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50 years of Suzuki violin

Celebration marks golden anniversary

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Charles and Joanne Bath sit on a piano bench in their home Monday morning. The Baths have taught Suzuki violin lessons in Greenville for many years.

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Kim Grizzard

Friday, November 4, 2016

A half century ago, when Joanne Bath left the Wichita Symphony to move to Greenville with her family, the number of violinists she encountered scarcely outnumbered the strings of her violin.

Fiddlers she could find. But classical violinists? In this town, where her husband, Charles, had taken a job teaching piano in East Carolina's School of Music, Joanne could practically count them on one hand.

“When we moved here, I counted five or seven people who had ever played the violin,” she said. “... Five or seven people. That's all.”

Then something small happened to change all that. The Baths' daughters, who were only 5 and 7 at the time but already had been playing violin for a few years, started performing at churches, civic clubs and even shopping centers.

Soon their mother, who “had no intention of teaching,” had 80 students a week showing up at her door for lessons. Her process for helping to produce pint-sized prodigies was one almost no one here had heard of at the time.

The Suzuki method, named for Japanese educator and violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki, is a teaching philosophy that emphasizes positive reinforcement and parental involvement. Suzuki 's "mother tongue" approach attempts to teach children music the same way they learn to speak their native language. Lessons begin at a young age, focusing on listening to music (instead of reading notes on a page) and are mastered through repetition.

“All he did was to transfer the idea of how children learn to speak … over to violin,” Bath said. “It's so simple and so wonderful. The success rate has been incredible.”

Bath, 80, was one of the first teachers in the country to use the Suzuki approach when she began in Greenville in 1966. While many fellow musicians were skeptical of claims that Suzuki instruction enabled Japanese children to play complex pieces with seeming ease, Bath was intrigued by the idea. She pursued the pedagogy by forming friendships with John Kendall and William Starr, considered pioneers in bringing the Suzuki method to the United States.

“When Mom started teaching us, there were no books, there were no teacher training opportunities, there were no cassette tapes, there was no music model for children to listen to as there is now,” said Bath's oldest daughter, Pam Bath Kelly, director of the Cape Fear Valley School of Violin and a strings instructor at Raleigh's Ravenscroft School. “So Mom really invented along the way ... with two guinea pigs at hand.”

Charles Bath, 88, former chairman of the keyboard department at ECU, would come home from teaching and sit down at the piano to accompany students playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and other Suzuki repertoire. So long was the wait to enroll in Suzuki music lessons that all four of the Bath children — Pamela, Patricia, Stephen and Andrea — were instructing students alongside their mother by the time they were in their early teens. Bath would spend much of her time teaching the parents, whose responsibility it was to work with their children to review lessons at home.

“She's always been a maverick in her field,” Kelly said. “She just took the ball and ran with it and as a result has changed the lives of untold (numbers of people). I don't know how many hundreds and thousands she's impacted.”

To commemorate the golden anniversary, the Greenville Suzuki Association has invited hundreds of Suzuki students, teachers and parents to a celebration this weekend. The event, scheduled for Saturday at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, will include the performance of a new piece by Grammy Award-winning musician Caroline Shaw, one of Bath's former students.

“We probably would not have come to Greenville had we not known this program was already in existence, and we might not have stayed had we not become involved,” said Caroline's mother, Jon Shaw, a Plymouth native who enrolled all four of her children in Suzuki violin lessons with Bath after the family moved to Greenville 35 years ago. “It was a program that we never would have been able to find anywhere else.”

A picture of Caroline Shaw, who in 2013 became the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, is displayed in the Greenville home where the Baths have lived for more than four decades. The walls inside the cozy music room, where Joanne continues teaching a handful of younger students, are crowded with photos of former students, including many of whom have gone on to achieve musical acclaim.

Among them are Kirsten Swanson, who teaches viola at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw, a violinist with The Long Bay Symphony and noted fiddler and member of the band Hank, Pattie and The Current; and cellist Jennifer Lucht, director of the Carolina Chamber Music Festival.

Former student Amy Schwartz Moretti, an associate professor of violin at Mercer University and a former concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony and Florida Orchestra, will perform a solo at Saturday's celebration.

Many of Bath's students pursued careers outside of music, going on to become physicians, educators, attorneys, scientists and mathematicians. Bath, who likes to point out the positive effects music has on the brain, recalls a year that seven of the top 10 students at J.H. Rose High School studied Suzuki violin with her.

“It was the aim of this to create beautiful people,” Bath said.“... It's not just playing the violin.” 

Growing up in Oregon, Bath does not have fond memories of her earliest music instruction. She wanted to take violin lessons, but her mother insisted that young Joanne study piano first, beginning about age 4.

“I did not want to play the piano,” Bath recalled. “One time when (the piano teacher) came to the front door, I ran out the back door and hid under the neighbor's bed.”

Framed in her music room is a promissory note of sorts that reads, “Joanne may take violin lessons when she's in her teens if she wants to, providing she learns to play her piano well before then.” Dated Jan. 16, 1942, the note is signed “Mommie.”

Bath insists that she never did learn to play the piano well, but she was allowed to start violin lessons at age 9. She went on to earn a bachelor of music degree, with honors, from Denison University in Granville, Ohio; the certificate in violin from The Conservatoire Americain in Fontainebleau, France; and the master of music degree in violin performance from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she met her husband.

“Before Suzuki, most of the string teaching was to prepare professionals,” Bath said. “Suzuki was the one who said that playing the violin is such a wonderful thing to do that everybody should have that experience.”

The Greenville Suzuki Association has invited former students from as far away as Michigan, New York, Florida and Texas to the 50th anniversary celebration. Some took lessons from Bath as children, and others studied under her at ECU, where she is Hardy Distinguished Professor and has served as director of the Suzuki pedagogy program since 1993.

Chris Ulffers, director of ECU's School of Music, said the university is among a small number of schools nationwide to offer a Suzuki pedagogy program. At ECU, students pursuing a master's degree in violin performance may select a concentration in Suzuki pedagogy.

“We now we have students from all over the country and, in some cases, all over the world who have come here to study Suzuki pedagogy under Joanne,” Ulffers said.

While the music method was quite rare 50 years ago, Ulffers said that many school of music students today have some background in the Suzuki method, which has been expanded to other areas of music, including viola, cello, piano, guitar, voice, recorder and organ.

Bath also serves as artistic director of the North Carolina Suzuki Institute, a summer program at ECU that is the only one of its kind in the state. She has lectured at Suzuki workshops and summer institutes in Australia and Sweden, and has taken groups of her students on international performance tours.

“If you go outside of Greenville, Joanne's reputation is quite well-known,” Jon Shaw said. “It's known by the Suzuki world that this is a real center for the success of Suzuki teaching.”

During the yearlong planning process for the anniversary celebration, Shaw found 176 teachers who have either completed the Suzuki pedagogy program at ECU or taught the method locally.

“That's a very meaningful fact, I think, because every single one of those teachers have gone out, and they represent several hundred more students that they have taught,” Shaw said. “So 176 teachers branches out into thousands of kids and students and parents and families. … How far this has spread from one little area.

“Growing up there was not a violinist anywhere,” she said. “But now here all of a sudden we have this huge wealth of violinists all over eastern North Carolina.”

“50 Years of Suzuki Learning” will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 401 E. Fourth St. 

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