Cathy Lee Pedagogy Class: Violin Is Easy

October 30, 2009, 2:37 PM ·

Now I remember why I've spent so much time studying Suzuki pedagogy: the man was a genius, and an inspiration.

It's easy to get bogged down, to forget this. Unfortunately I never had the privilege of meeting the late Shinichi Suzuki myself. But after taking more than 100 hours of Suzuki Pedagogy training in all 10 violin books from about a dozen teacher trainers, I've certainly heard enough second-hand stories to put together an image of the man.

As with any leader, people fling knives at his back: he wasn't the greatest violinist, he churned out a lot of robots, it's all method and no music....

But last weekend, I was reminded of the fact that Suzuki was truly a great violin pedagogue, not just a great philosopher of education (though he was that as well). The group of Suzuki teachers with whom I teach, Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena, got together along with some other area teachers for a training workshop with Cathy Lee, a Suzuki teacher and SAA teacher trainer based in San Francisco.

Cathy spent not just a few months studying with Shinichi Suzuki back in the 70s, but she went to Matsumoto, Japan, over a period of 10 years. She told us one of the first things Suzuki said to her:

“Violin is easy, yes?”

Her first reaction was resistance to that idea. No, it's not easy to play the violin! She may not have said it, but certainly Suzuki sensed her doubt.

A year later, he asked her the same question: “Violin is easy, yes?”

By then she was willing to consider the possibility, but still, she didn't quite believe it. It wasn't until a few years later when she finally understood. “Yes, violin is easy!” she could answer with confidence.

Do you agree? It might be because you haven't done 10,000 bow circles.

I mean that literally. Long before Malcolm Gladwell's conclusion in his book, Outliers, that expertise in any field requires 10,000 hours of practice, Suzuki was promoting 10,000 as the magic number.

I recall that another of my teacher trainers, London-based Suzuki teacher Helen Brunner, told the same story: when she traveled the world to seek out Suzuki's wisdom, he told her to do 10,000 “windshield wipers” with her bow. Never mind that she'd gone to Juilliard; she needed to hold her bow in the air and make that windshield-wiper motion. And after she'd done it 10,000 times, he observed that the tip still wobbled, and she needed to do it 10,000 more times. Things continued in this vein.

Helen said that Suzuki would regularly tell visiting teachers-in-training to play “Twinkle” or “Chorus from Judas Maccabeus” 10,000 times. These are easy pieces, and the trainees often didn't understand that Suzuki was serious. He meant it literally. “We would wait for the new guy – or girl -- to appear, and we should wonder what he would go through – we just knew it would be quite horrendous!” she said, laughing. He was relentless, “but Suzuki knew what people needed.”

For Cathy Lee, it was bow circles.

“When you asked him, why are you making us do this 10,000 times? He would never answer,” Cathy said. “He let us find out for ourselves.”

Some teachers never stayed long enough for to complete this almost Zen-like exercise, they wanted to get to the root of things. Let's figure out what this secret is to teaching young kids. Tell me the secret, and I'll bring it home!

But have you ever taught a student who is like this? Have you ever been a student like this? Does it work to “tell” someone how to play? Can that person then play, simply after a good explanation, but without considerable practice? Well, the same goes for teaching – for teaching teaching!

This is not to say that Suzuki had no specific ideas for affecting results in violin students; he was bursting with them. But he recognized that a teacher has to see these points from the inside, in order to make them a reality for his or her students.

Cathy had much wisdom to help us on our journeys as teachers – from both her time with Suzuki and from her 30 years as a teacher.

“Violin playing is not just in your hands and arms, it's done throughout the body,” she said. Some of the goals of teaching young children should be “to develop optimal tone with the greatest physical ease,” and “to develop a whole-body approach to violin-playing.”

Suzuki believed in a balanced approach to the string, and he would say, “The violin is a one-string instrument, same condition on every string.” He often had people practice doing perfectly silent string crossings, to that end. (See this page for video of a lecture by Suzuki on this) “If you change the string correctly, your tone will always be good because your playing will be balanced,” Cathy said.

It took Suzuki 10 years to assemble his first three books, which incidentally are entitled “Suzuki Violin School,” not “The Suzuki Method,” if you look at the cover.

