Interview with Géza Szilvay, creator of the Colourstrings Method

“I wanted to put together a method which led to professionalism with a smile”

An interview by Andrés Ortiz

You will be giving a course on the Colourstrings Method at CEPIC in Madrid this July. What are the most essential aspects of this method?
I created it for my own daughter. Hopefully every teacher will realise that there is a father´s love towards his child in it. I was aware of her exceptional talent, and I wanted to put together a method which led to professionalism, giving the child all the technical, musical and intellectual means to reach a high level, but with a smile. I officially say that this is a child-centered method. But I would add that it is a very technical school which, in spite of this pragmatic approach, is never at the expense of the child. The child is not a robot. With a certain amount of daily practice and with a smile, they can develop well.

What influences from other pedagogies do you recognise in your own work?
At the beginning, as a young Hungarian teacher, I only knew one book, and it was Kódaly´s. Because we were trained in his method, it was in my blood, in my everyday activity… And I wondered if there were any other systems or methods. I took a course with Professor Suzuki who came to Finland. I took a course with Paul Rolland and we became personal friends. I took many ideas from them and incorporated them into my own system, which is totally based on Kodaly´s principles. Now, being over 70 years old, I would say that Kódaly´s principles best meet the needs of children to become good musicians. 

What else can you tell us about your background in Hungary?
I was trained at the Béla Bartók Conservatory in Budapest and then at the Budapest Music Academy where I got my diploma in 1966. I was born into a musical family, so all my brothers and sisters were musicians. We had a quartet which won the Hungarian National Competition. and In the 60s, the Szilvay Quartet was quite well known in Hungary. That is my background as a chamber musician. With this quartet we went abroad, and that is how I came to Finland. In Hungary, during the 50s of my childhood and the 60s of my university years, music education was really, really thorough. I do not exaggerate if I say that in the 50s and 60s, Hungary was a great power in music.

How would you describe the musical scene when you arrived in Finland in the 70s?
When I arrived, the music school system was just beginning.  And they thought that a Hungarian would provide a good example. I think I fulfilled these expectations.  My orchestras were, and still are, the motivation for fine string instruction in Finland. We were a good example of what can be achieved with proper music education. Those were the expectations of the Finns who invited me to do a job here which should pique the attention of teachers. I think I fulfilled these expectations altogether with my individual teaching, my chamber music teaching and my orchestras. Besides my daily work, I did a long TV programme with my pupils, which revolutionised teaching in Finland; it changed the attitude of teachers, parents and children. Consequently, thousands and thousands of children started to play instruments.
At the beginning, the TV programmes were very short, 10-15 minutes long. They started with individual teaching, then a small group and they always ended with my orchestra. The programmes were repeated over and over from 1977 to 1986. They were very popular.

Finnish education has a great reputation. What is your opinion on general education and music education in Finland?
I think that in Finland both general education and music education have been good for the last 20 or 30 years, but I am afraid that now, it is going downhill because of financial problems. Please don´t take me as an old man saying that now that I am no part of the school it is not longer good.  And this general tendency is not just in Finland. Classical music has become marginal, music academies are getting smaller, there are fewer people, less money, less sponsorship, less attention to classical music, and so on. In many countries, classical music is considered a museum. The new generation has to develop again the whole system in spite of bad odds, and this is why I am very happy that a young organisation like yours has invited me. Last week, I was asked the same question on Finnish TV, and I said that when I was young in Finland, I had to develop classical music, whereas now, I must defend it. That is a big, big difference. First, we went up the hill and we almost arrived at the top. Now, we have to maintain the situation and defend it, as well.

Please tell us more about your work with youth orchestras.
The International Minifiddlers Orchestra are ages 7 to 10 ten years old, the Helsinki Children Strings are 10 to 15, the Helsinki Junior Strings are 15 to 18, and the Helsinki Strings are 19 to 22. With the Helsinki Junior Strings and with the Helsinki Strings we made 30 records and more than 30 world tours all over Europe, Japan, China, America… We did professional concerts, and the recordings were also made by professional record companies.
I would not say that it is a mistake, but if you put together strings, brass and woodwinds too early, you can´t reach a very high level.  The first problem is that there is no traditional repertoire for such an orchestra. If you look at the repertoire for string orchestra, you have from Vivaldi´s A minor Concerto to great advanced pieces by the best composers. OK, you can do arrangements for symphony orchestra, but best is to train the strings, the woodwinds  and the brass separately. When they reach the same level (usually string players reach a higher level earlier than the others), then put them together. So I would do symphony orchestra only when they are around university level.

