There is an idea that the dedication Dr. Shinichi Suzuki showed to his teaching was solely focused on producing great, highly trained musicians. If we study his philosophy, however, it becomes clear that he was designing a blueprint for living a wonderfully rich and balanced life. He wanted not only his students but all children to appreciate the beauty of the world and their special place in it. Music could serve as a sustaining connection used on the journey to self, to becoming a good person. Yes, some might go on to become professional musicians, but most would not. It was his belief that even after the last notes were played, the life lessons learned in this nurturing environment would continue to resonate. As a devoted mother of three exceptionally talented young adults, musician and teacher Dannielle Weems-Elliott is a testament to the values imbedded in Suzuki’s vision. The trajectory of her purpose led life begins with all the possibilities that music education presents and continues in the manifestation of her children, the next generation of Suzuki-trained musicians claiming the world as their stage.

Born in Akron, Ohio, Weems-Elliott was part of a large loving family making it through some difficult times. In fourth grade she was introduced to the violin. She enjoyed playing, and by seventh grade she had developed some skills. It was at this time that visiting orchestra teacher Marjorie Henke came around to recruit students for a new youth orchestra. Why not audition? Weems-Elliott thought.

She explains, “I made second chair. There was another Caucasian girl from my school who made first chair. I found out later that she took private lessons. When I asked Ms. Henke how I made it, she told me I was the best she had listened to that day. She asked me about my teacher. My family did not have money for private lessons; I had only played at school.” **

This was the beginning of a student–teacher relationship that would positively influence the rest of her life: “She recognized my potential and we soon made an agreement. She would give me private lessons if I would play with the adult community orchestra that she directed. When I first visited her studio, I saw little kids playing the violin. It was a Suzuki studio, though I did not know it at the time.”

Today, above the entrance door of the Elliott Violin Studio, located in Newport News, Virginia, there are three portraits: Weems-Elliot’s mother and father, Brenda and John Weems, and Ms. Henke. Together, they supported her, investing in her talent while she dedicated herself to the music. It was the music that made her feel special and gave her a sense of independence. Upon reflection, it is the music that she credits as saving her life: “I would never have gone to college. (Henke) arranged for me to go all over during the summer to different programs. I would see Black people living in a way I had never seen before. I knew that I wanted that, too. She was there from seventh grade through college and helped me to get scholarships. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college.”

It is important to understand how closely Weems-Elliott’s story aligns with Suzuki’s dream. In the beginning, all she knew was that her musical accomplishments made her stand out. She was good at something. In college, self-doubt led her to double major in music and environmental science—she did not believe that she could support herself with just the music. Upon graduation, she worked five years for the Environmental Protection Agency as an inspector testing for contamination. She continued to play, but after her son Brendon was born, she began to miss it more. As a military family, when they moved to Virginia and she gave birth to daughter Justine, they decided that she would stay home.

“I wanted my children to grow up and have a love of classical music,” Weems-Elliott explains. “My teacher taught little kids. I looked it up; I became motivated to teaching in the Suzuki method. At the time I was only going to teach my kids. Other parents saw my kids and wanted me to teach them.”

Weems-Elliott’s life aligned so that her musical foundation and strong work ethic had prepared her for two great gifts: motherhood and a studio. She was able to nurture her own children from the start. They were toddlers the first time they held an instrument.

As word got out about her children, she began to accept a few other students. “I had maybe three students, I felt the most comfortable with little kids. I still think that is my forte. I used to take my students to another Suzuki teacher’s recitals—they would be invited to play. The other teacher was moving and wanted to give her students to me, I was going to inherit her venue. At the time, the kids were five and three, and I was pregnant. I reluctantly took it over. It has been quite a journey for 22 years.”

There have been challenges. In the beginning, she did lose students. As an African American instructor in an artistic discipline with little representation, there were doubters. But as her reputation continued to grow, the studio flourished. “I really do believe that I am one of the best Suzuki teachers in the area. I have other teachers who call me for advice about their students. When people have purposely not brought their children to me, my supporters have asked them, ‘Why? Have you seen her kid’s play?’”**

Another difficulty is convincing other parents that her children were not prodigies. “I really like the premise that all children can learn to play. It is not that they are better, it is just that they have put in more time.” She shares that when her children were still toddlers, they would practice for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. When she was homeschooling them, music was part of the daily program. “If they asked me about practicing, I would ask them, did they eat? ‘You practice as much as you eat, every day.’” Weems-Elliott takes this part of the Suzuki approach very seriously. She tells parents to ignore the temper tantrums and continue the practice routines. Then the student will understand that no matter what, they will have to practice so they might as well get started. She also gives the example of her daughter Justine, who at two was very rambunctious and strong willed: “For her, I had to play games just to get her attention.”

