Sun Up


Margaret Watts Romney:
This is Building Noble Hearts, a production of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. I’m your host Margaret Watts Romney.

Today, we are looking at just one environment created by one teacher, and finding themes that can be applied to good teaching everywhere such as connection, powerful observation, and humor.

We are dipping back to a series of recordings—interviews made a number of years ago with people who studied with Shinichi Suzuki in Japan in decades past. In their voices I hear curiosity and admiration as they remember their experiences. Also, I hear the inspiration, wisdom, and gratitude that they’ve kept with them since they left.

In season 1, we heard a similar story from Helen Higa about her time studying in Matsumoto with Shinichi Suzuki.

So while we are working on the full episodes for Season Two, we will occasionally release these Matsumoto Memoirs: simple storytelling, straight from the people who were there… Lightly edited for clarity, without narration.

Our story starts in the 60’s, in Minnesota, when Mark Bjork was heading to an intriguing concert. He was going to see a tour group of very young Japanese children playing complex concertos brought to North America by Shinichi Suzuki. Welcome to this Matsumoto Memoir from Mark Bjork.

Mark Bjork:
There was an opportunity to hear, to go and see and hear the tour group. So I was curious about this, because it was something new and people were talking about it, and so forth. So I went, and a group of us piled in a car and drove—got up at three o’clock in the morning and drove to Macomb, Illinois. It was in fall of ’66. The tour group was there, and the format they were using… Suzuki would do a workshop demonstration kind of thing in the afternoon, followed by a concert in the evening. The workshop was absolutely fascinating because he was talking about very, very sophisticated points of violin playing. The kind of thing that certainly other people had talked about by generally not in dealing with young students. And then he had some of his students demonstrate these points. And it was quite obvious that there was something very special going on. Well that evening was the concert, which completely expanded my viewpoint of what could be done with children. This was a group of eight children, and as we were told, there were hundreds more in Japan. So I felt that I had to find out as much as I could about how this was done. And that’s how it all started.

Got as much knowledge as I could from what was available in the US: I read everything that I could, went to visit various people, had many long phone conversations. I mean there was just a lot of exchange at this time with people that had had direct contact with the man.

And then I started to teach. Of course I made mistakes at the beginning, and did a few things right, and learned as it went along. Then a number of years later, I was able to go to Matsumoto. At that time, I was with University of Minnesota Extension; I had a quarter leave, so I spent three and a half, four months in Matsumoto watching him. And that was in the fall of ’73.

But basically I sat beside Mr. Suzuki, and watched him teach seven days a week for almost all of that time, with the exception of a few side trips to other cities to watch some of the other teachers. And it was absolutely fascinating. I’m really glad that I had been teaching for a number of years and actually had brought students through his entire curriculum by this point, because I think I was able to appreciate and understand more about what was going on. I mean it certainly helped dealing with the language barrier. I think if I had not done any teaching and knew virtually no Japanese, it would have been considerably more difficult.

I think there are a couple of things that struck me really very, very strongly, and I’d had certainly indications of these things. One of them was that he really, really bore out his philosophy as it’s been presented, and the concept that every child can learn and can learn to a very high degree. And then watching him, you know, he would never give up with a student. Working in very, very small steps and building on each success was wonderful to watch.

I think one of his big successes had to do with the fact that he was able to make every student feel like they were, if not the only one in the world, certainly the most important one, and that their development and their learning was the most important thing. And that was really, very impressive to watch.

And he was also able to meet them at what ever level they were in their playing, whatever level they were musically, what their age was when he was dealing with the younger students. It was really quite amazing to watch this. And I think it was instinctive with him. I mean I know he hadn’t had any education psychology courses or anything like this. He just instinctively understood people. We could say children, but it wasn’t just children. It was people: because he was the same way with adults, the teachers that were coming back for lessons sometimes.

The other thing was, one point teaching. And this was very, very interesting for me to watch because he literally would talk about only one thing in a lesson. I mean the lessons all followed the same format. He always started with tone study, and then he would have them play a piece of repertoire, and then he would say one thing. And as he explained this to me, he said, in his teaching in the past he had talked about many different things during the student’s lesson, just as most of our teachers do and most of us find ourselves doing, even though we try not to perhaps. He said, you know, a number of things would be talked about during the lesson and then the student would come back the next time and possibly have made some progress on one or two of those points. But he said, “If you concentrated on one, then the student could really take care of this,” so that when they would come back for the next lesson, that was taken care of. And they could move on to something else.

But besides the very intense concentrated work like this, I think the thing that was so amazing was his diagnostic skills, because he could analyze on the spot the student where they were violinistically, musically, and come up with something invariably that was key to their development. And he would make his point with them, and then he would make sure they understood what it was and what they were to do. And then that would be the end of the lesson. So some of the lessons were very short, probably would be unusual if it was more than fifteen minutes, because he would make his point during that time.

Suzuki put a very heavy burden, shall we say, on teachers, because he would say, “If the student was not succeeding, it was because the teacher wasn’t breaking things down into small enough points.” In other words, everything should be broken down into little steps where the student could succeed and then you could build on this.

