Metro-East Living

Twinkle, twinkle, little Suzuki stars

SIUE's Suzuki violin program turns 50

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Suzuki violin program director Vera McCoy-Sulentic discusses the program and teaches sisters Kaleigh and Amber Schwertman. When she first came to SIUE, she also taught the sisters' father to play the violi
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Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Suzuki violin program director Vera McCoy-Sulentic discusses the program and teaches sisters Kaleigh and Amber Schwertman. When she first came to SIUE, she also taught the sisters' father to play the violi

John Kendall couldn’t have imagined tuning his violin to an iPad when he founded the Suzuki String Program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville 50 years ago.

But that’s exactly what 12-year-old Kaleigh Schwertman did before a lesson this month at Dunham Hall. She has an app that tells her when she nails a note, eliminating the need to hit a piano key.

Next, the seventh-grader at Liberty Middle School in Edwardsville warmed up with the G melodic minor scale.

“OK, this finger is great,” said her teacher, Vera McCoy-Sulentic, referring to her third finger. “She’s tall and flexible. But when you get to the first finger, she’s not as good. You need her taller.”

Vera, 64, of Edwardsville, who also is program director, reached over and adjusted Kaleigh’s fingers on the fingerboard.

Kaleigh went on to do several run-throughs of “Concerto No. 5, First Movement” by Frederich Seitz, a classical piece she was planning to perform at a recital. Vera complimented and critiqued, encouraged and suggested.

“Make sure that you take a breath so that you’re filled with energy that we can see, we can feel and we can hear,” she said.

Out in the hall, Kaleigh’s sister, Amber, 15, patiently waited for her turn with Vera. Both girls started violin lessons as toddlers.

Amber was sitting on a bench with her father, Chris Schwertman, who went through the Suzuki String Program 30 years ago.

“We didn’t have a nice practice space like this with air conditioning,” said Chris, 41, of Edwardsville, an exterior home improvement consultant.

“We were in a little old farmhouse off New Poag Road. So the lessons included dodging wasps. And it was common to go outside and climb trees while the other kids were having lessons.”

Sometimes kids wandered down to the old Mississippi River Festival site on campus, which was near the “String House.”

Chris didn’t start playing violin until 10, but he stuck with it through high school. It was his wife, Karie, also a violinist, who broached the subject of lessons with 3-year-old Amber.

“She said, ‘Amber, do you want to play the violin?’” Amber recalled. “I really didn’t even know what it was, but I said, ‘Sure.’”

Amber now is a sophomore at Edwardsville High School. She will travel to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia next year as part of the Suzuki Strings Program tour group.

10 Suzuki teachers

200 Violin, viola and cello students

Kaleigh started lessons about six months younger than her sister, mainly because she had been exposed to so much violin music in the house.

“I just liked the sound of the instrument,” Kaleigh said. “I thought it was really cool, and when I was little, I always wanted to be like Amber.”

Thousands of metro-east children have learned to play violin, viola or cello through the SIUE Suzuki String Program. It’s renowned in the United States because of its teacher-training component and SIUE master’s degree.

Instruction follows the Suzuki Method of music education, invented by late Japanese musician and philosopher Shinichi Suzuki. He believed all children could learn to play violin, starting very young.

“We have what we call the ‘Suzuki Triangle,’” Vera said. “It’s the teacher, the child and the parent. They all work together. The parent comes to every lesson and takes notes and practices with the child at home.”

The method includes a set curriculum with 10 music books that teach and reinforce skills in a layering pattern.

Also, children listen to music before they learn it, which is opposite of the traditional method followed by Vera as a child. Teachers put music in front of her and asked her to play it.

Another name for the Suzuki Method is the Mother Tongue Method, which means that children learn by listening, the same way they learn to speak their mother languages. And by having the parents play the music for them, it becomes another tongue that they learn to speak. It’s really quite brilliant.

Vera McCoy-Sulentic on Suzuki philosophy

“Another name for the Suzuki Method is the ‘Mother Tongue Method,’ which means that children learn by listening, the same way they learn to speak their mother languages,” Vera said. “And by having the parents play the music for them, it becomes another tongue that they learn to speak. It’s really quite brilliant.”

The late John Kendall was a well-known SIUE music professor and a rock star in the American Suzuki movement. He and his wife, artist Catherine Kendall, also founded Watershed Nature Center in Edwardsville.

In 1958, John saw a film of 750 small Japanese children, students of Shinichi Suzuki, playing “Bach Concerto for Two Violins.” He secured a grant to go to Japan and study at the school.

“Obviously, (John) believed in it enough that he came back to the United States and became the pied piper of the Suzuki Method,” Vera said.

John published the first English-language edition of curriculum books and organized a U.S. concert tour of Japanese violinists before creating the SIUE Suzuki String Development Program in 1965.

Chris Schwertman was one of about 25 students in 1986, when Vera came to the university. She had traveled from Oregon to Texas that July to attend a workshop with Kendall.

“I flew home from Texas and told my husband, ‘We’re moving to Illinois so I can get a master’s with John Kendall,’” she said. “So we packed up our 2-year-old and 5-year-old, and we moved in August. It was just something I knew I had to do.”

Today, the Suzuki String Program consists of 10 teachers and about 200 students, ranging from 3 to 18. Lessons are available for children with conditions such as autism and Down syndrome.

The cost is $536 for 15 weekly private 30-minute lessons or 12 group lessons taught by SIUE faculty members with master’s degrees ($480 if taught by graduate students).

“I definitely didn’t like it as much when I was younger because you have to practice,” Amber said. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate it more and be able to look at a piece of music and play it and express the emotions behind it.”

The Suzuki String Program has spanned generations in some families, including the Schwertmans. It also has produced many professional musicians, including Erin Schreiber, first violin and assistant concertmaster for the St. Louis Symphony.

Chris and Karie’s son, Carter, 9, chose piano over violin, but he still goes to concerts and hangs out at Dunham Hall while his sisters are practicing.

“This program is an experience for the whole family,” Chris said. “Parents have to be involved, and if you have multiple children, you’re always doing it, and your other children have to tag along, whether they want to or not.”

At a glance

  • What: Suzuki Strings Winter Concert
  • When: 2 p.m. Dec. 6
  • Where: Dunham Hall theater at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
  • Admission: Free
  • Information: Call 618-650-2839 or visit https://www.siue.edu/artsandsciences/music/suzuki/
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