“There is no 'Suzuki Method,' nor will there ever be any one authoritative pedagogical Suzuki book,'” Cathy said. "He did not write one... he wanted to allow us to keep finding ways to always improve as teachers for our students."

Suzuki chose his sequence of music based on including music that children would like and that would foster a sequential technical development. If a piece didn't exist to teach the proper technique at the proper time, he would write a piece to do so. He also thought about the psychology of the sequence: pieces that teach something new, pieces that reinforce something already learned.

If a teacher came to him and didn't really “get it,” he wasn't cruel or judgmental, as some violin teachers of that time could be, Cathy said. He simply gave the teacher something to practice. Then, he was relentless: “He was a determined man, I'll tell you that,” Cathy said. “And he was quite clever, as a violin teacher.”

When did Suzuki know that a teacher was ready to go out in the world and teach?

“It wasn't so much about fulfilling requirements as it was when he felt you were ready to serve others,” Cathy said. “He was looking for more than violinists – he was about teaching life lessons through the violin.”

After her time with Suzuki, Cathy continued her studies with traditional teacher Camilla Wicks – and after her rigorous bow makeover with Suzuki, Cathy was more than ready for any left-hand technique Wicks demanded.

Cathy described many exercises for us, but I'll go back to bow circles. You can start by doing them in the air, by tracing a plate with your bow tip. But remember, your hand must be making the exact same circle as your tip makes. The stick must keep its angle (as if over the violin) and the whole bow must move as a unit. You'll feel this in your thumb and pinkie, but also, you will be moving from your shoulder. The elbow, hand and tip will be in motion. Got it?

After you've done it 10,000 times, answer me a question: Is violin easy?


October 30, 2009 at 10:40 PM ·

Some people still don't understand what a sea change Suzuki wrought in the music world. In the city near to where I live, one of the earliest Suzuki Talent Education Schools opened in the mid-to-late 1960s. There were plenty of criticisms about the millions of little robots it would churn out, but the pioneers of the local school stuck it out, and I was privileged to have their oldest daughter, now a respected Suzuki teacher herself, in my high school orchestra's violin section. I had lunch with her the other day, and we were discussing just this sort of thing. I mentioned that if you went to a symphony orchestra concert and polled everyone in the audience 40 years old and under, you would be surprised at the number who studied under the Suzuki approach. My friend had a surprising number for me, too. She said that something along the order of 60% to 80% of students entering the high-powered conservatories were Suzuki-trained at some point. What is most fascinating of all to me is that Dr. Suzuki didn't even start in this country until he was 65.

October 31, 2009 at 07:53 AM ·

 Excellent post, Laurie.

One thing I've come to notice is how Americans like to categorize things.  Parents of prospective students will frequently ask "So what IS the Suzuki method?"  I'll usually reply with some response along the lines of equating music to language and the no-fail environment.  But in all honesty, there's no straight answer.  There's really no such thing as "Suzuki" versus "non-Suzuki."  The point that he was trying to get across was creating that positive, nurturing environment that would allow children to succeed.  It's really not about following the pieces in the book step by step.  It's entirely possible to not teach from the Suzuki books at all and still have a "Suzuki" approach to teaching.

October 31, 2009 at 05:35 PM ·

Danielle, certainly he was trying to create those things, but he did have a pedagogical plan, especially when it came to the violin. What makes it rather complex is the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all "method" for implementing that plan. He recognized that a teacher must see the plan from the inside and then find his or her own "method," if the teacher is to really connect with students. Suzuki's books alone do not lay out his plan, and that's why the Suzuki movement has put in place all kinds of teacher training. The teacher training is very valuable and points you along your way; I certainly would not be the same teacher that I am, without considerable study in Suzuki pedagogy. It's nitty-gritty, specific, detailed stuff. But then, ultimately, you have to take the last step and put in your 10,000 bow circles. You have to know how to play the violin yourself, inside out. You have to figure out what every student needs to learn, make that a part of your being, and then be fully fluent in a 10,000 different ways of communicating it.

October 31, 2009 at 05:53 PM ·

And also, you have to have the humility to know that you still have to keep finding new ways, growing and stretching as a violinist and as a teacher!

November 3, 2009 at 05:40 AM ·

I have 4,580 circles left to go!! :)

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