Violin teachers usually earn their reputations through the fame and virtuosity of their students. But every virtuoso has to start somewhere, and those early lessons have their own challenges.
Wendy Azrak is a teacher whose genius is showcased in a less grandiose, but arguably more difficult accomplishment: She can get a three-year-old to stand still.
In order to learn music, young children need to learn to listen, pay attention, and follow directions before they can ever play. Take, for example, the rehearsal for the annual spring concert for the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute. This is a typical event for Azrak and her colleagues where they have to organize hundreds of active children to practice their concert pieces together.
The kids, teachers, and families are packed into a small, middle school auditorium while teachers lead the rehearsal. The aisles are jammed with strollers and the energy is high as the young violinists line up on both sides of the stage to get their instruments tuned.
Each child, even the very youngest, has a real violin scaled to their body size tucked carefully under one arm. With so many excited small children holding delicate instruments, you might expect to hear one or two of them crashing to the floor with a gut-wrenching crunch. But the kids know how to hold their violins safely. It's one of their first lessons.
Some of these musicians are so young, they can't tie their shoes yet, but they can hold a violin and a bow and play rhythms or simple tunes like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Getting them to that point requires a deep understanding of early childhood development, motor skills, and language acquisition. Wendy Azrak's specialty is training these youngest violinists.
"I can take a little beginner, who's a very distractible child, and pretty soon they're holding their violin while I count to 100, standing absolutely still. I've had their neighbors go, 'No way, you're getting that kid to stand still.' In two weeks, they're standing still," says Azrak.
To do that, there's one quality she had to have in abundance--patience.
Wesley Fritzemeier is a former student of Azrak's. He now performs with a number of groups based in Southeast Michigan, including Thunderwude, the Ben Daniels Band, and the Shutter Down Boys.
Fritzemeier started playing the violin in 1994, when he was four years old. Azrak was Fritzemeier's first teacher. He can remember starting on a pretend violin as a beginning student. It was a cereal box covered with white paper. Azrak drew the strings and F-holes on the box to make it look like a real violin, and then he used a pencil to "play" it, which is just about the right size for a very small child's hand. When he was ready, he graduated to a real violin.
"She was super patient," Fritzemeier says. "We'd do what was called shadow playing, I think, where she would just play the song, and I would just hear it and try to do it back."
That patient and methodical approach helped Fritzemeier develop foundational skills as a musician years before kids typically begin music lessons.
Azrak began teaching in the 1970s. Back then, the Suzuki method was a counter-cultural movement. "It was radical in that you didn't start with reading. We were working with a language base, and babies don't read," says Azrak.
The idea behind the Suzuki method is that children learn music intuitively--the way they learn their first words. It's easy for the kids, but it's not even remotely easy for the teachers. Azrak has trained hundreds of teachers in techniques for working with very young children.
"Teaching young students is sometimes really mortifying for musicians and teachers," says Andrea Yun, a cello teacher who has worked with Azrak for about ten years. She says Wendy Azrak's special sauce is really about getting people past that discomfort.
"It's this feeling of letting people be a part of a whole. She gives that feeling really well. There's this whole of the Suzuki method, and you're a part of it now because you're taking this training, and welcome," Yun says.
Azrak recently retired after forty years of teaching. She leaves behind a community she built around Suzuki music and a new generation of teachers to follow in her footsteps.