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.

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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.

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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.

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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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  1. I LOVE thinking of Mark playing Twinkle over and over for Dr. Suzuki! His own commitment to students of all ages and stages seems born out of that experience.
    Very inspiring! I will share this with our Fargo Suzuki program.

    1. Thank you, Amy! I've heard parts of my dad's story many times, but it was realy special to sit down with him and go into depth. And I'm glad to be able to share it with others.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Karen. I remember being so afraid to go into my first Bach Double class at that first institute in Stevens Point where I first meet your that big gallery room with the glass wall/doors...such a great influence he has been, and continues to be, on so many!

    1. I'm picturing the spot right now, Diane! Glad you enjoyed this--I must say I'm rather proud of the man!


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