Whoever originally had the idea of attaching four strings to a hollow wooden box and running a bow across them to make a sound probably never imagined 4-year-olds would pick up such an instrument, let alone make music with it. But given the right direction, even 4-year-olds can make beautiful sounds with a violin, according to Lisa Miles of Juneau, founder of The Heartstring violin studio. She teaches 35 2-to-5-year-olds and one 9-year-old at the studio, and instructs eight advanced violin students at the Juneau Community Charter School.
Miles defies the stereotype of the strict music teacher, showering her students with praise and encouragement.
"Do you know what was really great about what you just did?" Miles asked 5-year-old Max Blust during his private lesson last Wednesday. "Besides that it was really beautiful, you started it at the most difficult part. And that's really hard to do!"
Max, a charter school student, had just made it through a hard part of a song that required him to play an unfamiliar note. As he played, his eyes constantly shifted between his fingers, the bow and Miles. When he finished playing, he smiled proudly, tucked his miniature violin under his right arm and bowed toward his teacher. She clapped enthusiastically.
Miles is one of several Juneau instructors who teach using the Suzuki method, a musical instruction technique developed by Shinichi Suzuki in the mid-20th century. The method is based on the belief that children can learn to communicate with music just as they learn to communicate with words at a very young age - that musical ability is less a matter of talent than it is of cultivation.
"Any child who is properly trained can develop musical ability, just as all children develop the ability to speak their mother tongue," Suzuki said. "The potential of every child is unlimited."
The Suzuki method also is based on love.
"It is the love and care the children are shown that is the secret ingredient to a teacher truly implementing the Suzuki philosophy," said Miles, who studied with the Suzuki method as a child and was trained in the method at Suzuki Institutes at Pacific University. She studied under Dr. John Kendall, the principle founder of the Suzuki method in America.
"The method can best be expressed in (Dr. Suzuki's) own words: ' Where love is deep, much can be accomplished,' " Miles said.
The love that nurtures playing the violin at a young age comes from parents as well as the instructor. Parents are present at the individual lessons, and are encouraged to learn the basics of the violin themselves so they can help their children practice.
"I tell them that it's like an equilateral triangle, with the parents, the student and the teacher on each side," she said. "If one side of the triangle is missing, it collapses."
Max Blust's mom, Jeannie Monk, helps him in his daily practice.
"We have what we call 'do it' and 'done it' jars, and in the 'do it' jar I put slips of paper saying what he needs to work on, whether it's a song or an exercise," Monk said. "He picks something out of the 'do it' jar and puts it in the 'done it' jar when he's done. At the end of the practice, he gets a point for every piece of paper in the 'done it' jar."
Points can be exchanged for books or trips to McDonald's. The point system is not a Suzuki technique, but is used by a number of parents in Miles' program, Monk said.
While Max isn't always eager for his daily practice, he always looks forward to his lessons with Miles, Monk said.
"She (Miles) is really enthusiastic, and really supportive of the kids learning music," Monk said.
Miles, who moved to Juneau with her husband Timothy and their now-21-month-old son Cedar in September 2001, began playing the violin in early grade school when a Suzuki teacher came to her school. She began teaching violin when she was 16 and graduated from Boise State University with a violin performance major. She ran two studios and taught Montessori kindergarten in Idaho before opening The Heartstring in Juneau last year.
"Each place I have lived, I have been called to teach," she said. "This is my life's work."
Juneau's community members have surprised her in their openness to and encouragement of musical talent in their children.
"Juneau is a wonderful community for children," Miles said.
While Miles definitely seeks to enlarge Juneau's violin-playing population, she believes she is serving a larger goal as well.
"Through playing the violin, the students can become greater human beings," she said. "We work to be excellent musicians but also excellent citizens."
Citizenship includes "service concerts" Miles' students perform at churches, nursing homes, hospitals and, earlier this year, the Gastineau Humane Society.
"My students see that by playing at their church or classroom, performing as a group at a nursing home or humane society, or playing to raise funds for an organization serving the community, that their music and their personal contribution can be tremendous within their neighborhood and the world," Miles wrote in a paper on Suzuki's approach to teaching young children entitled "Beyond Music." "It is so wonderful to watch these little people's faces glow as they realize that what they do and who they are matters so very much."
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.