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My Experience of Teaching

the Suzuki Voice Programme

 

Erica Shimada

2017

 

Discovering  the Suzuki Voice Programme

I have been working as a professional singer for many years. Alongside performing, I teach singing at varying levels to different age groups. I thoroughly enjoy passing on my musical knowledge and performance experiences to young children. My vocal style and range sessions differ between children/adolescents and adults as younger students think in a less abstract way than adults.

Singing lessons are crucial for training a child’s ear and vocal technique; vocal damage can occur when a young pupil has not had access to appropriate singing techniques tailored to their ability.  A number of vocal teachers avoid teaching children for fear of hurting their voices. During my early career, I was one these teachers. When I asked them to breathe, most of the children raised and dropped their shoulders or chest. If I told them to sing from the diaphragm, they moved their diaphragm intentionally. Some children were singing high notes in a heavy chest voice instead of shifting into their light head voice.

Vocal anatomy is another example of the difference between young people and adults. They have shorter attention spans, cannot sing as long or as loudly and lack the range of notes that would be expected from adults or teens. Children and adolescents do not have fully functional vocal ligaments or physiologically natural vocal vibrato. I am opposed to only teaching songs and wanted to find a clear method for supporting young singers. I began researching different vocal ideologies and attended many voice workshops and courses. I found that this was not enough for me to understand the dynamics of teaching young children. I discovered that most of what I learned about vocal pedagogy for children and the voice science behind it was based on adult vocal pedagogy.

After many arduous months of trying to locate information about children’s vocal techniques, I was fortunate to find something that answered all my questions. In the spring of 2009, an internet browsing session led me to the Suzuki Voice Programme. I was previously unaware that the Suzuki method specialises in a voice programme. After this fantastic discovery, my life and teaching style of singing dramatically changed.

The Suzuki method is a worldwide, well-known music education movement. In 1945, Dr Shinich Suzuki established a programme of ‘talent education’ in Matsumoto. He considers that talent is learned, not inborn. Moreover, he believes that talent is a result of environment. He states that children can be educated in music and taking their environment into account is they key to learning. Dr Suzuki understands that all children learn the language that they are surrounded with. So, just as easily as they learn their mother tongue, a child who is properly trained can develop a range of musical abilities. This became known as the ‘mother-tongue method’. It states that the potential of every child is unlimited, speech learning begins at birth.

Dr Shinich Suzuki transferred this method to his music teaching and learning. It combines a music teaching method with philosophy which embraces the total development of the child. His principle belief was character first and ability second. Dr Suzuki developed a repertoire which presents technical and musical concepts in a logical sequence. After reading about his beliefs and ideas, I was excited to explore the Suzuki method approach to vocal study and discovered the Suzuki Voice Programme.

 

My begging of the Suzuki voice journey

In 2009, I was accepted as a teacher-in-training with Dr Paivi Kukkamaki, the founder of the Suzuki Voice Programme. I attended the 9th International “Song for Sharing” Suzuki Voice workshop event in Vantaa, Finland between June and July 2010. It was a great opportunity to observe Suzuki voice teaching sessions, attend performances of Suzuki Voice students and fully understand the methods of the Suzuki Voice Programme. As there were no teachers of the programme in the UK, I thought it best to travel abroad to understand better how to teach it. It was hard to take time out of my performing schedule but I finally felt that I would be able to answer my questions about young voices and how to teach them successfully.

Unfortunately, I was affected by an ankle injury in the early stages of being accepted. During my preparation and relocation to Finland, it was very difficult to move around easily.  Travelling on my own, juggling a suitcase and crutches, my leg swelled up during the flight, which made it hard to walk when we landed. I had to join the workshop event as soon as I exited the airport. Feeling exhausted and immobile, I felt I was not in the best of conditions to start a new phase of my life.

My first ever experience of observing Suzuki Voice was watching Dr Kukkamäki teach a class of very young children including babies and toddlers, some of them still in need of their mother’s support to walk and not yet well established in balance or confidence. At the end of this lesson, each student sang with the piano individually.  It was truly inspiring.  The children were singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” along with the piano. They followed the structure of the music, form, dynamics and rhythm as it was written; their angelic voices were crystal clear, full of beauty and so natural. Their performance attitude was very professional. They displayed great stage manner with a bow from each participant to finish. I was awestruck and felt like I was in a completely different world.  I asked myself ‘How was it possible to sing like that?’ There were many teachers and parents also present in the class. During the session, they wanted to get involved and happily sang along to the songs they were familiar with.

I also had opportunities to observe individual lessons taught by Katrina Pezzimenti from Australia, PPSA - Australia and ESA/PPSA Suzuki Voice teacher trainer. She was teaching Italian antique arias to children of a young age. Mrs Pezzimenti’s sessions inspired me even more to explore the teachings of the Suzuki Voice Programme. I came across a range of Suzuki Voice teachers from around the world and found the Suzuki international community to be both friendly and supportive. Positive relationships were made throughout the duration of the event. It was a wonderful experience to talk to the teachers and listen to them share stories about their lives as Suzuki Voice teachers.

