Monica Witt sits perfectly poised on the bench in front of the ebony-finished grand piano. Her petite frame, clad in a frilly, blue-flowered dress, is raised by six sample rug pieces that enable her to reach the ivory keys. Her tiny feet rest on three stacked wooden boxes.
Her small fingers flash over the keyboard, producing Mozart's "Arietta," catching the timbre of the melody as Mozart might have intended.
Her face, framed by blond bangs and shoulder-length hair, shows sheer concentration. Her ice-blue eyes never lose sight of the keyboard, and when she misses a note, her expression shows no sign of remorse, so that only those familiar with the piece would notice.
Monica Witt of Gaithersburg is 5 years old and has been playing the piano since she was 2.
Her teacher is Michiko Yurko, who uses the Suzuki method in which children can begin lessons when they are still in diapers. The major requirement is that a parent accompany the child to every lesson and practice with the youngster at home. The child learns to play a piece by first listening to it through recordings and then imitating the teacher and parent until he or she masters it.
Monica's mother, Sherry, who teaches tap, ballet and gymnastics at her Gaithersburg dance studio, also spends hours at home and in class working with her daughter.
Monica has played in several competitions, including the International Suzuki Teachers Convention held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst last summer. She was one of the youngest of 33 Suzuki piano students from Japan, Australia and the United States performing at the convention. During the week-long convention, Monica, as well as the other students who attended, performed before about 500 Suzuki teachers, parents and children.
"The potential of these children is incredible," says Yurko, sitting in the living room of her spacious Rockville home. Most are very "outgoing and confident" for their age, she adds.
"I think some children are born with the ability to catch on faster in some skills than other children," Yurko explains. "We have natural tendencies to do things, but if you're exposed to something and someone says, 'Gee, you're really good at this,' you will probably get better and better. But if someone says the opposite, 'Why even try?' that's all you have to hear a few times and you stop. We're often the kind of people other people tell us we are."
At first meeting, Monica seems a typical tot. She collects stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes and totes an armful wherever she goes. Her favorite TV shows are Saturday morning cartoons.
Later, when Monica begins to feel more comfortable in front of a stranger, her shyness dissipates and she becomes boisterous, occasionally letting out a low shriek when the attention drifts away from her. Her mother winces.
But Yurko contends that "I knew Monica was different right from the beginning." A musically precocious child has all the factors working together for her, she adds. A child's hand technique is comfortable and coordinated, she has good concentration and catches on quickly and she doesn't fear making mistakes. "I think if you take a prodigy, flaws are minimal. There seems to be the absence of difficulties. And then it seems like they just fly ahead.
"Monica is very fortunate in that all those circumstances seem to work for her," Yurko continues. "She has excellent concentration. It's just amazing. I know adults who cannot concentrate as well as she. Her standard of excellence is extremely high, plus she loves it. She really does."
While she believes Monica is an exceptional student, Yurko said she employs the Suzuki methods in her teaching because "Suzuki feels that all children can do as well as the next child. He says that children aren't born per se 'with musical talent,' but that talent can be educated. And it's really a remarkable thing because then it gives so many other children a possibility, not just children that happen to be born in a musical family."
Yurko, who teaches piano to about 40 other children betwen 2 and 15 in the refinished basement of her home, was raised in a musical environment similar to that encouraged by the Suzuki method.
Shinichi Suzuki, whose interest in music began at age 18, developed his teaching method in Japan just after World War II when he decided he wanted "to enrich the lives of children because they had so little to do with all the devastation and they were the ones who were suffering so much," Yurko says.
"His goal was never to create a prodigy, but to give children the feeling of music, to bring joy in their lives and to enrich their own abilities," says Yurko, who earned a masters degree in music at Ohio University. Suzuki, now 82, still lives and teaches in Japan, she said.
Although his method has its share of critics who claim that a child should learn to read music while playing it, Yurko asserts that allowing the children to begin at such a young age promises better results than the "traditional" method under which a child begins at 8 or 9. Children following the Suzuki method begin reading the music when they attain good finger control, show a steady progression rate and have a strong desire to read.
School-aged children are at a point in their lives when they are "learning so much," Yurko says. "They don't have a lot of other commitments like swimming teams, soccer practice and school. And their mothers are usually free. This is a time in their life that the mother is so important in educating. When you get a child around 8 or 9, the mother realizes that other things are coming in and she has less influence, so the parent of a young child is probably more able to be supportive just because of how the nature of things are."
Yurko has incorporated theory classes in her method for the students, with a technique she created herself. She has written a book designed for parents and teachers, and has developed a number of board games that make learning notes, scales and tempo fun and interesting, especially for younger children.
Yurko says she derives intense satisfaction from exposing children to the arts, and letting them discover the ones they enjoy most.
"Children are the future of this world," she says. "If we gave them all the opportunity to achieve their potential, it could be so much better."