Interview with Hilary Hahn: Recording Suzuki Books 1-3 and Returning from Sabbatical

October 29, 2020, 12:10 AM · Superstar violinist Hilary Hahn began her great violin journey as an almost-four-year-old Suzuki student who went to Saturday group classes at the Peabody Institute's Suzuki program in Baltimore.

"That was such a positive situation for me, and I think it's a good way for anyone to start an instrument," Hilary told me in an interview last week - the first interview she's given since emerging from a year-long sabbatical from performing.

Hilary Hahn
Violinist Hilary Hahn, at the beginning of her violin studies, and now.

During that sabbatical, Hilary's new recording of the Suzuki Violin School recordings for Books 1, 2 and 3 was released in July by Alfred Music - a release that was met with downright elation in the Suzuki community (a group to which I belong, as a Suzuki teacher of 25+ years — see the bottom of this article for links to get those recordings.) Hilary performed the pieces with a longtime collaborator, pianist Natalie Zhu, and the new recordings make for pleasant listening, whether you are a Suzuki student or not.

"I have very fond memories of the Suzuki group classes, the Suzuki method, and going to the Peabody Prep, as I did when I was a kid for my Saturday group classes," Hilary said. Not only that, but in her travels as a soloist, she also has encountered Suzuki on many occasions. Once while performing in Sweden, "a Suzuki group from hours away drove to the concert, as their special field trip," Hilary said. "Beforehand they all played for me, and the parents played with them, as their support orchestra, using all kinds of different instruments. It was so sweet. So I've seen examples of Suzuki teaching around the world, and I've seen how it fits culturally into different societies. I find it such an interesting, beautiful, global method, that I just really wanted to be part of it again."

Being invited to record Suzuki Violin Books 1-3 was yet another chance for her to connect with this community. "I still love these pieces that I started with - so these recordings were made with lots of love." She also felt honored to make the recordings that will become such a part of the lives of students and their families. "I remember what it's like to be a kid and to listen to recordings as part of your daily routine. For me, it started a habit of listening to music as I was getting ready for bed, as I was falling asleep, as we were in the car, at home. I was thinking of all of the people who would be listening to these recordings, and it was very touching for me to be part of that cycle."

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Download Hilary Hahn and pianist Natalie Zhu's recordings of Suzuki Violin Method Books 1-3 with these links:

Suzuki Book 1: Amazon affiliate link or iTunes

Suzuki Book 2: Amazon affiliate link or iTunes

Suzuki Book 3: Amazon affiliate link or iTunes

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What exactly is the purpose of these recordings? Listening to recordings was a crucial part of Shinichi Suzuki's "Mother Tongue" approach to learning an instrument. Following the idea that all children learn to speak their own language, in large part because they are immersed in an environment full of their native language, Suzuki (1898-1998) wanted music students to immerse themselves in the music they were going to learn. That meant listening to that music repeatedly -- thus the "Suzuki recordings" were made to help foster a home environment full of music.

That habit of listening to recordings has stayed with Hilary since early childhood. It remains an important part of her preparation process, when she is studying a piece for future performance.

"The first thing I tend to do, when I'm working on a piece that I haven't played before, is to listen to recordings," Hilary said. "I listen to get a feel for the scope of the piece, and to experience it as a passive listener, so that I know what I want to provide for the audience as an active performer. And I listen actively as I learn the piece."

"It's interesting, when I play new music, I miss having the reference recording," Hilary said. "So when I play a piece that's written for me, I create my own listening guide. I record myself practicing, and I listen back." Creating those recordings for herself allows her to test her ideas about interpretation, phrasing and pacing. "I just can't hear it all while I'm playing. So instead of simply playing it over and over, I'll record a practice play-through and listen to it while I'm making dinner or doing something else. I just get it in my ear, so that I know, as a listener, what comes next. The listening exercise is the best way to get the music inside your system."

Hilary and Natalie recorded the Suzuki Books in July 2019 at Alfred studios in Indianapolis.

Over the years, the International Suzuki Association has been notoriously fastidious about exactly how the pieces in the books are to be played. So I had visions of Hilary having to play the recording sessions in the presence of a large panel of persnickety teacher-types.

"There is, as you say, a large committee in the Suzuki world," Hilary said, laughing, "and I did not wind up in a room with the whole committee!"

