Stars in season

Published on 15 July 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

On 6 July, the Alexandria Opera House (Sayed Darwish Theater) offered a very special evening. Definitely, in nearly 100 since it was founded, the Alexandria Opera House has not witnessed 116 violins on the same stage; the sheer number raises eye brows. Together they played compositions by Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Beethoven, Dvoֈk, among others. Sitting with other excited listeners, I witnessed the gradual entry of Suzuki class students onto the stage, all holding violins, starting with the advanced, through younger students and down to five-year-old beginners. The evening was the culmination of the what the Suzuki classes accomplished in Cairo and Alexandria.

The concert opened with four soloists: Seif Gamal, Sarah Sherif, Doha Eweiss and Lena Naasana, who played the first movement (Allegro) of Vivaldi’s Concerto for 4 Violins in B Flat Major. Afterwards, more violinists came on stage and the group played together the 3rd movement (Allegro assai) of J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Violin in A Minor. Each piece performed this evening represented works studied by Suzuki students, played in a sequence starting from the most advanced to the least. Thus the sequence continued with the 2nd movement (Allegro) of Handel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, then the 1st movement from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin in A minor, to more simple pieces such as Bourrée by Bach, Humoresque by Dvo÷àk, Gavotte by Bach and Minuet in G by Beethoven. The very young violinists — always supported by the advanced group already on stage — played a beautiful variation on an English folk song, Long, Long Ago : Hunters’ Chorus by CM von Weber as well as Bach’s Minuet. Last but definitely not the least were children from the 1st year of Suzuki classes. Their repertoire includes a few compositions arranged for the violin by Shinichi Suzuki: Andantino, Perpetual Motion, Allegro and lovely variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Shinichi Suzuki (1899-1998), violinist and creator of the “Suzuki method” — also known as the mother-tongue method (or Talent Development) — was born in Nagoya, Japan. His father was the owner of the largest violin factory in Japan. In Japan and then in Germany, Suzuki started learning to play violin rather late, at the age of 17. Upon his return to Japan, Suzuki formed a string quartet with his brothers and in parallel started teaching violin to small children. This is when he reached the realisation that to the youngest students, the process of learning music is very similar to the acquisition of a mother-tongue. Since the very first years, children acquire a mother-tongue by listening to it, by repeating sounds, words and phrases, only gradually improving pronunciation and grammatical logic. Likewise, music can be taught by listening and repeating and hence becomes part of the children’s consciousness. By creating his own curriculum of violin studies, Suzuki proved that music makes children happy, endorses equality; talents thrive easily when they are surrounded by the right environment.

Over the last decades many music centres and educators have followed the Suzuki method in teaching children to play various instruments. The Suzuki method reached Egypt with a Japanese team in the early 1990s. Osman El-Mahdy, Egyptian violinist (konzertmeister of the Cairo Opera Orchestra 1994-2005, also professor of violin and chamber music at the Cairo Conservatory, 1989- 2005), was trained in the Suzuki method in both Cairo and Tokyo by Professor Takeshi Kobayashi, a former student of Shinichi Suzuki.

In November 1993, El-Mahdy launched his own Suzuki classes — predictably for violin — at the Talents Development Centre of the Cairo Opera House. Today a group of 150 students, in seven levels, follow Suzuki violin lessons taught by El-Mahdy and his team: Fawzy Ibrahim, Nihad Gamal, and Mohamed Harb in Cairo. Under El-Mahdy’s supervision, Nevine El-Mahmoudy takes responsibility for the Suzuki classes in Alexandria. At the end of each academic year both groups, from Cairo and Alexandria, gather to give their final concert at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall. This year, for the first time, the annual concert took place in Alexandria.

Suzuki’s approach differs from traditional academic methods practised by music schools and conservatories worldwide, yet many success stories confirm that it works, at least as a start for those who wish to pursue a professional career. Mohamed Harb — one of the current teachers in El-Mahdy’s team — became a Suzuki student since the age of six; at 18, he was accepted at the Cairo Conservatory, and later joined the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. This year he will be heading to the Dresden Conservatory to obtain his Masters. Mohamed Aly Farag started in Suzuki in 1995 and later joined Toronto University where he studied composition and violin, graduating two years ago. El Mahdy recalls many such examples besides: “Basma Edrees, who started with me back in 1995, is now completing her violin studies at the Mannes Music School in New York. Yasmin Tayeby joined Suzuki in 1994, and in 2005 she received a full scholarship to study at the Berklee College of Music, where she graduated a few weeks ago as a composer. Some members of the younger generation have joined the Cairo Conservatory and haven’t graduated yet.”.

Suzuki lessons thus changed the lives of many people, but some Suzuki students pursue careers not related to music or the arts; they never seem to put away their violins. Many of El-Mahdy’s students have graduated from prestigious universities, and are now successful engineers, doctors, business administrators etc. They always stay in touch with their classmates and El-Mahdy. “Besides learning to play the violin — which is the main reason for children to join Suzuki — students develop a very special link with each other; they all care and help each other. Many of the parents have also become close friends through the years.”

It is a great pity that, in Egypt, though essential to children’s personality development, music tends to be marginalised by educational institutions and ignored by many families. Music (and arts) education makes us alert to new aesthetic values, it boosts receptiveness, memory and concentration. Apart from physical and emotional coordination, children gain higher self esteem and sense of their individual value. The Suzuki method shows that, through music, children can become good amateur musicians, as well as better human beings, bringing hope to an entire generation.

The Suzuki students’ concert gives us hope that there are still families that believe in the importance of music education. When a five-year-old child plays a simple tune on his small violin, our spirits are lifted. With their beautiful stage presence, violins in hands and eyes fixed on their teacher — Osman El Mahdy –Suzuki students of all ages displayed a serious attitude and proved, once again, that music is a great means of directing young energy.

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