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  • A Feast for the Ear: Suzuki Music

    by Tom Kertes

    It’s a good thing that very young children crave repetition because repetition, in and of itself, can create discipline. And you have to be extremely disciplined to learn to play music—the violin, the cello, or the piano—at the School For Strings in Manhattan. The much-admired institution, established 30 years ago by still-active founder-director Louise Behrend, teaches music using the unique, though somewhat controversial, Suzuki Method.

    Behrend got acquainted with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki’s ideas back in 1965 when she combined a concert tour of east Asia with an extensive visit with Dr. Suzuki in Matsumoto, Japan.

    A few years later, she was one of the few established teachers working with his ideas in the United States. With a longterm interest in teacher-training, she started the program on an experimental basis.

    By its second year, the program had grown to fifty students. And by 1973 the popular program moved to its current space, a beautifully renovated carriage house on West 54th Street.

    What is different and exciting about the Suzuki Method? “It is based on the idea that children are capable of beginning to learn to play music at a very young age,” said Sasha Yudkovsky, the school’s Executive Director. “Due to the fact that they are so very young—many of our kids start as early as the age of three—they first learn to play their instrument purely by ear.”

    Playing an instrument is not necessarily linked to learning to read the music, at least not until the child has achieved enough technical control to ensure a level of comfort in reading and playing simultaneously. “This strengthens the ear,” Yudkovsky said. “I believe that is the very reason that so many of our students are so very intensely musical.”

    The Suzuki Method has a strong social element, with group lessons to encourage attendance and aid in fostering friendships. Parents also play a vital role. “A parent attends every lesson with the child and functions at home as a surrogate teacher,” Yudkovsky said. This is far more than supervising daily practice; in Suzuki, the child’s accomplishments actually rest upon a cooperative triangle formed by the teacher, the child, and the parent.

    For the young beginners, Suzuki combines an individual lesson, a group playing class, a musicianship class, and a parents’ class. The children start on pre-instruments, tiny violins and cellos for three-year olds.

    “It’s a discipline,” glowing parent Julian Jadow said. “But it’s a gentle discipline that includes a lot of socialization and love.” Some parents believe fervently in the Method. “We have a family that has six children in our program simultaneously,” Yudkovsky said. “As you may imagine, the commitment is full-time.”

    The School For Strings also offers intermediate and advanced programs plus a multitude of performance opportunities. The start-up program, taught by teacher-trainees, is quite affordable, only $300 a year, and scholarships are available.

    The School for Strings’ results are so good—many graduates go on to top music schools in the country and play in premier orchestras—the school has never needed to advertise.

    “It’s all word of mouth,” Yudkovsky said. “Our students, and the wonderful music they play, are our best possible selling point.” #

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