Longtime New York-based Suzuki teacher Allen Lieb was there to answer any questions and represent the committee -- Lieb is CEO of the International Suzuki Association.

"I had a lot of questions in the process," Hilary said. "I would try different things sometimes, and ask, 'Allen, do you think this would work for the student?' and he'd say, 'Um, that was great...' -- always positive, I never got a negative piece of feedback during the whole session. It was very in-the-method, like I was being coached by the terms of the method as I did the session. That also was very enlightening. So he'd say, 'That was great! But for our students...we'd really like to attain a consistent tempo through all the Twinkle Variations. So we would really love, at some point, if it's possible and comfortable, to try to aim for a consistent tempo, beat-by-beat.' That kind of thing. And that was really helpful."

Hilary also realized that many of the traditions were still with her, all these years later.

"There were a couple of places where I would say, 'I don't know why, but I feel like I'm supposed to hold this note...' and then Allen would say, 'That's exactly right!' The timing in the recordings was so deeply embedded in me, from my subconscious from when I was five years old, that I remembered where you take time."

Recording in the order of the books, she added new playing elements as the pieces progressed. "I added a little bit of vibrato halfway through Book 1, as a goal or something to start to appreciate; and I started doing slightly different articulations, slightly different phrasing. As we got through Book 3, I was able to take more freedom. And I enjoyed revisiting some of my favorite pieces -- those pieces that, as a kid, I looked forward to learning some day."

What were those?

"The Waltz by Brahms and Humoresque by Dvorak are the two that, as a kid, I listened to and loved so much," Hilary said. "Also, it was interesting for me was playing the Bach arrangements, because it's different playing one line and working with piano."

To keep the piano and violin tracks separate, Hilary and the pianist, Natalie Zhu, recorded in different rooms. "I had headphones on to hear Natalie, and she had headphones on to hear me. I could see her through a window, but we were probably 30 feet away from each other, and I could see just her face." For that reason, Hilary was grateful that they had worked together often before. "We've played together for so many years, and in so many places -- she could tell what I was about to do and vice-versa, so it was really nice that we could do that together.

So did she learn anything new about Suzuki? In some ways, she said, it was like "crash course in how the method is structured."

"It was fascinating to me, as I thinking about the students' learning trajectory: in Suzuki you have to learn certain things early on that you may not use immediately, but that set you up for later things that you learn," Hilary said. "You start by learning your A major notes - Twinkle is like a reduced A major scale. And then you learn most of the rhythms you're going to need, in the Twinkle Variations." The six Twinkle variations, all with different rhythms, help get your bow technique in order. "In the triplets you learn that not every beat is on a down-bow - but you don't know you're learning all this. You also learn syncopations. There are all these different words that go with the variations, and each Suzuki group might have its own take on those words - it can be so personalized."

"It's fascinating to me, all the seeds that are planted early on, and that aren't obvious -- they develop later," she said.

I pointed out that the very first Twinkle variation uses the opening rhythm for the Bach Double - something Suzuki specifically planned with that goal in mind for the student.

"Exactly, that's the kind of thing I'm talking about!" Hilary said. "You have no idea, when you are playing 'Taka-Taka-Stop-Stop,' or in my day, 'Johnny Had a Hot Dog,' that it's anything except for that. But then however many pieces later, you realize, 'What? I learned that, in my first piece?'"

"Also, I'm so impressed that Dr. Suzuki found pieces that were already in the repertoire that he knew, and he was able to put them together in this developmentally gradual way," Hilary said. "From the very beginning, you're playing pieces by composers who lived a long time ago, and if you're curious, you can look up their music. Of course, it doesn't cover all of music - it was what he was aware of, culturally, as the leading music of his time. So there are some restrictions in what is represented."

"When people think about the Suzuki method, they think about things like the 'rules' around the method, but in fact, it's a structure in which so many things can be personalized," Hilary said. "I'm so impressed by how teachers coordinate with each other for ideas and how they work with students of all ages."

And the method involves not only a teacher, but it brings in the parent to help, creating a "triangle" of student-teacher-parent. "Involving a practice coach, which is the third person present in the 'triangle,' is so helpful, because then you have this little pod of people moving through this experience together," she said. "It demands a lot of families, and it's difficult to put in that time. But the families who are involved in Suzuki are all-involved in it. It's a whole-family operation! The teacher becomes an extension of both the Suzuki method and the family. As a non-Suzuki trained, non-teacher, that is my perspective. But I've observed so much Suzuki, from different angles and different places and different experiences."

