In the first few moments of his first Suzuki music lesson, my six-year-old son is sitting on the floor with Miss Rann, who is introducing him to the parts of a cello.
The instructor sings a very simple melody: “This is the bridge,” and the students are supposed to sing back, “This is the bridge.”
“This is the fingerboard,” she sings, to a different tune.
“This is the fingerboard,” the students repeat.
Maybe the bits of music she is singing are from a famous composition she’s trying to drill into their minds. I never learned to play an instrument, and my knowledge of music is very limited, so I have no idea. Maybe she’s just improvising.
For about ten years I was a church cantor, but I never had any formal training (other than an hour or so before Mass, and the occasional extra practices for more complex Christmas and Easter programs). The most I can say for myself is that I was probably a little better than having no song-leader at all, though I did enjoy it because many people in the congregation already knew the songs, they just needed to be reminded when to start.
Later, when she points to the bridge again, the instructor uses the same tune, singing, “What is this piece?”
She asks Peter to sing a question to the other boy, and vice versa. They’re practicing pitch without realizing it, just like The Karate Kid, who polished Mr. Miyagi’s old cars with a circular motion, not realizing he was practicing the motion you use to deflect an opponent’s blow. Okay, I think I get it now.
I’m very impressed with Miss Rann’s ability to keep his attention. Peter and the other boy are the only students in our group, so I’m sure that helps. Still, I’m amazed.
Now they are practicing posture — how to sit down and get ready to play cello. One — stand with feet together. Two — move left foot left. Three — sit on edge of chair, holding imaginary cello in left hand. Four — tuck in and start playing.
One — feet together.
Two — feet apart.
Three — sit down.
Two. (Whoops! She faked them out! After some fiddling, the kids stand up, feet apart.)
One. Two. Three. Four.
Peter does pretty well, aside from tending to fart on “Three”, though it’s the adults in the room who exchange glances and try not to laugh.
“Boy, you look good playing a cello,” says the teacher. “You look like a born cellist!”
Peter puffs up at the flattery.
“Now I want to see how strong you are — how long can you hold a cello, while you listen to me play?”
Peter looks very serious. “Excuse me, you’d better use the bow.”
She does. He seems to enjoy the music the teacher makes. He closes his eyes, listening.
A little later, he chirps, “Look, I can hold the cello with my eyes closed!”
The teacher asks the kids to sing along with her as she plays each of the cello’s four strings, A D G C. The lyrics:
“Axe, Dig into the Ground, all the way to China.”
“Do you know why we have to sing?” she asks.
“Because you do,” says Peter.
Well, yes, but she also wants the students to get into the habit of hearing the notes in their head, or they won’t play them right.
Peter plucks the strings in the right order — he is accompanying the instrutor as she sings! I’m amazed.
I watch more closely, and of course the instructor can see his fingers (which I can’t, not from my position behind him), so she times her singing to his uncertain plucking.
Still, the illusion works — and he laughs with pleasure.
I can’t help but think of Harold Hill’s ‘Think System’. I wonder if The Music Man was written as a response to the Suzuki method?
When it’s the other boy’s turn to play, and Peter has to wait, he presses his nose against his (borrowed) cello, announcing, “Well, if I can’t play it, I’ll smell it.”
A little later, the students pluck G over and over, one two one two, plucking while the instructor bows a more complex harmony around it.
I have to bite my tongue to keep from barking out orders, realizing Peter has to learn to listen to his instructor, and that if he’s not ready to do that, he’s not ready to play an instrument.
So far, they’ve only plucked. Peter has asked eight or ten times to use the bow.
While the other little boy takes a bathroom break, the teacher shows Peter how to put rosin (resin from a tree? Miss Rann has an accent that I can’t place, so I’m not getting all her words, and she’s not talking to me anyway) on Peter’s bow, and lets him tug on it.
The other boy comes back; the instructor asks Peter to explain what rosin is and where it comes from.
I realize that, as much as possible, she’s first instructing Peter, then asking him to repeat the lesson for the younger boy. The little boy gets to watch the new step twice before he’s expected to perform it, and Peter gets the lesson reinforced when he teaches it.
“I’m tired,” says the other boy.
Peter pretends his hands are spaceships and makes them shoot at each other — something he does almost constantly, whenever his mind wanders.
Now it’s time to teach a conductor’s gestures. She lets the boys play whatever they want, but getting them to play soft and loud together, and — very important — to stop on her cue.
It’s been just about 20 minutes. Now it’s time for a walking break — she takes the kids out into the hall. Away from the instruments.
Away from the parents.
They must have been playing follow-the-leader and Simon Says out there, because when they come back into the room, Peter is eager to get back to his instrument, yet they first have to play “Cello Maze”.
Follow the teacher as she weaves through the chairs, around the cellos placed carefully on the floor. The object is not to kick the chairs or the instruments.
“I’m sure that piano is easier,” says Peter at one point.
Now it’s time for the “Cello Song,” which is designed to remind the students to hold the cello with their knees and chest, not their hands:
I love my cello very much
I play it every day
I love to watch my spinning strings
When my hands fly away.
I can’t help but think of the Battlestar Galactica episode where Starbuck taught some kids a battle plan in rhyme.
Next, it’s time to turn the cello over and tap out a beat on the back. The teacher taps it out, then puts her hand on her head — the sign that the student should repeat it. Peter has played rhythm games like this before in computer games, so he does very well. The other little boy strokes his cello, which squeaks under his palms. Instead of telling the boy, “No, don’t make it squeak, you should tap it instead,” the instructor compliments him on learning a new sound to make. Everyone tries to make their cello squeak for a while.
Whoops — the middle part of the class flew by without any time for me to take notes. But I quickly noted that she’s alternating “playing the instrument” with some other more physical activity.
The instructor demonstrates how the cello can make the sounds of a cow, a mouse, and a woodpecker. We sing and play “Old MacCello Had a Farm.”
I have to help Peter; she’s going a little fast, and Peter is getting frustrated his sounds don’t sound like hers. He doesn’t care that much about the cow, he wants to keep doing the mouse.
Just in time, the teacher gives them a break from the instruments.
What I don’t expect is that I and the other parent get drafted to play the one two one two G drone in something the instructor calls “Muset” — I didn’t expect to be asked to play anything,
but it was easy, and doing it really felt great.
Ten more minutes left.
She’s teaching students how to bow (not the horsehair thing, I mean bend at the waist to accept applause). Everyone watches the instructor, until she makes big wide eyes — that’s the signal to bow.
Seven minutes left.
“What did you learn today?
“What a mouse sounds like!”
“Show me what a mouse sounds like!”
>squeak squeak< with the bow. She explains the technical term for whatever it is they are doing. I don’t catch it. “What else did you learn?” “How to bow!” “Show me how to bow.” Peter makes big wide eyes, and flops over at the waist. The teacher follows her cue, and bows with him. At the end, it’s time for stickers. For the rest of the week, Peter will spend one lesson each on violin, piano, voice, and something else (I forget). Depending on how that goes, we’ll ask him if he wants to take another week on one particular instrument. Then we’ll see.