New school immerses children in the language of music

In a study published two years ago, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that performing musicians activated the same brain areas as those traditionally stimulated by spoken language.

Shinichi Suzuki would not have been surprised.

Almost a century ago, Suzuki, a Japanese-born violinist who studied western music in Germany, began a teaching program based on the connection between language and music. Suzuki (1898-1998) believed that the process by which children learn their native tongue could be applied to teaching music. His approach, known as the Suzuki Method, has since become one of the world’s foremost programs for learning a musical instrument.



Beginning this month, the program will have a more tangible presence in Ridgefield. Jessica McNamara, a violinist who conducts with the Norwalk Youth Symphony, has opened the Ridgefield Suzuki School, which will offer lessons and group classes inside the Cabbage Patch Nursery School at 29 Farrar Lane. An open house (including free classes) is scheduled on Saturday, Sept. 10, from 10-1, for prospective students and their parents.

Based on her own experience, McNamara, who taught music for 11 years at Bedford Middle School in Westport, is a strong advocate of the Suzuki Method.

“It’s how I began learning to play the violin myself. When I was in first grade in Queens, N.Y., a teacher did a [Suzuki] demo with violin and I went home and told my mom I wanted to learn,” said McNamara, who recently moved to Ridgefield with her husband, Michael, the instrumental director at Ridgefield High School, and their children. “It’s been a long-time dream of mine to open a school that teaches the Suzuki Method.

“To me, it’s the most natural, organic way to learn a musical instrument,” added McNamara. “It follows the way a child learns language. The child is immersed in a musically rich environment and everything is broken down into the tiniest of steps.”

At the Ridgefield Suzuki School, instrumental lessons are offered on violin, viola, cello and piano for children 4 and older. Each student receives one weekly private lesson (30, 45 or 60 minutes based on age and experience level) and also participates in one group class. In addition, students perform in a variety of settings (recitals, concerts, etc.) during the school year.

Before starting lessons, students under 5 are advised to take part in the Early Childhood Program, which includes an informal, play-based music immersion class (Music Together) followed by another class (Meet the Instruments) that serves as a bridge to private lessons.

At all levels and programs, the school adheres to the Suzuki Method’s mantra of parental involvement.

“The parent is part of the triangle along with the student and the teacher,” McNamara said. “The parent sits in on every private lesson and group lesson. This allows that parent to help the student at home and also further develop the relationship between parent and child. The experience becomes a part of the family’s life, just as language is. It’s a different approach than telling your son or daughter to go upstairs and practice for an hour.”

McNamara said the Ridgefield Suzuki School will also emphasize the program’s core belief that musical ability is developed, not innate.

“The majority of Suzuki parents are not musicians,” she said. “The teacher shows the parent exactly how to work with their child at home, giving them strategies to make practice fun and productive.”

“The idea that every child can (learn an instrument) is an absolute bedrock of the method,” continued McNamara. “The goal is not necessarily to create musical prodigies. The goal is to provide a nurturing environment that allows ability to develop.”

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