Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Life, My Art: Mark Bjork

When I was a graduate student I liked to walk through the streets of Evanston, admiring the beautiful old houses and daydreaming of filling my own beautiful old house someday—not only with family but as often as possible with friends and guests—artists and musicians and writers, creators and thinkers and dreamers. I wanted to make a place where all these people could gather and talk, share and inspire and challenge each other. As it happens, my beautiful old house is far from any big city or cultural center and my friends are scattered all over the place. I don’t have friends over nearly as often as I’d like, and I’m no Gertrude Stein, anyway. But I have been blessed to know some really amazing people, and as I hear their stories and see what they are doing with their lives I still want to share their lives and their art with each other. It struck me that this blog, which is sort of a gathering-place for the things close to my heart anyway, could maybe also serve as a meeting-place.

Today I want you to meet my dad. He was my first violin teacher, patiently guiding me from my beginning lessons on standing still until I went away to college, with the exception of two years around middle school that I studied with someone else. (Now that I have two children near that age, myself, I understand even better why. He is a wise man.) He is the person who taught me how to practice, which is not quite the same as playing an instrument, although the two skills are quite powerful if you use them together. He was the person to suggest that, just maybe, I might enjoy becoming a teacher myself, and he was my first Suzuki teacher trainer. He is still the first person I go to about violin, about teaching, about practicing, and he knows a lot of other stuff, besides. More importantly to the rest of the world, he is a leader in the field of Suzuki Talent Education. He started one of the first Suzuki programs in this country, at MacPhail Center for the Arts in 1967, and has taught at workshops, masterclasses, and clinics all over the world. A graduate of Indiana University, where he studied violin with Josef Gingold and chamber music with David Dawson, Harry Farbman, and Janos Starker, he is currently Professor of Violin and Pedagogy at the University of Minnesota School of Music. He is also the author of the book, Expanding Horizons: The Suzuki-Trained Violinist Grows Up.

*       *       *

There is a story that you tell about getting in trouble in your Kindergarten class that I love, because it’s telling in a lot of ways.

Okay, we were singing something and another boy and I, whose father was the conductor of the college orchestra—he and I decided that we would sing harmony parts. The teacher didn’t appreciate it, and when the report cards came, mine said that “improvement was needed in music.”

What was your parents’ response to that?

They laughed! I had already been playing violin for about a year, and I could read music a bit…

How did you end up starting violin, especially before you started Kindergarten—how did that come about?

I had been begging to for [a long time.] I was fascinated by instruments, and I wanted to play—it didn’t matter which one. It varied from week to week whether it was the cello, or the bassoon, or the timpani, or whatever, and I tried to make these instruments. I was very frustrated. Either [the instrument] immediately fell apart or of course it didn’t make a sound. Except for possibly the timpani that I made out of two halves of coconut shells and waxed paper. They probably made a little bit of sound.

So anyway, my mother was a pianist and a teacher, but she didn’t want to try to teach me—she had heard too many horror stories about that sort of thing—and she contacted a colleague who taught at the other college in town, who said there was a young woman they had just hired on the faculty, a violinist, who was very interested in teaching young students.

I’ve heard you say that your lessons were like Suzuki violin lessons, before those existed in this country. What were your lessons like?

Well, the reason for saying that—and [my first violin teacher] actually was the one who said that, many years later—but she had some unusual ideas. She wanted me to come twice a week for lessons. She insisted that my mother come along, and practice with me at home. And she felt that there didn’t need to be very much emphasis on note-reading at that time, although there was some at the very beginning. I attended studio class with her college students, and listened to them play, and played myself, some. Also she felt that she delayed the use of a lot of scales and etudes, although I did play some scales early on, some three-octave scales.

Wow! Early on?

Quite early on. She had assigned me to play one octave and I came back to lesson and said “Look what I can do! I can play more than that!” and I went up a couple more octaves. And she laughed and proceeded to correct my fingering.

When did you first encounter Shinichi Suzuki and his ideas?

Well the first thing that I saw—I was probably in junior high—was a clipping out of a magazine with a picture of 300 children in Tokyo playing at Suzuki’s annual concert. There was a little paragraph with it: “Japanese educator teaches violin by sending home recordings with students and then teaching them 300 at a time in a stadium.” Of course that information was not completely correct, but I remember seeing that and thinking, “Well, that’s ridiculous.”

