could learn and master music in the same way. He sometimes called this "Talent Education," meaning that musical talent is not inborn, but can be developed in everyone. He personally taught hundreds of students, including many with disabilities. He also toured the world with his very large group of extremely accomplished and young violin students, and music teachers - profoundly amazed with his accomplishments - begged him to share his methods.
Suzuki called his method a "philosophy" and not a method; saying teachers must all devise their own methods. Suzuki began by teaching the violin, then his "philosophy" grew to encompass viola, cello, bass, flute, guitar, harp, piano, organ, voice, recorder and early childhood education.
The fact that Shin'ichi Suzuki lived through the horrors of World War II in Japan might account for his sense of higher purpose in teaching children to play the violin: "Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens, noble human beings. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets beautiful heart."
Being a Suzuki Student or Parent
It's a big commitment. Students begin very young, usually at a pre-school age. Parents also must attend the children's lessons so that they can supervise home practice every day. Some parents take separate violin lessons themselves, to learn at least how to hold the violin themselves and to play the "Twinkle Variations." As the student ages and progresses, the parent's obligations dwindle until the child takes the reins and the parent no longer needs to attend.
Students typically take weekly lessons from a private teacher, who often starts students with a cardboard violin to learn how to handle and hold the instrument before playing it. At some point you'll have to rent or buy (or borrow, beg or steal...) a violin. I recommend that you wait to ask your teacher to help you procure a good-sounding violin that will serve you well. Buying a violin by yourself on eBay can cause you major grief.
Also, students will need to listen to recordings of the music they learn, so be prepared to listen to the Suzuki recordings many, many, many times: in the car, at breakfast, after school -- and for long after the point when you'd like to chuck them into a dumpster. (Please don't tell your child you want to chuck any of their music into the dumpster.)
There are 10 Suzuki books, and it takes many years to work through them all. The last two books are Mozart concerti, and by then, it's likely that the teacher has the student on a much wider path that involves other pieces in the violin repertoire. Most Suzuki teachers supplement the books with other things like scale books, etude books, other pieces from genres of interest to the student (pop, fiddle, Celtic, klezmer, you name it), exercises and more. Suzuki students don't start to learn to read music until they have learned to hold the instrument well and have developed a good ear. Then they typically learn to read very well.
Suzuki music students also are expected to take regular group lessons. Usually, several Suzuki teachers pool their students together to create groups of children at the a similar playing level. Those teachers teach group class, having the children play together, learn to follow a leader, play music games and review music they know. Usually there is a "recital" time where kids can play individually with a piano accompanist. Depending on the group, group class may be once a week, or a few times a month.
In the summer, you can find Suzuki Institutes all over the world. Institutes are like music camps where the parents come along. Students have lessons, group classes, fun activities, and meet a wider group of children who also are learning to play.
Why Are We Doing All This?
There are some good reasons for the big commitment the Suzuki Method asks. Once you see the big picture, all the detail makes a lot more sense. So here's the big picture:
Early Beginning: Children are especially open to learning new mental processes and physical skills when they are very young. Children are especially attuned to sound during their years of language acquisition (primarily birth through age 5), so this is an ideal time to start developing sensitivity to music as well. That process can begin at birth, and programs like Music Together and Kindermusik are excellent for giving babies (and parents!) a thoughtful and happy start in music of a wide range, before they start an instrument. Can older children and adult students learn the Suzuki way? Certainly, just like an older student or adult can learn to speak French. A good Suzuki teacher will have the creativity to apply the Suzuki philosophy in a way that is appropriate for an adult.
Pace: "Start young, go slow, and don't stop!" is another Suzuki saying. Children go at their own, individual pace. The Suzuki way is thorough, challenging, but not pushy, and certainly not abusive. Parents should never measure their child's progress by their book level or their peers. Focus on the details of making beautiful music at every stage, and the progress will come.
Parent Involvement: Just as a parent models correct speaking during language learning, the Suzuki parent guides music practice every day at home, encouraging and motivating in a positive way. To do so, the parent must attend each lesson and actively take notes. Parent lessons on the violin are optional, but recommended for the parent with no familiarity with the instrument. A half-dozen parent lessons in the beginning can be helpful for home practice, as the parent learns the basics of playing and correct posture. A small child cannot be expected to practice on their own until age eight or older, depending on the maturity of the child. As the child progresses, parent involvement evolves into a less active and more supporting role, until the child is playing and practicing on his or her own as a teenager.
Environment and Listening: Children learn to understand speech and to speak in an environment saturated with language. In the same way, music must be part of a child's environment if he or she is to learn to understand and play music. Students listen frequently to recordings of the music they will be learning to play. The more music is a part of the entire family's enjoyment, the better.
Repetition: In learning to speak, children learn a word and then use it many, many times. It becomes part of their vocabulary, and a building block for their communication. Similarly, children continue to play their "old" Suzuki songs long after they first learned them, so that they become part of their musical vocabulary. "Old" pieces are used to teach new skills.
Group Lessons: Children practice their language skills by talking with friends their age. In the same way, children can develop their musical skills by playing with other children who are playing the same music. Group lessons build motivation and community, as children see other students' accomplishments and make new friends.
