June 2004

June 30, 2004 16:00

One wonderful teacher I watched this week at the Colorado Suzuki Institute was Lucy Shaw, of Houston. I was impressed not just with what she was teaching (which was right on target) but with her way with the children.

On the first day of the Institute, the children each had to play something for the teacher who would be working with them all week. For some, this was a rather nerve-rattling experience. This was the case with a boy of about 10 named Christopher. His playing was quite excellent; he played the second movement of Handel’s Sonata No. 3, which is in the Suzuki Violin Book 6.

His playing problems were immediately apparent, though, and they were typical of a student at this level: his rather stiff wrist and bow arm were keeping him from executing the string crossings with ease. He, however, was more concerned and worried about something else.

This became clear when he had a slight memory slip. It was barely a slip, even, more like a slow-down. At this point, his big blue eyes began filling with tears and he continued with difficulty.

“Let’s stop here,” said Lucy, without losing her smile or her ease of manner. He continued to fight the tears as she talked a bit.

At this point I’d have been tempted to say, “Hey, a little memory slip doesn’t matter! It’s okay!” But she recognized that it did matter a great deal to him, and that he needed to get through the rest of the piece in order to feel better.

“This piece is kind of like going on a hike and finding things you like,” she said. “For example, here we find some string crossings,” and she demonstrated. “And here is a place where you have to figure out which path to choose.”

After showing him a few of the memory spots they’d be encountering on the “hike,” she said, “Let’s play it together!” in the manner of someone saying, “Let’s go to the playground!”

So she carefully played through the rest of the piece with him, stopping frequently to talk about the memory pitfalls. “This is a sequence,” she explained, “The composer liked this so much he did it over and over and over again, starting on different notes….” And, “Here is a place where you have to choose different paths. If you go this, you go back to the beginning. You don’t want to do that! If you do this, you go on…” She suggested writing an “M” with a circle in his music for the tricky memory spots.

When they had made it safely to the end of the piece, addressing all these concerns, she said with a smile, “For our purposes today, it really doesn’t matter that you remember those spots, but I wanted to give you some tools to help.”

With just a little bit of time left at the end of the lesson, she gently introduced the idea of working on his posture, starting with his extremely tense right shoulder.

She put her violin on the floor (oh DEAR!) and pulled the bow across the A string, just holding the screw.

“Listen to the great tone we have, just with gravity,” she said. She explained that we need not bear down or tense the arm to produce such a tone.

“Try playing the beginning of this piece once with a really scrunchy shoulder,” she said, and he did. “Now, play it with a relaxed shoulder.” He tried, and he was quite conscious of it. I could see him consciously relaxing the shoulder several times as it crept up.

His assignment for the night was to play with a relaxed shoulder, and she had the rest of the week to work with him on that. Most importantly, she had created an environment of trust and good faith. He was relaxed and ready to learn with her for the rest of the week. Not another tear!

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June 24, 2004 23:11

I’m currently at Snowmass, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, attending the Colorado Suzuki Institute, and frankly, I’ve never seen so much masterful teaching going on in one place.

Yes, masterful.

Normally we might reserve that word for teachers like Gingold or Galamian or any number of teachers around the world who teach, or taught, on the highest level. But there also are those who teach on the highest level for the youngest people, and their skills as communicators and their knowledge of violin technique are tremendous.

I knew this before I arrived; I started my Suzuki pedagogy training in 1996 after deciding that I wanted a few more tools for helping my youngest beginners. I learned more than I could have imagined, and I realized that to teach a beginner, one must have an eye to where that beginner is eventually headed; say, the Bach Double, the Mendelssohn Concerto or maybe the Tchaikovsky.

Most who reach the upper echelons of the music world do so with the benefit of hundreds of hours of work with their teachers, ideally ones who know a great deal about violin playing and care even more about helping people. I applaud the Suzuki world’s efforts to cultivate teachers who are sensitive to the needs of children, knowledgeable in the repertoire they teach and committed to an encouraging, rather than destructive, approach.

This week I am taking Violin Book 6 teacher training with Ellie LeRoux of Longmont, Colorado.

On our first day, Ellie gave us a book that she had compiled for the benefit of her private students and for us. It included detailed lists of every technique needed for each piece in Book 6, an annotated copy of her own Book 6, a list of dozens of supplementary solo pieces, etudes and chamber works for a student at this level, annotated copies of a good number of those pieces, dozens of technical exercises to use to help a student play these pieces properly, a dictionary of all the musical terms used in Book 6, examples of suggested daily practice routines, one for each of the books from beginning students playing Twinkle through Book 9, a list of suggested reading, hundreds of ideas for group class, copies of articles she’d written, inspirational quotes….

This, to me, is a staggering act of generosity, and it is the Suzuki way: share ideas and use the best ones.

She credited everyone for their ideas, and for the ones she came up with herself, she wrote underneath, “Permission to Copy.”

She assembled this tremendous body of knowledge from her own wonderful ideas as well as from the ideas of Shinichi Suzuki himself, Jim and Jackie Maurer, John Kendall, Bill Starr and many, many others.

In addition to the 15 hours I spend in class with Ellie, I will be observing eight ( and probably more) hours of master classes, group classes and lectures given by some 90 faculty members from all over the United States and the world.

I am already a reasonably accomplished violinist, and yes, I could teach these pieces without anyone telling me how to do so. But after this, I certainly will aspire to teach them on a new level, with an awareness of where the student has been, where they are going and with hundreds of new ideas about ways to get there. I have so much more to offer my students, and I can thank these generous people for sharing their ideas. And for allowing me to stand on their shoulders.

