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 humor, analysis, and artistry.

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.

We’ve heard similar stories from Winifred Crock, Helen Higa, and Mark Bjork about their 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 Memoires: simple storytelling, straight from the people who were there… Lightly edited for clarity, without narration.

Our story starts in the 70’s, in Ohio where Sarah Hersh was studying music. She loved playing violin, was curious about teaching, and happened to have a lucky locker assignment. Welcome to this Matsumoto Memoir from Sarah Hersh.

Sarah Hersh:
Well, I went to Oberlin College and there was a teacher trainee there who was from Matsumoto, because Oberlin had had a Suzuki program going, and she was employed to be teaching American kids. So, this Japanese gal happened to have a locker right behind mine. And I was an undergraduate student at the time. So I got interested. I talked to Kako; I would watch her students; and when Dr. Suzuki came to Eastman to get an honorary Doctor’s degree, Kako convinced me that we should go together. So, we went up there from Oberlin.

And to see that relationship, to see that student, a former student, but to see the love and care, that was the special moment. And I realized that’s a mentor, that Suzuki is a wonderful mentor, and that I was really looking forward … if I could possibly work with him … that was, that would be a thrill of a lifetime! So, without knowing exactly how to do it, I went and applied.

And what it turns out is that really anyone who wanted to study with Suzuki, if you were from a foreign country, he figured if you were willing to get the visa, the plane ticket, etcetera, that that’s all he needed to know. Those were the qualifications, that you were eager. So, he took me on, and I went over one summer to study with him. Then, came back, finished my senior year of college, and went over there to be in the teacher-training program.

When I first met him, he was the sage, the mentor, the elder statesman. It was a moment of formality to be presented things. But then to see him actually get to work, when he was working with children, you see already the child in him, the spark of life that inspired him and that he found in everyone and connected with. So really, it’s the synergy that, I won’t say, surprised me, but that thrilled me to see that he valued the way people worked together, and found that motivation is going to spring from that. And so, he helped me learn that studying violin was not a difficult process, or a cerebral process, but rather fun.

So other times that were fun were tea times, because … especially if there were foreign guests. Teacher trainees were busy. We’d bring tea and all of this. But he was hysterical. He’d tell some wonderful stories. The story of his turquoise neck tie…

He was in Germany, young man, debonair, trying to be, and he went to a party. And another gentlemen saw him and said, “That’s the most gorgeous turquoise tie you’re wearing. It’s just stunning.” So Suzuki thanked him, very politely, I’m sure. And you know, a couple weeks passed. And they have this salon society. They’re all visiting, playing music, etc., and he wore this tie. The same guy came up and said, “That is the most gorgeous tie!” And he thanked him again. So the third time that the guy admired the tie, Suzuki said, “Okay you love it. It’s yours!”

My dissertation was an examination of his teacher development program and his studio teaching. So, in that process I transcribed all my lessons, everything that he’d said, because I’d audio-taped them. For him, those values, It’s really pretty simple; his values, love, respect, service, and they would just shine in his work. That amazed me that you could see in a little phrase or a little moment of any lesson along the way. Those values were right there. And he was willing to share them with you.

I mean you were putting yourself in the hands of someone who’s really working on character development, working on ability, on sensitivity. I mean, these are issues of the person rather than a musical phrase. So, he could inspire that sort of trust. There’s just something in the eyes. You could feel that. And of course from the very youngest toddler right forward, you could feel that you were accepted.

He’s told marvelous tales of the child who came in to play for him, who frankly could do nothing that a violinist would think was correct. Held the instrument poorly; the bow was awful; the sound was hideous. It looked like it was painful to play. And there’s the, you know, “Why am I doing this?” So, with all of those things that a normal teacher would be going, “Tisk, tisk, tisk! You know, I have this list that we must dive in!” But instead, Suzuki said, “Thank you for playing,” to celebrate the aspect that was there to honor. So, he started with honoring the person’s contribution. When you start there, you have a relationship. And that relationship’s built on trust. And he could teach that child anything.

His lessons would be sort of half and half. You’d start with tonalization, and then you’d perform your repertoire. During tonalization, he’s standing up; he’s working with you; and you play for maybe thirty seconds; and then he gives you … he plays something, and then your job is to model that, to echo that, so it’s very close and very vital. It’s also great education because you see the illustration and you try it, and you see the illustration and you try that. You’re coming closer and closer to your model. So, there’s that kind of interaction. And that put him on the level with you. I mean, he’s willing to do this as many times as it takes for you to get it. He always shifted things a little, so it appeared to be something new. “Now let’s view it from this vantage point. Now let’s go over there.” So, that kind of collaboration was marvelous.

Then the other half of his lesson was to hear our repertoire, and to work on our sound, our sensitivity. Really, he could have listened for 20 seconds and made his judgment, but he was sophisticated and formal and kind enough to listen to the whole work, you know, fifteen minutes sometimes. But he would take it all in because he wanted you to know, again, your performance was accepted. So, while he was busy working with you on technique it was not the case where, “Well therefore, you were not ready to really perform or to share or to express.” He let you know that your expressions, even though maybe your tools weren’t the greatest, but your musical expressions were valued.