Hilary created the Suzuki recordings a few months before going on a year-long sabbatical, which she started Sept. 1, 2019. Now that her sabbatical is over, what it next?

"Well, that's a good question! I actually don't know what's really happening in my season," Hilary said. "I'll just say that it's weird to come back from a sabbatical where the world of performance looks 100 percent different from how it did when I stopped. In September of 2019, I had no clue what was coming, and I am now experiencing the emotional impact of cancellations, changing schedules -- I'm starting to deal with things now that people have unfortunately gotten used to, from March."

Back in March, Hilary had settled into being a member of the audience for a while. "Until the pandemic started, I was going to events almost every week as a listener or an audience member. All of that stopped for me, so I first experienced the loss of the live arts as an audience member."

During the beginning of her sabbatical, "I was just processing everything that had happened to me in the past 10 years that I hadn't really stopped to process," she said. "The prior sabbatical that I took was 10 years before that, and it was for six months." This time, with small children, she decided she might need a bit longer. "I think a year allowed me to figure out where I fall in the spectrum of work right now, when I don't have deadlines coming up. What is my natural engagement with my work, when it's just for me?"

In January, she had started taking some classes - and then they were cancelled in March. And that's when those "structures" life truly started changing, in ways that no one could have anticipated.

"It was frustrating, because I had a sort of sabbatical curriculum," she said, laughing. "But it was interesting, because the process of being forced to change everything about how you structure your day, live your life, and all of the ways you structure your life around your kids going to school, or with the care or work or anything that you have built for your family structure -- it's really a challenge to what you think you know. That was the sabbatical's purpose, but it happened in a way that I never would have predicted."

"It gave me a chance to think," she said. "Since March, I've been thinking a lot about the purpose of art and where it falls, when there are other big things happening in the world. How can we hear all of the voices that we've been missing, and how can we include people in an art form, without asking them to work for free, when concerts aren't happening? I've seen so much voluntary offering of art at the same time that people aren't able to work, and it's challenging to think through. Is the art form serving the artist the way it could be? And what would it look like, if it did? That became the whole point of my sabbatical as soon as April hit. I just dropped everything else, and thought about: What can it look like, if we do things better? I learned so much about my own feelings about the place art can have in society and my own values within art."

And what is next for Hilary?

While she is feeling the impact of cancellations and the reduction of artistic connection as a performer, she said she also is looking at ideas and formats she would not have previously explored, such as making videos at home, or doing a guest artist teaching residency from a distance.

"I'm commissioning solo repertoire that I can premiere by video, or for a small group of people when I might be able to perform," she said.

While it's hard to know which of her planned concerts will happen, she plans to play all the concerts that she is able to do, and "the ones I can't, I'll do in some other way," either rescheduled or reimagined. "And I think people will be seeing some new explorations from me, within the knowledge that I've gained over the years and within the projects I started before the pandemic that are now wrapping up post-production."

In the near future, she will play a number of concerts as "Virtual Artist-in-Residence" for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which has also commissioned her to write new cadenzas for Mozart's Concerto No. 5 for a November 14 performance. "It's my first commission as a composer, so I'm excited about that!" she said.

If you want to know what Hilary will be doing, she advised keeping an eye on her social media (she's very active on Instagram, Facebook YouTube and Twitter. "That's where I'm announcing the things that are coming up for sure. And if there is anything big, we'll let people know. It's going to be an exciting, full year, and it's going to be tailored to what people are experiencing. So I'm really happy to be able to walk that line and incorporate those projects that I've been thinking about for long time with this new situation that we are all in."

"There are ways to learn during this time," Hilary said. "If I'm looking for the greater purpose - it doesn't have to be more than five minutes a day - or some kind of new pattern that can lead into that greater purpose, for me that brings hope, and it helps me think beyond the immediate situation and beyond the possible frustration of learning something new."

* * *

Download Hilary Hahn and pianist Natalie Zhu's recordings of Suzuki Violin Method Books 1-3 with these links:

Suzuki Book 1: Amazon affiliate link or iTunes

Suzuki Book 2: Amazon affiliate link or iTunes

Suzuki Book 3: Amazon affiliate link or iTunes

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October 29, 2020 at 06:20 PM · Great interview!

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