At what age do you start lessons with a child?
My daughter was 4 when I started her, and I had several other children then who were also 4. But then I felt sometimes that I was working at the expense of the child. Childhood is the shortest period in life: why put this "burden" on the child? I put the word burden between quotation marks because,  for the majority of students, learning the violin is a burden. I will tell you why: because of posture. Playing posture is so unnatural in violin learning. So, now that I am a grandfather, I would start when children are 6. I think this is a good time. 6, 7, 8… 9 might be a little bit late sometimes, but there is no hurry… I believe that 5, 6, 7, but depending on the child, their motivation, their ability, is a good time to start lessons. I would say that generally speaking, not under 5.

What are the first concepts you teach a child and how are they different from other methods?
There are no differences as such from traditional teaching. However, there are some new things that I developed. One of them comes very naturally from Kódaly´s principles: I had to connect the learning to play with note reading. Reading makes learning intellectual. The main idea here is that movement, listening, the intellect, and the emotions should be in a sort of equilibrium; in harmony. If you look at my books, I try to keep these four elements in harmony. Perhaps not every week, but maybe every month, the children´s technique, understanding, music hearing, and emotions are in balance. But, as Suzuki said, reading at the beginning is a burden on the children. I took away the burden, I made reading exciting. I simplified it into a one line system with colours. Colourstrings enables the child to read, which is actually a big plus because then the their intellect can keep up with his overall progress.
I also include some other new things; for example, natural harmonics. Rolland started to work with harmonics, but not systematically. So I thank him because he led me in this direction. Then, I carried on what he had no time to do because he died so early. Probably, he would have done the same as I did because we recognised that starting without pushing down the fingers, without stopping down the string, makes the left hand lighter and allows moving up and down the fingerboard. I use all of the natural harmonics in a new way, in first position. Another thing is left hand pizzicato; I use it not only like Rolland, with the fourth finger, but with all the fingers in the 4th position: the G string is plucked by the first finger; the D string, by the second; the A string, by the third, and the E string, by the fourth finger. So, before I teach the children to use their fingers to stop the strings, I am making the fingers independent with this pizzicato movement. This is important, because if you immediately trouble children with good intonation, it is a burden. I prepare the children´s fingers for the stopping movement with lots of pizzicato pieces that mature the hand and make the fingers individual and independent. Then, the intonation will be much safer. Intonation is one of the strong points of a Colourstrings teacher. Also, I learnt to work with children manually. And this is something I want to give to the participants of the course: to show them how to work with very beginners, how to lead the bow, and how to play in tandem with the child. Just as two people ride a bicycle together, you and the child play on one instrument. This will be one of the main topics in the Madrid course.

In your opinion, what should be the priorities of a good teacher no matter the method they use?
Motivate, motivate, motivate. Motivation. Why do I say it three times? Because it is easy to motivate a child to start, but a big proportion of children lose interest and drop lessons. In Finland, some research was made showing a really high percentage of dropouts. And I think that worldwide, lots of children lose interest because of the unnatural violin posture, because of having to be preoccupied with intonation, because the teacher says "now you have to put the little finger this way", "the thumb here", "out of tune", so much information…. So you have to teach the child properly but in a very clever way to motivate them. It is difficult for the teacher to maintain motivation. To motivate the child, to motivate the parents and to motivate yourself as a teacher. This is the reason I said motivate three times. It is a difficult task because we get tired. I hope these books I have produced in the last 40 years somehow give teachers tools that make it easier to maintain motivation than with traditional books. I am always very careful not to say that these books are better than traditional ones.  I have never seen a bad traditional violin method. But I think that because of the colours and because of the very thorough development, Colourstrings gives teachers the possibility to motivate students and make progress safely.