Whole Person: Shin'ichi Suzuki felt a higher purpose in teaching music, and that rubbed off on a lot of us Suzuki teachers. Some of the other things we try to instill while teaching "Twinkle" and trying to get kids to hold their fiddles higher than their belly buttons include: confidence, love of learning, goal-setting, perseverance, team work, memorization abilities, improved concentration, coordination, appreciation of others, and more.
Finding a Suzuki Violin Teacher
The Suzuki Association of the Americas grants certificates to teachers who have completed teacher training for each of the 10 Suzuki books. Visit the Suzuki Association of Americas Teacher Finder, which lists registered Suzuki teachers and their levels of training.
If you'd like some perspective when selecting a Suzuki violin teacher, please take a look at one of our Violinist.com readers' advice on How to Find a Great Music Teacher For Your Child, as well as Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles' blog entry, What I've learned from 'Suzuki'. Music teachers and students on Violinist.com also have debated Traditional vs. Suzuki: Which works better?
Suzuki Music Teachers and Teacher-Trainers
Here are some Violinist.com blogs from the past 10 years about some of the world's greatest Suzuki teachers and pedagogues:
Barbara Barber is a teacher, violinist, pedagogue, and editor of the Solos for Young Violinists series of supplemental pieces to the Suzuki method. A teacher for more than 35 years, she currently teaches in Estes Park and Longmont, Colorado.
Mark Bjork is a Professor of Violin and Pedagogy at the University of Minnesota School of Music. In 1967 he started one of the first Suzuki programs in the United States at the MacPhail Center For The Arts, which was part of the University of Minnesota at the time.
Helen Brunner studied with Shin'ichi Suzuki and brought the Suzuki method to England. She is a Suzuki teacher trainer and teaches in London and owns an Amati that she bought by selling her family home. She teaches in London.
Teri Einfeldt, a teacher of nearly 40 years, is a registered teacher trainer and chairman of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. She studied the Suzuki method with Shin'ichi Suzuki, William Starr and John Kendall and is on faculty at the Hartt School.
Cathy Lee studied with Shin'ichi Suzuki over a period of 10 years in the 1970s. She is a Suzuki teacher trainer and teaches in Santa Rosa, California.
Brian Lewis grew up with Suzuki, as part of the Ottawa (Kansas) Suzuki Strings program under the direction of his mother, Alice Joy Lewis. A graduate of The Juilliard School, he is artistic director of the biennial Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard and visiting professor at the Yale School of Music.
John D. Kendall brought the Suzuki Method to the United States of America, translating the ideas of Shin'ichi Suzuki into American culture and helping spread its popularity around the country.
James Maurer is a Suzuki teacher trainer who taught violin for 35 years at the Lamont School of Music in Denver, Colorado. He was Founder and Director the Denver Suzuki Institute and the Denver Talent Education Program, served on the SAA Board of Directors, was Secretary of the ISA, and President of the Suzuki Association of Colorado.
Nicolette Solomon is a native of South Africa who studied with Shin'ichi Suzuki at the Talent Education Research Institute in Matsumoto, Japan in 1992. She is President and Executive Director of the Suzuki Institute of Dallas.
William Starr took his entire family to Japan in the 1960s to study with Shin'ichi Suzuki. All eight of Starr's children studied instruments, using the Suzuki Method. A violin teacher and writer of many books and arrangements, he was a close friend of Suzuki's and spoke at his Memorial Service in 1998.
Canadian violinist Lara St. John and French harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet have re-cast five of Bach's violin/flute/harpsichord sonatas as ideal vehicles for violin and harp in their new recording, Bach Sonatas, which was released last week on Lara's Ancalagon label.
"Unlike Beethoven, where you really wouldn't want to hear one of his violin and piano sonatas on, say, marimba, Bach seems to transcend instrumentation," Lara said. "In Bach's time, soprano instruments like violin and flute were pretty interchangeable. Even in Mozart's time, he would write for 'flute or violin.' Bach himself was constantly transcribing his own compositions."
Harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, left, and violinist Lara St. John
Lara and Marie-Pierre, who is principal harpist for the Berlin Philharmonic, will kick off a series of live performances of the Bach Sonatas and other works with a concert this Sunday in New Jersey. They are calling it their Harpolin Tour, and other stops will include Boston; Le Poisson Rouge in New York; the Apple Store in New York; Chicago; and Ontario.
But harp? How did that come about? It all had to do with two longtime friends with a penchant for experimental sight-reading sessions.
"I've known Marie-Pierre for years and years, because we were at school together at Curtis Institute," Lara said. "She's an amazing sight-reader on the harp. I remember up on the third floor at Curtis, getting a big score and going through 'The Magic Flute,' all of us singing different parts. Somebody might have a bassoon, somebody might have a violin, so we'd all kind of play whatever parts we felt like. We sort of learned Mozart operas with harp, bassoon, violin and a little bit of bad singing." (she laughs)
Following her studies, Marie-Pierre played at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, then moved to Berlin in 1993.