He would talk about this one point, and want it to be taken care of. But he also was understanding about sometimes he was giving them a very big point and he seemed to know when they could take a small point and when they needed a bigger one.

I remember watching a young man who must have been eighteen, nineteen who was a very, very highly developed violinist. He was about ready to leave to go to Europe. He was going to study. He was going to study with Arthur Grumiaux. He had been accepted as a student. He played the fugue from the G Minor Bach Solo Sonata, and it was beautifully done. Beautifully done technically, beautifully musically, so forth! And I thought, “I wonder what he’s going to say now?” So he spoke to him of course in Japanese. He turned to me and said, “His point is second, third and fourth violin must sing more,” meaning … referring to the many, many chords in it, and how he must be aware of the voices, and so forth. Then he turned to me aside and he said, “Sometimes one point take very long time,” because this is the kind of thing that you work on for a lifetime, you know!

There was a wonderful sense of humor there, too, but also a “seriousness” in what he was doing. The lessons were all business. I think sometimes, you know, in this country particularly in the early days when he would come with a group of children and he would do various games and things, and people got very caught up in the games. But the games, from what I saw, were things that he did when there were visitors around. But the lessons tended to be all business, light-hearted sometimes, but directly to the point.

The joy was always there! And the joy was a very wonderful, internal joy from knowing that the students had really done well, that they were developing. They were experiencing the beauty of music; the communication of the composers he so often spoke of. So that was the kind of joy, it wasn’t, you know, “Haha, aren’t we having fun at this game?” Not that they didn’t when he did these things, because they certainly did. He had a way of relating to children in this way, but always with the highest of standards.

There was a time he, it must have been around 1980, give or take a year or two, that he came to the US and Canada. He wanted to do four workshops with students and one of the ones he chose to come to was Minneapolis, which I was delighted and scared about because we had to put this thing together in just a few weeks. We did have a big statewide festival then that usually drew around a thousand kids. We were able to change the date to agree with his schedule to bring him here. But I also thought as I set it up, and he was going to be here for a few days in between things, I thought, “Well, let us give him a day to recuperate. He was, you know, about eighty at the time. I thought this man is getting on. Well, he practically went out of his mind. We had to go out and round up some students for him to teach because he was really only happy when he was dealing with students, children, and teaching. So we did. We found some place and hauled them out of school or something, and he taught them and he was happy!

When I was president of the SAA, one of the first events that I had to kind of become involved in was a visit that he made to the ISME, the International Society of Music Education. He had been invited as a special guest. And it was held in London, Ontario. So we had a group … you had to have students. He couldn’t imagine, I think they wanted him to give a speech, but he couldn’t imagine doing anything without having children there, students. So we got together a group of students, of advanced students from the US and Canada, and got them there and rehearsed and they performed. And again he was really only happy if he was with them. Well, one day, there was a free afternoon. And one of the families, one of the students was from London, invited everyone to their home for a picnic. So we were there, and the kids were doing things as they would, and all of a sudden they sort of took off. This was kind of almost a rural area. And they took off across a field to somebody else’s house for who knows what. Well, he wanted to go with them! So, he went running along. We came to a … there was a fence and over this fence was a stile, you know, a couple steps up and a couple steps down. Well, it had been there for a very long time. And I looked at this and I thought, “Oh, oh,” because it didn’t look very secure at all! So, he starts running up this thing. Well, he got up on the top step, and the wood gave way. And he fell over backwards. I was right behind him, and caught him in my arms fortunately or who knows what would have happened. Well, he just brushed himself off, and climbed over the fence, and went on and joined the kids in whatever they were doing!

He was not only a great philosopher, I think we’d have to say, but he was also a great teacher and a great violin teacher. And he distilled technique, the approach to technique, in so many ways. Maybe I often think it’s because he didn’t have the baggage of many traditional teachers. Perhaps because of coming out of another culture, he didn’t have the baggage that it had to always be done only one way. But I think it’s very easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the teaching, because they are all so fantastic too, and overlook the philosophy.

I think that if we look we can see that it has had a profound effect not only on music education but really on early childhood education in general. People may not know exactly where it comes from, but it is . . . I mean just the demonstration of what can be learned by virtually every child is … the threshold has been raised, the bar has been raised so greatly. I think of when I was a student in junior high, for example, what was thought of as being really rather unusually good for junior high is now what we’ve come to take for granted in many six and seven-year-olds.

I think at first I think we were very worried what would happen when Suzuki was no longer with us. I think that’s partly because those of us that were able to have personal contact with him, much was based on the personal contact. I mean it was so profound. He was such a charismatic individual and made everybody feel like they were the most important person in the world.

You know, the impact on my life in general is the basic approach to people, I think is the important thing. And the thing that was so well rooted that people, people can, can learn, people can grow, people will grow, and to approach another human being as someone that has the potential for growth and development.

A certain spirit of the whole movement has continued. And I think will continue.

Thank you to Mark Bjork for permission to use his interview.

Our theme music, “Sun Up” is composed by Steven Katz and Derek Snyder and performed by the Snyder cello army.

Thank you to Methusaleh Podcast Productions for valuable technical support

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