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UpFront Q&A: Marilyn Kesler, SAA

Eliahu Sussman • Commentary • November 19, 2013

Today’s Suzuki Method: A Conversation with Marilyn Kesler of the Suzuki Association of the Americas

Decades before El Sistema thrust the youth orchestra back into the international spotlight through its widely acclaimed achievements with underserved children in Venezuela, Japanese violinist and pedagogue Shin’ichi Suzuki revolutionized string education with his philosophy of early childhood music education. Emphasizing rote memorization and learning by ear with students as young as three years old, Suzuki’s method quickly gained a major following among music educators in the U.S. and around the world during the second half of the 20th century. While Suzuki success stories abound, the method has also faced its share of criticism, particularly in regards to its de-emphasis of the importance of reading music, limited repertoire, and a purported lack of creative development.

After teaching orchestra in the public schools of Okemos, Michigan for more than 40 years, Marilyn Kesler now chairs the Board of Directors for the Suzuki Association of America. In this conversation with SBO, Kesler talks candidly about the strengths and limitations of the Suzuki method, while addressing some of the larger challenges that face music education today.

School Band & Orchestra: There are many major challenges facing the future of string players moving forward. Is the Suzuki approach the answer?

 Marilyn Kesler: What we’re doing is trying to help children enjoy music from an early age. It’s not that we want all children to become professional musicians, nor do we want to prevent them from doing so. Music is extremely valuable in that it can be enjoyed from the very beginning stages throughout the learning process.

You don’t become a Rembrandt without trying to learn the techniques or skills first; you copy from the masters to learn the basic strokes. When we have students listening to music, they are creating a tonal image, a sound that they can emulate. That’s what the memorization and imitation aspects of the method are all about. We’re not trying to have all students play alike. By listening to great musicians, students learn what’s possible in terms of sounds and tone. The early age is the best time for this activity.

SBO: Does the Suzuki method lend itself to instilling the building blocks for a professional career?

 MK: My goal isn’t to prepare students for a career in music, but to enhance their lives with the joy of music, whether it be as a professional performer or an informed listener. The Suzuki method and its philosophy of nurturing every child to reach his or her own potential has given many students the opportunity to select music for a lifelong career. All one needs is to research the backgrounds of string professionals in the symphonies and university professors across this country to find that many have Suzuki training in their formative years. Suzuki-taught professionals abound. I taught orchestra in the Okemos Public Schools for 42 years. Many former students, of which most were Suzuki students, are now teaching or playing professionally. The opportunities that they received in the Okemos orchestras also helped them in their quest for a career in music. The school programs and the Suzuki method can work together to educate young people toward their musical careers.

My goal as a public school teacher was not to make these students into professional musicians, but to give them opportunities to play music and be involved in the development of skills that allowed them to see the potential of a career in music.

SBO: How do you respond to criticisms that the Suzuki method doesn’t address creativity?

 MK: If I didn’t allow my students some creativity, I would be a boring teacher. I can teach “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” a thousand times, and am always adjusting my teaching of that piece, because every child is different. Being creative is a part of good teaching. A teacher must allow the child to be creative, too. Of course, we add other literature to the Suzuki repertoire as the students progress. Just like teaching any kind of skill, you have some basics that you teach first, and then you broaden from there. Most string teachers introduce fiddling, 20th-century music, jazz, and contemporary pieces when appropriate.

I don’t think that the Suzuki method isn’t creative. For instance, I am looking forward to an upcoming event sponsored by the Michigan American String Teachers Association, where we will have over 100 cellists performing together. These students range in age from five to 18. We will basically be playing Suzuki literature, but we are adding other selections to the program. The evening concert will include solo literature that is not in the Suzuki repertoire.

SBO: What is it about the Suzuki method that has been so successful generating interest amongst the music education community?

