Donald Becker

Donald Becker

The Suzuki Institute of Boston was established in 1986 by Mr. Donald Becker, our current director, after completing three years of studies with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki and Ms. Yuko Mori in Matsumoto, Japan between 1983 and 1986 at the Talent Education Research Institute (TERI) which he received his teacher’s diploma. SIB is the only Suzuki program in New England to be specifically authorized by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki himself. Donald Becker has performed as a soloist at the summer school and the national teacher’s conference of the Talent Education Research Institute (TERI) in Japan. He founded the Massachusetts Suzuki Festival, the Suzuki Association of Massachusetts, and brought the International Suzuki Conference to Massachusetts in 1979.

Before Mr. Becker’s studies at the TERI, he trained with Ms. Anastasia Jempelis and Francis Tursi at the Eastman School of Music as a masters candidate of viola performance. He also studied at the summer program of the Kodály Center of America, and still teaches the Kodaly music classes at the Suzuki Institute of Boston. In addition to the Suzuki and Kodály methods, studied the Alexander Technique in Boston for over three years.

Mr. Becker speaks and can teach in Japanese. While in Japan he created a series of study tapes for the 100 haikus by Kobayashi Issa that are taught in the Talent Education program in Japan. He used these to learn all 100 himself from memory and could perform them with the Japanese drill tapes.

Donald Becker has recorded an extensive series of practice CDs including the ABCs of Duets by Janice Tucker Rhoda. The duet and ensemble CDs include canons and selections from the standard string quartet and string orchestra literature.

Instruments studied in Japan: Violin and Viola

Dates in Japan: Long term study in Matsumoto July 1983 to August 1986; Summer study in Matsumoto 1990, 1991

Years and locations of workshops with Dr. Suzuki that were outside of Japan: I videotaped a weeklong workshop that he did for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester in 1975.


Memories

STUDY WITH DR. SUZUKI AT THE TALENT EDUCATION INSTITUTE IN MATSUMOTO

by Donald Becker, founder and director of the Suzuki Institute of Boston

INTRODUCTION UPON ARRIVAL AT TALENT EDUCATION INSTITUTE

When you first arrived at TEI, the staff would bring you up to Dr. Suzuki’s studio to be introduced, usually during his lessons. Suzuki was introduced to a woman who had just come from Australia. He politely inquired, “When did you arrive in Matsumoto?” When she replied, “I came here today,” with her accent it sounded like “I came here to die.” Dr Suzuki feigned sadness and said, “Oh,….I am sorry.”

TALENT EDUCATION INSTITUTE

The tuition was very inexpensive, only 25,000 yen per month. The school helped foreign students find housing and, in my case, I learned that they found me an apartment just before I left for Japan. They even drove me to the apartment to meet the landlord.

1983-86 CLASS SCHEDULE

STUDENT BODY

There were about 40 violin teacher trainees called “kenkyusei,” 12 piano teacher trainees and an occasional cello student. Of these, there were about 12 foreigners, mostly American and the rest were Japanese. The Japanese students elected Japanese head kenkyusei, and the foreigners elected a liason person to interact with them.

INDIVIDUAL LESSONS WITH DR. SUZUKI

Foreigners had lessons with Dr. Suzuki on Tuesday afternoons with the most senior students going first for a ten- or fifteen-minute lesson. Almost every lesson that I observed over a 7-year period started with the first 8 measures of Handel Chorus from book 2, first with opposite bow, then with regular bow grip. The goal was to produce the same big tone with the regular bow grip that you got with opposite bow.

