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Laurie Niles

June 15, 2005 at 6:26 AM

My second day at the Colorado Suzuki Institute in Snowmass started with a wonderful coincidence for me: a student whom I'd started on the violin some nine years ago just happened to be in Helen Brunner's repertoire class! I was trailing Helen all today because she is my pedagogy teacher for my Book 7 training course, and today was the first day of student classes.

My former student lives in Denver. I was terribly sad to leave her, and all my students, when I moved to California five years ago. I had not seen her since leaving!

The Nicole I knew was a cute little seven-year-old, with lots of curly blonde hair. She took to each piece very quickly, and she learned things so well that we could talk about musical ideas, even in Book 1 and 2.

The Nicole I saw this morning was a young woman, certainly as tall as me, maybe taller! And she played quite beautifully, with a lovely vibrato and ease in her technique. Even though I taught her for only a few years, I was quite proud.

I had known yesterday that I would see her, as I asked Helen to check her list. I had also shown Helen something that I'd carried around in my case ever since leaving Denver, a small yellow strip of paper, upon which a little girl had written in brown marker, “Best music teacher.” A shiny star she had glued onto it had fallen off a few years ago.

“Do you have the paper?” Helen asked me suddenly, at the end of today's class. I was a bit surprised, but I fished it out.

“Look at this,” she said to Nicole, “Do you remember that?” Nicole smiled. “I remember making this!” Well, of course I kept it, it meant a lot to me, coming from her!

Another class I observed was actually a lecture Helen gave for parents , “Sharing Responsibility.” Her main point was that a teacher should set the parameters for home practice, and a parent's role with a young Suzuki student is to keep those parameters in place. A parent should not, however, make up the parameters. For example, a parent should not decide that the child is ready for the next piece and go on. The parent also should not negotiate over the rules the teacher has set. For example, if a child want to sit while practicing even though the teacher has said he should stand, the parent should not negotiate this point. A teacher, in turn, must make the rules clear and explicit, and be willing to entertain the parent's concerns. Many times, it simply involves reiterating rules, to make it clear to the child that yes, the teacher wants him standing for practice.

During Helen's afternoon repertoire class, nine children traversed the long and tricky Bach A minor concerto first movement together. I find it rather difficult to work with a group on such a long and tricky piece, but Helen had the right idea: keep it simple. After they had played the whole piece, she explained that she wanted longer and better crescendos. To achieve this, she had everyone sit on the floor.

“I'd like you all to count to eight,” she told them. They all counted to eight, in the usual classroom-type chant. Then she told them to count to eight but to make a crescendo, starting with a barely audible, “one,” and going all the way to shouting at the top of their lungs for “EIGHT!” They then started quite softly, but did not make it all the way to the loud eight. Also, their “five, six, seven” all sounded the same volume.

She then asked each student to try it individually. As soon as they said two numbers at the same volume, without a crescendo, she cut them off, “No, your four and five were the same,” and she'd point to the next student. I was watching at the side of the class, so I was a bit startled when she turned to me and said, “Laurie? Let's hear you do it.” Wow, this was harder than I thought! I was determined to do it, though, which meant I was shouting at the top of my lungs by the end.

When the students stood up and played again, they paid much greater attention to their crescendos, watching Helen for clues, but with a greater understanding that they could take something like a crescendo to another level. And that is such a big part of being a teacher: it's not completely about getting it right, now, but it's also about showing students the possibilities. It's about making them interested in and excited about delving in deeper.

From Wanda Jenkins
Posted on June 15, 2005 at 1:34 PM
I'm glad my husband is out for his early morning coffee. He would have thought I'd lost my mind if he'd heard me vocalizing the crescendo exercise!

I'm finding that with each degree of loudness my tone wants to raise in pitch. Did Helen have you try to speak or sing at one tone throughout the crescendo, or go up the scale as the intensity increased? It's interesting to work it both ways though it takes a great deal more concentration & effort, for me, to stay on one note. WJ

From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 16, 2005 at 4:49 AM
Actually, it was kind of a "sprechstimme" thing, we did it in a speaking voice. Doing it on a pitch and up a scale is a nice idea, though I think she was trying to isolate it from pitch in order to give them a feeling for the gradations of volume. I did it for some friends later in the day, and I think I scared them!

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