Well the one-on-one lessons, this was the high point of the week for me, the absolute high point of the week. And sometimes you’d get more than one lesson a week, but certainly one. I remember a time when I had played my piece … done tonalization, played one piece; we could have ended the lesson and I said, “Could I play my Bach? I’d like to play my Bach for you if you have time.” And he said, “I have thirty-three years.” (laughs)

Through those individual lessons, he was pulling the best out of me, and I didn’t know it was there. So that’s very special, and I’ll always thank him and treasure that.

In tea time, he would tell us … he would put on a record. And it might be Casals. It might be Kreisler. It might be Ginette Neveu. All these wonderful, wonderful performances! Teacher trainees would sneak into his room when he wasn’t there, and we would go through his CD and LP collection because there were wonderful performances. Things you couldn’t get. So, he’d put something on. He’d play it. And he would get so excited!

He would be reliving how he had … this sort of scientific side of him. It’s like the artistic and the scientific side merging, so that he would be swept away by that particular performance, but then challenged to figure it out. How was it done? And so he’d pull out his violin and show you. You know, you would be listening, the music was just going along. And he’d pick one out. And he’d copy it. And the music’s going along. “Oh, I think he does this, this way.” But he brought to life what an artist might do, made you feel that the artist was right there with you, and that you could take steps to find that artistry. That artistry is not something very high up or far away, but artistry is something in every life, something that we can approach, and indeed we can find.

There are the fun stories Suzuki would sit on one side of the stage, and there would be a screen. And the child or the player would be on another side of the screen so the audience could see both of them, but Suzuki couldn’t see the person playing. And the person would play. And Suzuki would say, “Oh, that was a wonderful performance. I am really so glad you played for me. Now if you wanted technically to improve your work, you could probably lower that right elbow of yours about an inch. And you know, your pinky on that left hand if it were curved it’d be slightly better.” From the sound and from the feedback that the sound gave him, he could construct how the sound was being produced.

I knew how to work my way towards a mechanical, technical kind of a solution. But to build a bridge! You know, “How am I going to get from being able to use my analytical tools towards this kind of nebulous artistry business?” So I had to work through a lot of that, but through it all, whether it’s a Beethoven concerto, Neveu, he found a time in every lesson to also inspire me and help me reach towards artistry.

He’s going to use that potential to speak musically, right from day one. And I think he does that even with young children. That’s the beauty of the way he works. That artistry is, again, not something up high, not at the end, not something you do in college, but artistry is something you can reach as a three year old.

Now I’m thinking also of my students, my college students, since we’ve just had our commencement. I have seen such a wonderful development in those students, those college students. It’s a journey to understand Suzuki teaching principles and to put them to work in a fashion that rings true for that new teacher. This is not a blueprint. This is not a recipe. It’s not a series of steps. So for them to find how they can think about these principles and bring those alive in their classrooms, it’s been a journey. But I’ve been there for that journey. It’s been so wonderful to see that journey. I’ve just am so thrilled. And to celebrate that journey, it shows me what Suzuki, a little bit what Suzuki felt when he had my graduation.

When I think back to graduation from the Matsumoto Program: he would suggest to you, “I think you’re about ready to graduate,” and that could happen anytime. It didn’t happen only in May, or December, or you know, no month. There was no year attached to it. It could happen after a few months, a couple of years. Different people; different tracks; different feel! So, he would suggest … you know, it may take you by surprise, I know it took me by surprise … and it’s this great affirmation. But then he wanted you to have the opportunity to agree. “Do you also feel you’re ready to graduate?” So then, when you have both agreed to graduate, and then you plan your graduation recital, “Wow, is this a celebration!” And it’s something you know you’re sure of.

So, I can remember that I graduated after three years of study. I knew I had absorbed what I could absorb. What he could give me, I feel that that is such a part of me that it can’t be lost.

It’s a boundless sense of possibility that Suzuki has given us, that in any situation there’s always something constructive we can do. And if we do nothing, that was a choice. We can’t go backwards. That’s not a choice, but we can choose to do nothing, or we can choose to do something. Let’s choose to do something! How simple, yet how profound. And once you’ve chosen to do something of course you’re going to choose something positive, and then get to it! Take a step.

Suzuki said, “Isn’t wonderful to have a profession where we can walk together holding hands?” I think that’s part of the way we’ll do this, that no one student or no one individual is going to be another “Suzuki.” But if walk together holding hands, we can do a lot!

Thank you to Sarah Hersh for permission to use her interview.

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

If you heard ideas here that could be helpful to your own teaching environment, help us spread the word about the podcast by giving us a rating and review on iTunes

Thank you for joining us in “Building Noble Hearts,” and we will see you next time.