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June 16, 2004 23:57

My daughter’s first-grade teacher, Mrs. Walker, has made a heroic effort to teach her class a unit on the history of Western Music, despite the lack of time after jumping through all the state-imposed hoops to teach reading and math.

On a recent morning I came to class at McKinley School here in Pasadena, Mrs. Walker started by reading a picture book on the life of Beethoven. Let’s just say it wasn’t much of a pretty picture for a class of six- and seven-year-olds: Beethoven’s father was an abusive alcoholic, his mother died when he was young, he had to take care of his siblings, he went deaf…It’s just misery piled on misery!

“So Beethoven,” Mrs. Walker said quite earnestly, “was a guy with issues!”

By the time I was ready to play, the kids were wearing mildly pained looks of bewilderment. I stood up and took a big breath. What to say?

“The important thing about Beethoven,” I said, “was actually the beautiful music he wrote for us.”

I had decided to introduce them to the little piece of Beethoven that first awakened me to the composer’s genius: the second movement from the Seventh Symphony. Of course, I was playing in a youth orchestra the first time I heard it; we were sight reading. I was stunned: first came that soft pulse from the basses and celli, then the celli move to a gently soaring melody as the second violins take over the pulse, then the firsts, until the entire orchestra is riding this incredible wave….

“It starts like a heartbeat,” I said, asking them to place a hand over their hearts and beat the rhythm with me. Then I played a bit of the second violin part, starting with that pulse. “See, then it echos here,” I said as I played. “Then we have this pretty melody, or song, that floats over everything.” They liked it quite a lot.

“But to really understand this music, you have to hear a symphony play it,” I said, digging out the CD. “I want you to close your eyes, and put your hand over your heart again and tap to the rhythm of it.” Then I started the second movement. Standing at the front of the class I could watch them all. A few were squirmy, but some…wow! One little girl in the front seemed lost in the music, her eyes shut, hand over her heart -- she was feeling it. Several other little girls were doing the same, and everyone was quite immersed. When I stopped the CD at the natural break in the middle of the movement, the teacher said, “Couldn’t we hear that whole movement?”

I had visited Mrs. Walker’s class several times over the past month, as they studied Machaut, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Incidentally, the kids wrote little biographies and drew pictures of each composer, which came home today in a folder.

This is an urban public school. They can promote music but they need our help. If a teacher ever asks you to come play for class, do it! Do it for the kids, for society, for music. They don’t need you to work up the Sibelius, either. They just need you to show them why this music is relevant.

For example, when the kids were studying Mozart, I simply played the first violin part from various movements of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Why that and not my Mozart concerto? Because most of them had heard Eine Kleine before, but they hadn’t made the connection that this was the Mozart they were studying in school. It’s important that they make that connection to understand the significance of a composer whose music has lasted some 200 years. It illustrated quite well some simple points I was making about Mozart, that his music tends toward the happy, that even his slow music sounds more like a walk in a garden than a sad song.

When they studied Vivaldi, I simply got out the Suzuki book. I showed them the theme from the A minor violin concerto, then I showed them the theme all dressed up fancy, as it came later. We talked about echos, and other Baroque effects. They understood.

It is important that we make people understand. The more people know, then learn to love our music, the more it will thrive. Let’s not forget to do our part to help.

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June 5, 2004 23:21

This week I found myself sitting with fellow musicians from the Redlands Symphony on the spacious leather couch in the office of Hal Espinoza, president of the LA Musicians Union, Local 47. We were chatting with the president and vice president about the kinds of things we’ll bring up in upcoming contract negotiations for the orchestra. Of course, I won’t reveal any such things right before a negotiation! But I thought I’d give my fellow violinists a little window on this process, for it allows us to make what money we can in our profession in the United States, which offers so little public support for the arts.

I ended up on the Committee out of a mix of passivity, curiosity and hubris (“I’d be great at this, woo-hoo!”) During the chaos of a rehearsal break, the orchestra held elections for orchestra committee members. When someone asked, “How ‘bout Laurie?” Instead of standing up and saying, “Oh no, oh no. I can’t do it, too busy, WAY to busy! Out of the question!” I just smiled and felt kind of flattered.


Actually, I don’t know how crazy it will get. I do know that people get quite impassioned, quite inflamed, over the various issues that can come up: Do we want a higher per-service rate? Contributions to the pension? More positions in the orchestra? More rules for auditions? Mileage payments? Health and other benefits? Something in the contract about getting the damned bowings in the parts before the first rehearsal?

With a very temperate group of people, we were already a wee bit edgy on the topic of what to ask for, where the priorities should be.

At any rate, I truly feel I am in a union in LA. I’ve been a member of the America Federation of Musicians now for about 10 years and have been through a number of major negotiations (and nearikes) as a member of the Omaha, Lincoln, Colorado Springs Symphonies, among the many union groups I’ve played for. But Local 47 is certainly the most organized, well, organization I’ve known. This is not just one guy in an office someplace; the local has its own building, with rehearsal rooms and a 32-track digital recording studio. Stepping inside, the faces of hundreds of Local 47’s famous musicians stare at the newcomer from places of importance on the wall.

The Local 47 annual directory is enough to put a person’s status in the world of music into perspective. It’s not a couple of sheets of paper stapled together -- it’s a book, like the Bible. Or, given the task at hand, War and Peace. The most recent one I have is for the year 2002, and it lists, among its hundreds of pages of members, 1,099 violinists. I feel so, um, special.

At any rate, the powers at the union were extremely attentive to the concerns of our little band out on the edge of the metropolitan area; I was impressed. But that is what makes it so professional. This will be an adventure!

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