But then I had a friend in college who was a family friend of John Kendall—one of the real pioneers in the United States, the first person to go to Japan and watch Suzuki teach. And this fellow, when he did his student teaching he worked with some students using the Suzuki approach. At the end of his time his supervising teacher suggested that he bring some of these students back to campus and have a forum. And it was rather amazing, because they had good posture, good positions, they had a good sound, they played in tune, and they played pieces that were recognizable, which wasn’t always the case with beginning string students out of public school classes. So that was the first thing.

The next thing happened when I was a graduate student. The orchestra conductor approached me and told me that Suzuki, who had been touring in this country, had brought a group of students to give a performance at a workshop at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and he knew that some students were going and perhaps I would like to go and see that. We got up and left about 3 or 4 in the morning in order to get to DeKalb, and came back, probably 3 or 4 or 5 the next morning. That was an opportunity both to hear spectacular students perform, and also to hear Suzuki talk about his approach. The results were so different from anything that we’d seen in this country. I was so moved by it that I had to learn something about it. That’s how all of this started.

And that was what year?

That was in ’66.

How did you go about learning more at that point?

Well, it was very difficult. I read everything I could find. Then I attended an extensive workshop with Bill Star at UW-Madison. Star had been in Japan for I think about 15 months, and he had made a large number of video tapes. Many of these were used in the workshop but later that evolved. That fall I went to Knoxville, and in one week watched something like 80 hours of video tapes. And that was a lot of my training. I made very extensive notes. He had video tapes of individual lessons, group lessons, concerts, interviews with Suzuki going through the curriculum, particularly in the first four books, about what he wanted [the students] to achieve, why what was there was there …this was an incredible amount of information.

Then when the summer institute [American Suzuki Institute] started in 1971, there was a huge change. It brought all these teachers there [together], and they made contact with each other, had lots of late night phone calls and this kind of thing to find out what people were doing, and what worked and what didn’t. Very, very free exchange. Very little printed material available at that time.

*       *      *

My father was already teaching in a public school when he encountered the Suzuki Method, but soon afterward he accepted a position at MacPhail Center for the Arts, where he started a Suzuki program. He essentially built the program at the same time he was learning about the Method, as were his colleagues around the country.

*       *      *

You went to Japan to observe Suzuki teaching. What was that like?

It was fascinating. I went in the fall of ’73, and I was there from the beginning of September into December. And during that time, basically, I sat beside Mr. Suzuki, seven days a week, and watched all of his teaching. I also watched other teachers, and made some trips to other areas to watch.

His teaching was done like a European master class. They would all sit and listen to each others’ lessons, which is the way he thought all children should be taught. Then there were frequent concerts for visiting people, graduation recitals that trainees played in and so forth. A very, very rich kind of experience.

I was accepted as a visiting teacher rather than a trainee, because I had been teaching for a number of years. But they also enrolled me as a student. So at the end of the day when Suzuki would finish teaching, or if there was a little bit of a lull, he’d say, “Get your violin,” and then I would have a little lesson. [These lessons] always related to tone production—I was usually playing “Twinkle” or one of his fairly early pieces. He liked the fact that I was willing to work on these things—on the very, very fundamentals of tone production.

He did occasionally say, “Now play something else.” One day he said, “Now play the opening of the Tchaikovsky concerto,” which I really didn’t know very well, but I thought, “Well, okay, let’s see what happens.” So I started out, and played, I don’t know, part of the opening section, and then he stopped me and had something to say, and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I didn’t have time to practice, really, on my own at that time, so there was no preparation, and he never said in advance, “Prepare this for next time.” It was always whatever he happened to be thinking about.

Also at those times he would often say, “Now do you have any questions?” which was wonderful because having taught for a number of years using his approach by that time, I certainly did have questions. I always had questions, and I had a rather unique opportunity to bring up some things and hear what he had to say. Which was, you know, rather amazing, because this kind of thing didn’t happen very often, for example, in the workshops he did visiting in the U.S.—it wasn’t really an opportunity to do that, and culturally it was not considered something you did, because you would seem to be questioning the teacher’s authority or else showing your own stupidity. It was a very special relationship we had where I was able to do this. It was comfortable for both of us.