During this workshop, the Suzuki Voice group took a trip to Sibelius’ Ainola; everybody had a wonderful time. At one point during our stay, completely out of the blue, Dr Kukkamäki and her student started to sing the traditional Japanese folk song ‘Sakura’ in front of Sibelius’ house. “Sakura” translates to cherry blossoms and celebrates the season of Spring when the trees flower. Coincidentally, there were lots of Japanese tourists visiting the location who walked past at the same time. Some of them believed it was a ‘welcome performance’ for the Japanese visitors from Sibelius.  They were all very pleased with the performance with one of them stating: “This singing is better than a Japanese native! How did they learn to sing this Japanese song so beautifully?” I put it down to the fact that the Suzuki Voice Programme develops a natural voice and supports logistic ability. The student is able to sing in different languages from a very young age which enables them to perfect their singing and gain cultural understanding.

My whole experience of observing and participating in different workshops, sessions and concerts was exceptionally useful. The questions I had prior to the trip were all explained; the Suzuki Voice Programme provided the answers I was looking for but I yearned to know more.  Without delay, I determined to study hard to increase my knowledge of Suzuki music and practice.

 

Growing with the Suzuki Voice Programme

Observing Dr Kukkamäki’s classes and attending individual lessons taught me how to treat young children’s voices both physically and mentally. I have grown in confidence and now enjoy teaching young children much more. Children love to take part in physical activities. The Suzuki Voice Programme has well thought out lesson structures and unique approaches for keeping students motivated. With the right instruction and guidance, by the end of a lesson a student should be able to create beautiful vocal representations.

My first ‘Level One’ students were between the ages of six and eight. The structure and lesson format of the Suzuki Voice Programme are very suited to children in this age range.  I was taught to always bow at the beginning and end of every music lesson in Japan. In keeping with the familiarity of my own lessons, the Suzuki Voice Programme follows the same format. The children bow at the beginning and end of each lesson which draws a clear starting and completion line as well as respect between the teacher and pupil. I found this initial greeting between the teacher and student removes any inhibitions and allows them to properly participate in a voice lesson.

In the introductory stages of the lesson, stretches and posture exercises are completed. The students then move on to practical work and vocalisation. I first introduce them to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, which is in the Suzuki method core repertoire and the first song from the Volume One book. This is a fantastic introduction to teaching them a range of skills such as voice registers, breath control, pitch training and learning about intervals. Some of my students in London have refused to sing the rhyme because they believe it is too easy, or they have sung it many times during their own nursery schooling. These children have not explored the rhyme using the core repertoire which encourages a wealth of vocal skills. I am keen to explore these skills in great depth rather than teaching a list of songs.

I found it useful to build up my performance skills too.  Professor Mette Heikknen was enormously patient and taught me text, re-polished my vocal techniques and helped with my pronunciation of different languages such as Italian, German, Finnish, Spanish and French. She also taught me how to interpret the Suzuki Voice repertoire into teaching. I especially enjoyed discussing vocal anatomy with her. She is extremely knowledgeable on a subject that has fascinated me for many years. After completing the requirements for ESA ‘Level One’ training and ‘Level One’ examination, I created the London Suzuki Voice Group in the UK.

Teaching the next level of the Suzuki Programme required a lot of directed time. It was challenging managing my singing career and heavy teaching schedule. All my Suzuki Voice students completed the Volume One book very quickly. Their motivation had noticeably increased and they were keen to practice at home. The need to flourish was similar to them craving sweets; they wanted more and more.  An eight-year-old ‘Level One’ student memorised the entire song bank from the Volume One book within two weeks, thus showing Suzuki vocal progression occurring at a rapid rate. As a result of their accomplishments, three concerts were held in the same year; a graduation concert, a summer concert in Primrose Hill Park and a Christmas concert at the local church.

In 2012, I completed my ESA ‘Level Two’ teaching and examination. The practical teaching sessions with Dr Kukkamäki were stimulating but demanding. Her training expertise and support motivated me to pursue a higher level of Suzuki Voice teacher training.

My ‘Level Three’ exam was in March 2013. It took place at the 16th Suzuki Method World Convention in Matsumoto, Japan. It was my first experience of attending the international convention in Matsumoto. I had great opportunities to assist in student workshops. Singing together in Japan was very special as it is my birthplace and a country that is always close to my heart. I performed my ESA ‘Level Three’ examination recital in TERI Hall (Talent Education Research Institute, Matsumoto, Japan) along with Amelia Seyssel (USA) who performed her ESA ‘Level Four’ examination recital and Masayo Okano (Japan) her ESA ‘Level Two’ examination recital.

I was accompanied in my ‘Level Three’ examination recital by a chamber orchestra. It took many months for Dr Kukkamäki and her colleague to organise the chamber orchestra. My recital was a roaring success, one that I owe to Dr Kukkamäki and her colleague who gave me so much of their time and support.

