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Liz Arbus

Keeping Teens Interested in Violin

October 14, 2008 at 7:00 PM

How do you keep advanced students engaged in Suzuki group?

Take them out to the ball game – with their violins!

This was one of the fun activities that came from our creation of a separate “Tour Group” for advanced students in Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena in Pasadena, California.

The idea for a special group for advanced students came several years ago, when fellow STEP teacher Cheryl Scheidemantle and I were puzzling over how to create an engaging experience for these students. Typically, the older and more advanced students now-a-days are booked solid with numerous activities. Keeping students playing advanced repertoire – in a group setting -- would have to be well thought-through.

As with group class for younger students, we wanted to gear our “Tour Group” towards the wonderful Suzuki ideals of playing fun music together and performing in concert together. But, knowing that we were billing it as a “Tour Group,” we needed to figure out where to tour!

I wracked my brains for fun things I’D like to do -- and maybe the kids would too. Being a life-long Chicago Cubs fan, I had always wanted to perform the Star Spangled Banner for a Cubs game. With this goal in mind, I came up with a very nice arrangement in four-part harmony for the “Star Spangled Banner.” We learned the music and made a DVD of our performance, and I sent it around to all the clubs in cities I’d like visit: Chicago, New York and local teams here in California.

Most of the clubs didn’t respond. Then I realized: in order to get called up to the major leagues, you have to start in the minor leagues!

So we applied to the minor league team for the Los Angeles Angels, The Cucamonga Quakes in Rancho Cucamonga, about 60 miles northeast of LA They decided to take a chance on us. I was thrilled!

When we arrived to play at the Quakes’ Ballpark, the Epicenter, we noticed a street named after Jack Benny, the violinist and TV comedian of the '40s and '50s. Benny did an comic routine with the location “Cucamonga.” Of course, I watched the Jack Benny show a lot as a kid, just because he was a violinist. How appropriate for us to play our first “Star Spangled Banner” in this ball park, where Jack Benny's picture, violin in hand, is on the sign! I think he would have been proud to know we were the first violinists to perform on the field.

We had great fun performing the Star Spangled Banner for the Quakes. Being a baseball fan, I had a blast watching the game. In this smaller venue, the players are all so much closer than in a huge stadium -- you really feel like you're part of the team!

Still, I had not given up my dream of playing for a major league baseball game. After our Quakes performance, we put a video of our performance on Youtube and on our STEP website (, so that potential teams could see us perform. After sending this video to various teams via the Internet, I received a call from.... a New York Mets representative! It took everything I had to not start screaming on the phone. I felt like I just won the lottery! Our tour group was selected to play for the pre-game show for the New York Mets on August 7, 2008.

With that hurdle jumped, we still had much work to do, to ensure a memorable experience for everyone. Since this was becoming a trip for the whole family, we also needed to come up with a few more fun events as well.

The parents of all the students helped immensely; parent Meg Cranston-Cuebas found us The Salisbury Hotel, which was charming and across the street from Carnegie Hall. Another parent, Wilson Chick, served as our “official cinematograper,” new video camera and all. Parent Todd Cranston-Cuebas took charge of the still photography, and New York City violin teacher trainer Allen Lieb helped us secure a rehearsal space, at Lucy Moses School at Kaufman Center.

That's where we arrived at 6 p.m. the day before the performance. Jeff Shreve made it possible for us to rehearse in the wonderful recital hall at Lucy Moses- good acoustics, great location. My husband’s cousin, New Yorker Marvin Arbus, had walked us from our hotel through Central Park to our rehearsal destination -- a beautiful way to start our tour!

I was a bit nervous about the rehearsal, since I had not seen many of the students for 1½ months, but everyone had been practicing on their own and the group sounded cohesive. It took only a short rehearsal to get our pieces back in shape and ready for our performance. After our rehearsal, we headed over to the VINYL restaurant – a fun rock-n-roll restaurant where the bathrooms are set up as individual rock singers. For example, all Elton John in one bathroom, all Elvis Presley in another: from the pictures on the wall to the music in each stall!