"We kept in touch all these decades," Lara said. Lara looked up Marie-Pierre when she was visiting Berlin about four or five years ago. "I had the fiddle with me, and so she said, 'Let's read some stuff!' And I said, 'What, Magic Flute again?' (she laughs) and she said, 'No no no, how about some of the violin sonatas, they're so nice…'"
They were more than just nice.
"For for me it was revelatory," Lara said. "I'm a huge Bach fan, and for some reason, those sonatas had always been elusive. I had never felt very close to them. Of course I know the Glenn Gould-Jaime Laredo recording, but they never quite struck the same way other Bach does for me. I had read them all with various pianists at various times, and for one reason or another, I never actually programmed them."
When she heard the sonatas with harp, that all changed. "Somehow, especially hearing that E major with harp, I thought, this is my favorite Bach I've ever heard! It's a very, very different sound."
They are different compared to piano, and they are different compared to harpsichord. "The other day, out of curiosity, I compared our harp E major and B minor with a recording with harpsichord," Lara said. The harpsichord's mono-dynamic sound was strikingly different than the touch of the harp. "It almost sounds evil with harpsichord. With the touch of the harp -- every note is not the same, so a lot more nuance is possible. And it's softer, but it's so much more beautiful, and I think a lot more comes through with the harp than with the harpsichord.
"Obviously, it's written for keyboard; a pedal harp didn't exist in Bach's time," Lara said, "so he wasn't writing with any of those technical requirements in mind. Of course, he never did write with anyone's technical requirements in mind! But that's why we chose these particular sonatas, because they are note-for-note, exactly what was written."
For this recording, they chose Bach's sonatas for violin and harpsichord in B minor (BWV 1014) and E major (BWV 1016) as well as his sonatas for flute and harpsichord in G minor (BWV 1020); B minor (BWV 1030) and E flat major (BWV 1031).
Had they chosen some of the other violin sonatas, "They're so involved, and so contrapuntal, that it is not actually physically possible on the harp. In the ones that we chose, she didn't have to change a note. So they're not transcriptions."
"I can't imagine anybody else being able to do this, because it's incredibly difficult," Lara said of the harp-as-harpsichord part. "If you talk to a harpist about Marie-Pierre, they get down on their knees and start praying. She's an amazing musician -- kind of a harp goddess!"
And how about the violin part, what kinds of things did Lara have to do differently, to pull this off with harp?
"With harp, basically you have to start your diminuendos a little earlier, and start your crescendos a little later. There's a certain sensitivity that a violinist needs to have, as I learned, with harp, that you don't need with piano. It's not the same instrument. It's a lot more delicate," Lara said. "We spent mornings recording this at Teldex, in Berlin, and on the very last morning, we finished our recording around 11 a.m. For about 10 seconds I just had to play fortissimo!" she laughed. Playing with harp was difficult, in that it required much restraint. "I'm not a particularly restrained person, so learning that kind of restraint -- like speaking softly -- was a new experience. I think it was good for me."
I've found something that's possibly more addictive than coffee or even Facebook: Ancestry.com.
Yes, I've been digging around in the family history. By the way, I've found I'm unofficially a Daughter of the American Revolution on my mother's side. But that's not the line that interests me. I want the scoop on my German great-grandparents on my father's side, Marie Ungar and Albert A. Geiger, whose parents came to America from Germany on a boat in the late 19th century. Marie and Albert married, had my grandmother and her brother, then both promptly died, leaving their children orphans. My grandmother was three.
Their uncle's family took them in; but though they adopted the brother, they did not give my grandmother their name, because she was a girl. Gertrude would marry and take another name, so what did it matter? She remained a "Geiger" until she met my Irish grandfather and became a "Noonan," but the whole naming business remained a source of bitterness.
They took care of her, though, and they did give her something from her father: the violin that his family, the Geigers, had brought over on the boat.
Me, and my grandmother
Very little did I know of all this, when I was a little girl. I found that violin in the attic in my grandparents' Rocky River, Ohio, home. Everything in the attic smelled of mothballs, and in the summer, it was a good 20 degrees hotter in there than in the rest of the house. I wasn't really looking for a violin that day; I was looking for dress-up clothes. I looked at the violin with interest, then forgot about it when I spotted a promising-looking trunk, which turned up some shiny red and purple leotards.
I started playing the violin later, when I was nearly nine, exactly on this date, Feb. 18, 35 years ago. I lived in Aurora, Colorado, far from my grandmother. A girl named Sarah had come to play for my fourth-grade class -- she was helping the recruiting efforts of our school music teacher, Linda Walker, who was hoping to build a stronger strings program. I saw the violin, heard it, and knew immediately that I could do it, that I had to do it. As a matter of fact, I was dying to do it. My mother said no, I was going to learn to play the piano.
"But Mom, we don't have a piano!"
"Good point," she said. "Okay."
So I started with Mrs. Walker and two other kids, one named Melanie, who said, "Today is my birthday!" Every year thereafter, through our senior year in high school, we remembered that we'd started violin on her birthday. (BTW, happy birthday, Melanie!)
Eventually I grew to need a full-sized violin, and we bought a very awful one at a local music store, an off-year Roth. I didn't quite know how bad it was, I was too busy playing it.
