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Laurie Niles

Making music stick

February 28, 2007 at 7:52 AM

Teaching very young children is slow business, but they take in more than you ever know.

Since September I've been teaching "First Grade Suzuki Violin" to 55 children at my kids' public school in Pasadena, Calif. It's a new program this year, and I'm having fun devising a modified Suzuki curriculum for it. I teach about a dozen kids at a time.

We take things incrementally, one micro-skill at a time. We repeat and drill each micro-skill. Between the repeating and drilling we sing and clap and have fun with music.

I make plans, and sometimes I use them. Other times they go out the window, and I'm teaching something that I just made up two minutes ago.

Like today, when I had them pointing to their tiny fingerboards, singing, "Where's my one-tape, where's my one-tape, here it is, here it is, hello mister one-tape, hello mister one-tape, here he is, here he is..."

On another day, I said, "Hey, you guys, let's walk over and play for the kindergarteners! Do you wanna?" Their eyes widened. At this K-8th-grade school, the first graders seldom get to be the big kids. They laughed and wiggled and some even jumped up and down. I told them they'd better calm down; they could go only if they walked quietly down the hall, in a straight line, etc., etc..

It was a great success; they played much better than I expected. We sang the "Rest Position Song" and did a very short piece for which I play an Irish Jig while they play open strings on the beat. Then the kids repeated a rhythm on the E string while I played a variation on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Afterwards, the kindergarteners had some questions.

"How did they learn to play those songs?" was the first.

I was taking a breath to answer when I noticed my big-kid first graders standing tall, looking quite knowledgeable. Why not let them answer? "Isabel, would you like to answer?"

"Yes," said Isabel, standing up even straighter. "We get a piece of paper every week and then we go home and practice what's on the piece of paper. Then we go back to class and learn more, and practice it again. If we practice it, we learn it."

A big, giddy, slightly surprised smile broke across my face. "That's right!" I said, "Other questions?"

"Where did you get the violins?" asked another kindergartener.

Up went another little girl's hand. "Some of us bought them," she said in a businesslike tone, "and some of us borrowed them from the school."

It's amazing how concise children can be.

"Why do you play Twinkle?" was the next question.

This struck me as one of those marginally answerable "Why" questions that kids ask that make adults groan, "Why do you ask why?"

It made perfect sense to a first grader: "So we could learn how to play a song we already know and then get better at playing the violin."

On Saturday the school held its large annual fundraiser, a silent auction. For the occasion, the first grade violin students had their premiere on the auditorium stage. Thirty-four of them played in the performance.

Rehearsing in a classroom with the parents before the show.

I wasn't sure what would happen!

They did beautifully. They filed onto stage, made four little rows. They sang their "Rest Position Song" with strength and even with good intonation. We had one technical difficulty when a little boy's pegs somehow snagged a girl's curly hair when he was lifting his violin to his shoulder. We had to stop for a moment while Mrs. Niles untangled the situation! We played two other pieces.

The parents loved it, the kids were proud. I was proud of them.

I hope some of them stick with the violin; I hope all of them stick with music.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 28, 2007 at 1:54 PM
Awww, what a darling pic!
From Carolyn Berger
Posted on February 28, 2007 at 2:29 PM
Isn't it great when kids "get it?" Great job, Laurie and 1st graders!!
From Gabriel Kastelle
Posted on February 28, 2007 at 3:18 PM
Great kid quotes! thanks
From Man Wong
Posted on February 28, 2007 at 6:55 PM
That's wonderful, Laurie! I wish we have such a program in our kids' public school too.

I never researched it before, but seems that there was some sort of stringed music program going on here in the NYC public school system back in the 50's and maybe 60's -- and the school system bought and used lots of John Juzek instruments for that. I wonder what exactly happened w/ that program. Now, only a few specialized public schools along w/ a few more supported by the well publicized Opus 118 Harlem School of Music are still in existence here in our public school system. It's really too bad that music is not getting more support in our school systems.

Anyway, thanks for sharing the wonderful anecdote. Maybe some day my wife will finally be ready to start up her own preschool, and I could help her out w/ various things (and make my own career change :-) ), including a Suzuki-based music program w/ stringed instruments perhaps, especially if I get far enough w/ my own training. :-)

Warmest regards,


From Karin Lin
Posted on February 28, 2007 at 7:38 PM
People who teach little kids deserve a special place in heaven. :) I adore all your stories, Laurie.
From Patricia Baser
Posted on February 28, 2007 at 11:53 PM
I teach some Suzuki classes at an arts magnet school in Macon, GA. We sometimes do impromptu concerts-on Tuesday, my second year students were playing Allegro really well, so we went to play for the office and ended up playing for a class in the hall and 2 other times before we ever got to the office. Even my older "traditional students" get big eyes when they peek in on the younger kids class.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 9:57 AM
You're doing great work, Laurie. I especially like the first graders explanation of how they learn. You should be proud of them and proud of yourself, too.

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