August 28, 2007

ART EPIPHANIES: How a mother reconnected with her dream of learning violin

Mary Illback is now a violin teacher.: Photo courtesy of Mary IllbackIn the early 1960s, when I was a seventh grader struggling to learn to play the violin in my beginning orchestra class in the public school in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the conductor brought in a newspaper article. A photo showed his grown-up daughter dressed in a beautiful Japanese kimono. The article discussed how she had just returned from visiting Japan where she had observed a traditionally trained violinist named Shinichi Suzuki. He taught pre-school and kindergarten students to play the violin using the Mother Tongue method, a new teaching technique he had devised himself.In Japan, my teacher’s daughter had been impressed with the children’s musicality, the ease with which they played and their clear joy in making music. The point of the article was that teachers in the United States needed to learn more about Suzuki’s method and adopt it for use with American students. Children should not have to wait till seventh grade to begin learning the violin. The struggling was unnecessary.That planted a seed in my mind: to someday learn more about that Suzuki method.Soon after, however, my parents moved our family to another city in New York State where private lessons were not offered in the public schools. Although my public school violin teacher from Saratoga had given me a violin and bow to take with me on the move, encouraging me to keep studying, my family could not afford private violin lessons.By the time I went off to college, with private lessons still out of reach, I gave up hope of learning to play the violin properly and well. After one difficult year of trying hard to master the college orchestra repertoire, I gave up studying the violin completely. I closed my violin and bow up in a case and opened books instead.Ten years later, I had completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and Spanish, and all but the dissertation for a Ph.D. in comparative literature. I had taught middle school English in New Jersey and freshman Spanish and English college courses. I also had married. Time had turned me into a grown-up with a husband, and the latent desire in my heart to play the violin had been temporarily eclipsed by the birth of our first daughter, Erin.When Erin was three, and we were all living in Richmond, Ky., however, I read another newspaper article. This one was about a Suzuki violin and cello teacher offering lessons to pre-school children in the town’s library. Buried under adult responsibilities, the seed planted in my mind years ago started to sprout. I signed Erin and myself up for violin lessons, and the adventures into the world of Suzuki violin began.Slowly, almost imperceptibly, as my daughter grew so did her ability to play the violin — as did mine. The method nurtured us both. Suzuki students begin with learning to produce beautiful tone with the bow playing simple rhythms on the open A and E-strings. Suzuki considered this tone and the music a basis of realizing joy in life. “Music … sound, tone. What strange things they are,” Suzuki wrote in his book “Nurtured by Love.” “Man does not live in intellect. Man lives in the wonderful life force. Sound has life and soul without form … Bach, Mozart, Beethoven — without exception they live clearly and palpably in their music, and speak forcefully to us, purifying us, refining us, and awakening in us the highest joy and emotion.”Suzuki method: Since beginning Suzuki violin lessons at age 30, Illback has become a teacher to young musicians in the Suzuki method.But while the music is powerful, Suzuki’s method is relaxed and natural and carefully fosters ability. Each new skill is added only after the previous one has been fully mastered, with much repetition. Upon completing the first volume of study, a student is playing on all four strings, using his left-hand fingers to change pitches, too, but concentrating always on producing that same beautiful tone he learned as a beginner. There is no pressure to match pitches to musical notation (as there had been in my childhood string orchestras). The student does not begin to read notes until he can physiologically control his own sound, just as a baby is not expected to read before he can speak.In 1982, when my family moved to Louisville, our teacher told us the University of Louisville had a Suzuki program. That year Erin, wearing a large button that read “Music is happiness you can hear,” walked into Virginia Schneider’s violin/viola studio on the Belknap Campus, played her first variation of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and resumed her studies, along with her mom.We learned in the private lessons and group lessons, where many students were all playing the same pieces together, improving in tone and musicality with each repetition. In group lessons, less advanced students had opportunities to hear the more advanced repertoire, to play with confidence their own early pieces and to try out their newest works in an atmosphere of common interest and shared learning.There were solo recitals, group recitals and an annual workshop where students could study with other teachers and students who came to the U of L from all over the United States, as well as Japan. On a School of Music bulletin board, at the University of Louisville, we also learned about a Suzuki birthday concert being given in Chicago. We sent in our applications to attend, and Erin had her picture taken with Dr. Suzuki himself in the front row of the nearly 400 children who attended the event.Years passed as my daughter and I both practiced daily and diligently. Erin eventually won a music scholarship to the University of North Carolina, and I had another child, Annie, who also studied Suzuki violin. Over those intervening years, I had memorized and performed most of the Suzuki repertoire with my daughters and played in various Louisville community orchestras. Other 30-something and all-too-soon-40-something mothers of Suzuki students would come up to me after performances and ask incredulously, “You’re still studying? I gave up when my child passed me up in ability after Book 1!”But violin practice had become a natural event of my day, like the sun coming up. I couldn’t imagine life without it.Meanwhile, my teachers were as nurturing and warm to me as they were toward my daughters. When I recorded my first audition tape to begin Suzuki teacher training through the Suzuki Association of the Americas, my teacher was by my side, silently supporting me while I played.I am now beginning my 11th year of teaching young students — and occasionally their moms or dads — to play the violin. I am also in the middle of my ninth level of Suzuki teacher training (there are 10 levels) with a teacher whom Suzuki trained.Now we are studying Mozart’s A Major Concerto, K.219 — beautiful, timeless and energizing music brimming with happiness. Suzuki wrote, “It was Mozart who taught me to know perfect love, truth, goodness and beauty. And now I deeply feel as if I were under direct orders from Mozart, and he left me a legacy; in his place I am to further the happiness of all children.”Mozart and J. S. Bach have become my favorite composers to play and to listen to over the years, so it seems a special privilege to be learning a way to make Mozart’s music easier for a child to learn. Still, the end of childhood does not mean the end of learning art. I see learning as a lifelong process, and so did Suzuki.“There is no need for any of us to despair,” he wrote. “We are all born with high potential, and if we try hard we can all become superior human beings and acquire talent and ability.”Much of reaching that potential, he adds, means not putting learning off to tomorrow, but taking action “right now today.”He promises, “Your life will become happier as a result. That this may become true for everyone is my heartfelt dream.”Today I share his great dream, and I am most happy to be a living part of it. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com