[Student] lessons were very short. First of all he always worked with them on tone production, no matter how advanced they were. And then he would say, “Okay, now something for you,” and they would play whatever they were studying, as much as they had memorized, and then stop. He would say one thing. He would choose one thing, always something very integral to their playing. This is where real amazing skill—perception—in his teaching showed up. He would talk about this [one thing], he would make sure they understood what he wanted them to do. And then that was the end of the lesson. So [lessons] would be, perhaps, fifteen, twenty minutes long. But they were very intense.

So, since then you’ve seen many things, I’m sure—in your students’ lives, and their families’ lives, and your life. I’m sure it’s hard to pin down one thing, but what have you seen happen? You must have seen people’s minds change about what their children can do.

Oh, yes. In many, many cases I’ve seen that. It sort of goes with the territory. Many lives have been changed. Standards of playing have gone way, way up. The thing is, is that as a program develops someplace, and you get an environment going so that the new students coming in—and the parents—can see what can happen, the whole thing builds. Typically the quality goes up and up, as well as the accomplishments of students at younger and younger ages.

When we started out, one of the huge questions or thoughts was that this perhaps would not work in our society, with the American family. Of course it’s based on the Mother Tongue Method [based on Suzuki’s observation that children naturally learn to speak their parents’ language proficiently at a very young level, and are capable of learning to play an instrument in much the same way]; it’s based on basic human similarities. Also, the fact that parents are interested in educating their children—this is not limited to any one culture. I think it came at the right time in our society because there was a growing interest on the part of parents for being involved in their children’s lives, which was not perhaps quite the same, earlier.

And so, you’ve devoted 40+ years to this. At this point you’re teaching college students, but you’re still doing teacher training, and very much involved with the Method, and this has been a huge part of your life. At the core, is it possible to say what this means to you?

Well, you know, it comes out of a number of things—love for music, a love for violin, a love for teaching, a love for children. Or students. I wouldn’t just say children. Someone said many years ago that one of the qualifications one had to have to do this was a passion and love for children. But it isn’t only children, because they grow up. And that to me is very, very important. Yes, I love working with children. But I also love working with them as they grow up. Having taught kids from 2 ½ year-olds to doctoral performance majors—the whole thing is very important. Seeing these individuals, at whatever age they are, grow and develop and learn—that’s where the real excitement comes.

I’ve heard you say many times about many different students, “Oh, she’s a really neat kid,” or “He’s a really neat person.” It strikes me that each one of them is that way to you as you get to know them.

Yeah, that’s very true. It has been amazing to get to know these people. And their parents!

Yes, I’m sure!

But it’s about the students, as far as I’m concerned.

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Friday, January 25, 2013


My students and I are working on dynamics.

The kids I started a little over two years ago, they have a nice set of pieces under their belts by now. I love how they have progressed. I think they have learned to trust me and do what I say. And I am learning not to work too quickly, and to be very specific about how and what to practice. I am also learning, increasingly, to practice musicality and sound every bit as much as we practice fingerings and bowings.

And Tuesday in class we pretty much drilled dynamics.

Forte, piano, crescendo, decrescendo.

“Okay, parents, did the bottom drop out when we got to the echo?” Almost, but not quite.

“Okay, you guys, let’s really make them sit up and wonder what’s going on! Let’s try it again.” Let’s take their breath away.

And I love how good they’re getting at loud and soft.

*       *      *

One of the most important things I learned about practicing was to slow down. To go deep. To practice a phrase or gesture over and over—to take a tiny snippet and work it not only until I mastered the notes but until I knew exactly how I wanted to shape it, and then to practice that shaping until it was a part of me. It took me years to be willing to do that kind of work.

There is joy in the process—both in the physical sensation of careful work, and in what it does to you internally to slow down and go deep and get lost in it. I try to describe it to my students sometimes, but I’m not convinced they believe me. But I can try to figure out how to take them there, to walk it with them.

It took me many more years to realize how closely I had to come alongside my students to do that sort of work with them. I still try to talk about it too much. What works is to show them, walk them through the process step by step and week after week, until this way of approaching the music becomes part of them.

*       *       *

One thing I love about learning another language is discovering the direct translation of a word or phrase, feeling the inner nuance of it when I use it. Adiós means goodbye or farewell. But do you hear in the word, also, a (to or with) and Dios (God) when you say it?