Soon thereafter, my Ohio grandparents made a great pilgrimage to visit us in Colorado. They actually drove across the country (and the speed limit was 55 mph!). With more ceremony than I could understand, they gave me that violin from Germany -- my grandmother's violin, from her parents. They'd had it restored it at a shop in Cleveland -- in Cleveland they know what to do with a fiddle. The violin sounded nice, so much nicer than what I'd had! It was not a fancy fiddle, and it had no pedigree; it was a German factory fiddle. But it responded to me easily, and well. I used it for many years, all the way through college.
And I still didn't know the story! I knew vaguely that the fiddle had come over from Germany on the boat, with my great-grandparents - the Geigers.
"Really, 'Geiger'?" a friend said, years later, when I was in graduate school at Indiana.
"Yeah," I said. "Maybe the Germans gave me my musical talent, because no one in my family is a musician."
"Are you sure?" my friend asked. "You know the word 'Geiger' in German means 'violinist,' or 'violin maker,' right?"
"It does? No way!"
It does! I confronted my grandmother with this. Why didn't she ever tell me what her name meant?
"It wasn't my name any more," she said with a feeble smile. I suppose her name meant many painful things to her. But for me, it meant that she gave me something. I started playing the violin 35 years ago today, but it's clear to me, it started long before that.
During a rehearsal Wednesday in Caracas, Venezuela, even conductor Gustavo Dudamel was a little awed by the numbers onstage for Mahler 8 at the Teatro Teresa Carreno, said the LA Times. Though the eighth symphony by Gustav Mahler is known as the "Symphony of 1,000," this production is looking like the "Symphony of 1,400."
I, for one, will be watching the concert from a movie theatre in California, sharing popcorn with my son, Brian, 11, who sang in the Los Angeles incarnation of this event two weeks ago at the Shrine Auditorium.
The Caracas performance is being broadcast live in movie theaters Saturday, so if you are in the United States or Canada, you likely can go see it, too, just go to this page and enter your zip code to find a nearby theatre. You can buy the tickets right there online.
Performers include students (some as young as 7) from Venezuela's El Sistema núcleo music schools in all 17 states of Venezuela; two professional choirs from Caracas, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Looks like there will also be a little intro that explains "El Sistema" before the concert begins.
I'm not going to take notes or write a word about it. If you want to see it, go see it! Here's your invitation, straight from Gustavo:
Once, I was young and madly in love -- with the Bach Double. Sadly, I had a hard time finding anyone who had either the skill or will to play it with me. When my parents gave me a nifty, new-fangled cassette tape recorder for Christmas, it took me a while to understand the implications of this technology, but soon enough, I realized: if I recorded the second violin part, I could play the first part, with myself!
Anne Akiko Meyers has taken this idea to an entirely new level: She, too, has recorded the Bach Double with herself, but with the two Stradivari violins she owns, along with the English Chamber Orchestra, Steven Mercurio conducting. It's all part of her newest album, released Valentine's Day, Air: the Bach Album, which also includes Bach Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; "Air" from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D; the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria"; and "Largo" from Concerto for Harpsichord in F m.
You did hear me correctly, Anne, whose recent recordings include Seasons…Dreams and Smile, does own two Stradivaris. About a year ago she acquired the 1697 "ex-Molitar/Napoleon" Strad (for a record price of $3.6 million). She has owned the 1730 "Royal Spanish" Strad since about 2006. At this point, she's planning to keep them both.
"Since I acquired 'Molly,' or the 'ex-Molitor/Napolean' Strad, a lot of people were asking what the differences were between the tone of the two Strads that I own. They really wanted to hear them in concert together," said Anne, when we spoke over the phone last Thursday. "I started to think of what composition would be suitable for this, and then we started to think about Bach, and I thought, how ideal, to record the Bach Double, and to do both parts, which no one has done on two different violins. So it was a very novel idea, on a piece that has been played so much."
So which fiddle stars in which role?
"It was a very easy choice for me, deciding which violin went to which part, because the 'Royal' has a little more masculine kind of sound and is a dark -- tall, dark and handsome man!" she laughed. "The first violin part has so much in the upper register; it really captures the sonorities and overtones in Molly so exquisitely. I really wanted to make sure that it sounded like two different people, too. After I recorded it, I later found the Heifetz recording. I think that the big mistake there was that he was using the same violin, and he also sounded exactly identical in both parts."
Anne said she definitely thinks of "Molly" in the feminine. "She's very responsive, but she's also very pure. And I think there's this cleanliness in the sound that carries over so exquisitely with Bach and Mozart."
In preparation for making an all-Bach album, Anne said she "bathed her soul in Bach," studying authentic ornamentation, tempi and dynamics.
If you strip down all the practices that have evolved around Bach and focus on Bach's manuscript, or the urtext, there's actually a lot of room for interpretation.
"I've studied Bach's markings and realized that there are no dynamics and no tempi markings, and every edition is different," Anne said. "I went back to the Henle edition and realized a lot of people were playing wrong notes, and wrong slurs, which make up the articulations. When you take all these things away, it takes the intimidation away. Nobody truly knows how it sounded back when he composed these pieces -- in a coffee shop! He played the violin concertos in a coffee shop, weekly. That was his getaway. After fathering 20 children, I really don't blame him!"