Then came the day of our performance. Another member of my husband’s family, Ora Julie, a lifetime New Yorker, had done a dry run on the trains to Shea Stadium from our hotel a few days before our arrival. She picked up our subway tickets in advance and led us expertly from our hotel through the subways and directly to Shea Stadium. We arrived at the stadium in plenty of time for our 9 am sound check on the field.

Surprisingly enough, performing felt comfortable on the field!

Once our sound check was done, we had a chance to “hang out” in the park before the crowd arrived. The field looked fresh with the newly water grass, and we had an absolutely perfect New York Day, especially for August. Not only that, but we were also first in line for the food booth! Everyone felt relaxed and ready to perform. As the time grew closer to our performance, I herded the group to our ‘holding area’ in the Green Room. A few card games broke out -- and even some magic tricks were displayed!

Then came our call to the field. We lined up and entered the field through the same hallway as Mr. Met and all the players.

For the performance, we were lined up off to the side of home plate. All our friends and family were allowed to come down behind home plate to watch our performance up close. Once we started playing, we had a blast! Everyone concentrated; everyone put their all into every moment. We had so much fun!
I managed to refrain from jumping up and down once we were done.

Then it was back to the Green Room, where we were allowed to safely store our instruments during the game. And what a game we saw! The Mets had been winning for most of the game when the San Diego Padres tied the score. But in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets hit a 2-out walk-off homerun! Very exciting.

Everyone left at varying times during the game to enjoy as many New York sights as possible. Some students/families went to China town, some to Little Italy, and others went shopping.

That evening we all met up again to take the Sunset Circle Line Tour. Watching the sun set over the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building was spectacular. Later that evening it rained, but I think most everyone managed to find ways to stay dry – in taxis or limousines or darting in and out of doorways back to the hotel!

Despite our very exciting Mets show, I still wanted one more New York performance. I had also wanted to tour Carnegie Hall, but Carnegie Hall is closed during the summer months, so no tours were available.

Then I had a spontaneous idea: “Let’s play the Star Spangled Banner in FRONT of Carnegie Hall!” The kids were skeptical, but the morning after the Mets’ performance, we woke up early and traipsed out to Carnegie Hall. Once we got going, we all felt drawn into the moment, playing in front of this historic place. We even drew a crowd, wowing New Yorkers going to work that morning. We ended up playing our entire pre-game show again!

Once we changed out of our uniforms, we headed to Lincoln Center for our hour-long tour. Much of the Center is under construction, but it was still stimulating to take the tour. After the tour, some students toured The Juilliard School with teacher Cheryl Scheidemantle, who earned her doctoral degree there. Looking forward to future goals!

In the evening, the group enjoyed an incredible six-course Italian dinner, and right afterwards, the group scurried to the theatre to see Phantom of the Opera.

In short, our entire New York trip was non-stop fabulous fun, with the Mets performance the highlight for me. Not only did our “Tour Group” get its tour, but we all made memories to last a lifetime. Many thanks to all the parents and students who agreed to participate in this idea, which started out only as a fantasy!
Musically yours,
Liz Arbus

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 14, 2008 at 7:10 PM
Liz is a teaching colleague of mine, and as you see she has written about a really fun tour she planned for a group of teens. She comes up with such great ideas about keeping kids engaged, I thought it might help for the rest of us who are always looking for ways to keep teenage students in the game, so to speak! :)

I've also recently read a very good book on the topic of the older Suzuki student, Expanding Horizons: the Suzuki Violinist Grows Up by Mark Bjork. I'll probably write a little blog about that when I'm done reading it, but so far it's a really valuable book.

From Debra Wade
Posted on October 14, 2008 at 9:56 PM
Liz - fantastic story! Thanks for sharing
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 14, 2008 at 10:08 PM
that@s just fantastic.
I think it also kind of highlights a fairly universal weakness we tend to have: come up with a dream and then leave it their. More often than not simply asking get@s us what we desire.

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