The same happens with musical terms. Crescendo means to gradually get louder. But does it change your thinking at all to know that the direct translation of the word from Italian is “growing?” That allegro (fast) means “happy,” and forte (loud) means “strong?”

*       *       *

This process I’m talking about, of going deep into the music, working bit by bit and learning to shape phrase and dynamic and nuance—it is something that takes time. Something that requires ignoring, in a way, the whole rest of the piece in order to work on one small spot, trusting that your work translates outward (endlessly, I believe) into everything else you do. Give in to the panic over the enormity of your task and you lose that depth.

Not only that, but going deep just plain takes work.

My secret hope on Tuesday was that the more advanced kids were not frustrated with working only on the very earliest pieces, the ones everybody in the class could play. Even as we worked, I was worried about it. But nobody complained. In fact, everybody seemed to have fun. I have to admit that I felt surprise and joy at that.

I guess we’re all growing together.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Three Things, Part 3

1. I love those cracks in life that reveal other worlds. The constant possibility of being distracted by the view out the window. The endless deep layers of everything.

2. I can’t tell you exactly what it is that I relish so much in a Mendelssohn scherzo, except to say that it is somehow related to what I relish in the sound of water, or glittering rocks, or fluttering leaves. Delicate and fast of course, but also just terribly alive. Wild, but gentle.

3. There are times when you very clearly walk in to the middle of a story, discover a different sort of crack in life:

I can tell you that this guy was released back into the wild last night, but I wonder how long he watched us from his perch on top of the kitchen cabinet, and what adventure, exactly, landed him in this particular predicament.

Do you think he went home a changed creature, with stories to tell?

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Word of the Day

My parents gave me a Word-a-Day calendar for Christmas.

You may have noticed I like words. I am not disciplined or scientific about learning definitions or increasing my vocabulary. Even with my trusty little calendar, I will forget to peel off a page every day, and suddenly—wait, it’s not January 5th anymore, is it?—I have to blaze through a week and a half of fancy words to get myself caught up, and I probably won’t remember most of them.

Still, I love how certain words capture my imagination. Sometimes it’s just the sound or rhythm that I like, or the way sound fits meaning. Sometimes it’s the particular shade of meaning you can get by using one word instead of another. And sometimes it’s the definition itself. The fact that there is a word for fear of thunder and lightning, keraunophobia, and the idea that you can take that feeling you had as a child, lying in bed at night with the covers over your head, waiting miserably for the next crack of thunder and with it sure death, and why in the world don’t Mom and Dad understand how serious this is—that you can pack all that into a series of letters. You can put it all into this small, elegant package, and when you present it to somebody else there is a good chance they will understand at least part of what’s behind what you are saying.

Yes, I think it’s most often the definitions that get me. Sometimes I read the definition first, and my mind is in another world before I realize that probably the word’s common usage isn't as exciting as I’d thought.

Take today’s word: “feeding upon or living among flowers” (anthophilous, \an-‘thä-fə-ləs\, adj—that’s the order in which I read it.) I know, now, that you would use this word to refer to a certain sort of insect. But I still really like where my mind went at first, to a field of flowers—oversized ones, preferably, but still delicate—and I lived there, surrounded by color and tender petals and fragrance all at once sweet and clean and fresh. And that was my place—where I lived, where I came from, and where sometimes I might like to hide.

I don’t mind that the word has turned out to be a useful one. But I’ve added a little bit to the package. I think there’s room for it, even if only a few other people know.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Three Things, Part 2

1. There are times when I am really happy with my tone on the violin—when my bow is pulling just right against the string and the sound is warm and clear and silky, when the friction between the two is wonderfully present but still smooth, when everything just works. I love those times—being so absorbed in the feeling, as well as in the sound coming back to me. Enjoying the effort, but also the ease. It is in the combination, I think, of friction and ease—in the perfect balance of the two—that the magic lies.

2. There is a firmness of touch, too, that matches words and eyes perfectly when a friend grabs your hand: I love you. I’m here. I will pray. Strong and urgent and full, but not overbearing, not painful, not hard. Any harder or any softer and you would either be frightened or not trust. But there, in the middle, is truth.

3. This—tension and beauty, strength and vulnerability. (The movement I’m thinking of, the “Serenata,” starts at 2:15.)

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Monday, January 7, 2013

Three Things

1. Overheard, about the nature of a pearl : “It grows in response to an irritant.” A thought that staggers me sometimes, has done so for years, because could you yourself have imagined a better response? It’s so lavish and strong and beautiful. And…lavish.