"A lot of people try to intellectualize Bach, and that's a big problem -- you're looking for a kind of scientific structure to guide you to perform Bach," Anne said. "when you strip that away and you look at the actual music and how it makes you feel, it's just a very profound music, and very original in its style. You can easily speak, and let it breathe."
I asked Anne to share thoughts on what it's like to play a Strad, long-term, in light of the recently-published double-blind violin sound test (that I participated in) in which violinists rated new violins and old ones about the same, based on a short-term test in a hotel room.
"I think there's such a mystique with Strad -- and for a reason," Anne said. "He was a master craftsman, and (Stradivari violins are) so refined. It takes a special kind of technique to understand how to sculpt the sound and to bring it out. I think very few people actually get the opportunity to put a Strad under their chin, let alone spend enough time with it to figure it out, because it does take time. It doesn't play itself; it needs finessing.
"It's like a novel that you were so impressed with and that you return to years later. We all are changing human beings as well, and so what we bring to the instrument changes, as well," Anne said. "I really truly believe that each violin is like a different entity, a different personality, a different soul. It takes time to discover how to finesse that soul, to make it shine and soar as much as possible, in a hall. When you meet anybody, it's impossible to say, 'I know them, they are like A, B, C and D, and this is exactly what you do to make them laugh, to make them cry, to make them angry' -- it's the same thing with the violin! You could spent the rest of your life just discovering, and exploring the depths of a violin. Also, it's just incredible to know the provenance and the history attached to a violin, that a violin has survived longer than we have -- over 300 years! And I can count on one hand, who's owned it. There's something really special about that."
And modern instruments?
"I think violins, in general, need to be broken in, especially when you're in concert mode," Anne said. "Modern violins don't have the history of somebody playing it for a long time, so it can feel like a new sound for quite a while. It just needs to be broken in. With the Strads and Guarneris, you've had 300 years of amateurs and collectors and professionals and people who have really worked on it. I think that the wood is very, very different. I also think there's something about the wood having gone through a cold temperature change on earth. All these things really do make a difference."
Here's another bit of news from Anne: she is expecting her second daughter, due to arrive in early March.
Anne's daughter, Natalie, is 19 months old, and she said she's really enjoyed traveling with her whole family when she performs.
"It's so enriching to be able to do what I really love and then travel with my family and do it together," Anne said. "For decades, I was traveling by myself -- every lonely hotel room and symphony orchestra around the globe! It was great, but so different now. Your priorities completely shift. I feel so thankful, to be able to laugh every single day with something that my daughter does. She loves music so much -- she has a little 1/100-size violin," Anne laughed, "She loves to bang the heck out of! It's super adorable. I highly recommend having children and continuing with your concertizing as much as ever."
"Sleep schedules and things like that just go out the window, unfortunately," Anne said. "You have to be very adaptable, very flexible. It's like being a musician - you just never know what's going to be thrown at you, and so it just builds experience."
Here is Anne, playing the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria" on the "ex-Molitor/Napolean" Strad in Feb. 2011, with pianist Reiko Uchida.
The winners of the 2012 Sphinx Competition in Detroit were announced Sunday, following the Finals for the Senior Division at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. The finals had to be moved at the last minute from Detroit's Max Fisher Music Center, where an explosion on Sunday morning closed the venue.
Congratulations to all participants!
My dear friend, Arlette, who is exactly as young as I am, said it best: "Ah, Whitney-you were the queen of our prom! The angel choir just received a new diva!! May you get all the solos!"
Troubled lady, but here was one of her finest moments, at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 (go to :35 to get straight to the song):
And here's pop violinist, Vanessa Mae, with "I Will Always Love You," which seems a fair tribute.
In other news today: An explosion has closed Detroit's Max Fisher Music Center, and so today's Sphinx Competition Finals had to be moved. They will be held at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor at 2 PM.
Earlier this week, Ade Williams took first place in the junior division of the Sphinx Competition. Congratulations!
"Is Mahler 8 now your favorite Mahler symphony?" asked my son, Brian, 11, after performing Saturday night with 1,027 people on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium, including conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, seven soloists and 16 choirs.
I don't know about mine, but I'm pretty sure it's his favorite symphony now. He and his friends in the Los Angeles Children's Chorus spent some 40 hours in the week before the concert, rehearsing and performing this piece. The kids started learning their parts months ago, with the help of their director Anne Tomlinson.
The first movement is in Latin, the second movement is in German, but first they learned it all in solfege. They attended rehearsals at six different venues all over town, arranged their schoolwork around rehearsals, rode in carpools and generally worked very hard. After the concert, they were downright euphoric.
Sitting among 4,700 audience members, realizing that many of them were in some way related to the 1,000+ people on stage for this event, I had a little revelation about how you attract a crowd to a concert, and about how you create a fan of symphonic music. It's quite simple -- and profoundly complex: ask 1,000 to share the stage, then invite everyone involved to come to the concert.
