I was chatting with a group of teachers at a reception when I realized that the school group playing in the background was actually playing the Corelli Christmas Concerto. More specifically, they were all playing the more-difficult solo part, by memory, playing it WELL, and they were all younger than fifth grade!
We were witnessing the results of a Suzuki strings program at Parker Elementary School in Houston, Texas, a music magnet public school since 1975. A group of about 50 violin and cello students and their teachers and parents had traveled to Minneapolis for the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference, to play for us and tell us about their program.
Certainly, here is an example a success story, applying and adapting the Suzuki method to a public school setting. Their performance also included an arrangement of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," Brahms' "Hungarian Dance," and a tango piece -- as well as a half-dozen pieces from the Suzuki Books one through five.
Impressed with their performance, I sought to learn more at a presentation the next morning given by Parker Elementary teachers, administrators and parents. Here are some features of their strings program: it consists of about 150 violin students and 50 cello students, who are accepted into the program as kindergarteners or first graders and go there through fifth grade.
Each student receives a 15-20-minute private lesson during the school day and a 40-minute group class every day. A parents is required to attend the private lesson, take notes and help the child practice at home, just like in private Suzuki lessons. The school provides instruments to those who need them, and the students remain with the same private teacher through fifth grade. Group classes are divided according to level, with about 30 to 40 kids per class. They all learn to read music, and they have a lot of public performing opportunities.
Teachers spoke about some of the things that have helped keep this program alive and thriving for nearly 40 years.
"Integrating our current culture into the Suzuki method helps make it sustainable," said violin teacher Elizabeth Benne. Cello teacher Lisa Vosdoganes creates many of the arrangements, which give violins and cellos equal opportunity to play melody and harmony. They incorporate the learning of many songs outside of the official Suzuki literature.
It's also important to tie lesson plans to core subjects: English, math, science, etc. Unfortunately, no school board in the U.S. will buy into the idea of teaching instrumental music for the sake of music's inherent worth as an academic subject. They need to know that the instrumental music program will help the school meet the English standards, math standards and other things considered a priority to the district and state.
"Write out lesson plans that integrate those standards," advised the Parker teachers. They showed an example of a lesson plan for teaching the song "Lightly Row" which included a list of more than a dozen ways in which the plan aligned with "Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills" standards in the areas of English, math and science. (These included listing the specific numbers and sections of the standards, with explanations such as: students use relationships between letters and sounds, students understand elements of poetry; student distinguished between declarative and interrogative sentences; students use concrete models to represent fractions; students understand force motion and energy….)
In other words, you have to constantly justify your music program, and in concrete ways, even if your program has been running for nearly 40 years and is wildly successful.
Also, Frequent public performances not only motivate students and help them become more confident players, but they also help raise the profile of the program within the community, making community members more likely to support it.
"When your program is given opportunities for exposure, take them!" said one of the teachers.
Parent Melanie Rosen said that "the Suzuki method has been a huge connector at the school. In a program like this, you are committed, whether you work or not. It's a unit, a team." Parents come to school for the lessons and wind up meeting other parents and becoming involved in other ways with the school. "The Suzuki method has been very strong in our family, and in building our school community," she said.
Parker Elementary principal Drew Houlihan said that having this kind of program involves an aligned commitment of time, teachers, finances, students, administrators and parents. The school has 900 students, 50 percent of which are on the free or reduced lunch program.
"In a time where every state is facing budget cuts, what is the first to go? Music and fine arts," Houlihan said. "At Parker, we give the gift of music to students every day. I think Suzuki in the schools is well on its way to a bright future."
Here is a recent performance of the Parker Suzuki strings students, playing Brahms' "Hungarian Dance":
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