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Classical Music

The Mom-centric method

The popular and successful Suzuki system of teaching a child a musical instrument -- begun by a Japanese violinist in the 1940s -- takes a family commitment.

September 07, 2003|Constance Meyer | Special to The Times

Growing up in South Korea, Connie Paik took music lessons for granted. "Every child learned the piano," she recalls. "It was a basic, just part of the curriculum: math, science, piano, etc. If your parents didn't start you on piano, then there was something wrong with your parents."

Paik, now a homemaker in Torrance, has observed that "many American mothers think music is something special, that they can only do it when the kid is 'talented' or 'gifted.' They don't think the same way about sports."

Not Paik. William, her 4-year-old, already studies piano. His sister, Erin, 6, is a violin student. They've both been studying for more than a year. Paik's far from being a stage mother, but she's not a soccer mom, either. She's a Suzuki mom. And that doesn't mean the kids are also riding choppers with training wheels.

The Paiks are part of a worldwide phenomenon -- parents and children enrolled in the Suzuki method of learning a musical instrument. Developed in the 1940s by Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki and imported to the U.S. in the early '60s, this system of teaching the violin to kids as young as 2 has since been adapted to many other instruments and includes thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of pupils in 42 countries. Suzuki's goal wasn't to turn out concert artists. Nevertheless, Suzuki alumni include the hot young violinists Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn and Leila Josefowicz, L.A. Philharmonic principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour, and Aimee Kreston, concertmaster of the Pasadena Symphony.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Violinist's death -- An article in Sunday's Calendar on the Suzuki method of musical instruction incorrectly reported that violinist Shinichi Suzuki, creator of the method, died in 1998 in Tokyo. He died in Matsumoto, Japan. Also, the article omitted piano classes from a list of those offered at the Southern California Suzuki Institute at Occidental College.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 14, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
These errors appeared in Sunday Calendar on Sept. 7:
Violinist's death -- An article on the Suzuki method of musical instruction incorrectly reported that violinist Shinichi Suzuki, creator of the method, died in 1998 in Tokyo. He died in Matsumoto, Japan. Also, the article omitted piano classes from a list of those offered at the Southern California Suzuki Institute at Occidental College.

While studying violin in Germany during World War II, Suzuki had an epiphany: A baby in a German-speaking family who hears the frequent repetition of such basic words as "Mama" and "Dada," he realized, easily begins speaking German, whereas babies growing up in Japan learn Japanese. Suzuki reasoned that very young children introduced to the violin in the same way could just as naturally learn to play it -- as long as they had the same loving and supportive environment.

Suzuki called this method the mother-tongue approach. He also determined that for the child to be exposed to repetitions equivalent to what a baby experiences with language, she must have more than once-a-week-lessons. He proposed a triangle -- child, teacher and home teacher.

Says Anna Guenthner of Wood Ranch in Simi Valley, mother of 7-year-old violin student Brieana: "It's not about dropping off your child and going to get your groceries."

Mom's role usually the biggest

For many parents, the Suzuki method, like Jell-O or Kleenex, is a respected brand name, which gives it a kind of authority. The surprise is that while sometimes the role of home teacher is played by a father or other caregiver, it usually goes to the mother, whether she has ever picked up a violin or not. In addition to playing recordings of the Suzuki repertoire, she must be well versed enough in violin playing to instruct her child.

Asked whether she knew what she was getting into when she signed up seven years ago with her 5-year-old twins, banking consultant Teri Zakzook of Santa Monica says: "Not at all. I took piano lessons when I was young, and my teacher used to step on my foot as an exclamation point."

Psychologist Laura Baker of Hancock Park -- mother of Morgan Cesa, 14 (piano), Colin Cesa, 12 (violin), and Cameron Cesa, 10 (cello) -- studied piano in her childhood and found her lessons "boring." Yet, she says, she got "hooked on the Suzuki method because I thought this is a really great way to start kids much younger, so they can get a lot further before they get to that point in their lives socially where they may decide they don't have enough time, and they can make those choices in a different way."

For Baker, discovering boys when she was 14 distracted her from continuing music lessons. Not so with Morgan, who entered 10th grade this fall and has studied piano since she was 5.

"She made the transition from being nagged to practice to being independent," Baker says. Moreover, her daughter doesn't do conventional baby-sitting. "She practices and does theory with six kids in the neighborhood."

Stacy Belanger of Van Nuys, whose 10-year-old, Christopher, started violin when he was 6, describes her task as "to make the time available so we can practice, to really pay attention at the lesson. I take copious notes. We tape the lessons. The tape reminds us of things. I can say: 'Remember she said she wants you to do this and this and this.' "

Given the ages of many Suzuki beginners, misunderstandings are inevitable. One mother found her child in the bathtub using a soapy washcloth on her violin. That afternoon, her teacher had instructed her to clean the instrument "every day, just the way you get cleaned every day."

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