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Louise Behrend, concert violinist and Suzuki method teacher, dies at 94

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Louise Behrend, a concert violinist who trained a generation of American teachers in the Suzuki method and whose standing as a musician helped the Japanese movement establish itself in the United States, died Aug. 3 at Montgomery Hospice’s Casey House in Rockville.

She was 94 and had complications from dementia, her family said.

Ms. Behrend, a native Washingtonian, grew up in a musical family that included an uncle whose inventions led to the development of the phonograph. She was a toddler when she tried to enroll herself in violin lessons.

Her musical ability earned her a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, where she performed so impressively as a student that the school kept her on as a faculty member after her graduation in 1943. By 1950, New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg put Ms. Behrend “among the ranks of the better young American violinists.”

Ms. Behrend was teaching at Juilliard in the 1960s when Shinichi Suzuki, the founder of the Suzuki method, brought a group of students to the school. His philosophy was based on the notion that children should learn to play music just as they learn to speak: at a very young age through imitation and repetition.

Detractors criticized the method for relying too much on rote and for being impractical for American parents who might be less involved in their children’s education than many Japanese parents were.

Ms. Behrend said she was amazed by Suzuki’s success.

“Judging by the numbers of Suzuki-trained children in both Japan and the United States who are playing, and playing well,” she wrote in her 1998 book “The Suzuki Approach,” “Suzuki would seem to have proved the validity of his idea.”

Soon after their first encounter, Ms. Behrend traveled to Japan to learn from Suzuki. She became convinced that his method was an inspired one and dedicated the rest of her life to teaching it in the United States.

In the early 1970s, she founded the School for Strings in New York City. It remains one of the premier Suzuki-based schools in the country.

“She not only was successful as a teacher, but also as a teacher of teachers,” said William Starr, the first president of the Suzuki Association of the Americas.

Ms. Behrend’s philosophy — inherent to the Suzuki method — was that “children can learn much more than we think they can,” Starr said. That didn’t apply just to preschool prodigies whose tiny fingers made Vivaldi ring out from violins, but to all children. Ms. Behrend believed that they just needed to be properly nurtured.

“This is, basically, what we want,” she said in an interview with CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” which profiled the School for Strings in 1996. “To bring music into a child’s life very powerfully — not just to listen, but to involve.”

But she never advocated forcing music on a child.

“You have to be sure that it’s done in a way that the kid enjoys,” she told the New York Times in 1986, “and that you don’t deprive him of other important things in life.”

Louise Mathilde Behrend was born Oct. 3, 1916, and was the younger of two daughters in a German-Jewish family. Her father, a doctor, was born in Washington; her mother, a math teacher, emigrated from Germany as a young child.

After one teacher turned her away from music lessons when she was 3, saying she was too young, Ms. Behrend taught herself to read music by watching her sister’s piano lessons.

“I started at age 10, which is late by today’s standards,” she told a Juilliard publication — and very late by Suzuki’s standards.

Ms. Behrend traveled with her family through Europe as a young woman and studied in Salzburg in the 1930s. She once recalled seeing Nazi troops while traveling with her mother and avoiding a crowd gathered to hear a speech by Adolf Hitler in the early years of his rise to power.

Ms. Behrend graduated from the old Central High School at 16. In 1939, she won a scholarship to attend Juilliard, where one of her mentors was violinist Louis Persinger. His students over the years also included Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern.

Ms. Behrend never married. Survivors include her sister, Elsie B. Paull of Washington.

Central to the Suzuki method is that even the youngest children should be encouraged to play music. Ms. Behrend also believed that one could never be too old.

“The fiddle still comes out of the case every day,” she told Juilliard when she was in her 90s. “If it doesn’t, it looks at me like . . . ‘why?’ An instrument has to be kept alive by playing.”

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