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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Language of Music

It’s a Tuesday evening in late August. The Grabill Lounge, in the basement of Neu Chapel on the University of Evansville’s campus, is filled with students. Instead of 20-year-olds in sweatshirts studying tomes and making notes, these students have not even graduated from high school, and some are as young as 3. And the notes they’re making aren’t on paper.

This is the first group lesson of the 2012-13 season for UE’s Suzuki Talent Education Violin Program, and there’s that fun, hopeful, anticipatory back-to-school-buzz in the air. Friends reunite, parents laugh, younger siblings sleep and play, and instructors tune violins. A calm settles, the students arrange themselves in rows based on height, and Carol Dallinger, Oramay Cluthe Eades Distinguished Professor of Music, welcomes them. This is her 40th year to greet such a group, and she is nationally recognized as a leader in the field of Suzuki pedagogy. Yet her smile, her easy jokes, and her clear love for both music and children all seem as fresh as if she’d just founded the local program this year.

Shinichi Suzuki developed his philosophy in the mid-20th century and brought it to the U.S. in the 1960s. He hoped to help children acquire music skills the same way they acquire language. Principles for the Suzuki method include parent involvement, early beginning, listening to music (the way children listen to speech), repetition, encouragement, learning with other children, graded repertoire, and delayed reading of music.

Gretchen Muchnick grew up in Evansville, learning to play the cello in the traditional way, but she performed with other musicians who had been trained by Dallinger in her Suzuki program. Hearing about the program and witnessing the kind of people and musicians these students were inspired Muchnick to involve her own children in the program. When she and her husband, Marc, moved back to Evansville from Cincinnati with their then-2-year-old, Katie, one of the first calls Gretchen made was to Dallinger to put Katie on a waiting list. Katie started her lessons when she was 4.

“My husband had a little training in school,” Muchnick says, but he isn’t a musician the way she is. Still, he was equally on board with getting their children involved. “What’s so intriguing about the Suzuki philosophy is that it’s not about creating a concertmaster or a solo violinist. It’s really about developing the character of each child,” she adds.

The Muchnicks now have four children. Katie, now 9, still plays in the Suzuki program, along with younger siblings Jack, who is 7 and started when he was 3, and Elizabeth, who is 5 and started when she was 3 1/2. Their youngest, Reid, is 2. He will start when he is 3 or 4, depending on availability.

The Suzuki Triangle — made up of the parent, the teacher, and the student — is a key part of the program’s success. Parents are intimately involved in their students’ participation in the program, and while they aren’t always required to learn violin with their children, Muchnick wanted to have that level of involvement. So she’s taken lessons as long as Katie has. She’s watched her children grow in the program, and it’s clear that they have each benefited in different ways. “For my oldest, it’s given her a sense of confidence,” Muchnick says, noting that having the opportunity to perform violin at age 5 in front of a supportive audience is an unusually encouraging experience for a child. “For my second two children, particularly my son, it takes things that are large and complex and breaks them into smaller pieces. That is a skill that will serve him throughout life. My youngest in the program is increasing her focus. We’re now up to 30-minute practice sessions, when we started at 15 minutes. I know for each of them, those gifts will change throughout the Suzuki program.”

And Muchnick takes pride in knowing she’s not working with just any Suzuki program. “Carol is one of the pioneers of Suzuki in the United States,” she says, calling her a “rock star” in the field. Indeed, Dallinger founded Evansville’s program just a few years after it came to the U.S., in her first year at UE. The Department of Music chair at the time, Don Colton, had also just relocated. He’d witnessed a Suzuki program in a public school in Kenosha, Wis.

“He asked me what I knew about Suzuki, and I said, ‘Oh man, hardly anything at all,’” Dallinger says. “I was just out of graduate school. It wasn’t part of my training, plus it was fairly new. So I started doing workshops.” At the time, finding training was difficult, but Dallinger was able to travel to some workshops so she’d be ready to train her five-member group of students, several of whom were children of her colleagues in the music department.

“The neat thing was that I had two performance degrees, but I hadn’t really found my calling in music,” Dallinger says. “I was looking for something that answered my desire for some human connection … Of course, I was a student in the Vietnam War era in the 1960s. I couldn’t figure out (how) playing a scale perfectly in tune was doing any service to humanity, and that’s kind of where my heart was. When I went to those Suzuki workshops, it was like a curtain opening. This is where music touches people, especially children. I felt like I had found my place.”

This UE outreach effort now involves more than 100 students annually, so many that Dallinger now has four other instructors. Maria Mastropaolo, Sarah Pearce, Danette Coughlan, and Aryn Walton are called Suzuki specialists. The program has a waiting list. But when Walton, the newest instructor, began teaching in the fall of 2012, that allowed some students who had been on the waiting list for as long as seven years to begin to learn the Suzuki method.

The 2012-13 group has 150 students, seven of whom are children of Dallinger’s former students. The semesters are 14 weeks. Each week, students attend one 30-minute individual lesson and one hour-long group lesson. They are also expected to practice throughout the week.

In addition to Suzuki, Dallinger team-teaches freshman music theory, and she individually teaches private violin and viola classes and Suzuki pedagogy to UE students who wish to pursue a certificate in the program. These students have a particular advantage in that they get to observe the Suzuki program in its day-to-day functioning, seeing the details of how the program is implemented. Dallinger doesn’t feel she needs to shift her mindset based on her students’ age. “I think it’s all the same because Suzuki Talent Education is a philosophy as well as a method,” she says. “The philosophy of taking people where they are, helping them to mastery step-by-step, expecting that everyone can achieve a high level of skill, no matter their background — that’s my approach in teaching anybody, whether they’re 3 or 43.

Visit the University of Evansville Department of Music’s Suzuki Talent Education Violin Program for more information including tuition and its waiting list policy.

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