Where the first step to violin play is standing still


By Julie Shapiro

Little girls in hot-pink and purple dresses and boys in pastel button-downs held bows as long and thin as their arms. Tiny violins, light as balsa wood, rested on their laps. Occasionally, a child fidgeted and the violin clattered to the ground.

On stage at Manhattan Children’s Theater in Tribeca, each young violinist took a turn standing by the piano, pressing the bow to the violin’s strings and making the beginnings of music before a crowd of video-camera-wielding parents. Most of the children were barely old enough to attend kindergarten. For many, the recital earlier this summer was their first public performance.

Music lessons and the accompanying recitals are a rite of passage for children, but few start as young as those who took the stage at this Suzuki recital. These children learned to play when they weren’t far out of diapers through classes at miniMasters, an early childhood arts center in Tribeca and one of the few places in Manhattan that teaches 3 and 4-year-olds to play the violin and piano.

“They introduce very young children to music and make it not a drag,” said Kamy Wicoff, whose son Max Kassoy, 4, played “Twinkle, Twinkle” at the recital. “He has a natural tendency to love music,” she said of her son, “but [playing the violin] helps him see that music is something he can make. That’s a really cool thing, a wonderful thing for him to be aware of at this age.”

Max may have inherited his affinity for music from his father, Andrew, who also started Suzuki lessons when he was young. Max, who lives in Tribeca, is playing on the same miniature violin his father once used.

The Suzuki method uses repetition to teach children to play the violin and other instruments before they’ve lost their first tooth. Violinist Shinichi Suzuki invented the method in Japan in the middle of the last century, based on his belief that musical skill was less a matter of talent and more a matter of proper early education.

The approach is a highly structured, step-wise program, with each child learning the same set of skills and songs. There is no sheet music — these children are too young to read words, let alone notes — so they absorb the music and technique by watching and listening. Before playing a note, the children learn how to stand, how to tuck the violin beneath their chin and how to position their hands.

“Especially for young kids, this is the easiest way to teach them to play with the best results,” said Pico Alt, the Suzuki violin teacher at miniMasters. “It’s based on how to learn a language, with lots of repetition.”

At miniMasters, 16 weeks of Suzuki instruction costs $2,050. That includes three half-hour music lessons a week, practice CDs, Suzuki books and a customized knapsack. About 70 students are currently enrolled.

Not all children are ready for Suzuki at the same time. They need the physical strength to grasp the violin between their chin and shoulder, and they need the concentration to stand in one place and play. The staff at miniMasters evaluates each child before signing them up.

They evaluated Max when he was just shy of his third birthday and determined that he was mature enough for the lessons, but his mother decided to wait another year.

“I wanted him to want to do it,” she said.

Many of the parents who bring their children to Suzuki lessons at miniMasters said the lessons were their children’s idea, and they would not force their children to continue if they lost interest.

Stella Skrobe, 3, had taken ballet and general music classes at miniMasters when one day she told her mother, Kim Skrobe, that she wanted to play the violin. After Stella walked around the house with two sticks, pretending to play the violin, her mother decided to sign her up for the real thing.

Parents usually attend Suzuki lessons with their children, so they can help the children practice later, but Stella is very independent and likes to go by herself, said Skrobe, a Tribeca resident.

“For a young child, it’s a great way to go,” Skrobe said of the Suzuki method. “What I like about it is that it teaches discipline.”

Stella has just learned to play “Twinkle, Twinkle” using one hand on the bow and the other pressing down the strings, which Skrobe said is exciting progress. But Skrobe said she would never force her daughter to keep playing, since she remembers her own mother making her take ballet lessons when she was younger.

“If she wants to do it, she can,” Skrobe said.

Learning to hold the violin and stand in the correct position takes weeks for some children and months for others. For some, that was all they could manage in time for the recital earlier this summer. One young boy stood before the audience, holding the violin beneath his chin, one arm bent to his chest, the other holding the bow at his side, with a look of intense concentration on his face. He stood frozen while his teacher played “Twinkle, Twinkle” on the piano behind him.