Photo by Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging - Courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic
In the audience I noticed parents of young singers; spouses and friends and children of older singers; music teachers; administrators from all the organizations, regular symphony-goers; and the list goes on. On the stage were 1,027 who will never forget the experience, and who will always feel a connection to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was a tremendous endeavor for every singer, every instrumentalist, for the 91 musicians who traveled here from Venezuela to play, for the music directors, for all those behind the scenes who booked all the venues, raised the money -- for the that lady who decided where every singer would stand, for the librarian... Good heavens, it boggles the mind!
But classical music isn't "easy," it never will be, and no marketing department can make it so. Do you want an audience? Do you want music in your community? You will have to work, and so will they, and then you'll get the most devoted audience you can find. Music brings together a community like nothing else, and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra director Gustavo Dudamel knows this.
Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging - Courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic
Dudamel grew up as part of Venezuela's El Sistema, started in 1975 as a social program to help underprivileged youth. It now includes 125 youth orchestras as well as a system of music schools that teach 250,000 children. Though this was Dudamel's first time conducting the "Symphony of 1,000," as Mahler's 8th is called, it certainly was not his first time conducting a humongous orchestra.
How was the performance? Mahler 8 has only two movements. Based on the Latin hymn "Veni creator spiritus," the first movement blasts into being: organ, voices, brass, strings -- nearly all forces go full-forward from the first measure. Sitting on the ground floor, almost under the stage, I felt that a lot of the sound, and the diction, was flying over my head. It was hard to keep track of such a wash of noise.
I was relieved with the arrival of the second movement, which Mahler based on the closing scene of Goethe's "Faust." It builds more slowly, and I could better grasp the depth of volume created by all these voices and instruments. For example, there were about 45 violins -- it makes for such a deep quiet, when they play quietly, and then they can unleash so much power! Each section played well as one, even in this muddy hall. (No vibrations in these floors!)
I enjoyed the way the members of the LA Phil mixed with the members of the SBSOV -- young and old, male and female, Venezuelan and melting-pot Californian.
Martin Chalifour and Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela Concertmaster Alejandro Carreño. Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging - Courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic
Musicians from both orchestras took leading roles for this performance: Martin Chalifour of the LA Phil was concertmaster, Moises Medina of the SBSOV was Principal Second Violin; Carrie Dennis of the LA Phil was Principal Viola; and Edgar Caldero of the SBSOV was Principal Cello.
As the second movement progressed passed the instrumental introduction, the choir entered quietly, syllable by syllable. I enjoyed the soloists most when they sang on their own; baritone Brian Mulligan was riveting; bass Alexander Vinogradov sang his heart out, with turbulent violins underneath; Burkhard Fritz's well-supported and beautiful voice hit the high notes during an extended solo.
The appearance of Swedish mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant, was so theatrical, alone in the dark balcony on the right, up-lit and glowing gold, like Tinkerbell without wings. As she sang the words, "rise up to higher spheres..." and I half-expected her to levitate!
From the stage, sopranos Julianna di Giacomo and Manuela Uhl sang Mahler's impossibly high notes, with the whole choir growing in volume behind, and everything rising. The choir burst forth in unison, backed by the organ. From the other balcony, a choir of brass instruments blasted, back on stage cymbals chimed, organ, trumpet -- so much sound!
The music stopped and the applause went on for 15 minutes. The person behind me said, "We pulled it off!" No doubt, thousands of people thought the same.
The Seventh Symphony by Gustav Mahler may be the least-frequently played of his nine symphonies, but it also might be the most-famously quoted and imitated by composers.
For example: I'm pretty sure I heard the Starship Enterprise, a very brief appearance by Darth Vader, and even Harry Potter's owl, Hedwig.
I wondered, listening from my 21st century perspective, how this must have sounded to audiences of 1905 -- before the incredible century that brought us airplanes, space travel, Vulcans, George Lucas and J.K. Rowling. Then I realized, everything I was hearing materialized in Mahler's head first.
Whether he meant to reference space or not, Mahler's first movement certainly begins on the ground and then rockets very high, and the energetic Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, playing under conductor Gustavo Dudamel (conducting once again with no score) made it an exciting ride.
The Star Trek motif (skipping upward on three consecutive fourths, geek friends) begins about halfway through the first movement and leads into a shimmery ascent into some really high notes for violin, trumpet, and the rest. It climbs far past the point where it feels it should, then poof! Back to earth, with some of the lower instruments of the orchestra: trombones and lower strings.
Two movements of this symphony are called "Nachtmusik," or as we know from Mozart's famous quartet by the same name, "night music." The first of these, the second movement, is supposed to depict nature at night, a walk in the dark. It begins with horns and woodwinds - fluttering flutes and scurrying woodwinds, accelerating into a horn call. Listening carefully, a little shadow that one day grows into Darth Vader's theme appears, at least for a very brief time. Dudamel cued musicians with a look here and a raised eyebrow there during the more subdued passages. The oboes stood out with their animated and articulate section solos, and the principal cellos played a nice duet. More than once, a melody refuses to be a melody; it drifts off in another direction before it seems finished with what it has to say.
