Arts and Entertainment

Playin’ it by ear

It was biologist Cindy Horning’s study of singing birds that led her to choose a “Suzuki method” piano teacher for her daughter.

The Suzuki theory of training a child’s ear seemed to parallel what Horning, a researcher at the University of Washington, had observed about how birds acquire song.

“Birds and humans have this in common,” Horning said. “Birds learn their song by listening to it, just like human children learn language.

“Suzuki is taught to children as if it were a language – they listen to it, they absorb it and then they produce it.”

Donna Horning, a fifth grader at Voyager Montessori Elementary School, is in her fifth year of lessons with Suzuki teacher Peggy Swingle.

At 5, she was actually a little older than most of the students who start Suzuki, Horning said.

Donna, now preparing for the recital Swingle’s students will put on this Saturday, started her musical training like all beginning Suzuki students – listening to music and then singing it, before touching the piano. And like other Suzuki students, she was taught to read music only gradually.

Horning compares her daughter’s piano lessons with her own.

“I had the classic experience of having to play music I myself hadn’t heard very much,” Horning said, “and it was lonely, because you were always practicing by yourself.”

In contrast, she says, her daughter heard the same music many times before singing it, and meets with other students monthly. She practices for 50 minutes every day.

“We break it up into a before-school and an after-school session,” Cindy Horning said. “It takes some dedication – in Suzuki, parents have a greater role.

“We attend the classes and we take notes. Peggy makes the lessons a lot of fun for the parents, too.”

Swingle, who came to Suzuki from academic teaching in a Montessori setting, apprenticed with several Suzuki teachers to learn the methodology and in 1986 completed her training with four months of intensive study in Japan.

Swingle has 27 piano students ranging in age from 3 to 17.

“The kids are supportive of each other,” Swingle said. “We emphasize cooperation rather than competition. The premise of Suzuki is that every child can be a wonderful musician, given the proper environment.”

The method was developed by Suzuki Shin’ichi in Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He worked with very young children at his experimental pre-school and Talent Education Research Institute, and the method spread to the United States by the 1960s.

Suzuki believed that, just as all nearly all children acquire language without effort, they are capable of playing music, in the right environment. The “mother tongue approach” inspired music pedagogy based on listening, imitation and repetition.

Suzuki, who died in 1998 at age 99, believed that the discipline and sensitivity required to learn music could be a powerful catalyst in the development of child’s overall character.

“Wish for a beautiful tone for a beautiful heart,” he once wrote.

His method, however, has sometimes been dismissed as mechanistically imitative.

“Suzuki method has gotten some bad press,” Swingle admits, “but it’s generally agreed now that Suzuki was ahead of his time. Children learn language through exposure, and they learn music the same way.”

A persistent misconception about Suzuki, Horning says, is that students don’t learn to read music.

“They just don’t believe in trying to teach a child to read music when that student is so young that that they can’t read language,” Horning said. “But ultimately, they do learn.”

Donna Horning can still remember the day she “got” how to read music.

“You’re just struggling and struggling,” Donna said, “and then it just clicks into place. It was really cool. I could just sit down and look at a piece – and I was reading.”

While the difficulty of the “Partita in B flat” by Johann Sebastian Bach has Donna a little anxious about Sunday’s performance, she isn’t frightened.

Suzuki students, she says, meet regularly to play with, and for, each other.

“It’s just more people,” she said, “and it’s parents – a really forgiving audience.”

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Student of Suzuki piano teacher Peggy Swingle’s give a free recital 1:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at Bainbridge Performing Arts. Call 842-5023 for more information.

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