Saturday, September 8, 2007

Interview with Virginia Dixon

This interview with bassist/Suzuki teacher/teacher trainer Virginia Dixon is being published as part of a series of informational articles about the Suzuki Bass School.

Please refer to the bottom of the page for links to related articles

Q: What could you tell us about your own early training?

VA: I have two performance degrees from Indiana University. But things really came together for me when I was a Fellow with the Bach Aria Festival and followed that with doctoral work with Julius Levine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The wholeness of his approach, his deep understanding of expressive playing, and his incredible personal kindness became the basis for my teaching today.

Q: How did you initially get involved with the program?

VA: I wanted my own three children to have an early start. There was a parallel with the way my own parents raised me to be around water and to swim. Though I am not a professional swimmer, I do it with great ease, and it has greatly enriched my whole life. Though only one of my kids has become a professional musician, it has worked the same for them. Their lives are much richer for it.

I still remember the first time I attended their violin repertoire class. A group of extremely young children sweetly playing "Twinkle" together was so startlingly beautiful that I wept. I was hooked!

Q: How old was the youngest student you ever taught?

VA: I have taught a series of three-year-olds. One still had the corner of a diaper appearing out below his shirt, and today as a high school student he is a very successful jazz player.

Q: How do you approach positioning the instrument, or teaching a beginner
how to position it?

VA: We move. Through the exploration of movement the child learns not to be intimidated by the size of the instrument and to use his/her body naturally for deep, rich sound.

Q: Could you describe how bow control is developed in the early stages?

VA: The Suzuki Method starts with controlling little pieces of bow and then increases the amount used. The muscle training that comes from this is what is responsible for the big, free sound.

Q: How do you encourage intonation to improve?

VA: Most problems are solved through physical balance and ease and through ear training with the use of open strings and sympathetic vibration.

Q: Is it possible for adults to relearn how to play using techniques designed to
teach young beginners?

VA: Definitely! I did.

Q: One of Dr. Suzuki's basic tenets was that we are not only training children to be good musicians, but good people. How do you feel about that?

VA: Music can be a very noble art. It can inspire many things including collaboration, inner discipline, a feeling of fulfillment, and deep peace. We have too precious little of these things in this warring world of ours.

Q: Do you think that involvement with "Suzuki" can increase a teacher's
marketability or earnings?

VA: Definitely! The system of registering book courses that the Suzuki Association of the Americas as it is set up is very resume -building, both for the classroom and studio teacher. In addition, the people who go through my training courses take a good look at their own playing and teaching thus becoming better performers and better teachers.

Q: The books are designed as a progressive method, where each playing skill is
built up individually through the study of a piece focusing on that skill. Could
you talk a little about how you are determining which pieces belong in the
book, and in which order?

VA: Much of it is through experimentation with the children. Shinichi Suzuki spent several decades figuring out which pieces and in what order. As we create new instrument areas we have done the same, though by following his original example we have taken less time. Even more fortunate are the new methods of publishing that allow changes with every printing of the volumes. It is an evolving method, and that is what Suzuki envisioned.

Q: What do you think about other published methods (Vance, Simandl,
Rabbath, or others) and are they compatible with a Suzuki curriculum?

VA: Each teacher must teach in his/her own way to fit the needs of the individual student. These works can be extremely helpful in supplementing what we have in the method already. The most important reasons for having a nice sequential series like the Suzuki Method are:

1) The children can play their common literature together even when they come from different parts of the world

2) It makes teaching so much more effortless and efficient.

Q: Many players criticize Suzuki methodology because it doesn't teach reading
skills, making it hard to learn reading later. Could you address that?

VA: When the Suzuki Method first came to America I think that the early teachers were so impressed and excited that a small child could play difficult works with such ease that we forgot to teach reading until it was too late. This has now been remedied. Good Suzuki teachers now teach children to read when they are ready, generally about the time that they begin to read at school. We still like the children to learn their core repertoire by ear to develop their musical skills in the same way they develop verbal skills.

Q: Could you describe how you use games to teach skills in the early stages?

VA: When did the English language acquire two meanings for the word "play"? Play is a child's work. Humor and games are a big part of this. I work to make each conscious skill they learn a game, or at least playful.

Q: What are some of your favorite "bass games".

VA: My very favorite is "Bow Game" where you use the bow without the bass to do all manner of pointing and carrying light objects. The reason for this is to build strength and dexterity that brings the kind of control to the bow as if it were an extension to our whole arm. If we did it with the spoon in the high chair to put food into our mouth as a baby we can now do it with our bow to urge sound from the string.

Q: Could you talk about how older players can learn to break bad playing

VA: People tend to overplay. The process of finding just the right amount of energy for a task is like peeling away the layers of an onion, one layer of tension at a time. I am still working on the tension in my playing.

Q: When you worked with Gary Karr to record the performances on the Suzuki
Bass CDs, how did you prepare? Was there any communication beforehand?

VA: Our Bass Committee Chair, Dan Swaim, went to British Columbia and worked with Gary in his home studio. I was not a part of that.

Q: What are some things that you'd like to see taking place in Suzuki bass in
the future?

VA: When the Suzuki Method came to America the level of violin, viola, and cello playing increased by leaps and bounds. Today our rosters of soloists, our chamber ensembles, and our symphony orchestras at all levels are filled with people who got their start with Suzuki. Though it is a byproduct and not the main goal of what we do, a young Suzuki musician can easily mainstream into the conservatories and become a professional. The early start does give him/her a definite edge. I hope that we can do this with bass as well. It is high time!

For more about the Suzuki Bass Program and Virginia Dixon, follow these links:

About Virginia Dixon
How I became involved with the Suzuki Bass Program
Resources for Suzuki Bass Teachers and Students
How to Become a Suzuki Bass Instructor

Materials for Beginning Suzuki Bass Students and Teachers


oceanskies79 said...

I have not been acquainted with the Suzuki Bass Programme, and it was enriching to read more about it here. Thanks.

marz said...

My son was one of Virginia's three year-olds. You should know that she is an absolutely brilliant teacher and an even more wonderful person. Virginia teaches with patience, respect, caring, and excellence. We are very grateful for all she taught us!