Miss Ramona starts with the usual chit-chat that one can count on going over well with young kids.. how old are you? She asks them how old they think she is.
Peter thinks. “You’re probably twenty-five years old.” (He’s way under. She doesn’t correct him.)
Miss Ramona has the kids pick a sticker and put it on the carpet, then sit on it. Peter is reluctant to sit on whatever Lion King character he’s chosen, but he does so anyway.
She asks them to sit “like an Indian.” Years of politically correct conditioning in academia cause me to cringe each time I hear that, though that’s probably an over-reaction.
She leaves them sitting on the ground for a while, while she sets up. (She had been teaching a private lesson until right before we entered.)
Peter squirms too much. George leans over and snaps, in a tone that exactly mimics the command I have been hissing at Peter all week: “Listening body!” (A positive alternative to “Don’t slouch and roll around like that, pay attention instead!”)
When the students ask a lot of questions or plead to hold their instruments right away, Miss Ramona doesn’t let them babble on off topic – she cuts them off with a pleasant but final “Nope.”
Once she is set up, selecting little violins that are the right size for her pupils, she gives a little lecture about following directions — and threatens to take away the violin if the students don’t do what she wants, when she wants it.
This isn’t playtime.
She’s perfectly pleasant, sitting on the floor with the kids, and nicknaming Georgie “baby doll,” but she’s also very professional and efficient.
While the little tiny violins are still in their cases, on the floor next to each student, Miss Ramona first plays Twinkle, Twinkle. She explains it’s the first song you learn on any instrument in the Suzuki method, and I understand that it’s also always the last song that one plays at a Suzuki concert, so that everyone – even the newest students – can play along.
I’m getting very familiar with that song.
Miss Ramona plays it again, and asks them to sing along this time. She claps for them when they’re done.
10 minutes into the class, they are doing fairly well.
She introduces the string family, taking the word “family” literally. The violin is the baby, the viola is the big brother. Cello is mommy, bass is dad.
“Who’s the sister?” asks Peter.
“There is no sister, it’s a boy family,” says the daughter of the cello instructor (who has been hanging around with nothing better to do while her mother teachers in another room).
Miss Ramona demonstrates the instrument’s pitch range, she plays it at different speeds, she shows how to bow, pluck, and bounce the strings with the wood of the bow (a “special effect”), She also demonstrates the mute.
At the 15 minute mark, they open up the tiny violin case – but they take out only the bow. The violin doesn’t come out for another 5 minutes.
As they go through the anatomy of the instrument, Peter recalls a bit from Monday’s cello lesson, though he calls the scroll a “screw”, and the pegs “pins,” the fingerboard “finger rest.” He does remember “bridge”.
The students pluck the E string. The A string lives next door, and on to D and G.
At one point, Peter raises his hand and solemnly informs the instructor that a whitesmith works with steel, and a blacksmith works with iron.
She smiles. “Ooo-kay.”
When she demonstrates what happens to the sound of a string when you play it while also turning the tuner, the tuner makes a horrid clicking sound.
“Stop that,” says Peter, worried. “I don’t want to see you doing that.”
He’s convinced that she’s breaking the violin, because we have a little plastic toy guitar at home, and when you turn the little cheesey plastic toy tuner, the little cheesy plastic toy strings pop out, and Daddy has to fix it.
“Stop that!” says Peter. “Or else.”
The instructor stops, her curiosity roused. “Or else… what?”
Peter folds his arms. “I’m not doing that,” he says, meaning he’s not going to turn the tuner.
Miss Ramona goes back into her spiel about how the vibration and tension of the string affects the sound.
Peter sighs. “We’ve heard that over and over.”
Miss Ramona taps the violin, and invites the students to tap theirs and listen to the sound.
Peter won’t tap the violin — he doesn’t want it to break.
Miss Ramona tries to get Peter to loosen up a bit. “You probably couldn’t hit it hard enough with your hand to break it,” she says.
Peter eyes his violin.
I blurt out, “Peter, don’t try.”
I needn’t have been worried. Obviously the instructor’s reference to the violin as the baby of the string family has made an impression — Peter wants to cradle his. “Has anyone made up a song called ‘Rock a Bye Violin’?”
The cellist’s daughter seems to have officially crashed our lesson. With a new student in the room, the dynamic changes; George and Peter have just barely gotten used to the idea of taking turns, but with a third person, there’s a bit more squirming and poking going on.
The cellist’s daughter has taken cello for five years (she looks about seven or eight) and has to unlearn a few cello things in order to do violin things. Her hand shoots up with an answer for every question. She knows all about what rosin is for and how to put on your bow, but when asked where rosin comes from, she pipes up: “Maple.” She doesn’t know how or why, she just knows rosin has something to do with the word “maple”. While the girl is very sweet, the competitive Dad in me is pleased to see that something has stumped her.
Peter gasps – he notices the instructor has been touching the bow with her finger. “Don’t touch the horsehair!” he blurts, genuinely concerned.
“She knows what she’s doing,” says the cellist’s daughter.
Peter (holding the rosin up to her): “Sap!”
I snicker into my hand. That was a good one, Peter, though I’m sure it was completely unintentional.
At the 36 minute mark, the kids are doing very well, though they’re still eager to start bowing.
Peter suggests that the rosin and pitchpipe can be the violin’s cousin.
Peter hears someone scraping away at a cello. He reaches out towards it, looking for all the world like the Frankenstein monster from “Young Frankenstein,” clawing away at the air which bears the music which calms the savage breast. “I think the cellos are going on!” he shrieks.
Our instructor introduces four rhythms that are important for playing violin:
Mississippi hot dog.
ice cream (shh) cone.
Michael Michael motorcycle
At the 45 minute, we take a little break. When we come back, we practice stretching and reaching with the “bow hand” and the “violin hand”.
Learning to hold the bow: make a bunny with your hand. Pinky and index finger up, other two touching thumb. Now the students show their parents.
Holding the bows more or less properly, it’s time for “Bow Olympics.”
Make windshield wipers – back and forth, back and forth.
So far, so good.
Now, make a rocketship.
Whoops – immediately, both boys start making engine noises and running all around the room, making their bows chase each other and shoot laser missiles.
The idea is to get them to hold their bow straight up and down, so perhaps “
tree” or “flagpole” would be a better image to put in their heads.
It takes some time to calm them down for the next step…
What’s your favorite food? Macaroni and cheese, of course.
The students use their bow to help them stir a big imaginary pot of macaroni and cheese.
After some singing practice, it’s time for posture. One at a time, they stand before the teacher, first holding just the violin, then both violin and bow. This takes much more doing than playing the cello.
Finally, after more than an hour, they’re ready to play “Mississipi hot dog” on one string.
Time to put the violins back in their case for some more listening. Peter pleads to play again. He makes his hands into spaceships and makes them swoop, dive and shoot at each other – a nervous habit that flares up for weeks at a time whenever he watches one of the Star Wars movies.
The cello teacher arrives to pick up her daughter. She and the violin teacher talk shop a bit. The violin teacher turns to Peter and asks which he likes better, violin or cello?
Peter looks from one to the other.
“Piano,” he says. Then, after a tiny pause, “And violin and cello.”
For his prize at the end of the day, Peter receives a sparkly butterfly sticker.
He brings it right to me. “You wear it,” he says. “I’m just too generous.”
The lesson is over.
Peter pines after the closed violin case.
“I want to play!”