It’s back-to-school time here in St. Louis, and I’m busy getting ready for the new year, but before things get too crazy, I want to share my experience at the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point Wisconsin. I spent the last two weeks of July this year in Stevens Point, taking some viola teacher training. I’ve been to other institutes in the past and always enjoyed the experience, but I have to say that ASI is the largest and most organized that I’ve attended.
What is an Institute?
A Suzuki Institute is basically a short, focused summer camp for Suzuki students and their families. Institutes are held during the summer months, and usually last 5-7 days per session. Students will have three classes per day, one master class (3-4 students per hour, who get a lesson with a master teacher 15-20 minutes every day), a technique class, which is a smaller group class generally focused on tone, scales, and technical exercises using the Suzuki pieces, and repertoire class, which is a larger group class. In addition to student classes, most institutes have some kind of enrichment such as music and movement or music theory games, fun activities for younger kids, and sessions for parents on a variety of Suzuki and parenting topics. In contrast with drop-off camps, a Suzuki institute is meant to be an experience for both parents and children, supporting all parts of the Suzuki triangle. And while students are in their classes, teachers like me are able to quietly observe and learn from master teachers.
The institute director, in her brief remarks at each of the many concerts presented over the two weeks (and she attended every single one of them!), often asked the families present “Did you feel the magic this week?”
It’s hard to quantify what makes an institute so special. Sure there are many opportunities for growth and enrichment for students, teachers, and families. There are a lot of great concerts where young students are playing at a high level. But I think the magic we are talking about goes a level deeper. To be surrounded for a week by a community of people, both parents and teachers, who are deeply committed to nurturing and challenging the next generation is a very special thing. In Suzuki education we talk about “Character first, ability second” and although I heard a lot of great music over the week, what most impressed me was seeing students develop a quiet focus in class, seeing them work together as a team, seeing teachers support parents with compassion and expertise, and seeing parents take joy in their child’s accomplishments. Is there anything better? I’d encourage any Suzuki family to attend an institute if possible. Here are more details about the American Suzuki Institute, which is one of the larger Suzuki institutes in the U.S.
In the Center of It All
The Aber Suzuki Center, located on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus, is smack dab in the center of Wisconsin. Stevens Point is a medium-small town of around 25,000 people. I’ll admit I’ve not spent much time in small-town America, but I think the lack of other things to do made the institute seem more like a camp and less like an extracurricular activity. Unlike more urban institutes, almost none of the participants at ASI were commuters and activities such as the talent show, faculty recitals, and get-to-know-you events were well-attended by families and teachers (the promise of root beer floats didn’t hurt either). Although the schedules were pretty packed for teachers during the day, this institute seemed more relaxed than others I have attended. Another advantage of the town’s size is that everything was very affordable. For example, I was able to get a nice brunch, which included a gluten free breakfast sandwich, home fries, and an OJ for under 8 dollars after tax. There are also many nature reserves and great places to hike, kayak, or just enjoy nature. Although the parks and nature reserves are very beautiful, in the interest of full disclosure I did get hissed at by a goose while on an evening run (who knew they hiss?).
Where It All Started
Stevens Point was a very early Suzuki program in the United States and Shinichi Suzuki personally visited and taught there for two weeks in 1976. Upstairs in the fine arts building, large display cases feature letters, programs, t-shirts, and other artifacts showing the long and vibrant history of the program. Dr. Suzuki died in 1998, and I never got to meet him or see him teach, but I have talked with teachers who have and I always enjoy hearing their stories. To start out with a handful of violin students in rural Japan and build what has become a worldwide movement in educating children is an impressive feat indeed and anecdotes about Dr. Suzuki help me to place the method in context and appreciate the passing down of the philosophy and pedagogy from generation to generation.
A Well-Oiled Machine
I don’t know what kind of organizational wizardry goes on behind the scenes, but as a participant, I can say that the ASI runs very smoothly and efficiently. The teachers were generally very good about ending their classes promptly, so there was time between classes for a water break and the pace never seemed rushed or frantic. Beyond the time spent in my teacher training classes, there were lectures on helpful topics for parents and teachers that were presented coherently and with lots of great resources. I’ll admit I also purchased a few knick-knacks from the ASI store to use in my teaching. The atmosphere among the teachers was warm and collegial and I enjoyed getting to know teachers from all over the U.S. and beyond. The ASI is so well-known for offering great training that teachers this year came from as far away as Cambodia and Peru.
The Mighty Violists
At ASI here was a robust and large group of viola students, which is definitely not the case at all institutes. Suzuki Viola, like Bass, Flute, or Harp, has proportionally fewer students compared to violin and cello, so at past institutes, there have sometimes only been a handful of viola players and no group class opportunities. This year, ASI students ranging from Books 1-6, and I got to observe dozens of viola masterclasses, technique classes, and group classes. There was additionally a play-in at the beginning of the week, and a group concert at the end of the week. You can watch their end-of-week group concert here (scroll down to “Viola Festival Concert”).
I was impressed not only with the high level of teaching and learning that was going on, but also by the sense of community spirit. On the day of the final concert, the viola students wore all manner of purple attire, purple having a long tradition of being the “viola color”. I saw purple leggings, purple skirts purple pants, purple nail polish, and even a purple jacket with a machine embroidered viola on the back. Many of these students may come from smaller viola programs and it must have been a great experience for them playing with and meeting other violists. Many families had attended the institute previously and the parents seemed to form a support network with each other. It’s great to see a Suzuki viola program thriving at an institute and I came away inspired to create more opportunities to develop viola community in my own studio.
I hope you are enjoying your last days or weeks of summer!