From Suzuki to Itzhak

Ten-year-old music student Mateo Valdes’ violin journey at the Patel Conservatory.

Mateo Violinist by Rob-Harris-1973

Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Patel Conservatory violin student Mateo Valdes has a very deep and wise gaze under a flop of shaggy, dark bangs. He doesn’t make eye contact much, but when he does, he seems to possess a kind of old-soul way of knowing that belies his slight 10 years of age.

His mother, Natacha, trained in the Suzuki method as a child and continues to practice and play violin today. When her son was old enough to sit for an orchestra performance, she took Mateo to an afternoon concert. Like many people, initial exposure to the arts as a small child awakened his talent.

“I saw the violin,” he says simply. “And I knew right away I wanted to learn to play.” Natacha looked for schools with Suzuki classes, found the Patel Conservatory and enrolled her son in 2013, when he was five years old. The Suzuki method involves a triangle of teaching and learning among the teacher, student and a parent or guardian. So, Natacha and Mateo began this violin journey with Dr. Catherine Michelsen, the string specialist at the Patel Conservatory.

“It was different from what I expected,” Mateo says of his first lessons five years ago. “I had to practice putting my feet in the proper position when I was little and just starting. Catherine had a cardboard thing I had to put my feet on, and we would practice my posture. Then I got into playing. Book 5 is where I am now.”

Suzuki Violin Camp (1)

Suzuki Violin Camp at the Patel Conservatory, 2017.

But Mateo’s “where I am now” extends beyond the next book in a serial technique. Though he continues to train and learn from his enormous support system at the Patel Conservatory and at home, Mateo’s relationship to music and to his instrument denote a young artist in the dawning of his craft. “He’s been a true joy to teach,” says Dr. Michelsen. “His innate musicality was apparent early on, both in his playing and in his interest in other aspects of music such as improvisation. His sense of dynamics and phrasing is very impressive.”

Mateo’s versatility was impressive enough to land him a spot as one of the youngest violinists in the Suncoast Super Strings, an arm of the Itzhak Perlman Music Program in Sarasota. After rehearsing with an orchestra comprised of students from around Florida, the Suncoast Super Strings performed with Itzhak Perlman himself conducting in December 2017.

“I was very excited,” says Mateo. “I liked performing with so many people. Now that I played in that orchestra, I sort of have an image in my head of where I want to go, where I see myself with the violin. I see myself playing in a big concert and making recordings. And a lot of improv stuff.”

Mateo with Itzhal Perlman 1

Mateo gets a shirt autographed by Itzhak Perlman.

Mateo, who studies and practices rigorously, spends much of his free time with the violin recording himself on his computer in improvisations of what he’s learned. “I love improvising,” he says. “I work on my pieces to get better, but I do want to record and do something with that later.”

“I play with Mateo, too,” says Natacha. “I’ve seen a huge development in his technique because of Catherine’s style of teaching but also because he gets boosts with the Patel Conservatory camps. He’s more comfortable, happier with his own playing. I am most pleased about his desire to improvise, though. That’s not me or anybody else. That’s just him.”

Here’s a clip of Mateo improvising:

 

“Playing violin is very fun once you get it,” Mateo says. “After the first six months, I really started to enjoy it. It’s been great for me.”

If you want to get involved with Patel Conservatory summer camps and classes, see what’s available and register now at patelconservatory.org.

 

Mateo’s Teacher Offers Pro Tips for Starting a Child’s Violin Lessons at the Patel Conservatory

Catherine 7787 by Rob-Harris_72dpi

Dr. Catherine Michelsen

We always welcome parents and children to observe the Suzuki violin group classes and lessons! Parents can get a “pass to class” in admissions to observe our Monday afternoon group classes and private lessons throughout the week. Because the Suzuki program has a higher level of parent involvement, we want to make sure that parents and students have a thorough idea of what the program entails. There is no need for parents to have musical experience themselves. However, the triangle of student, parent and teacher is part of what makes it such a rewarding experience. We can also provide help in renting or purchasing an instrument.

String Theory

The mandolin and violin share some interesting intersections.

From the cave paintings at Three Brothers Cave in France came evidence of the proto-proto-mandolin, a crude lute-like instrument with one string. Or perhaps this cave drawing, which depicts a hunting bow converted to a musical instrument, represents the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of what we know as the violin.

MusicalBow

An Obu man playing a musical bow in Nigeria, circa 1909-1913.

These two seemingly different instruments share the same tuning – G, D, A, E – so a violin player could switch to mandolin and crank out the same Bach sonatas. Likewise, a mandolin player could heft a violin under her chin and spool out “Rickett’s Reel,” transmuting said instrument from violin to fiddle.

As humans traveled, pillaged and collided culturally, their instruments ended up in new hands to be played around new fires with new types of fermented beverages. Thus, common roots stem from Middle Eastern instruments influencing European instrument makers, as both the mandolin and violin chart back to Arabic origins. (The mandolin traces to the “oud” and the violin to the “rabab.”)

oud-rebab collage

An oud (left) and a rabab (right).

The two share a notable historic turn in Italy albeit 100 years apart. In the 1500s in northern Italy, an instrument evolved from the design of the viola di braccio, and an instrument maker named Andrea Amati of Cremora landed on record as the first known creator of the modern violin in 1555. The oldest surviving violin dates to 1560 and belongs to Amati. The most well-known Italian violin maker, Antonio Stradivari, apprenticed with Amati’s grandson. Stradivari set the standard for the violin in the late 1600s and early 1700s, at the time when the Latin mandora, part of the lute family, entered the stream of Italian life.

The Italians invented a smaller version of the mandora, called it the mandolina, and by the 1800s, the mandolin enjoyed a happy, abundant life in Italian music. During the great immigration of the late 1800s to America, Italians packed their mandolins and introduced this delightful little instrument to the New World.

gibson mandolin family

The Gibson Mandolin Family at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

In 1898, an American luthier named Orville Gibson won a patent for an arch-top design on the traditional bowl-backed Italian mandolin. The American mandolin was born. Gibson instruments became a household name. Gibson’s iconic mandolin design continues to symbolize American folk music to this day.

The roads converged for the violin and mandolin in the United States, where the Italians had created a great mandolin fever in the 1900s. Violins in the guise of fiddles partnered with mandolins, banjos, guitars and upright basses to codify a particular type of Americana music that exploded in the 1930s once commercial radio became a fact of life. Bill Monroe, a mandolin virtuoso, created a new style of finger picking based on the frenetic fiddle techniques of Uncle Pen Vandiver. Monroe added “blue” notes and phrasing from a bluesman mentor named Arnold Schultz, named his band The Blue Grass Boys, and invented bluegrass music.

Several generations later, another mandolin virtuoso who creates celestial interpretations of violin music on his mandolin, Chris Thile, borrowed from Monroe’s tradition of lightning-fast finger picking with his breakout band, Nickle Creek. Now the inheritor of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, which he is refashioning to exhibit outstanding, burgeoning musical talent, Thile stands as possibly the greatest mandolin player in the world.

From humble and possibly apocryphal beginnings on a cave wall in France to stages here at The Straz, the convergence of the mandolin and the fiddle presents an intriguing intertwining of the lives of two fascinating instruments that found a common home in bluegrass bands – not a bad twist of fate for our four-noted friends.

 

We have an exceptional selection of great string-fueled performances this fall. For our other exciting musical acts, visit strazcenter.org.

Colter Wall – Fri., Nov. 17

Lindsey Stirling’s Warmer in the Winter Tour – Fri., Nov. 24

Ben Haggard – Fri., Dec. 15

The Grahams – Mon., Dec. 18