Playing to learn / Suzuki program plucks at heartstrings

There?s one thing 8-year-old Anne Marie Koontz especially enjoys about playing the violin.

?I just really like just feeling the sound,? the Suzuki Strings student said. ?Sometimes you hear it. You can just imagine it in your brains, and you can just feel the beat kind of. You have to be playing it to get that noise in your body.?

That helps her remember the tune she?s played.

?Once you feel it, it just gets stuck in your head, and you never get it out unless you don?t practice it ever,? she said after attending a Suzuki Strings class at the Bethel College Academy of Performing Arts in Newton.

Strings is the only area BCAPA offers in Suzuki, said Jessica Embach Jankauskas, director of Suzuki and strings at BCAPA. Youth can start on instruments at age 3, like Bridget Flavin, who played a 1/32nd-size violin that same day during a lesson, and the program can take them all through high school. Most of the Suzuki students at BCAPA are elementary school-aged. Flavin?s instrument appeared to be about the size of an adult?s hand.

?They definitely get the ?aaaw? factor,? Jan?kauskas said about the little ones playing tiny instruments.

The smallest violin is 1/64th-sized of a full violin.

?We have violin and viola for Suzuki right now,? Jankauskas said.

As of April 2, Newton Suzuki had 38 students under the guidance of five teachers, including Daniel Colwell (violin, viola and orchestra director), Janel Harms (group and violin class teacher), Jankauskas, Rebecca Schloneger (previous Suzuki Strings director and violin) and Kara Tinn (violin).

Jankauskas became the Suzuki Strings director in August 2014. Her resum? clearly shows how qualified she is for the job. Jankauskas co-founded Suzuki Strings of Austin, directed the strings program at Ambleside School in Fredericksburg, Texas, was assistant orchestra director at St. Stephen?s Episcopal school in Austin, and was viola instructor and outreach coordinator for the University of Texas String Project. She also was a clinician in the Texas towns of Amarillo, Austin and Dallas, and presented at the American String Teachers Association National Conference.

Jankauskas appears to enjoy teaching strings to young students, making lessons fun and lively, while parents and other adults sit at the back of the classroom.

The BCAPA teacher believes in the Suzuki philosophy.

?Shinichi Suzuki was a man that came before his time,? Jankaukas said. ?He created a pedagogical method based on his philosophy that ?every child can learn? given the proper environment. Parent involvement is critical to the method, which allows children to begin instrument study as early as 3 years old. Suzuki?s belief was that if every child studied music, they would become fine citizens. Music study requires persistence, critical thinking, fine motor skills, creative problem solving, time management.

?Incidentally, many of his students became fine musicians as well as fine people. There are many, many professional musicians, both performers and educators, that were taught via Suzuki method. As Suzuki teachers, we are all very excited about all of the brain research which points to Suzuki?s core belief, which is that talent is not something you were born with, but rather something to develop.?

The 8-year-old Koontz, a North Newton resident, seems to be one of the student developing her talents. She?s in her third year of violin playing, as she began in kindergarten and now is in the second grade. Her imagination embellished a story about one of the pieces students play ? ?Gavotte? by Gossec. This is the most difficult piece in the book, Koontz said.

The storyline is about royalty, she said, with two Jokers, the Queen and the King. It stops with the Joker and the Joker. Her favorite part is the second Joker.

?It just feels like when you get right down, you?re right back up,? she said about that part.

?The Queen section feels like she?s ice skating because it?s so smooth until she does a spin, Koontz said, adding ?a humungous spin.?

Koontz said the King part is really difficult.

?It just feels like he?s trying to do stuff and falls and gets back up and falls down,? she said.

Each child makes the story his or her own, and various tales about what the story involves get passed from parent to student and teacher to student, said Koontz?s mom, Esther Koontz. For example, Esther Koontz said she first heard the story four years ago from John Mark?s violin teacher. John Mark is Koontz?s brother. Esther passed the story to her daughter, who then ?embellished it and made it her own.?

In addition to ?Gavotte,? other songs Koontz has learned include ?Twinkle,? ?Lightly Row,? ?Song of the Wind,? ?Minuet 1 and 2? and ?Happy Farmer.?

Koontz enjoys playing the violin, although sometimes at home she gets distracted. But at BCAPA, that?s another story.

?When I think of this place, I think, ?Violin. Oh wow,?? Koontz said, adding sometimes she thinks, ?Oh my, this is going to be such a good time. Then you play better.?

However, when she?s not fully interested in it, she said it ?gets more dramatic? for her.

Students, like Koontz, start with a private lesson and level-appropriate class on a weekly basis. Classes are based on their core repertoire, and they have supplementary courses, such as reading and orchestra.

Koontz?s teacher, Jankauskas, started playing a wee bit earlier in life than she did.

?I began the violin at age 4 in a Suzuki-based program in the Chicago suburbs,? Jankauskas said. ?My father is a jazz musician, so music was definitely in my home environment.?

Jankauskas, who teaches Pre-Twinkle (a beginning group class), Book 1 and Books 2-4, has developed a music philosophy.

?Being a Suzuki teacher, I believe in the ability of our students to make music at a high level,? she said. ?In group classes, I am always working with students to become better listeners and refine their technique and musicianship through repertoire. I achieve this through games, challenges and keeping the students playing and thinking all the time.

?Group classes not only reinforce the technique and repertoire learned in private lessons, it teaches ensemble skills of playing together, matching bowing, intonation, blending sound and also provides the children with a peer group of people sharing a common passion.?

This summer, Suzuki Strings plans to add some new courses, such as a tour group, All-State preparation classes for string students in high school and Christmas music in July to prepare for a holiday concert, Jankauskas said.

Most of the group classes are after school and into the night Tuesdays, while private lessons are given Mondays through Saturdays.

?BCAPA strives to keep tuition low to make art education accessible to every child,? Jankauskas said, adding they offer some scholarships based on financial need, and they?re always grateful for donations. For more information, call BCAPA at 316-283-4902. Donations can be sent to BCAPA, 400 S. Main St., Suite 110, Newton, KS 67114.

The Suzuki director believes there are advantages to playing music.

?Some benefits to studying violin and viola are the ability to express oneself with music, increased brain plasticity, improved study skills, increased scholarship opportunities (for college), stronger bonds between parent and child, parents improve their skills as educators, students learn poise and how to present themselves well,? Jankauskas said.

Article and photos by Wendy Nugent

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