School For Strings Continues To Vibrate As Suzuki-Based Music School
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
Though it’s been a few years since Charles Osgood featured The School for Strings (SFS) on CBS, nothing’s changed at this jewel of a children’s music school. In fact, nothing’s really changed in the school’s 38 years of existence— which is the way its focused but wonderfully relaxed director Alexander “Sasha” Yudkovsky wants it (well, he wouldn’t mind roomier quarters and being able to offer lessons tuition free or at least more scholarships). Like the school’s founder, an early Suzuki enthusiast, who’s still playing and teaching at 91, violinist, Louise Behrend, whom Mr. Yudkovsky credits as his mentor, Russian-born Yudkovsky, who came to this country as a 14-year old cellist, and who has no problem answering to “Sasha,” wants SFS to remain small and intimate. It’s essential, he says, for him to know every student, from the age of two and a half on, and to know their parents.
He’s not interested in fame that leads to expansion or development. It was CBS who came to SFS, he points out, not the other way around. Charles Osgood noted why: his own five children had been students at the school and absolutely loved the experience. His wife pointed out how she would travel with their growing quintet over the years, spending four out of five days a week at the school. The participation of parents, Sasha notes, is a basic requirement of SFS, regardless of a youngster’s level or ability to play. Parents must attend classes with their children, learn the instrument their children choose and pursue practice and music appreciation at home. That’s parents, not grandparents, nannies or caregivers. Hard on working mothers and fathers? No doubt, but somehow they make it. Thousands of youngsters from middleclass and lower middleclass homes have passed through SFS and applications continue to pour in, and not just from Manhattanites.
Founded in 1970, with 180 students, SFS has been described as “the premiere Suzuki-based music school” in the country, dedicated to teaching and promoting the ideas of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who believed that learning a musical instrument was like learning a language, and involved immersion and encouragement—ear training early on as opposed to theory, and family reinforcement instead of lone rehearsal. As SFS’s mission statement puts it, the Suzuki method is premised on the idea that all children “can achieve beyond their expectations” and that close collaboration among parents, teachers and students can build a “love of music, self-confidence, discipline, good work habits, and outstanding achievement.” Children get to feel that their instrument is part of their body, Sasha says.
“Playing string instruments is not, as with piano, a visual experience: you don’t see notes,” you have to feel it. Approximately 300 or so youngsters now attend SFS. New emphases include programs in early childhood, summer pre-K workshops, a summer institute for chamber music (ages 10 and up), and more professional training sessions for teachers.
To judge not only from the Osgood program but also from on-site observation, SFS is doing everything right. A three-year old child comes in, “Where’s my class!” It’s just about to begin, and Education Update is invited to look on. Four young girls and boys are being led in rhythm exercises. Teacher Tara Hoisington, full of charm and confidence, with an expert Faina Khodos, on piano, guides the small ones to do-re-mi…by way of a “Solfege” Mat and directions to bob up and down according to the notes on the scale. Then the children are led to say “Watermelon” and recreate syllable accents with castanets. Big beats and minor beats, fast and slow, are then illustrated by way of “Jingle Bells” and the dance of the “Sugar Plum Fairy.” The parents delightedly go with flow. Does it all work? Regional festivals where groups of youngsters gather together to make magic, not to mention their appearances every now and then at Carnegie Hall—and CBS! —Would seem to indicate an unequivocal Yes. Call 212-315-0915 for further information. SFS is located at 419 W. 54. #