With her short, spiky hair and bare feet, Leta Davis of Sonoma looks more like a yoga instructor than a conductor as she leads the Green Light Orchestra during a strings camp held in early July.
The 54-year-old violinist, who has been teaching young string players in her Little Fiddlers program for 25 years, started the orchestra earlier this year for players of all ages, from 7 to 70.
"Sonoma has never had a community orchestra," she said. "I think classical music needs to be broken open, musically. ... We do bluegrass, jazz and classical."
Whether playing "Eye of the Tiger" by the rock band Survivor, or Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the musicians were given constant reminders about intonation and bow technique, along with music theory and positive reinforcement.
"Please be quiet. Please do not play," Davis asked the group of mostly young musicians. "What key are we in? G. Good. Let's go over the bowstroke at the beginning. Open A. Elbow and upper arm up. Bow at the frog. Two feet on the floor, back straight."
Despite the disciplined approach, Davis also managed to make the sight-reading session fun. That's evident when the first violinists giggle and grin while confessing to getting "totally lost" in the Brandenburg.
"I can have 100 kids around me, and it's no problem, because I know how to set boundaries," she said. "I give them skills and structure and creativity at the same time."
Growing up in Cape Cod, Davis was the oldest of four children. She and her siblings were among the first children in America to learn the Suzuki music method, a teaching style developed in Japan that used the principles of language acquisition, including early beginning, listening, encouragement, parental support, constant repetition, learning with other children and then learning to read music.
"I studied with Dr. (Shinichi) Suzuki when I was 8," she recalled. "In Suzuki, I was taught to copy and listen. I just happened to have enough technique to play fairly well."
At age 11, she won a violin contest and became the youngest member of the Cape Cod Orchestra. Then she received a full music scholarship to Connecticut College, where she also studied art.
But it was her studies 15 years ago with Zaven Melikian, the fomer concertmaster of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, that made her the teacher she is today.
Frustrated because her students were hitting a wall — and not getting into the San Francisco Youth Orchestra — she took some time off from teaching to fill in the blanks in her education.
"Zaven taught me how to teach classical violin technique," she said. "My experience in the larger music world taught me that Suzuki needs the support of traditional European methods."
At that point, she had already started to teach Sonoma's Nigel Armstrong, a young violinist who went on to place fourth in the XIV Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in 2011.
She recalls Armstrong, who started with her at age 5, as a voracious student.
"Talent is wild, and you have to put that bit in that horse's mouth and still let them be wild," she said. "Nigel was wild when it came to music."
Although her mother was a pianist and a preschool teacher, Davis did not set out to become a teacher. In fact, it kept seeking her.