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What I learned from a Suzuki flute sensei in five days


What I learned from a Suzuki flute sensei in five days

The tall teenager leans ever so slowly towards his sensei, flute in hand.  Irrepressible red curls meet coiffed black hair.  The room is packed with flute teachers observing; my son is a guinea pig today. And yes, it’s school holidays.  Yes, he resisted: I want to go cycling with my friends; it’s not fair – I’m the only one who has to do this music camp; I want to game. He’s tried them all – even – I need to study for my exams! He failed: music camp was non-negotiable.

He’s nervous: his sensei is the sensei of flute teachers.  This teacher compiled the flute program – 11 books; my son practices listening to his recordings.  Yet there is something about this slight, elegant man bowing towards my son that encourages him to reply in-kind. Freely.  And so the rarified tutorial commences.

I can hear my son learning – he is playing the flute after all, but how is he being taught? That’s the real question. What is this sensei doing? He has captivated the room; I can hear dulled typing, pages being cautiously yet rapidly turned. There’s at least one official video recording underway, and yes I’m filming.

Professor Takahashi frequently sings the piece of music being taught. Much of his explanation is non-verbal.  Consider this: flute players must open their throat to let their tone resonate – the more open the better he says. Let’s practice the throw up action – my son merrily did so repeatedly – accompanied by a trickle of nervous laughter from some observing teachers.

For 30 minutes he encourages and scaffolds my son by unsettling him with new terms; challenging him to express the music with his body, then add the flute. He immediately corrects, praises, pushes him further – imagine what the composer is saying, where are you taking this piece, move the sound you want to achieve.  There is something quite delightful watching these two mimic accelerating a sports car to feel how to play part of the piece.  In front of me, my son is learning how to think about his piece of music, and thinking how to express what he wants to say with his flute.

My son clasps my hand as we leave – it was too short, he says. A smile curves his lips, mirrored on mine.

The rest of the music camp involves classes with a concluding concert.  No more fighting; he wakes early.  I watch a rehearsal. 60 flute players sway gently, guided by the sure hand of sensei – they are little, some of these flautists – maybe 4 – catching their flute in overlong nametags. Others belong in the technology dependent teenager category.  Cooperating to produce a concert.  With joy.

These students straddle 12 years. They have different tutors; most have face-to-face weekly lessons, some use Skype to ensure weekly lessons with favourite teachers, indeed to have a flute lesson.  There are challenges with Skype; playing does not sync, and the sound quality is poor. You cannot have your posture corrected. My son was frustrated his tutor could not accompany him.  Skype is designed for speech, not music.  But you can have a lesson. You can record your lesson, remind and review your playing.  And you have to listen. Learn to really listen.

This rehearsal is a successful composite classroom: peer support, collaborative learning incorporating individual as well as group learning as students are grouped to play for example the harmony or melody, and further variations of an old favourite –Mary had a little lamb.

Cooperative learning through careful didactic teaching and repetition mingles with analogies that bring not so discreet giggles.  You would too if you saw this graceful sensei pat his bottom to make a point, or describe a piece of music as the race to the bathroom, the joy after a number 1, no not 2, that’s not this particular piece of music.

Professor Takahashi tells me its simple – listen, sing, play.  Days, no years of this sequence I would add as a Suzuki parent.  That word ‘play’ hides the hours of tonalisation practice required to achieve the big, rich tone so prized by flautist and audience.  He has reminded me of the need to be structured, direct and clear with teaching.  But the most powerful lesson was there with that first bow.  Respect. He respects the life force of the students, and when they reciprocate, much can be learnt and shared.   And now I see how Skype can work with music lessons.








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Mother of two sons who negotiates being taught new technologies in exchange for free (almost) computer time.


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