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Interview with Michiko Yurko on Music Mind Games and Sight-Reading in the Suzuki Method

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Michiko! Please introduce yourself and tell us about your company, Music Mind Games.

Hi, Danielle! I am Michiko Yurko and I am the creator of Music Mind Games, a project I have been working on for 40 years. It’s been great! Music and education were important to my parents. Although they followed different professions, my father sang and my mother played the piano. I was always supported in my music and dance lessons and related activities so I have very positive memories of those years. My mom was an elementary classroom teacher and her extraordinary devotion to her students and her creativity taught me to be innovative in my own work.

Music Mind Games, LLC was founded in 2005 after Warner Bros (my publisher for nearly 20 years) was sold to Alfred. Although they believed in my work and continue to publish the book Music Mind Games, Alfred said they could not afford to produce the Music Mind Games materials. My husband, Cris and I discussed all sorts of options and decided to take on the project ourselves. It was hard work to personally design and bring into production all the Music Mind Games materials I had created for my students. But it was also fun. There are now more than 30 materials in the Music Mind Games line. We have shipped materials to more than 40 countries. That means more and more students are enjoying learning how to read music and understand music theory.

My mother told me, “You need to leave the world a better place than you found it.” She also said, “The career you will have in life may not have been invented yet,” and “Hitch your wagon to a star,” which means to dream large. I’m doing my best to live up to her advice. 


What brought Music Mind Games about?

My degree was in piano performance in college, which means I was usually practicing 5-6 hours each day. But I was also taking theory and history classes. For many of us it was quite hard to learn the concepts and train ourselves to learn and hear what we were supposed to be hearing. Often we got bogged down because we couldn’t even say the alphabet backwards in intervals fast enough to keep up with our professors’ expectations. Despite how difficult it was, I worked hard and actually liked it. The whole system fascinated me, and I went on to major in music theory for my masters degree.

At some point, I came across the Suzuki method and was impressed with the positive attitude of the teachers and how well the students played. But, there were comments that Suzuki students didn’t learn how to read music. I saw a need and I wanted to help.

During graduate school, I took this incredible yearlong course on the evolution of music theory from ancient Greek and Roman times to our modern day music. I learned that it took hundreds of years for the notation system we use today to evolve. It is rather like a puzzle that various people worked on for centuries, each one adding a little piece as they devised ways to make combinations of lines, dots, shapes and letters on paper so that musicians could turn them into beautiful music. I find that really magical. I used this course as the basis for Music Mind Games.

And I thought about ways for students to learn the alphabet backwards as well as other important things like reading rhythms, singing, understanding rhythm math, tempos, notes, sight-singing, scales, triads, chords and musical symbols. I continue to think outside the box to find better strategies for learning so students can learn quicker and recall the information more easily. 


Why even bother making games for sight-reading and theory?

Since everyone thought music theory was hard, I decided to make up a series of games to teach different aspects of note reading. Games are fun because of the challenge and the fact that they are intriguing for the mind. With games, students can also relax and be themselves. That makes it possible for me to teach them a great deal in a short period of time since students really pay attention to learn the game and thus learn the theory and reading skills. Within each game, there is ample time for lots of repetition of concepts, a key ingredient to learning.

I’ve always liked games, but since my older brother and sister were often not around to play with me, I played a lot by myself. For example, I got really good at solitaire card games. I played Monopoly and other board games by myself. I would set up the game for four people and move myself from place to place. Now, I travel all over the world and everyone comes to play games with me. The little child inside of me is smiling.

Games are fun of course, but it is not fun to lose. And sometimes it doesn’t feel good to win either, if you notice that others are unhappy. So I decided to make games so everyone wins, because if they win, they will be happy. And the world needs lots of people who are happy and want to play music, go to concerts and support musical events. Music is very important and I didn’t want my games to discourage anyone.

Recently in Mexico, four girls were playing War with rhythm playing cards. They were laughing and so happy. On one round they each put down either a sixteenth note or a sixteenth rest card. They were so excited to see that happen. To break the tie everyone put down one card face down and one card face up. Three girls had a half note or half rest and one had an eighth note which that meant she lost the round. But she was as happy as the girls who won. That happens all the time and is so amazing. Students are thrilled to learn and to play, and it doesn’t matter about the winning and losing. Of course, some games are more serious and calm which is nice, too. That’s how life is.

I had objectives that I wanted my students to learn and we made up the games together. If I saw that a student was confused, I quickly improvised and revised the game or made up a new one. I had lots of opportunities to play the games with many different students since I was invited many places to teach. That helped me streamline the games and work out the kinks. I observed how students moved their hands to pick up the cards, how they moved their eyes and what their expressions were. All these clues helped me learn what made children relax and learn smoother.

I cared how each student was feeling throughout their time with me. I always sat with them on the floor and we played together. We had fun and sometimes we were screaming with excitement and joy. I still do all these things. Recently my student Roxana and I were playing Speed with rhythm playing cards, a game she literally asks for every week. We started screaming (which we weren’t aware of) so loudly that my husband (who is used to the sorts of sounds that come from my studio) came running downstairs to see if we were being attacked.

Some of the games have taken thirty or more years to finish. Of course, we were playing them all those years, but every now and then I get an idea or someone makes a suggestion and it is just the perfect little thing to improve the game. I love it when that happens.


There seems to be this conception floating around that the Suzuki Method doesn't teach students how to sight-read. What are your thoughts?

This has been a conception since the beginning and it’s disheartening to me that it still exists. In the early days (1973) when I was studying and beginning to teach the Suzuki method, I found it was useful to learn about cultural and educational differences between Japan and the US.

