Aspen embraces the Japanese Suzuki music instruction method |

Aspen embraces the Japanese Suzuki music instruction method

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Aspenite Heidi Curatolo, far right, leads her Suzuki method students in a performance today at the Aspen Chapel. Contributed photo

The Suzuki method of music instruction was born in the mountains. In the aftermath of World War II, Shinichi Suzuki, the son of a violin maker, began a violin studio in the mountain city of Matsumoto, Japan, and eventually founded the Talent Education Research Institute. The school taught music but also that through music, children could develop their character and capacity for empathy.

The Suzuki method has spread throughout the world, and among the places it has taken a strong hold is in the mountain town of Aspen. Since the early ’00s, Heidi Curatolo, the daughter of a Suzuki teacher, has had a studio of young musicians training in the Suzuki method. The studio has grown ­— Curatolo’s annual spring recital, set for 1 p.m. today at the Aspen Chapel, will feature 45 student performers. And Curatolo’s reputation is growing. In April, Curatolo got a call from a member of the board of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. Unbeknownst to Curatolo, the board, headquartered in Boulder, was having its meeting in Aspen; it also was news to her that the board was aware of Curatolo’s activities in Aspen. After a lunch at Main Street Bakery, Curatolo was invited to attend and perform at the association’s leadership retreat next week in Ohio. A European Suzuki handbook is using a photo of Curatolo.

“We’re on the map in the Suzuki world community,” said Curatolo, a 35-year-old who spent two summers, in 1998 and 2000, studying at the Aspen Music School. “People know we have a program here and that it’s growing.”

If the Suzuki world knows about Curatolo, a big part of the reason is her travels in the Suzuki world. She often attends the Suzuki training held annually in Beaver Creek; last year, she went to Fairbanks, Alaska, and Eugene, Ore., for teacher workshops. This summer, she will attend a workshop in Dallas on a partial scholarship. And in March, she went to Japan, where she witnessed some thousand string students playing together for an audience that included a Japanese princess.

“That was moving. You go to an orchestra, you don’t hear a thousand string players.” Curatolo said.

Curatolo was moved by more than the sound. She is a believer in the humanistic side of Suzuki, which includes the belief that every child has the ability to learn music, that a music education creates better citizens, that music should be taught in a non-competitive environment and that learning music is a family endeavor, with parents expected to participate in the process.

“It’s about the discipline to study anything. And about creating fine citizens,” Curatolo said. It’s also about instilling a sense of democracy, based on Suzuki’s belief that every child, even if blind or mentally handicapped, could learn music. “And that was at a time when, in Japan, they believed you were either born with an IQ to learn, or you went out into the fields. He challenged that.”

Today’s concert will show off the abilities of Curatolo’s students. The concert begins with an ensemble of some 25 players, from first-graders to high schoolers, playing pieces that Suzuki himself composed. Then there will be segments of solo violinists and solo pianists, followed by the older violinists playing Bach’s double concerto and a Vivaldi concerto. The encore will be a tango by Michael McLean, an Alaskan composer Curatolo met at the Suzuki event in Fairbanks.

“It’s from ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ to real repertoire — Aspen Music Festival repertoire,” she said.

Along with hearing the way the students have developed, listeners might also be able to track the progress of the teacher. Curatolo says the recitals, which she has presented each year since 2003, have gotten progressively better.

“Any time you’re getting your 10,000th time in, you know how to be more efficient,” she said of her improvement as an instructor. “There are steps you know are important and which ones you can skip. I’m constantly rethinking: How can I do this better?”

Curatolo says Suzuki training can provide the tools for a student to go on to become a professional musician, but the purpose is not necessarily to create professionals. The education does, though, seem to have a lasting impact. Curatolo says that every student she has ever had for more than a year — some 200 of them — went on to play music, in one form or another, in college.