The selection of songs from ‘Level Three’ is much more advanced than ‘Levels One and Two’.  Most are in German, French, Latin and other foreign languages. In 2013, my Suzuki Voice students finished all their ‘Level Three’ requirements, learned the songs and were involved in a graduation concert.  As youngsters, the languages were not ones they were familiar with, proving the successful application of the Suzuki methods of ‘step by step mastery’ and ‘mother tongue approach’. Dr Kukkamäki has taught all ages from babies to adults, always making sure that the guidance and instructions were clear. By using this creative teaching style, it is evident that students can learn anything.

At this time, some of my student flew the Suzuki Voice nest as they were offered professional work or received Music Scholarships to attend special Music/Drama schools outside of London. This all happened in a very short space of time. They did not intend to be professional musicians, but purely enjoyed singing. My students always displayed enthusiasm towards the work we produced and had a love for performing different roles.

I started my ‘Level Four’ training in 2014. As part of the training, I had to send my individual teaching to Dr Kukkamäki. She received a total of ten DVD’s. Additionally, I passed on my lesson plans and comments to accompany the footage. I received feedback from her  each time she received a DVD. It was very helpful and useful and I will treasure her wise words for the rest of my life.

A big task I had to undertake was the memorisation and performance requirements of the ‘Level Four’ exam. I had to know the first ten songs from the Vaccai and five Antiche Aria. It was a very busy time as I was singing at various opera venues; my brain was bursting with different types of music from the Suzuki repertoire to my singing commitments.

Upon hearing I had to organise a Suzuki Voice production myself, I had no idea what to do. I remembered Dr Kukkamäki’s words during teacher training when she gave me lots of instructions and advice. Selecting the right story took many weeks; after much deliberation, I selected “The Enormous Turnip”. During this time, my Suzuki Voice students were aged between two and eleven years old. I struggled to think how I could fit them all into the production. I had had previous experience of organising productions as a music director; however this was always done with help from a teacher. As this was my first time creating a production independently, I had to start from scratch. I hesitated to ask my Suzuki Voice family for help as they were busy working on their own projects. I was solely responsible for making it happen; trying to ignore the weight on my shoulders, I persevered.

Even before I could even ask them, my older Suzuki Voice students kindly offered to help me with the setting of the stage. The bonds between the older and younger children were evident at rehearsals, the older children looking after smaller ones, the smaller children imitating older ones. In a few years’ time, the cycle would repeat itself, and a new cohort of older and younger children would continue to look out for one another. The theme of togetherness was clearly growing in the group.

It was an intimidating venture and allocating rehearsal time slots was not easy. The little ones still needed afternoon naps and required help from their parents/carers for some tasks.  Older children were busy with school-related activities and other commitments. Some families were helpful and willing to donate time while others were too busy to attend the rehearsal sessions. These obstacles caused big challenges for me. As art is not my forte, creating simple stage settings was one of hardest things for me to do. I have lost count of the number of emails I sent to Dr Kukkamäki. She has always provided a safe network for me to ask/explore/enquire and continued to provide endless support, patience and great encouragement.

This experience boosted my confidence hugely. I learned a lot from seeing a production from the planning stages through to completion. I enjoyed working with families, both adults and children, and developing my organisational skills. The children involved in the performance learned so much and their vocal and performance abilities were displayed for all to see. These teaching opportunities have been beneficial to my teaching career. Each new challenge I undertake becomes a new skill in my facilitating repertoire. In October 2014, I completed my ‘Level Four’ training and exam recital.

 

Meeting with colleague

In July 2015, I attended the ESA convention in Davos, Switzerland. Meeting Jaume Fargas Fernandez (Level Three Suzuki Voice teacher from Catalonia) was very special and brought me back to my first encounter with him in 2010 when I had no experience as a Suzuki Voice teacher.  Mr Fernandez cleared the cloudy thoughts in my head and opened new doors to exciting teaching opportunities.  Keen to improve my knowledge, I remember asking him many questions. He encouraged me to pursue my dream of teaching the Suzuki Voice Programme in the UK.

The conversations we had at our meeting in Davos in 2015 were substantially different to those of our initial meeting in 2010.  I was now much more knowledgeable about the Suzuki Voice Programme and by following it step by step, I could see how everything was possible. Although I came across some difficulties and challenges in my last few years of teacher training, at such times I would remember the words of Dr Kukkamäki who had always advised me “not to rush and take it one step at a time.” Again, another example of the way she was always generous with her time, advice and heart.

 

My Suzuki Voice Journey

In my years I have found that an over-abundance of enthusiasm is very effective in producing the best student and musical performance. The key terms I learned throughout my Suzuki Voice teacher training were listening, imitation and repetition. It is important to allow the child to listen to a song, then show them how to sing along in smaller steps. When they become more familiar with it, they can practice again and again. Children learn best by repetition, I always make sure to give them ample opportunities to consolidate and practice what they have learned.

Teaching is a fun, fulfilling, endlessly stimulating and hugely responsible occupation. The Suzuki Voice Programme has taught me so many beneficial concepts. I know that interactive vocal exercises make learning easy to remember. I endeavour to make my vocal lessons creative and purposeful for each child.  My Suzuki Voice journey has been a life-changing experience. I would like to continue growing in my knowledge of Suzuki Voice and develop opportunities for Suzuki Voice performances.

 
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