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Suzuki or Not Suzuki …That Is the Question: A Discussion of Violin Study Methods
Shakespeare’s Hamlet asked “Whether it is nobler in mind, to suffer the slings and arrows of a scandalous bore, or to take up arms against a sea of sparksand opposed to them?” Well, Hamlet talked about problems, not Twinkles, but any parent who has been involved in a Suzuki program understands why these words can be confusing.
When Shinichi Suzuki introduced his method of instructing students in the art of playing the violin, it was somewhat controversial. It was, Suzuki claimed, a more natural way of learning. The idea was for a student to learn to play the instrument in the same way that a person learns to speak his native language, the so-called “mother tongue approach” to music education.
Suzuki also explored an area that became known as “talent education”. The word “healthy” in Japanese can be translated ability oslow down. But it can also be used to mean the development of an ability or a personal trait, such as his character. As such, Talent Education has come to refer to the development of skills, knowledge and character. This is a seemingly well-rounded approach.
Suzuki introduced a repertoire and a curriculum. Masters from all over the world have visited his institute in Matsumoto, Japan to learn his techniques. The method spread from the violin to other instruments including piano, cello, guitar and harp. There are more than 8,000 teachers in the world who support his methods and follow his curricula. More than 250,000 students study music using the Suzuki method.
The question becomes “Is the Suzuki method right for you and your student?“
A Quick Comparison of traditional violin study vs. Suzuki.
The Suzuki Method
* The Suzuki study method encourages parental involvement and parent-student interaction. Parents take several classes before the start of their students’ studies and are encouraged to participate in the students’ lessons once they have started. Parents are also the primary means of motivating the student to practice and ensuring that the student follows the instructions once the lesson is over and the student has returned home. This means that the parent, at least in the beginning, will be actively involved in each practice session.
* The Suzuki method emphasizes active and passive learning. Before a student touches a violin, he is exposed to music that he plays in the form of recordings. These recordings are repeated over and over again until they are completely “internalized” by the student. By doing this it is believed that the student will have a tremendous advantage in learning to play music that he has already heard… in some cases hundreds of times. And for a long time the only thing the student plays is “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.
* The Suzuki method encourages students to learn by following the example of other students and interacting with them on a regular basis. Individual instruction takes place one-on-one with the teacher or in a “small group.” This is where the student actually receives practical instruction from the teacher. But periodically the student Suzuki attends “group lessons”. In these group lessons, the student interacts with other students from his teacher’s study. They play together. They study together. And I hope they move forward together. However, when other students are present, students who are not actively being taught are invited to sit and observe what is happening.
* Individual lessons are often focused on a single “teaching point”. Progress is made one step at a time in one area at a time. At least at the beginning of the learning process, more emphasis is placed on the posture of the student, the technique and the production of the tone than on playing recognized melodies. In fact, many Suzuki students don’t even begin their violin career with a real instrument; they use a box on which they can bow so they learn the proper position first.
* Music reading is not emphasized until the student has mastered basic performance skills on the instrument itself.
The Traditional Method
* In traditional education, parental involvement is often very limited. While parents may be invited to attend lessons, most instruction usually takes place outside of the parent’s presence. The parent is required to monitor a student’s practice (or at least the amount of time practiced), but is usually not a part of the practice itself.
* Instruction is often only one-on-one with the instructor. Unless the instructor is part of a school district program, or has taken the initiative to form some sort of group together, the student is not usually interacting with other students at their skill level. . If ensembles exist, they are usually focused on performing works together in preparation for a performance, as opposed to Suzuki group lessons which can be focused on developing a specific technique together.
* Listening to the music that will be played may be encouraged, but it is not usually an integral (or even integrated) part of the program.
* Emphasis is placed on reading music very early. See note. Learn the note. Play the note. This is quite common even immediately after the initial lessons in the Traditional Method. After several weeks of instruction, the student can already recognize the written notes that he has to play.
My assessment: a pox on their houses!
Both traditional and Suzuki methods have strengths and weaknesses.
