BOBBING their heads as they play a jig and then a reel, the circle of tiny fiddlers keeps their bows dancing while a kettle whistles on the stove and a baby cries on the floor. Winding up the toe-tapping medley, the gathering of grade-schoolers listens to a few directions from their teacher. One of them gives a bottle to the baby, and then they all launch into ``Pachelbel's Canon,'' a serious classical composition. Johann Pachelbel, the 17th-century German composer of the piece, might be stunned - these children play it admirably.
Welcome to Fiddler's Hatchery, a hybrid academy where the classical-oriented repertoire of the Suzuki teaching method is augmented with traditional fiddling from the highlands of the British Isles.
``I think the key to working with kids is to use dance music,'' says Carolyn Hatch, who operates the Hatchery in the living room of her cozy home here in Sandpoint, a lakeside town in the northern panhandle of Idaho. ``If you go to a concert and watch the two- and three-year-old kids, they want to dance,'' she says.
Indeed, at a recent concert, about 50 of Ms. Hatch's pupils kept their younger siblings in the audience hopping with a program that ran the gamut from a Bach double violin concerto and ``Pachelbel's Canon'' to swing-your-partner songs.
Hatch says her success comes from channeling children's energy into making music they can swing their hips to.
Shinichi Suzuki, the Japanese music educator, pioneered the method of teaching young children to play by ear and by imitation. Because children often learn by imitating their parents, Mr. Suzuki also required that parents attend lessons and work at home with their children. That way, children learn to play just as they learn to talk: from their parents.
``Suzuki used music as a language. At that age it's all one,'' says Hatch.
Hence the parlor atmosphere at a group lesson last week, where parents crowded the seats, babies played on the floor, and dinner whistled on the stove. Hatch says a roomful of family onlookers doesn't detract from her lessons - it just makes music a more comfortable part of life. Hatchery pupils come to her high-ceilinged living room with a parent for one private and one group lesson per week.
The 36-year-old Portland, Ore., native studied at Suzuki's academy in Japan in the 1970s on her way to a master's degree in music. Combining Suzuki's method with the violin-playing motion studies of a University of Illinois professor, Hatch has developed a small academy of her own.
She first tried her ideas in Calgary, Alberta. Turning her students loose on a fiddle tune, she found she could still teach good technique, while the children enjoyed it more. ``Lo and behold, they went home and practiced an hour a day on fiddle tunes,'' she says laughingly.
Apparently, her method pays off, because tiny Sandpoint, with a population of 5,000, has more than its share of little fiddling champions this year.
Lynae Oliver, 9, for example, won second place in her age group in national competition at Weiser, Idaho, and first place in both the regional competition in Spokane, Wash., in July and the Idaho state competition in McCall.
Luke Omodt, 10, took first place in the Pend Oreille International Championship this year, and his brother Brian, 8, took third in the PeeWee class.
While the youngsters' parents credit Hatch with teaching the little fiddlers the necessary technique to win contests, many of the competitors study contest technique with Spokane fiddler Tony Ludiker.
Hatch is pleased with the success of her pupils, but says her goal is not to achieve fame by sending forth numerous fiddle champions.
``My aim is not to turn them into fiddlers or classical violinists. My aim is to give them the tools to do what they want to do.''