2. The article I emailed to Oldest, after he looked over my shoulder while I was reading it and asked, “That’s about Malala, isn’t it?” No, somebody else, who is also risking her life for girls to get an education in Pakistan. Whose mother did everything she could, took beatings even, to ensure her daughter’s education. I’m so thankful my son is paying attention.

3. I wonder at my repetitiveness with certain themes. It’s possible I’ve gotten quite boring. But then I counter that thought with the quote my mother has taped to her studio wall: “Knowledge does not equal ability. Knowledge plus 10,000 times equals ability.”
–Shinichi Suzuki
I’m trying to teach myself something, here. Going for ability.

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

What Do You Want?

That’s at the heart of New Years’ resolutions, right? What you want? Who you want to be? The things you want to make happen?

When I read an open invitation earlier this week to share my big dreams for the year, I was tempted. The big ones? What if I really did say them out loud? And what about the smaller ones?

I would much rather talk about dreams than resolutions. With the understanding, of course, that dreams are to be acted upon.

I’m not a big fan of resolutions. I love fresh starts, I love setting goals, but big pronouncements about what I’m going to do THIS YEAR, anything too rigid—and my perfectionist side adores rigid—will eventually paralyze me. Give me a skeleton—a vision—a what do you want—and let me fill in the details as I go. That is work I can lose myself in.

I want to create something I know is too big for me.

I want to keep seeing the beauty.

I want to love better.

I want the things I’ve named in my heart but have to keep there.

I want to read and listen and talk and pray and laugh.

I want to dance with my children.

I want to make things.

I want to push back against fear.

What do you want?

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Yellow Flowers

I wore a yellow flower in my hair most of the day Saturday. Youngest put it there, after trapping me in her closet for a beauty treatment. It was our first day home after a week and a half away, and while I felt like I had been with people constantly, she seemed to feel like we needed more us-time. Or maybe I just looked like I needed beautifying. I am rarely fancy enough for that girl. So she closed the door to her closet, made me sit down, waved various articles in front of my face, and stuck one of her flower barrettes in my hair. Voila—beautiful.

A few hours later she caught me in her closet again, putting away laundry, and she shut the door, turned out the light, and gave me a guided “museum tour” of the closet with a flashlight. She is a forceful and passionate and generous soul.

I have often wished to be the sort of person who wore flowers in her hair. In reality, though, it makes me feel out of character—like somebody who’s trying (too hard) to be one of those people who can actually pull it off. But I thought of something I read a few years ago, by a mother who chose to wear the funny hat her daughter gave her, and to pause from her work to watch her daughter’s impromptu ballet, because she didn’t want to run the risk of losing her child and realizing she never did those things. “Not to watch the ballet or wear the hat is a cold and withering sin.” I allowed the words to haunt me and I kept the flower in my hair until I went to bed.

And a funny thing happened. I got to be the person my daughter saw, somebody who could unquestionably pull off a big yellow flower. Somebody more than I might allow myself to be, left to my own devices.

That is a gift.

Because maybe people who wear flowers in their hair are simply the ones who decide, “To hell with it, I feel like wearing a flower in my hair today.” Or maybe they are the ones who had somebody else put the flower there, and that was encouragement enough.

Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

When somebody else can see it too—you with a flower in your hair, for example—sometimes that gives you the strength or the daring or the perseverance you need. It changes your vision. Fortifies it.

When somebody else can see it, that person gives your vision back to you.

By the way, the bit of prose that inspired me to wear the flower? I looked it up to get the exact quote. I hadn’t read it for years, and had forgotten most of the details, beyond the importance of wearing the hat.

It is called “The Gift.”

When I look back on 2012, I see a year that was achingly hard in many ways. And a year marked by determination to keep reaching out. But also—and this is what I want to focus on—what I want to move forward with—is that it was a year of friendship. Of people who gave my vision back to me, who saw things I-only-dared-hope were buried deep inside and gave me the strength to believe and act like they really were there. That is quite a gift.

Janus, Roman god, January’s namesake, was a being with two faces—one looking back and one looking forward. On this day of doing both, regardless of what is ahead or behind, I want to wish you a year of yellow flowers. Loads of them.

Happy New Year, my friends.

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