Dr. Suzuki was very particular about which recording he wanted you listen to and play along with. One student played Mozart concerto no. 5 with Arthur Grumiaux. Suzuki stropped them and said, “He doesn’t play it correctly, you must play with David Oistrakh. Another student started to play the Vitali Chaconne with a Zino Francescatti. Suzuki told him he had to play with Jacques Thibaud. One independent minded American couldn’t quite play the Beethoven concerto up to the speed of the recording and didn’t think that it should go that fast anyway. He got together with an American piano student and made a recording of himself playing with piano so that he could play along with it at the lesson, completely missing the point. My landlord was a carpenter who played string bass and was a B.B. King fan. He built a music room on stilts apart from his house so that the music wouldn’t disturb the family. This is where they made the recording. The landlord also had a little dog that he tied to the railing of the stairs going up to the music room. In the middle of the Beethoven concerto in Suzuki’s studio, you could hear this little dog going “woof, woof.” Suzuki stopped the tape and asked, “What recording is that?” The student proudly replied, “It’s me.” Suzuki said, “Ah so,” and sat down. The foreigners in the room were dying and trying not to roll on the floor laughing in front of the great man.

Dr. Suzuki would come to the school every day, often when there were no other classes scheduled. Once during Christmas vacation, there were only two students practicing in the student room, myself and a middle-aged professional violinist, a German living in South Africa who brought his family for a month because he was told it was a great thing to do. While we were warming up before his first lesson with Suzuki, I noticed that he played with a very high elbow which was the opposite of the very low right elbow that Dr. Suzuki taught. At his lesson, Dr. Suzuki worked very patiently with him on correcting his tone and posture. Normally you didn’t ask questions at your lesson unless he kept repeating something and you had no idea what he meant. In this case, the violinist couldn’t resist and said, “But Dr. Suzuki, in Germany, a lot of people play with a high elbow like this.” Well, Dr. Suzuki studied in Berlin for years and knew that very well. Dr. Suzuki put his hands at his side, made a little bow and said, “Yes, that is mistake.” He could be very frank in his criticism. I heard him tell one older teacher trainee who was an especially weak player and didn’t practice much, “I don’t have 50 years to teach you, you have to change now.” He told an American teacher whom he had just allowed to graduate after only 7 months, “You have no tone. Why?” on the day after her recital.

GROUP CLASS

Group class was held on the stage of the auditorium with 10 rows of 4 chairs facing the grand piano on stage right where Dr. Suzuki sat next to the chair where one of the Japanese kenkyusei had placed his violin next to his ash tray. Seating was by seniority with the most senior students in front. Most people sat in the same chair each class, and everyone knew his place. Dr. Suzuki would go over teaching points based on the problems that he was seeing at the individual lessons. He introduced short little exercises mostly for bowing and tone production to the whole group and then one student at a time would come up for a mini lesson with him. Suzuki did not spare students with his criticism. One time he had students play the first two measures of Gossec Gavotte all up bow staccato. After my turn he said, “Baiorin no oto, onegaishimasu” which means, ‘Do me a favor, how about violin sound?”

MONDAY SOLO RECITALS

Every Monday at 1:00 P.M. there was a solo recital where almost everyone performed a solo assigned by Dr. Suzuki, mostly with tape accompaniment on a big karaoke machine, but sometimes with piano accompaniment. Students performed in order of seniority with the most senior students going first. There was a printed program that was finalized that morning. When I first got there, I was last. After sitting for over two hours with no warmup and walking onstage cold, I wasn’t doing that well. Then one day I went to the restroom and realized that other people were discreetly leaving a few solos before theirs and warming up in the student room. After I realized that you could do that, I did much better.

You tried to get a trusted friend to handle the tape player. Dr. Suzuki would listen from his usual seat and sometimes come up on stage to give a mini lesson if he wasn’t happy with what he was hearing. Sometimes funny things happened. Satoshi Ishikawa was playing a Brahms sonata while Yuriko Watanabe was covering the karaoke machine. Yuriko was a brilliant student who gave performances of the Tchaikovsky concerto at summer school and the Brahms concerto at the international conference in Edmonton Canada weeks later. She went on to become Dr. Suzuki’s only teaching assistant. That day, Satoshi got to school and realized that he forgot his accompaniment tape for the recital. Not wanting to ride his bicycle 20 minutes each way to his apartment and back and give up precious warmup time, he knew that Dr. Suzuki had a record in his studio of the same recording. So, when Dr. Suzuki went to lunch, he went into Dr. Suzuki’s studio and set up the record to make another tape while he went back to the student room to eat lunch. He didn’t realize that Dr. Suzuki’s record had a scratch on it. So, at the recital when he got to that point, the same measure kept repeating over and over. Yuriko froze with a look of horror on her face. She didn’t know what to do. Finally, she reached over and hit the fast forward button for a few seconds and Satoshi continued playing.

