HOUGHTON - Sometime in the 1960s, the Suzuki method for teaching violin came to the United States, and it reached the Copper Country not long after that, according to Libby Meyer.
Meyer, who is executive director of the Copper Country Suzuki Association, said the local group is having its 40th anniversary this year.
"We were pretty early on (in the United States)," she said.
Meyer said in 1931-32, Shinichi Suzuki started formulating his method for teaching the violin to children in Japan. The method involves teaching students by first getting them used to the feel of the instrument then having them just listen and play without reading music. He called it the Mother Tongue Method because it was like learning to speak.
"Every kid, by the time he's 5, he speaks a language," she said. "The idea is you teach children music like you're teaching them a language."
Meyer said from birth to 5 years old, children are most susceptible to learning.
Suzuki exported his method to the United States during a tour in the early 1960s, Meyer said.
"He brought over a bunch of little kids from Japan," she said. "People saw them and went, 'Wow.'"
One of the first U.S. communities to start a Suzuki organization was Stevens Point, Wis., and it flourished from there, Meyer said.
"It just really took off," she said.
Meyer said Rosemary Remington started the CCSA in 1971 after visiting Suzuki in Japan. In 1988, the CCSA began a partnership with Michigan Technological University, where Meyer, who became executive director in 2000, is an instructor.
Many teachers of the Suzuki method start children at 3 years old, Meyer said, so downsized instruments are used for them, some as small as 8 inches long. There are small violins, violas and cellos.
Meyer said she gives lessons to students, but most of their practice is at home with parental supervision when the children are 3 years old to 10 years old. Because of that, she also has students who are adults.
"A lot of times, parents will start because they see their children playing," she said.
Meyer said the CCSA students range in age from 3 to 70, but most are middle school age.
With the traditional Suzuki method, Meyer said children don't learn to read music for years, but rather they learn by listening to recordings of the instrument being played, and then play themselves.
"The idea is you learn in steps," she said. "You want to limit the frustrations."
Meyer said she teaches a little bit differently when it comes to written music.
"I teach reading quite early," she said.
There are a series of instruction books for each instrument, Meyer said, and students progress by working through them.
Meyer said she has the youngest students learn how to hold instruments by first using a cardboard box with a stick in it before moving to an actual instrument. She also has them stand on a plastic pad with outlines for proper placement of their feet.
Teaching the very youngest students is not usually a problem, Meyer said.
"They're little sponges," she said.
She doesn't restrict her students to learning just one kind of music, Meyer said, but rather teaches them various forms, including folk, jazz and even mariachi.
"I really try to have them do more than classical," she said. "I encourage them to listen to a lot of violin players."
Meyer said the CCSA works with Keweenaw Family Music, which is directed by Dr. Amanda Plummer, who also teaches piano for the CCSA. Other CCSA instructors are Emma Dlutkowski, who is a former CCSA student, for violin, and Margaret Twining, who also directs the CCSA Keweenaw Youth Symphony, for cello. The board president of the CCSA is Maria Bergstrom.
The Suzuki method is used also to teach flute, guitar and harp, but Meyer said none of those are taught locally.
When he was 4 years old, CCSA student Martin Schutte, who is 14 years old now, said he began learning violin.
Schutte said the Suzuki method has helped him learn his instrument.
"It works," he said of the method. "Usually, I practice on my own."
Although he isn't certain how long he'll play violin, Schutte said he'll use the Suzuki method for a while longer.
"I'll probably stay with Suzuki until I finish the (10) books," he said.
Information about the Copper Country Suzuki Association can be found online at coppercountrysuzuki.org.
Funding for CCSA comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.