 MK: When teaching very young children, you must involve the parents. The triangle between parent, child, and teacher develops strong bonds. For instance, if we hadn’t had that strong family connection with music in Okemos, we wouldn’t have been able to create the program we have now. When families are involved in an activity, such as learning music from the time when their child is three or four years old, this activity becomes an integral part of the family life. It must also be apparent that students who begin study from an early age are more likely to have developed more advanced playing skills. This enables them to play more advanced repertoire.

SBO: I hear similar things from marching band directors, for example, who talk about the advocacy that parents do on behalf of the music department.

 MK: Supporting your child’s interests in any way possible, whether it be fundraising, chaperoning, being a member of a parent organization, or helping the teacher, is what most active parents do. Most music departments would not be able to function without parent support.

SBO: So how do you see the Suzuki method most commonly applied to the school setting?

 MK: One of the things that you will see in the schools is a variety of modification, as well as some programs offering pure Suzuki. The “pure method” means that a child would have a private lesson and group class once a week. Also, the parent is present for both lessons. This requirement of parent participation is most important for the youngest beginners.

Many Suzuki-like programs use elements of the Suzuki method such as rote teaching and the teaching of the Suzuki repertoire, but the parents aren’t as involved. The parents are invited to demonstrations and concerts, and often the teacher will send home videos as teaching aids for the parents to observe. Can you call that the Suzuki method? Probably not, but it is Suzuki-based and has had much success.

SBO: Approximately how many Suzuki students are there in the U.S.? How many in-school Suzuki style programs?

 MK: There are thousands of Suzuki students presently enrolled in Suzuki programs and many thousands more who are now adults who were Suzuki-taught. Again, most string programs in the schools are benefiting from the method in one way or another. There are also “Suzuki in the Public School Programs” throughout the country.

SBO: What influence would you say that the Suzuki method has had on public school music education?

 MK: Presently, most music teachers believe that every student has musical talent. That wasn’t the philosophy years ago. Educators used to believe that not everyone was cut out for music. The idea that everyone has talent is central to what has made Suzuki great. Nurturing the child to reach his or her potential is a key to the Suzuki philosophy.

Another thing that Suzuki has done is to encourage an open door policy between teachers and the sharing of teaching ideas with other teachers. The teaching studio wasn’t that way previously. Parents weren’t allowed to come to the lessons because they were seen as disruptive. Now they’re encouraged to come and take part in the learning process, which then continues at home.

SBO: Could you talk about the process of going from rote to creative performance?

 MK: How do you encourage kids to be more creative? You have to give them opportunities to be creative. For example, you can’t expect children to learn to read music if they don’t have a purpose to do so. There has to be an enjoyable opportunity available that requires reading. It’s the same with creativity. It behooves the parents and teachers to give students the opportunity to be creative. More and more string teachers are including improvisation and composition in their curriculum. Computer programs are rapidly opening new doors of creativity. Students are working on composition on their own. Also, I think a teacher can give music students a piece of music and ask, “How would you interpret this piece of music?” By giving string players a piece with no bowings or fingerings, you can encourage the students’ own interpretation of the music.

Hopefully, what they have learned from other pieces of music will help them to interpret this new piece in a satisfactory way.

SBO: What do you see as the largest challenges facing music education?

 MK: The arts in general have to be defended. When we defend the arts, we’re really defending our culture. However, since the arts don’t necessarily lead directly to financial rewards, they often get attacked. But in the long run, our educational curriculum should give our lives more pleasure and meaning, along with academic knowledge.

At one point our elementary string program in Okemos was in jeopardy, and its funding was pulled by the district. How did we respond? We got the parents involved. Because they knew the benefits of music education, they raised enough money to put elementary string music in the schools for two years. After that demonstration of support, the district realized that it should be funding the string classes, so they added it back into the budget. Where did the supportive parents come from? The Suzuki program! Getting parents involved in music education during the early ages of their children is very important. These parents reap the benefits and also see the benefits for the community at large.

The music programs that are successful are the ones that continue activities after the school day is over. The teachers who have successful programs are the ones who set high standards for their students. The more successful the program, the more support it will receive from the community.

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