8 April 2018 Utrecht
I’ve never studied Suzuki method, but I’ve been intrigued ever since I heard the criticisms of it (some of which sounded just plain racist), when growing up as a musical teenager in Western Australia. The gist of the criticism seemed to be that it produced automatons, who couldn’t read music. Having had no early music education, however, the idea of teaching such young children fascinated me, and the children who could play the violin so young, with such assurance, were the subject of great envy to me. Later, when I took up the viola, both of my teachers, George Coleman and Margaret Smith, although not teaching Suzuki method to me, were Suzuki teachers, and used some of the techniques in my lessons. They were good teachers, and taught all aspects of the instrument, technique, tone, phrasing, articulation etc with the same care that I would hope to find in any teacher. Later on at music camp I met a lovely and talented violinist, whose mother ran a fabulous Suzuki programme at a local girls’ school, which I envied very much. Hers was a family of outstanding classical musicians who had come up through this method, and I thought it was worth investigating.
Some of the aspects of Suzuki method which were criticised have since been taken up by mainstream pedagogy. The use of recordings to learn is perhaps the most obvious; it is now standard for a CD to be issues with the grade book for ABRSM music exams, at least for piano and violin. The teaching of young children is no by no means as uncommon as it was when Suzuki started his method, although there are still teachers who believe that seven is an appropriate age to begin (this despite the fact that it is pretty much unheard of for a great violinist, pianist of cellist to have started after the age of five). Using verbal expressions for rhythmic patterns is also now standard. Some other aspects, such as the idea that the children don’t learn to read music, because they initially learn to play by ear, are simply misunderstandings. Suzuki’s idea was that children should not start to learn to read music until they were at an appropriate age to learn to read.
I am not sure if I am really going on to become a Suzuki cello teacher, despite the attractions of a child-centered method that teaches great technique, but I am from time to time working through the excellent repertoire (like Kodaly, Suzuki thought that children should be offered the very best material for their musical development), applying the principles as I understand them (both from reading, and from the time my daughter was on her Suzuki journey: things I have picked up in her lessons, at workshops and in conversation), to my own playing. So far everything I have tried has been highly effective.
I begin with a D major scale, stopping the bow at the end of each note. I can hear that the open A string note is still subject to a tiny ricochet at the end. Today I am working on stillness without stiffness. That is to say, a lack of extraneous movement of the bow in the string, not that I am trying to keep my body completely still, which would be counter-productive. The whole sound is so much better today, especially if I remind myself to breathe (!)
I find I have to listen to the tone beneath the contact of bow to string. I sometimes think of this as ‘listening to the inside of the cello.’ How the sound is ringing out from the cello, not just how scratchy the contact of the bow with the string is. ‘Listening to the inside’ draws attention to the roundness of the tone, and how it resonates. As well as making one very aware of the different timbres the instrument produces, this is where the answer to good intonation lies. The note that is played correctly in tune resonates in a way that the note that is slightly off does not. This is true even of notes that are not matched by an open string, and even of the lowest notes in half position. Good tone is partly the result of good intonation.
I was perturbed when I started playing this new cello because it seems a great deal more scratchy than my previous cello, but when I first played with piano I realised that it projected much better. I had the same experience when I bought my first ‘solo’ recorder. The wonderful John Everingham of The Bristol Recorder Shop convinced me to buy a palisander A. Dolmetsch treble recorder, when I had been asking after one in pearwood, because I was playing the Handel Sonatas at the time. At first I found the edginess of the sound very problematic after the mellowness of pearwood, but I quickly came to see that mellowness is only really desirable when trying to blend, in an ensemble. For Baroque sonatas the tone with the edge which is more flexible, and penetrates better is definitely superior.
I’m into Dotzauer lines five and six, working through with the metronome. It shows up how I struggle to use the whole bow in the long notes, especially at this speed. It further helps with planning decrescendos and crescendos. There are two instances here where the bow markings require forward planning: at the beginning of the fifth line to come from a whole up bow, then play more or less half bows all along until the upper half. One needs more bow through the crescendos, and then, somehow, the opposite, as a middle-bow decrescendo leads to the lower half, going into piano. The careful planning required to be already down the bow means getting there early, and avoiding playing a more sustained note to that lower half.
The string crossings through the sequence are causing a little sigh as I cross over. I manage to eliminate most by preparing the finger on the lower string, while I am still playing the note on the upper string, but where I need this finger for both strings, it’s tricky.
I’m tired of sawing away marcato at scalic passages, so I round off this practice with the middle movement of the Couperin. It’s great to be skipping along lightly with the bow. Enjoyable both musically and in terms of the physical sensation of the bow on the string.
The Bristol Recorder Shop website: