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Laurie Niles

Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference 2012: Cathryn Lee, Teri Einfeldt and Michael McLean

May 26, 2012 at 5:28 PM

When violin teacher and pedagogue Cathryn Lee graduated as a Suzuki teacher some 30 years ago in Matsumoto, Japan, Shinichi Suzuki had her recite a teacher pledge, which said in part:

"We will continue to study teaching in the future, with much reflection, and through this continuing study we will be better able to concentrate energies toward better teaching."

That's exactly what some 900 Suzuki teachers from around the world are doing this weekend at the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference 2012 in Minneapolis: continuing to explore teaching, music and community. Cathryn Lee talked about the teacher pledge at the first class I attended at 8:30 Friday, "Exploring Right-Hand Technique." We practiced a good number of bow exercises meant to strengthen bow strokes like martele, legato, staccato and more. They included circling the bow in the air, thumb pulses and even a few ways of holding the bow by the hair and then playing. Try it, it's pretty awkward!

bow exercises
Stephanie Ezerman of North Carolina demonstrates holding the bow by its hair.

Next came a joint session called "Bach in the Books" with SAA President Teri Einfeldt of Connecticut and Colburn School faculty member Michael McLean of Los Angeles, which they described as "pedagogue meets composer," Teri being the pedagogue and Michael being the composer.

Teri Einfeldt and Michael McLean

It's important, even in the youngest beginner, that a teacher have a vision of that student as an accomplished player in the future. If we plan to teach our students the solo Sonatas and Partitas by J.S. Bach (and we do), certain techniques have to be well in place, starting very early in the Suzuki books. As Bach expert Katie Lansdale said later in the day, "How smart was Dr. Suzuki, to thread Bach through all the books? You see a braid that keeps twisting back and back to Bach."

Those little Suzuki students eventually turn into sophisticated musicians, and Bach is an important part of their post-Suzuki books study: "This year I have 14 high school students who were once playing "Twinkle"; they are all playing (solo) Bach now," Einfeldt said.

Teri mentioned a few techniques that students should be acquiring throughout the Suzuki books for their study of solo Bach later. For the left hand: learning to leave fingers down and to measure finger intervals (if they are a half, whole or larger step away from each other); lifting a finger to change its location; removing unnecessary fingers to avoid a grace note effect (say, one needs to go from a 3 to an open string, the 1 and 2 can be in the way); expanding and contracting the hand (she described a "finger pileup" for chromatic intervals in the hand); bridging the fifth (one finger over two strings, in tune); leaving fingers down for bariolage, ringing tones; double stops, chords and more.

For the left hand, the student should come away from the Suzuki books with a strong idea of how to do various kinds of string crossings; playing comfortably at the frog and with control. Also a student must be able to vary bow speed. For example, "introduce them to the concept of phrase ending with any two-syllable word," with emphasis on the first vowel. For example, say "ICE cream." Fast bow on "ice," short soft bow on "cream." Also, lessons in phrasing and articulation that are learned in early Bach pieces will apply later.

Michael McLean spoke about the hidden treasures in Bach, and how it's good for teachers to know about those details, even if every student may not be ready to receive the information until later. Michael's tremendous enthusiasm for the art of composing came through as he spoke about various aspects of the Bach pieces that appear in the Suzuki books: "Bach had a real pride of craftsmanship in his composing," Michael said. In Minuet 2, Michael emphasized that the bass part is extremely important, the way it runs in rhythmic counterpoint to the melody part. "A lot of students don't know the bass part in this piece," he said, "the melody rides on top of the bass." (By the way, the books Fun for Two Violins allow teachers and students to play these pieces together, with the kind of counterpoint and interaction Michael spoke about.)

Michael also pointed out that in Bach's Minuet No. 3, the G minor part that appears in Suzuki Book 3 is basically the same as the G major part that students learn in Book 1: "It's like he cheated!" Michael said. "He was good at re-using material." He had superimposed both parts, so that we could study their tremendous similarity.

He also noted that the Bach Gavotte in G minor from Suzuki Book 3 "is an amazing technical masterpiece," full of motives that are layered and inverted, in both the violin "melody" part and in the piano/orchestra/duet part. Personally, I agree; playing this piece as a duet with my students (using the books I mentioned above) is one of my great joys because we see the genius in the way Bach's musical motives are crafted. "It's like a tree by a pond -- the inversions are its reflection."

Bach's genius was in his ability to calculate such things intuitively. His way of creating motives and putting them together "was so ingrained in him that it just poured out of him," Michael said. "He was like a kid in the sandbox, playing with his toys, and he was really good at it."

Michael also pointed to the fact that there are rhythmic hierarchies in this movement; though it is written in a 4/4 meter, sometimes it changes to a sort of meta-meter in three, and one should become aware and go with that.

"Sometimes the worst thing in music is the bar line," Michael said. "It's not telling you to stomp your fee every four beats!" Instead, it's just Bach's way of getting the ideas onto the page, and it may be part of a more layered and complex scheme.

I love the fact that the Suzuki Method draws together so many talented teachers with different expertise, and also different ways of looking at the same music. While Teri showed us specific pedagogical points, Michael's wonderfully geeky (I mean that in a good way) deep knowledge of the composition of these pieces make them open for even more exploration. So good to be here, so good to be part of the Suzuki movement.

And so far, I've shared only the morning of the first day! I have more to share with you, on Katie Lansdale teaching and playing Bach, your brain on music and much more. Stay tuned!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 27, 2012 at 11:21 PM
That's fascinating, Laurie. I love the idea of starting to show Bach's genius to beginning students.

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