For nearly 30 years she has been instrumental in fine-tuning the talent of our young prodigies. Eoin Butler meets Dublin's musical answer to Miss Jean Brodie
Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30
Almost six decades after fleeing her homeland as a refugee in the wake of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, Maria Kelemen still speaks with a strong Hungarian accent. Diminutive yet formidable, the director of Dublin's Young European Strings School of Music has the air of a stern but sympathetic headmistress from some Disney fairy tale.
Every year, dozens of pre-school children, some as young as two-and-a-half, come to her to have their musical potential assessed. Most will be told that it's too early for them ("which is the polite way to say no," she says).
But those children whose hand-eye co-ordination, memory and vocabulary skills impress are duly invited to become Kelemen's students.
Over tea in a Rathgar bistro, she tells me that her teaching philosophy is based upon respect.
"A child can't drive a car. A child can't buy an ice cream. A child cannot decide how to decorate a house. But a child can say, 'No, no, no! No, I don't eat spinach! No, I don't say hello to the nice lady'. This is necessary for the ego. Instead of giving them a wall they can box against, I give them something they can say yes to."
By engaging with children this way, she enables them to develop the skills they need to become accomplished musicians in later years. And, after just six weeks of instruction from her, the children's parents and grandparents are invited along to witness the progress for themselves.
Kelemen's eyes light up as she describes the thrill of performing in public from a child's perspective.
"To go on stage in front of 60 or 70 people, to bow, and to get your applause – oh, how wonderful that is! Now they have earned our respect, and this is vital because respect is the nourishment for confidence."
She halts abruptly. The journalist sitting opposite her is scribbling something in his notebook. She glares for a moment, but then decides to let it pass.
"Yes, that is a good sentence," she concedes. "You can write that down."
At the nearby Methodist church hall, pupils are arriving for their class. It's violin this evening, but the students' instruments will remain in their respective cases for the time being.
As the class proceeds, Kelemen ensures I understand the theory behind each lesson, making the half hour that follows, at times, feel like a 'Karate Kid' training montage, with live commentary by Mr Miyagi.
First, Kelemen and the children sit in a circle on the floor and introduce themselves in turn, clapping on each syllable as they go. This, she tells me, helps develop their rhythm skills.
Then they chase a beanbag around the hall, freezing on the spot every time that Kelemen taps on a tambourine. This, apparently, develops their listening skills. Next, everyone (the teacher included) partners up for a chaotic wheelbarrow race, designed to help develop the children's upper arm strength.
Once that's done, the children try to roll the length of the hall (boys going one direction, girls the other) without crashing into each other. She never says what the theoretical basis for this exercise is, but it looks like a lot of fun.
While the children next take turns to jump over a skipping rope (individually at first, but later in pairs), Kelemen explains the importance of what she calls "eye-limb" co-ordination for a musician.
"When a violinist reads from sheet music, the left hand is doing the vertical movements and the right is doing the horizontal movements. So both sides of the brain are engaged."
The beauty of taking lessons at such a young age, she claims, is that , "The child's mind is a white paper and you are writing on it – they're very hungry for information, but you give it to them in games.
"A child will get tired of learning, but they never get tired of playing."
Finally, it is time for their actual music lesson. As each child presses his or her violin to their chin, I wonder aloud if Kelemen's philosophy is related to the famous Suzuki method, in which very young children are encouraged to learn to play their instruments by ear, eschewing sheet music?
Definitely not. Kelemen regards the Suzuki method as merely learning by rote, an approach to musicianship she rejects.
"Suzuki is nothing new. Somebody is playing something and you play it after them. That's the Irish traditional way. And the gypsy way. He didn't invent the wheel, you know?"
Not a fan then?
"Well, he was also a very mediocre violinist, but that's neither here nor there."
Pressed about her own philosophy, she insists that the violin be regarded as more than a mere instrument.
"What are we trying to do with this violin?" she asks. "We are trying to appeal to the soul of these children, so the child can express who he or she is. That's what artists do.
"You paint as you feel. You photograph as you see. And the violin is the closest instrument for expressing your soul. The piano is more mechanical."
This, she explains, is why she rejects the parallels Suzuki drew between learning to play a music instrument and learning to speak a language. "A word is not a sentence," she says. "But a note can be an entire story."
She puts her mini-orchestra through their paces. The first piece they perform for me is one entitled 'The Peeler's Away With My Daughter'. If I were to be a little mean spirited, I might observe that there seems to be virtually an anthology's worth of different stories being related simultaneously here today.
However, given that the orchestra performing is a bunch of four-year-old children, many of whom, a couple of minutes earlier, seemed not yet to have mastered the art of rolling on the floor, they appear to display remarkable poise.
Some of her pupils play the tune from memory. Others consult the sheet music. Kelemen singles out one little boy. "You still do not know it by heart?" she inquires.
No, he replies, sheepishly.
"Are you proud of this?" she demands.
The little boy, perhaps already familiar with the concept of a rhetorical question, knows better than to reply. She pauses on him for a beat. Then continues.
"Another way we express ourselves is by lying on the floor ... "
A moment later, 10 pupils and their teacher are playing the same song while lying on the floor on their backs. This exercise is intended to keep the children's spines straight. ("When they stand up again, the body remembers this.")
At one point, a little girl gets a splinter from her bow stuck in her hand. She is escorted to the hallway outside in tears, to where her mother is waiting. But the nine remaining pupils make it to the lesson's conclusion unscathed.
"In 26 years," Kelemen reflects, "I have had thousands of students. Tall ones. Small ones. Pretty ones. Less pretty ones. Students with ears sticking out of the head. Even stupid ones. But none of them were ever bullied. Why?"
I don't know.
"Because they exude confidence," she says. "It's a way of walking. It's a way of talking. Even me, I am a little old lady. But I would be surprised if anyone attacked me on the street. I would hit them back."
I well believe it.
Outside in the hallway, little Eabha Foy from Rathfarnham is being comforted by her mother, Mary Hannigan. Is she going to survive, I ask? "It was touch and go there for a while," deadpans the mother, "but I think she'll live."
Eabha's distress, it turns out, had as much to do with forgetting her notes as it did to the offending splinter. Neither of her parents are musical, but she has a cousin in the school's Intermediate Orchestra, which inspired her to come here.
Do you like Maria, I ask? Eabha nods. Yes, clearly she does.
"As a parent you can find it bruising enough," her mother admits. "And at times I've said, 'would you like to try somewhere else?'"
She turns to her daughter.
"Do you remember what you said, pet?"
The child grins. Yes, she does.
"She said, 'we can try another teacher. But she has to be Hungarian. And she has to be named Maria'."