Suzuki emphasizes the teaching of a philosophy through which a skill can be developed. A successful Suzuki student will be a good performer first if he doesn’t burn himself out playing and listening to Twinkle over and over again. If there is a good student-parent dynamic, this can also be a really successful method, and an even stronger bond can develop. But sometimes the intensity of parent-student involvement can become a little overwhelming.
The traditional approach emphasizes the development of a skill, and through the acquisition of that skill the realization that practice and dedication usually lead to success. The involvement of the parents is generally not so intense in the actual instruction and practice, and the student is much more likely to play previously recognized works, since he is really taught notes first.
Integrate the best of both methods and then throw in some fiddle! An integrated system of listening, observing, performing and entertaining seems to me to be the best approach.
There is no doubt that listening to the works to be performed is beneficial. There is no doubt that repetition can be tremendously important in the acquisition of skills. There is no doubt that the music theory introduced earlier becomes a strong base on which a student can build an amateur (or even professional) musical career. And there is no doubt that students learn from seeing and interacting with other students.
We need a unique system that integrates the whole world of the violin into a happy amalgam.
Why not start with a Suzuki approach in which parents are introduced to the instrument and understand the instructor and their expectations at the beginning? It allows parents to observe the lessons and encourages them to participate in the practices at home! Teach parents the games that Suzuki students play with their bows and let them play like in a Suzuki studio!
But at the same time, why not have students start working on note recognition at the same time they learn technique? When we show him the A string on the violin, show him the note on the staff! When we show it the D-string, it also shows the notation. Why not use the flash card or the “big book” approach that is used in our schools and have a picture of a rest symbol when we want it to be quiet? Let the student see and hear what they are doing. It seems to me that this is really implementing the message of Shenichi Suzuki. As we do not expect our children to communicate only verbally and we show them how we use written language first, we must let the student see what they are playing, not just hear it. In the same way that our four-year-old daughter “wrote” stories by scribbling lines on a page, she could have “composed” songs by drawing on a stick. And think how powerful it would have been if she had learned to play and read individual notes and had “discovered” that she could read or write the melody herself!
Regarding the violin, a child who picks up the violin does not particularly care if he holds the violin properly. It doesn’t matter if he can read the notes on the stick. All he wants to do is play something that sounds good and have fun. He is very motivated, and he is excited when he discovers that he can produce something that makes him smile, even if those others may really want to cover their ears. We need our young students to be excited to pick up the instrument! We need our young students reluctant to put the instrument. We need our students to experience real success in their instrument very soon after they touch the instrument!
And we integrate listening in a realistic way! Why not let the students hear the music they will be playing, but also introduce them to the local symphony orchestra or bluegrass band so they don’t think violins only exist on CDs. And speaking of CDs, develop a library of recordings that present the violin in various settings. Suzuki CDs are fine if that’s all you’re into, but how about Sarasate’s Concert Fantasy recording of Carmen when she was just nine, and Stephane Grappelli’s Jazz in Paris album for that there is a jazz violin in the house. , and maybe even an all-female Bond string quartet album.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion about pedagogy and method in teaching the violin. The work of people like the violinist Mark O’Connor and the rock violinist Mark Wood have advocated a new approach, although other music educators have disputed some of the claims (especially from Mr. O’Connor).
We need to find ways to motivate students to want to learn more about the violin. Maybe a daily visit to a motivational website will help! Maybe a T-shirt they can wear or some other visual cue in their room will do the trick!
We can see that theme parks, children’s television networks, toy companies and fast food restaurants understand that the key to influencing your child’s decisions is a multisensory approach. We should be just as wise as they are in our approach to our children.
The Bottom Line
The Suzuki or traditional method can produce competent violinists. If the parent-student interaction in what can be a frustrating situation is good – by all means consider Suzuki. But if the intense child-parent interaction often leads to tears in either party – or both, the traditional approach is probably best. And in any case, make sure that the relationship between the child, the parents and the teacher is a good one. Three individuals pulling in different directions will never make good progress. Finally, have fun with the violin. After all, we don’t say that I “work” on the violin… the verb we use is “play”.
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