“It’s a hard first step,” Alt told the audience as the boy took his final bow.

Another child ran to his mother in the audience when it was his turn on stage. Alt convinced him to return to the stage, but he wouldn’t let go of his mother’s hand. Alt knelt to talk to him, and convinced him to stand by the piano and take a bow, the way all students start their performance. He was still too scared to play, but the crowd gave him a round of applause anyway.

Later, when all the students played as a group, they convinced the shy boy to join in, and that gave him the boost of courage to play “Monkey Song” all by himself. He got one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon.

Two of the oldest children at the recital were Julia Bella, 10, and her sister Gabriella Bella, 7. Julia’s performance of Bach’s “Gavotte,” a whirlwind of climbing and falling notes, left the crowd momentarily speechless after listening to the smaller children playing the same notes over and over. The performance arrested the children as well, who stopped fidgeting and whispering to listen.

Ana Bella, mother of the mini-virtuosos, said after the recital that she wanted to introduce music to her children when they were young. She started playing piano herself when she was 8, though not through Suzuki, and she thinks music helps her daughters in school, especially in math.

“They’re capable of this,” said Bella, who lives in Tribeca. “You wouldn’t believe it.”

Julia said playing an instrument helps her feel the beat while dancing and listening to music.

For aspiring musicians and their parents, summer provides no vacation. Alt encourages parents to sign their children up for summer lessons, because a three-month break for a young child means that a lot of the skills will be forgotten by the fall. Three 4 and 5-year-old girls attended a group class Alt held earlier this summer, which was full of singing and games.

Alt started the class by tuning the violins, but the children were responsible for applying rosin to their own bows. Helen Fexy, 5, borrowed rosin from Liad Ben-Eli, 4, and rubbed it vigorously against her bow.

“Helen, not too much,” Liad said after a minute, craning her neck to watch.

“Helen, that’s enough rosin,” Alt said several moments later.

Helen kept rubbing.

“I’m going to make it perfect,” she said.

Once Helen was satisfied, Alt gathered the small class together and each student introduced herself and gave the name of her favorite food. Then they stood in “rest position,” tiny violins tucked beneath their armpits, bows held at their sides. Alt adjusted them, tugging their feet into position, curving their pinkies, bending their thumbs.

The children were eager to play and kept fidgeting out of position, plying the violins’ strings with their bows. When Alt finally gathered everyone’s attention, she lifted her bow into the air and they mirrored her in silence.

“Let’s play ‘I Like Chocolate Ice Cream,’ on E string,” she said, lowering her bow to the strings and rhythmically playing the chosen string. The children followed, more or less in unison.

After reaching the end of the song, Alt switched to piano and gave each girl the chance to lead “Watermelon, Watermelon” on A string, a song that sounds like “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Individual performance is a large part of the class, teaching each student to be in the spotlight while the others learn to listen. At the end of the half-hour class, everyone got a sticker.

Brigit Ben-Eli, Liad’s mother, said afterwards that she likes that the group classes are playful, not too serious. Liad had recently announced that she wanted to play the violin, and at the young age of 4, “Suzuki is the only possibility,” said Ben-Eli, who lives in Battery Park City.

And why does Liad like playing the violin?

“Because I like stickers,” Liad said, grinning.

Several parents cited Alt as the reason the program is successful. She is soft-spoken, gentle and infinitely patient. No matter how squeaky or warbling the note, she never cringes. Alt said she does not push the children beyond their natural pace. Some take a whole year to learn their first song, but then they learn 10 songs the next year.

Alt is a product of the Suzuki method herself. She started playing at 3½ at the School for Strings in Midtown, and by the time she was 9 she was playing Mozart concertos. At 10, she entered Julliard’s pre-college division, and she received a bachelor’s from Julliard in 2005. She has performed at Carnegie Hall and in festivals as far afield as Moab, Utah and Spoleto, Italy.

If Suzuki students start young and follow the method, “they always end up being good players,” Alt said. Smiling, she added, “For me, it worked.”