It’s Saturday morning in Aimee Toomes’ home violin studio. Two small poodles scurry around the room, greeting students as they arrive for class.
By 9:30 a.m., two pint-sized students armed with tiny violins sit on the floor facing “Ms. Aimee.” Their parents look on from chairs around the perimeter of the room.
Toomes is a professional musician, a violinist in the San Antonio Symphony. She’s also a teacher, who instills a love of music and familiarity with the violin in students as young as four. Her roster includes 11 students between the ages of six and 17 – and that number is growing.
One of the two violinists present on this particular Saturday morning was eight-year-old Emilio Veana.
“Almost nine,” he said.
“He’ll be nine in May,” his mother, Josefina Velazquez said with a laugh. Emilio is in third grade at Hardy Oak Elementary School.
Velazquez explains that their family relocated to San Antonio in February of 2012 from Puebla, Mexico, for her husband’s job. Emilio started basic music lessons in Mexico at the age of five and has been working with Toomes for about a year now.
During the first 30 minutes of the hour-long group lesson, Toomes has Emilio and a six-year-old classmate singing, jumping, and clapping rhythms.
“We do this to feel the stepwise motion of the scale,” she said, explaining the purpose of an activity that has her students stretching their arms skyward then quickly tapping their ears, shoulders, waist, knees, and feet. “It also gets the wiggles out. I try to keep the pace really fast in group class.”
One-on-one private lessons, in contrast, are more focused and intense. Toomes is a Suzuki method teacher. Violinist and educator Shinichi Suzuki developed this groundbreaking method of musical instruction in the mid-1900s, after World War II.
The widely-practiced Suzuki method is grounded in the belief that musical ability can be developed much like speech – a skill to learn rather than an innate ability. Applying the basic principles of language acquisition to music education,
Suzuki called the method, which requires significant parental involvement, repetition, and ear training, the “mother-tongue approach.”
“I really am passionate about starting them earlier,” Toomes says. “And I think the thing that sets us apart is that we’re not just learning to play the violin. I want them to love music, to love learning more than anything, and to love the burn that goes into the learning process.”
Toomes explains that a large part of her students’ outside preparation involves listening to recordings of Suzuki songs, to internalize and learn the pieces that they play by ear and by heart “so that they’re more in touch with expression and musicality.”
Reading music comes a bit later, introduced gradually and organically through games and note dictation exercises.
The method seems to work.
“Emilio came into his last lesson and said, ‘Do you want to hear the song that I just wrote?’ He had been working on it through his own ear and developed a whole song with structure and a return section,” Toomes boasts. “He described it as a conversation between two friends – and you can hear the different characters. And it was totally memorized.”
In addition to the 11 students that Toomes already sees twice a week each, several more families are “in process,” sitting-in on lessons before enrolling.
“I want the parents to observe first so they see that it’s an intense program, in terms of the time commitment and the parental involvement,” she said. “I try to impress upon parents that they have a big job to do – they become the home teacher after leaving here with their child and have to model those practice behaviors.”
“That effort is not without intense reward,” she continues. “Because not only are you gaining a sort of soul to soul contact every day through the violin, you’re using the instrument to learn much bigger lessons: perseverance and discipline to keep trying something that challenges you.”
Emilio has proven a prime example of a student who loves the burn of learning.
“When he comes in to his lesson and I ask, ‘Are you ready for the next step, the new skill?’ He literally jumps up and down with excitement, saying, ‘Yes! Yes, I’m ready!’ From the moment I met him he was very quick to pick things up.”
Toomes teaches Emilio and all her students to turn hard into easy by practicing and repeating them many times. “I think that is a huge asset to learn at such a young age,” she said. “That’s a valuable life lesson.”
Toomes is the product of an elite education: She received her undergraduate degree in music from the Peabody Institute of Music of The John Hopkins University and her master’s degree from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.
Before moving to San Antonio and accepting her current position with the SA Symphony in 2008, the Washington, D.C. native spent four years on a fellowship with the New World Symphony. Her mother, Janni Toomes, plays and teaches piano and works full-time as the Symphony’s Vice President of Operations.
“My passion is to create talented learners,” the young teacher says. She hopes to show families of young students in San Antonio that talent isn’t genetic – it can be cultivated.
“Look at Emilio,” she said. “He’s not just playing notes, he’s playing poetry. He has put the music into himself through listening. He has a sense of phrasing, dynamics – all of these things that enrich our world. That’s art. And I think that’s what makes it special.”
This is the second in a periodic series of stories focusing on San Antonio Symphony musicians and their place in the music education ecosystem.
Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group LLC, which publishes the Rivard Report, performs consulting services for the San Antonio Symphony. The Rivard Report, however, does not publish sponsored stories.
Miriam Sitz is a freelance writer in San Antonio. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz and click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.