The Suzuki Play Down v. the Valkyries

My Saturday afternoon was meant to be spent in the multiplex for the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of the second installment of their new Ring Cycle. But it is not only the end of the opera season, but of the school year with its attendant commemorations and celebrations, such as the obligatory Spring concert. For those worldwide millions of parents with children learning through the Suzuki method the seemingly impossible art of coaxing music from a tiny wooden box with strings on it?also known as a violin?this means the dreaded Play Down.

In this sprawling ritual the entire youthful range of Suzuki kids take to the stage in successive waves that mark their level of accomplishment.  First the high schoolers, sometimes mixed in with a diminutive prodigy or two, form a phalanx, and play the music from the later graded volumes of the Suzuki method books. Then each subsequent level marches onto the stage in single file to take position in front of the next most advanced, and generally older, violinists.

Ithaca Talent Education?this is the somewhat ominous name given to one of the oldest and most successful of the Suzuki outlets in North America?has a couple of hundred violinist engaged in the Suzuki repertoire, and at about the midpoint of the Play Down scores of students perform J. S. Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for two violins. The second violin part is the culminating piece of the fourth Suzuki violin book; the first violin part concludes book five.  One of the most bizarre moments of the Play Down is when a couple dozen Suzuki violinist take each part and give a corporate performance of the piece in a vast unison summation of the  shared learning that characterizes the hugely successful Suzuki method and one of its crucial elements?the group class in which the students paradoxically play solo works together.

Whereas the bedlam of the Neapolitan conservatory system of the 18th-century crammed dozens of students into a single room and had them practice separately in chaotic competition, Dr. Suzuki put them together and had them play as a team. As a result some claim that the Suzuki method effaces individual interpretation, and the sight of a mass performance of the Bach Double might well appear to Bach up there in Lutheran Heaven like an army of musical automata or fiddling zombies. A work that Bach conceived as an intimate vehicle for performance in a courtly hall, coffee house, or riverside garden becomes a not unfrightening vision of assembly-line musical production.

From such demanding works as the Bach Double, the Play Down proceeds at last to the repertoire of the newest and youngest children embarking on their Suzuki careers. The journey begins with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The tiny ones shuffle shyly onto the last bit of remaining stage. Out in the audience each parental pair and their camcorders are focused on their own kids amongst the hundreds on stage.

At this point the graduating high school seniors are summoned to the front of the stage to lead a valedictory Twinkle, assuming the role reserved for the teachers in the group classes. With their backs to the audience, the seniors each lead a chorus of the tune, including, inevitably, a variation with the rhythmic profile of “Mississippi-Hotdog” (four sixteenth-notes followed by two eighths). Not coincidentally, this variant derives from the opening motive of the Bach Double. The circle is completed, the cycle continues: the graduates have learned their craft and the parents on both ends of the Suzuki chronology see all those lessons and group classes and Play Downs flash before their eyes, as the grown child gets ready, at least provisionally, to fly the Suzuki Nest, even as the tiny tots blink into the crowd and the future.

As the Saturday morning rehearsal dragged on inside the Ithaca College concert hall, I sat in my car awaiting its completion with my eye fixed on the clock. I had a date to be at the Met simulcast at noon, but the Suzuki gods were against me.  The better part of an hour later than scheduled, my violin-playing daughter emerged from the building. By then I had already scrubbed the simulcast mission. It is true that percentage-wise, I’d still have plenty of the five-and-a-half hours of Die Walk?re, to sit through and wallow in, but I was unwilling to miss the opening storm.

Rather than enjoying the simulcast on the big screen, I dedicated my afternoon to cursing massed Suzukian spectacle and to the scraping and painting of a cast-iron radiator. At least I had the Met radio broadcast to ease the drudgery.

In the Suzuki Play Down and Wagner’s Valkyries we have two very different views of the parent-child relationship. The Suzuki method claims not just to be about learning to play a musical instrument, but more fundamentally about
developing the familial bond. An acquaintance who had a distinguished career as a musicologist, served as a president of one of America’s leading universities and also put his kids through the Suzuki system in Ithaca, once quipped that the prime pedagogical insight of Shinichi Suzuki, who adopted one of his students as his only child, was that if the kid does not succeed at the violin it’s the parents’ fault. Accordingly, this musicologist held the view that Dr. Suzuki’s most-widely read book Nurtured by Love should have been called Goaded By Guilt. It was a view the musicologist once expressed as a member of a parents panel at the Ithaca Summer Suzuki Institute. It was the first and only time the he was asked to participate in the panel.

Wagner’s Die Walk?re presents a rather more tempestuous vision of family life, and not just during that opening storm: the story and its music are driven by incest, Oepidal conflict, philandering, greed, violence, debt, and lethal disobedience. There are no minivans or violin lessons.

The opera concludes with the Br?nnhilde’s father Wotan grounding his errant daughter big time: taking away her horse, encircling her in flames, and kissing her into an enchanted sleep. In modern terms it’s the equivalent of taking away the keys to the MINI Cooper , locking the kid in her room, confiscating her cell phone, and lacing her Diet Pepsi with an extra dose of Xanax

Nibelung-like I banged and scraped and sanded as Siegmund and Sieglinde flee in incestuous love from the fate that eventually overtakes them, as the Valkyries scream across the skies, and as Wotan takes his anguished leave from the daughter he has so harshly disciplined for taking moral action in response to his own egregious misdeeds.

I finished the radiator amidst the dual intoxicants of Rustoleum vapor and Wagner’s chromatic harmony. As Br?nnhilde fell into enchanted sleep inside the magic flames, I admired my work, and it occurred to me that probably many of the players in the Met orchestra producing that shimmering E major sonority had been nurtured by the Suzuki method, and that perhaps even in the first Twinkle are sown the seeds of musical and emotional complexity?of striving, despair, and fulfillment. It dawned on me that the richness of art emerges only from the routine and regimented.

Clearly I needed some air.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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