And now for Harry Potter's owl; I'm not talking about the chime-y celeste that plays Hedwig's theme; that's nowhere to be heard. Instead, I'm talking about the bat-out-of-hell violin nightmare (go to 0:42 in this video) that seems more about flying in circles so fast you lose your feathers. Mahler's runaway-train triplets sound a lot like this, traded around the string section so adeptly by the members of the SBSO. Hats off to principal violist Ismel Campos for making our over-sized cousin-of-the-violin look as easy to drive as a tricked-out-Audi -- his solos were fluid and well-placed.
The fourth-movement "Nachtmusik" seems more of a human drama than a woodland one, with more coherent lines and even a guitar and mandolin, played on this night by two members of the cello section. Before the concert, lecturer Marilyn McCoy mentioned that Symphony No. 7 starts with some experimental harmonies but gets more traditional with each movement. Indeed, the fifth and last movement is grand and final-sounding, harmonically non-complex and resolved. Nonetheless it's kind of a madhouse of sound, and Dudamel looked like a happy kid, playing with his favorite toy. Oboes were raised, every bow was moving, there were bells and brass: a swirl of major-key sound. In the end, it's just plain loud, bells up, bells going, a huge roar.
Stupendous! Dudamel conducts a violin-playing sheep, percussion-playing octopus and a choir of penguins on Sesame Street.
Perhaps the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela are rubbing off on each other over their two-month collaboration, playing all 10 symphonies by Gustav Mahler for The Mahler Project.
Could it be that the LA Phil is catching some youthful energy, watching and rehearsing with their Venezuelan counterparts? Are the young Venezuelan musicians tapping into the seasoned poise and elegance of the LA Phil musicians?
Whether the collaboration is energizing these groups or not, the LA Phil played the heck out of Mahler 9 Thursday night at Disney Hall. I would say that they held back nothing, but that's not quite accurate. When the music called for passion and fire, they pushed their energy and instruments to the extreme. When it called for the quietest restraint, they showed exquisite control.
Making all these calls, of course, was LA Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, channeling so many forces of sound into a single point of energy -- and conducting without a score.
The mature Mahler, writing this music only months before his own death, entrusted the first gorgeous and gentle melody of Symphony No. 9 to -- who else? the second violins, who repeatedly land in the spotlight throughout this piece. It's a beautiful, fluid melody, sunshine with no shadow. The first violins enter on a soft pillow of sound. No way can this last! It wanders into the dark shadows, as it must in Mahler. We hear quotes from past Mahler Symphonies, building to a tragic climax, with so much sound -- then it coasts back into joy.
At times this movement seems like a taffy pull -- push, pull, push, pull, all in a big sticky mass.
Something one notices, when watching this symphony unfold live, is the dazzling array of instruments called upon to create even the smallest passing effect. For example, after an enormous climax of wailing sound, the music dwindles. Under Dudamel, it dwindles all the way to a silent pause, brought there by way of the lowest strings of the harp, the quietly noodling strings, the muted trombones and a muted tuba.
A muted tuba!? Have you ever seen a tuba mute? Enormous! If you had to take your tuba, tuba mute and yourself on a trip, you'd probably need three airplane seats. Mahler asks not just for tuba, but for muted tuba; not just for clarinets but also English horn; not just one, but two sets of timpani, plus cowbells, tam-tam and glockenspiel. Not one harp, but two.
And what the heck? We give it to him! This is art!
I noticed that Dudamel carefully oversaw some well-shaped violin lines -- swelling, full and movie-score-ish. Martin Chalifour was on his game, with the concertmaster solos striking just the right amount of color and style.
Dudamel was mesmerizing in the second movement - a dance in three, full of abrupt tempo and mood changes. He pushed, hopped, waved, gave high cues and low ones. Mahler labels this movement a "comfortable ländler," and on Thursday Dudamel illustrated a contrast between the rustic, stamping variety and the elegant parlor dance, which both animate this movement. The second violins have exuberant solo at the beginning, which the LA Phil's second fiddles played with just the right lusty abandon. The dance gets ever more vigorous, like a lunatic dancing himself into a frenzy, while the parlor dance interrupts, in its slower tempo, each time getting more harmonically adventurous and even neoclassical-sounding. The movement ends with the same little lick that began it, played in unison by a single contrabassoon and piccolo -- five octaves apart!
The third movement was intense and driving, with no relief, when it wasn't creeping quietly. The end was so busy, so many notes, just madness.
It begins with unison violins, high on their lowest string (a rich sound this is, in the LA Phil), then settling to what sounds like a religious hymn. It starts to back off, when the strings burst forth with some of the most heart-wrenching music ever written. It pushes and pushes -- until it stops, turning to a very high sustained note, stilling and chilling. I think I'm going to call this device of Mahler's an "ice pedal." The movement continues to go between these extremes -- from cold stillness to full-bodied warmth of sound. During those outpourings of string sound, I could feel the vibrations in the wood under my feet. This movement is completely tonal, but the harmonic changes can be startling nonetheless; they work, but you just can't believe the music is going there -- so high, so extreme, turning on such a distantly related chromatic note.
Despite the over-the-top emotional nature of this music, Dudamel did not indulge in a lot of sentimental lingering; there is no need. Move through it, and it speaks for itself. In fact, it's even more heartbreaking, with the inevitability of motion. It can't hang on forever.