Consistency and motivating obviously worked with her own children. “Most kids need direction. It is not fun; the reward is later when you perform. I will never forget once when a reporter asked my children, ‘Do you like to practice?’ His brother and sister said no; Brendon was 16 and surprised me by answering yes, because he likes to be good. He said, ‘It is fun to be good. I realize that if you did not push me, I would not be as good as I am today.’”

To give credit where it is due, she did manage to raise three very gifted musicians, all starting at a young age. With three violinists already in the family, the youngest son, Sterling, became the cellist of the family. They all bonded as she taught and played with them, and in 2004, the Elliott Family String Quartet began performing together. Traveling across the country, they have inspired and charmed numerous audiences and hopefully motivated other youth. Weems-Elliott explains, “Well, I never thought that it would happen. My intent was not for them to become professional musicians. I just made sure that my kids were always better than everyone else.” All the siblings have won numerous state and national competitions and participated in prestigious gatherings such as the Aspen Institute, the National Sphinx Competition, the Eastern Music Festival, and the Colour of Music Festival. Her oldest son, Brendon, has a bachelor’s degree from the Curtis Institute of Music and a master’s degree from the Julliard School. He made his debut at age 10 with the Hampton University Orchestra. He is now a member of the New World Symphony based in Miami. Justine was a full scholarship student at Ithaca College where she has a bachelor’s degree, and has shifted her focus from music to visual arts and communication.

Critics have commented on the technique and musicality of Sterling, who made his first solo performance at seven. He is a shining star already gaining a national reputation. In 2016 he was selected as student of Itzhak Perlman at the Perlman Summer Institute in Israel. He is currently a cello student at the Julliard School.

“I think it is your parents’ dream for you to surpass them. Now I am asking my kids for musical advice,” Weems-Elliott reflects. She also reminds them to stay humble—a lesson she taught at a young age. “Never be cocky. Always be prepared. Over prepare. You will never have a perfect performance. I always recorded the performances and I would make them listen to it on the way home. If you are well prepared, then you will be the only one who knows your mistakes. Now they always listen to themselves.”

Weems-Elliott is looking toward the future now that her children are grown. “As I age, I only want to spend my time with kids who really want to do this. I have a student who I have taught from age three. She is going to college in the fall, it is extremely fulfilling.” Along with her regular private classes, she enjoys producing the Elliott Summer Chamber Workshop. She is also part of a tightknit artistic community and actively engaged with the Suzuki Teacher’s Association of Hampton Roads (STAHR). The organization focuses on supporting Suzuki teachers and families in the Southeastern region of Virginia. They provide opportunities for performances, workshops, scholarships, and international touring.

One summer, a young Dannielle Weems-Elliott sat on the lawn with other students listening to the prestigious Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and she began to dream. Today, she says, “I go into places with my children that I never imagined, and my youngest son has soloed with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.” It is her relationship with music that opened doors, encouraged her to strive for more, and held her when things were difficult. It is her love of music that she shares with her children, students, and countless audiences. Imagine if every child was given such a powerful gift, a way to claim a positive space for themselves. Then, perhaps, as Dr. Shinichi Suzuki suggested, music would save the world.

Dannielle Weems-Elliott is a prominent Suzuki Violin teacher in Newport News, Virginia. She is the founder and visionary of the Elliott Family Quartet, the Elliott Violin Studio, and the Elliott Summer Chamber Workshop.

Dannielle earned her bachelor of science degree from Ohio University where she studied music and environmental sciences. She has served as a clinician and adjudicator at local universities, and public and private schools. Dannielle is a member of the Suzuki Association of Americas and the National Association of Music Education.

Brought up as a Suzuki Violin student, she has always been fascinated with how very young children can learn to play the violin with such high technical skill. This fascination inspired her to begin teaching her own children at very young ages. Dannielle has always wanted to have a family quartet. So once her youngest child, Sterling, was born, she put her plan into action by starting him on the cello. Dannielle’s strong and sometimes controversial ideas on how to raise musical children have resulted in three Elliott children with extraordinary talents. She balks at the suggestion that extraordinary talent is the result of children being natural “prodigies,” because she strongly believes that all children have the ability to reach “prodigious” levels of talent, given the right tools, environment, and hard work.

Cheryl Johnson [bio forthcoming]