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Karoly Sziladi, Judith Ginsburg and Kit Barham conduct, accompany and coach young musicians in Stellae Boreales. Photo: Lucy Martin
Karoly Sziladi, Judith Ginsburg and Kit Barham conduct, accompany and coach young musicians in Stellae Boreales. Photo: Lucy Martin

Ottawa's Stellae Boreales helps young musicians shine

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Music lessons are a part of life for many families. There are different methods of instruction, including something called the Suzuki method. It was developed in Japan by violinist Shinichi Suzuki and eventually became a successful style of learning around the world.

The Ottawa Suzuki Strings is an umbrella organization that organizes lessons for students of all ages. The most advanced young players can experience tours and public performance with the violin ensemble Stellae Boreales.

Lucy Martin took in a recent rehearsal to learn more about both programs.

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Members of Stellae Boreales rehearse at Woodroffe High in Ottawa. Photo:  Lucy Martin
Members of Stellae Boreales rehearse at Woodroffe High in Ottawa. Photo: Lucy Martin
It's a brisk Monday in mid-May, with an overnight frost warning. But early-evening sunlight pours in through windows at Woodroffe High school, filling the ordinary classrooms with a beautiful, rich glow. Music drifts out of classrooms scattered down a long hallway where younger students are getting group instruction.

Les Brown is a friendly presence at a small table in the main lobby. He's one of tonight's parent volunteers, there to give directions and take attendance sheets for classes taught by six teachers. Brown's daughter is down the hall, in the book two class. He says violin was all her idea.

So we said, OK, if you're sure, then you should try it out first. She tried with somebody, just to play with one a little bit, for a little while. She decided for sure this was for me.”

Brown agreed that the violin can intimidate many beginners, but he credits the Suzuki method with making that as easy as possible. “Suzuki is very quick actually – compared to Royal Conservatory – which is much more music-reading focused, where Suzuki is by ear.” Brown continued, “They start you off very simply, by just learning the parts of the violin, and air-bowing. You don't do any real music until you learn all those things. They just start you on the simplest 'Twinkle' theme kind of idea, and it comes from there, progresses along.”

(l to r) Lauren Aubrey, Rhiannon Ng, Simi Sutton-Pollock, Eliza Isaac, Rebecca Johnston and Sara Kreim. Stellae Boreales is comprised of girls and boys whose ages range from 11 to 17. Photo: Lucy Martin
(l to r) Lauren Aubrey, Rhiannon Ng, Simi Sutton-Pollock, Eliza Isaac, Rebecca Johnston and Sara Kreim. Stellae Boreales is comprised of girls and boys whose ages range from 11 to 17. Photo: Lucy Martin
Brown works as a trainer-developer, so he values “whole-systems” training as a style that makes sense. He said he often wonders why doesn't everybody teach music this way? "Because it involves the parents, the student and, of course, the greater community.”

Brown says he and his wife weren't serious musicians themselves – just people who like music. For his family, Suzuki instruction became an extension of simply enjoying music in the house, including playing for visiting relatives and friends.

Fifteen-year-old Holly Laurenzio showed up straight from soccer practice. She started playing at age 6, and heard enough Stellae Boreales concerts to want that for herself. “We know each other - it's a fun group.” she said. “And we're good, but we're not, like, strict in the way that it's not fun. We're strict, but we still have fun doing it, you know?”

Last year's trip to Washington, D.C. was Laurenzio's first time outside of Canada. She liked performing with students from the Peabody Institution, seeing the sites and experiencing a different culture. Does she envision playing professionally? “I don't know if I'll have a career in it. But I think I want to be musical and be playing violin forever.”

Fellow players had their own musical journeys. Simi Sutton-Pollock started even younger (at age 3) using what she called: “... the smallest possible size there is! Really small. I think I've had five. I've had like a sixteenth, a tenth, a three-quarter, a half.” Sutton-Pollock is on a full-size violin now, though it may not be her last instrument.

These diverse students juggle busy lives. Speaking with a group of girls in the lobby, they referred to lots of soccer, some hockey and piano, plus less-common stuff like harp, dance, horseback riding and even badminton. (Boys play in Stellae Borealis too! I just didn't run into any at this point of the evening.)

After looking in on different groups in classrooms, the cafeteria and the dance studio, it was time to hear the advanced group rehearse in the school auditorium. Everyone tuned up with noted keyboard accompanist Judith Ginsburg, and took several runs at different movements from Bizet's Carmen.

Just before that, I'd been able to grab a few moments with Stellae Borealis co-conductors Christopher “Kit” Barham and Karoly Sziladi, Jr. (Sziladi's father is a violinist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa.) Barham coaches the intermediate group, Sziladi looks after the seniors and they both conduct the combined ensemble.

Stellae Borealis is going to Cuba in July. Past tours have included Iceland, China, New York and Washington D.C. An important fund-raiser will take place June 2 at the National Gallery Theatre, which was uppermost on Barham's mind this evening. He thinks it'll be a good one. “We've had as many as 600 people, actually, at some of our concerts – which is a lot more than just our parents and their friends.”

One of the younger classes organized by Ottawa Suzuki Strings. Photo: Lucy Martin
One of the younger classes organized by Ottawa Suzuki Strings. Photo: Lucy Martin
I asked what else was on tap for the rest of the year? Barham said the group will work with the NAC Orchestra and visiting Chinese orchestras in October, which should be exciting. Then he got philosophical. “The Suzuki method, – if you want to call it, or philosophy, really – is fundamentally about love. We start with children as young as, sort of, three years old. And eventually they grow up and become really wonderful players. Some choose to go into music, and I would say the majority don't.”

Barham said studying music is worthwhile in any case. “If you can get yourself to a high level of performance excellence – all the same skills that you use for that, you use in your regular life. So, simplifying problems, working the problems, there's a lot of analytical work that you need to do, there's a lot of sweat work that you have to do. All the skills that you ned to be successful in life are what you will develop as a musician.”

Karoly Sziladi said he'd just started coaching this group last year but he's had years of experience with orchestras, coaching, and all kinds of musical endeavors, so this was no great leap. What's slightly different in this case is a large group made up of nothing but violins.

He said that was more happenstance than intentional. “I think, in time, that would be the next thing: violas, cello, bass. I mean, that's part of the Suzuki program, there is the Suzuki cello coaching and viola and it's just a matter of we haven't got there yet.”

Sziladi says he's excited about July's Cuba tour, even if the temperatures are intimidating. We joked about winter or spring being preferable times to visit, in terms of Cuban weather. But a summer trip avoids any problems with missing school, so that's they way it'll be. He quipped that they'll just rely on plenty of sunscreen.

The rehearsal continued with more music from Carmen. Listening to the lush, evocative “Habanera” movement it was only too easy to be carried away by everything that music offers.

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