The ice pedal returns: high, cold and weak. The motion slows. The same melody continues, in still quietude, breaking into fragments. I could hear myself swallow. The music stops vibrating, sounds farther away. It hangs on. It feels a little scary, uncomfortable. Dying away, stopping. Dudamel stood for a very long time, in utter quiet. ("ba-ling!" went a text message in a distance corner) He kept standing.
The Sixth Symphony by Gustav Mahler is so heart-wrenching and bleak, a sizable percentage of audience members opted for therapy after Saturday's concert, instead of going out for drinks or dessert.
You think I'm kidding. Not really! After Gustavo Dudamel took his last bow, after the applause stopped, after the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic had exited, British Mahler scholar Norman Lebrecht took a lone chair on stage to help everyone cope. "What can you do after a performance of Mahler 6?" he asked. Several hundred stragglers gathered in the hall to commiserate.
But I was too elated to stay long. Maybe not elated; more like filled with gratitude. The "Tragic" symphony by Mahler is my favorite, and this was one top-notch live performance I'd just witnessed. To me, Mahler 6 is not so soul-crushing, despite its ending. It's energetic -- even violent, but it has moments of lush beauty and other-worldly sound. The ending of the last movement is, to use California vernacular, totally a bummer. But not everything can or should end loud and fast.
This symphony marches in with heavy boots -- driven and energetic. A contrasting theme in the first movement soars upward, every phrase wanting to linger on its highest note, until of course, the menacing march interrupts, sounding like Shostakovich, 30 years before its time.
Photo courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic
My ears kept locking onto bits of Harry Potter, Disney music… Mahler is so often quoted in the movies. After the concert, Lebrecht observed that the symphony felt a little less menacing, played in Los Angeles, world capitol of filmmaking. Music that was disturbing to European audiences 100 years ago -- the unsettling premonitions of unrest and even war -- sounds to our modern ears like movie music.
The end of the first movement is exciting and triumphant, and it gets its shape from the trumpet; Principal Trumpeter Donald Green hit the target, with just the right amount of purity and bite. (Throughout the symphony, I must have written "trumpet nails it" a dozen times in my notes.) The end of the first movement roars straight into a wall -- it was incredibly energetic on Saturday.
Mahler left the order of the movements in this symphony to whomever conducts it, and Dudamel chose to put the slow "Andante moderato" second. In this movement, the melody begins in the violins and blooms into the colors of late summer -- nostalgic, but still enjoying the warmth. Dudamel sculpts music with a great deal of physical grace -- the grace of someone who wastes no gesture but can use even a tiny nod to great effect. This movement has moments of very high-pitched stillness, broken by passionate melody, made pastorale-sounding by cowbells. Occasionally the music disappears upward, like a cotton seed floating into the sky. I felt immensely grateful that this brilliant conductor stood here, before these dedicated and talented musicians, to create these moments of grace and beauty, as planned by this devoted composer. Music is all about the moment; it can only take place in time, against a silence either created by our design or by blocking the rest of the world out. I hope, at the end of my life, that people are still devoted to this kind of creation; it is one of the most complex and thrilling art forms we humans have ever invented.
The Scherzo brings us back to earth, with heavy stomping like the beginning of the symphony, only in three. The music comes to a shrill crescendo -- kudos to flutist Catherine Karoly for the piercing piccolo. The chaotic noise thins and slows into an elegant dance. Before the concert, Lebrecht mentioned that this symphony, for him, foretells marital doom rather than societal doom; Mahler was newly married to Alma when he wrote this symphony, but their relationship was headed for heartache. If so, perhaps the dance in this movement illustrates that idea better than the gloom and heartache of the other movements. The dance section begins deliberately, then it speeds up and scurries away. It snaps back into the proper tempo, only to run away again. How can you dance, when your partner keeps running away? For a while it turns downright sinister, like a dance in a field of land mines, and toward the end, a great deal of sarcasm enters, in the form of muted brass and collegno strings. The dance loses direction and wanders away quietly, against woodwind chatter, rather ambivalent.
The Finale begins with celeste (remember this instrument, from the Sugar Plum Fairy?) and rolling harp, for a groovy underwater effect. It's a hazy dreamworld, until a horn blast from another planet interrupts -- it's a startlingly unrelated chord. For a long time the music does not seem to alight on anything, until a low horn chorale brings things together. Then it revs up and each string section makes a strong statement -- under Dudamel, each section's bold entrance makes for visual theatre.
The music changes again and builds into waves of triumph and content. Nothing could ever go wrong! Until that celeste pushes us back under water and we have to start again. I knew that Mahler called for several "hammer blows" in this movement, but nonetheless I was startled when a percussionist slammed a mallet the size of my head down onto a big wooden box that looked like it could be a dog house for a bull mastiff. Indeed, the end of this symphony is killer: wrenching key changes, unrelenting noise, another hammer blow, six cymbals crashing. It builds and builds towards a happy resolution, but instead, we find the wrong chord built on the right note -- like going home and finding that the tornado knocked down all but three walls of your childhood house. The symphony sludges to the end in dissonance and disappointment, nearly silent, with one last, huge, awful blast. Dudamel kept his hands up, holding a very long silence after the symphony ended.
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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