CALLIGRAPHY CLASS

The teacher gives each student an assigned Chinese character to copy using a brush. When students have something that they think is presentable, they bring it up to the teacher for correction. Before graduation, she assigns a phrase for the graduate to paint on a large paper which hangs at the back of the stage during that student’s graduation recital.

MUSICAL EXPRESSION CLASS

(Takahashi’s musical expression class using the opera excerpts book by Marcel Moyse) Marcel Moyse was the world’s greatest flautist for about 25 years and was principal flautist at the Paris Opera. He would buy the scores for the operas on the street and study them. After he retired, He helped found the Marlboro Music Festival along with Pablo Casals and Rudolph Serkin. Serkin helped him get a job at nearby Marlboro College, which was not exactly a powerhouse music school. To help the students that he did have, he put together these excerpts to teach musical expression. Each week Takahashi assigned the piece to be studied for the next week and chose a student to perform it in front of the class. He started the class by giving a summary of the opera and the role that this particular aria played in it. He did this in Japanese and English. Then he played a recording by a great artist from earlier in the century such as Enrico Caruso or Elizabeth Swarzkopf. Then the student would play, and he would coach them on the musical expression. At the end of the class, everyone went up on stage and played together. There is a wonderful documentary about the life of Marcel Moyse that his family put together. If you ever get a chance, don’t miss it.

GRADUATIONS FOR JAPANESE CHILDREN

Everyday Dr. Suzuki would leave the school with a couple of shopping bags of student graduation tapes sent in from teachers around the country. This enabled Dr. Suzuki to keep track of how teachers were doing. Students paid about 12,000 yen for him to listen to their performance and give some brief comments. Some teachers in Australia found out about this and wanted their students to send in tapes too. Dr. Suzuki wanted to help but didn’t have the time to do this, so he wrote out a generic comment about how to practice in Japanese; and Lili Selden, a violin kenkyusei herself and the daughter of Kyoko Selden who edited the new edition of Nurtured by Love, along with her brother Ken, translated it into English for Dr. Suzuki to record. The staff would then dub this generic comment onto the foreign graduation tapes that were submitted. Dr. Suzuki didn’t have time to practice for this recording by listening to a tape of the English translation, so his recording contains a couple of mispronunciations that he just left in. To listen to this tape, go to www.suzukiboston.com

There is a set of 100 haiku poems by the poet Kobayashi Issa that are taught in the Suzuki Method in Japan. They include a set of flash cards and study recordings by Dr. Suzuki where he recites the haiku, gives a general explanation of the meaning, and then goes on to the drill where he repeats the first line, then pauses for a few seconds while the student is supposed to repeat the first line and the rest of the haiku before the chime plays. First, they are done singly, then there are drill sections with 5 haiku in succession, then 10, and finally 50 in a row. Twinkle graduates recite the first 20 on stage from memory. The haiku are mostly about nature scenes but some of them are philosophical as well. The last one is philosophical and talks about how wonderful it is just to be alive in the shadow of a flower and implies a recognition of the shortness of life. In Dr. Suzuki’s explanation of this, he didn’t want to discuss death directly, so he said, “He’s talking about his…well, you know” ...When Dr. Suzuki made a mistake on the tape, they just left it in. I got together with friends of mine who taught English at high schools in Matsumoto and put together study tapes with the explanations in English and the drill sections dubbed in so that foreigners could learn and understand the haiku. At one point, I could do all one hundred with the Japanese drill tape.

