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Busking for ballet lessons: Meet the Hoffman four-kid string quartet

on October 11, 2009

Grand/Lake traffic bustled by on a recent sunny Saturday.  Parents pushed children in strollers; women carrying yoga mats chatted as they headed home from class; the coffee shops and cafes did a brisk business in iced beverages.  But in front of the Lakeshore Ave Peet’s Coffee, there was a small crowd of stillness as passersby stopped to listen to the Hoffman children, a four-sibling string quartet, who were busking to raise money for ballet lessons.

Their mother, Jodi Hoffman, hovered around the edges of her little group, giving instruction and encouragement, but not giving in to requests to wrap up early.  This outdoor session was part of the kids’ Suzuki-based training regimen.  They practice together or separately for one hour a day, six days a week.  They take formal lessons without an outside instructor as well, but Mom runs their practices.  On this day, she used a bright yellow timer to keep everyone on track.

“It’s about trying to bless the people around you with music,” explained Hoffman, a classically-trained pianist who believes any education must include music training to be complete.  “I also think it teaches them to be independent and to work for what they want,” she said.

The kids are home-schooled, which allows them to busk any day of the week.  They mostly play Suzuki music — Suzuki is a training method, developed in Japan, that is designed to train children as young as three to play string instruments — but the older children sometimes riff on compositions of their own making.  The music is simple, but well-executed, with none of the screeching that you sometimes get with younger players.

Elijah, 12, is the elder statesman of the group, and he adds his own harmony or personal interpretation whenever he gets a chance.  The ballet lessons are for his sisters, but he didn’t seem to mind helping them raise a little cash.  “It’s their turn,” he said simply.  On other days, he gets to pick what they raise money for.

When asked if he gets along with his sisters, Elijah both nodded and shrugged. “The girls usually play with dolls,” he said, “but I like anything that’s active.  I play soccer and go running and ride my road bike.  I can run four miles, and I’d like to run races in the future.”

A number of listeners sat on a bench outside of Peet’s and mused on the somewhat unlikely groups of buskers.  Frank Ciccardeli, an Oakland builder observed approvingly that they were playing, “Moonlight Over the Ruined Castle,” a Suzuki classic.  He wasn’t sure what to make of a group of well-dressed kids busking, though.  “Maybe it’s a scam,” he joked.  “They might be gypsies!”

At the end of the hour, the kids packed up to go.  Natalya first stuffed the dollar bills and quarters that had accumulated in her viola case into a pocket on the top of the case.  Then she carefully loosened her bow strings and placed the bow and her instrument into the case.  Finally she placed the sign proclaiming: “We are earning money for ballet lessons.  Thank you!” in the top pocket with the cash and closed the case.

A friend, who had been hanging out on the sidewalk, playing with people’s pet dogs while she waited for Sophia to finish, knelt down as Sophia zipped the case closed.  The two girls chattered excitedly about what games they would play when they got home.  The friend grabbed a music stand and the two followed Ms. Hoffman to her car.


  1. onaleah on October 21, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Cute story but that Peet’s is on Lakeshore Ave, not Grand Ave.

  2. Lillian R. Mongeau on October 21, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Thanks – I just got two comments on this in one day! My serious bad for getting this wrong – it was an early story for me when I was still very new to the area. The correction has been made with my apologies to Peet’s of Lakeshore Ave.

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