By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Leslie Koons defines herself as a violinist and a teacher. But to dozens of families in Pekin, Illinois, she’s one of the School District 108 Suzuki Strings teachers who helped develop their child’s love of music.
Leslie is originally from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, which is also the home of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. For her, music was never an option. Her mother was a music teacher, organist and choir director, and her grandparents were musical as well. She can’t remember ever falling in love with music. “That’s like asking me when I fell in love with breathing,” she said. “Music has just always been a part of me. My mother had me playing the piano at three.”
Her mother discovered early that Leslie had perfect pitch. Her mother would work with her at the piano by challenging her to name the notes she heard. “Of course, she’d show me off when we had company,” she recalled laughing. “Look what little Leslie can do!”
Leslie never questioned that she’d find a career in music, the only question was whether to study performance or education. Her studies took her to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for a bachelor’s in music performance, and then to Tulane University in New Orleans for a master’s degree, also in violin performance. Eventually, she landed in Sarasota, Florida where she met her husband, Lowell, at an orchestra audition. (They both got hired, by the way.)
Leslie had first heard of the Suzuki method from her violin professor in college, and it sounded like a good approach. Given her background in violin performance and Lowell’s background in violin music education, it was only natural for them to begin applying these techniques with their own children. They began taking the kids to Suzuki workshops to expand their skills. Most of those workshops also offered training for teachers which she and Lowell would attend.
Eventually, they decided to jump in with both feet and moved to Indiana to study the Suzuki method more formally. They then came to Pekin when Lowell was hired by the Pekin Suzuki Strings program. Initially, Leslie would help out as an accompanist. “I don’t think they even knew I played the violin too,” she said. Both auditioned and joined the Peoria Symphony Orchestra.
According to Leslie, very few schools have a Suzuki string program like Pekin’s where children can start in kindergarten. “A lot of schools use the Suzuki literature, and may even call themselves a Suzuki program, but they’re not really using the Suzuki method.” The Suzuki method relies heavily on parental involvement to be role models and provide positive reinforcement. It’s sometimes called the “mother tongue method” since the learning is modeled after the way children learn to speak their native language.
Leslie is a big believer in the Suzuki method. One of the strengths of the approach is “the fact that they can do it so young,” she said. “There’s so much brain developing that can happen at that young age – to do the violin and to do all the things that are involved in the process. It’s just fabulous for kids. They develop listening skills as well as coordination and self discipline. The kids also get a lot of individual attention, so they can progress at their own pace. We use repetition and a lot of positive encouragement.”
Self confidence is another huge benefit. “As students get older they can become very self conscious,” Leslie pointed out. “But for the Suzuki kids, getting out on stage isn’t a big deal since they’ve been doing it since they were five. They also have a relationship that they build with their parents – that’s a special time they don’t get any other way.”
As a teacher, some of Leslie’s most rewarding moments come from small victories. “When you get a three or four year old who can focus for 5 minutes, that’s major,” she pointed out. “Any time you have a student who is one of the fidgety, difficult to focus kids, and you get to the point where they can play Twinkle all the way through – that is just the most exciting thing in the world.”
Leslie gets a lot of satisfaction from teaching, but she still loves to play and perform. “Probably the most fun is quartet playing,” she said, “because of the collaborative aspect of it.” And, she doesn’t need an audience, she can be just as happy playing in her living room as she is on stage. “Frequently we have people over to play, just for fun.”
For more information about the Pekin Suzuki Strings program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (309) 477-4774.
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, my family has been involved with the Pekin Suzuki program for many years. We leaned about the program when they visited my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. She was fascinated with the violins and wanted to sign up. A few years later, our son also joined the program. We loved being “Suzuki parents.”
Today (quite a few years later), my daughter’s three sons are all in the program, playing violin, viola and cello. They may never be great musicians, but that’s not the goal. They’re all great kids, and I firmly believe that music education contributes to their success.