GRADUATION FOR TEACHER TRAINEES

Teacher trainees usually had to stay at least a year or two to graduate. The date was not clearly defined. At some point in your stay, you could meet with Dr. Suzuki and ask if he thought that you were ready. If he said yes, then you could discuss your recital program.

For students who played a concerto by Vivaldi or Bach, they would recruit a string orchestra from the other students to accompany them either with a student conductor or no conductor. After the recital, the students would all chip in about 300 yen for refreshments for a tea party in the student room. The graduate would give a short talk about their time at the school and Dr. Suzuki would say a few words and sometimes make a joke. One time after an American student had struggled with the Chausson Poeme at the recital (which Suzuki made them repeat at the next Monday recital) Suzuki joked that it should be called the “Sho Sho Poeme,” which means “a little poem” and the graduate started to cry.

STRING ENSEMBLE

There was a weekly string ensemble rehearsal conducted by Takahashi. He always started the rehearsal with a scale using one of the twinkle variation rhythms, usually the second one. A few of the Japanese kenkyusei were recruited to play the viola parts using school instruments.

SUMMER SCHOOL

The summer school had two sessions of three and a half days each in July. It included solo and group recitals, large group classes taught by Suzuki, and smaller group classes taught by other teachers. The solo recitals were a kind of audition for the tour group to the United States for the following year. The group recitals were groups from the studios of various teachers playing pieces from outside the Suzuki literature. There were a lot of very creative and imaginative performances. One of the cello teachers was also a professional magician and he put on a magic show at each session of summer school. One of the tricks was making Dr. Suzuki disappear from a box. Almost everything Dr. Suzuki did on stage, he had done a thousand times, but in this case, he had to carefully rehearse the trick backstage before the performance to make sure he got it right.

TOKYO NATIONAL CONCERT

Each spring, there was a national concert in Tokyo at the Budokan judo arena. It included about 3500 students who gave large group performances from the Suzuki literature including 1500 students playing Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor, first movement. One year 140 students played the last movement of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and the next year they did it with 120. A teacher was onstage to conduct the slow introduction but left at the allegro and the students played in perfect unison since they had all practiced with the same recording. I played the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor with 1500 students. To get some semblance of unison in such a large group, the piano accompaniment was piped through a series of speakers about 20 feet apart across the arena floor. The rental of such a large hall was funded by payments from students all over the country who were charged whether or not they attended. They had a couple of adult string bass players for one of the orchestra pieces, and in talking to one of them, he said that he played the concert for free because free lancing is so competitive in Tokyo that he wanted to get the exposure.

MONTHLY TEACHERS CLASS

Once a month, violin teachers from within about two hours of Matsumoto would come for a big group class with Dr. Suzuki. He would go over his recent teaching points and give a short talk. For one class, the first half consisted of the approximately forty teachers playing individually the first eight measures of Handel Chorus first with opposite bow, then with regular bow. The second half consisted of watching the video playback of the first half with Suzuki giving commentary.


Photo in Japan

Here is a picture of me playing viola in a string quartet with Yuriko Watanabe and Satoshi Ishikawa on violin. Yuriko went on to become Dr. Suzuki’s only teaching assistant and I hired Satoshi to come to the U.S. to help me start the Suzuki Institute of Boston. While he was waiting for his H-1 visa, I got him a job teaching in Korea, the only Japanese Suzuki Method teacher ever to do so.

We were playing at the top of Mt. Tsubakuro, the 3rd highest mountain in Japan. The student orchestra was engaged to play at the 50th anniversary of the national park at the top of the mountain. A bus took us a third of the way up and we hiked the rest of the way with a cable car taking our instruments and luggage. I jogged 5 kilometers a day for months to get in shape because I was in my mid 30’s at the time. At night we looked down to see thunderstorms below and at dawn could see Mt. Fuji poking through the clouds 50 miles away.

Donald Becker string quartet