Marion Francis and Olivia Francis
Grace and Olivia Francis began learning through the Suzuki method at four years of age. Grace works as a collaborative pianist, teacher, and choir conductor in Auckland. Olivia is a first violinist in the Badisches Staatstheater in Germany and studies in Zürich, Switzerland. In this article we hear from both Olivia and her mother about their journeys as Suzuki student and parent, and beyond.
Suzuki has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. At age four my twin sister, Gracie, and I began Suzuki piano lessons with Jill Carter. Our mum and dad decided to immerse us in as much live classical music as possible, taking us along to all sorts of concerts – I remember going to see the NZSO at age five and sleeping through the entire second half! At seven years old, a piano trio concert at the Waikato Museum was my first close encounter with the violin, and though I didn’t know it at the time, that evening would change the course of my life.
Maryla Endert was my unfailingly kind and patient first teacher. My dad, Richard, took me to every lesson and practised with me at home. Surprisingly – despite Gracie and I being twins – it was immediately apparent that we have very different gifts. I progressed much faster on the violin than I ever did on the piano! We enjoyed being very involved in the Suzuki community, and many of my happiest memories from childhood are of Suzuki camps and workshops. They provided wonderful opportunities to learn, be surrounded by music, get inspired by teachers, parents and other students, and form lifelong friendships. These musical adventures fuelled my passion and helped to motivate me.
Anyone who has ever learned an instrument has probably experienced first-hand Thomas Edison’s quote:
Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspirationThomas Edison
I certainly do while practising violin! Luckily, we were blessed with a mother who is not only incredibly smart, but also very creative, and she came up with inventive ideas to help us practise and keep track of our progress. I have many memories of preparing for concerts and learning new techniques through Mum’s brightly coloured scale charts, sticker books, and the famous ‘review wheel’; counting off repetitions of difficult passages with animal-shaped erasers or plastic fish caught on a fishing rod; and practising bow circles of different sizes (beach ball, watermelon, apple, peanut). I have an especially vivid memory of learning the Vivaldi A Minor for one of my first ever competitions, and around that time also learning about Suzuki’s concept that “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill.” This escalated into a mission to play the Vivaldi 10,000 times in the months leading up to the competition. I never made it to 10,000, but the process certainly helped me improve!
Between then and now there have been twists and turns in the road, changes in scenery and occasional bad weather, but I’m still on the same path towards my dream of becoming a professional violinist. After completing my degree in Auckland with Dimitri Atanassov, I attended the Royal College of Music in the class of Berent Korfker. Now I play in the opera in Karlsruhe, Germany, and study in Zürich, Switzerland, with Nora Chastain. It is a joy to do what I love for a living, and to experience different cultures at the same time.
Many treasured mentors whom I met through Suzuki had a far-reaching and profound effect on my growth, both as a musician and a human being. Jill Carter and Margaret Crawshaw, my long-suffering piano teachers, helped me more than they probably realise, particularly with knowledge of structure, chords, harmony and theory, which I have found indispensable. To Maryla I am eternally grateful, for igniting my love of the violin. And Trudi Miles found a way to nurture that love and simultaneously guide me through the maze of technical work and dry-Weetbix Sevcik, which I needed in order to keep progressing towards my dreams.
I will never forget a moment after a concert at the Suzuki Autumn Festival in Melbourne, in which 14-year-old me had just seen a much younger violinist perform
a difficult concerto to perfection. Trudi could see that I was feeling jealous, and worrying about whether I would ever be able to play that well. She stopped me and
said, “This can either make you give up, or it can inspire and motivate you to work harder and be better. Which will it be?” It was a profound and essential life lesson, and opened my eyes to the futility of comparing oneself to others. Competitiveness and rivalry goes against the spirit of music, which is a fundamentally collaborative, communicative activity. While we should aim for personal success, above all we should wish for the success of all of our musical colleagues, so we can together bring the gift of music into our communities.
Perhaps it is music that will save the world.Shinichi Suzuki
What was it like to be a Suzuki Mum? I didn’t start out as one. Growing up in a music-loving family, I observed my nieces and nephew learning Suzuki piano, which fired our enthusiasm. We live in the Waikato and our first Suzuki teacher was Jill Carter, who brought her love and care to our first teacher-child-parent Suzuki triangle. Here are some of my thoughts after twenty years as a Suzuki mum!
Be willing to broaden your repertoire. Jill encouraged our girls to learn pieces that complemented the Suzuki repertoire, and Maryla suggested Olivia learn American fiddle with Colleen Trenwith. This diversity of repertoire and style helps with enthusiasm and lets the child’s development consolidate steadily.
Nurture with love. Our Suzuki journey helped us to love one another and to love music. As parents, we enjoy the musical journey and aim to be the best parents we can be. We want our children to be the best that they can be, not better than someone else! Just as no two human beings are the same, no two Suzuki students are the same. They may play the same repertoire, but if you listen carefully you can hear each individual’s unique personality and heart.
Faithfulness. I remember returning to piano lessons after school holidays early in our Suzuki journey, and Jill Carter asking whether we had practised. We admitted that we hadn’t, and Jill replied, “You must practise on every day that you eat!” Commitment to daily practice benefitted other areas of our girls’ lives, as they became diligent at school, dance and sport.
Listen with your heart. Listening to music helps you to play in tune and sense the beauty of music, but once you learn the skill of listening it can help in all aspects of life – to understand instructions, form friendships, learn foreign languages, and be a listening ear to someone in need.
Commit to sight reading. Who says Suzuki kids can’t sight read? It is a valuable skill. At age 7 Grace and Olivia started learning to read music. Jill encouraged us to spend about one-third of our practise time each day on sight-reading – anything from Bach two-part inventions and church hymn books to wedding and show music. Today both girls can sight read anything!
Read. We read widely about music, learning from the life stories of composers, performers and teachers which helped the girls to add depth and context to their
Limit TV and gadgets! It’s important that young brains have the chance to develop a long attention span, so they can focus during a long piece or practice session. We had no TV while the girls were growing up. We had mealtimes, music, stories and lots of communication. This close personal connection enriched our life as a family. Open your child’s heart to other beautiful things and let those experiences enrich their music.
Be a concert-goer. Visit museums and art galleries. Swim in the surf, gaze at the clouds, run in the fields, go rock-climbing, and watch the ballet. Live!
If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.Shinichi Suzuki