I don’t have information that it is still the case, but in the early 1970’s, I learned that students in Japanese schools were taught to read music in their regular schools so it was not so necessary for the private instrumental teacher to do so. Thus, lesson time could be spent on repertoire, posture, tone and how to best play one’s instrument. It’s possible that some early Suzuki teachers imitated the Japanese Suzuki teachers in this regard and then in turn, others copied them. Thus this not-teaching-reading-in-the-lesson situation became rather common. However, in the US, instrumental music teachers can’t depend on this happening in our schools so it is necessary for us to teach music reading skills to our students for them to become good readers.

When I was in Matsumoto at Dr. Suzuki’s school, I watched individual piano lessons and consistently observed student after student begin each lesson with perfectly prepared sight-reading. We all must do the same.

I feel another reason this concept of not reading was attached to Suzuki students is due to young transfer students. If a young student moved to an area without a Suzuki teacher and transferred into a traditional teacher’s studio, the teacher would lament to others, “Suzuki students don’t read music.” Perhaps in some cases it was just that the student wasn’t reading music yet.

However, these generalizations don’t apply to all Suzuki teachers. Obviously, many teachers think sight-reading and understanding music theory is very important and make it happen for their students. Each teacher needs to have a plan in mind and make it happen for each student. Only then will this unfortunate label begin to fade.

One more point: It simply isn’t true that all traditional students are good readers, either.

After forty years of teaching Suzuki method, I still believe in the value of Dr. Suzuki’s mother-tongue approach to learning to sing or play a musical instrument. His common sense notion of applying the same process that children worldwide use to learn their spoken language is nothing short of brilliant. Learn to speak by imitation and learn to read by being taught. Practice both daily in a nurturing environment for years and fluency in both will prevail. If we want our students to read, we simply follow the same path.


If Suzuki students are initially taught to play pieces by ear, why teach them music theory at all? Wouldn't that just be a waste of lesson time?

Oh, my! It is certainly not a waste of time. It is so valuable to be able to read music and understand music theory. It is as important as teaching children to read and write their native tongue. For simple songs, it’s fine to learn them by ear, but the musical score is our only means of communicating with the composer. It’s really quite magical to think of.

Hundreds of years ago someone, a street musician or even Beethoven, had a musical idea and took pen to paper. On top of a series of horizontal lines, he (or she) made dots, lines, curvy lines, other various shapes and a few words. We see a copy of that manuscript today and with careful study, we can bring that music back to life. I find that really incredible. And to do that, we need to know all the details of reading music. 


When should a student start to learn music theory and sight reading? And how often should sight-reading be the focus in the lesson?

I feel it’s best to start right away, however, I also respect Dr. Suzuki’s belief to focus on tone and technique, initially learning by listening and delaying note reading. How I accomplish both is to play Music Mind Games with my students separately from the repertoire they are playing on the piano. It’s like two trees growing side by side. When they are small there is space between them, but as they grow and mature, they appear as one.

Following Dr. Suzuki’s teachings, sight-reading can begin when students are stable with technique, hand position and able to play with some competence. Dr. Suzuki felt that if students can be free to learn pieces from listening, they would develop an innate ability to hear music at a deep level and listen with sensitivity to their own playing. Hearing the melody line is obvious, but the musical benefit of daily listening is to create sensitivity to tone, rhythm, dynamics, pulse, tempo, musicality and ultimately, self-expression.

It can begin gradually with simple melodies and should be done daily so the student can make progress and improve. My students buy some of their sight-reading books, and I have a large sight-reading library so they can check out music. Our activity fund pays for new acquisitions.

Sight-reading is best done at the beginning of the lesson along with scales and other skill builders. I observed this repeatedly at each of the lessons in Dr. Suzuki’s school. Students would arrive and the sight-reading book would be open to the correct page without the teacher asking. I follow this example in my lessons. Otherwise, once work begins on the repertoire, it’s not easy to get back to reading and scales. 


Say a teacher or parent doesn't know how to help their student/child with music theory? Any suggestions on where they could start?

Ah, now that’s an easy question for me. I would suggest they get a Puppy Packet, read the Handbook and begin playing some of the games. There’s so much fun and good ways of learning waiting for them. There are more materials, too.

In conclusion I want to say that I believe my work has been and continues to be important. It is rewarding to know that other teachers want to use my Music Mind Games ideas with their students. It’s like a little piece of me goes all over the world, and it is gratifying to be useful in that way.

I want students to love learning. If they do, life will continue to be fulfilling. Of course, the games are teaching music theory, but they are also teaching students how to get along with each other, to share, take care of each other and to be kind. They are learning that something complicated, tricky or confusing can be mastered if a little bit is learned at a time and if there is a lot of stimulating repetition. Then no one gets frustrated or gives up. They are getting comfortable with being brave, trying new things and being enthusiastic.

Although learning music theory and reading music is important, these other life lessons are invaluable.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing Michiko. I love the two trees analogy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I liked that one too. I always tell my parents they are parallel skills that eventually combine. But the trees seem like more fun =)

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  2. What a wonderful interview! You are always an inspiration
    to me Michiko, my mentor and friend. I love teaching music mind
    games!
    Love, Coralyn Smith (ISSI Training Class, 2012)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I LOVE using Music Mind Games with my students and I feel there is no end to discovering the benefits to teaching them music theory in this way! The students love to learn, are developing confidence and are definitely becoming more musical. Thank you Michiko! You are having quite an impact on an unknown number of people!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Audrey, thanks for teaching Music Mind Games! Also, love your website ( www.midlothianpianoteacher.com )

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you for this fabulous interview, Danielle! I just discovered your blog and I love it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Welcome! I'm always glad to meet new readers =)

      Delete

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