- Parental involvement

Suzuki or Not Suzuki …That Is the Question: A Discussion of Violin Study Methods

Shakespeare’s Hamlet questioned “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous boredom; or to take arms against a sea of Twinkles, and by opposing end them?” Well, Hamlet spoke of troubles, not Twinkles, but any parent who has been involved in a Suzuki program understands why these words can be confused.

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 the same way that a person would learn to speak his native language, the so-called “mother tongue approach” to music education.

Suzuki also explored an area which became known as “talent education.” The word “saino” in Japanese can be translated ability or talent. But it can also be used to mean the development of an ability or personal trait, such as one’s character. As such, Talent Education came to refer to the development of skill, knowledge and character. This is a seemingly well-rounded approach.

Suzuki introduced a repertoire and a curriculum. Teachers from all over the world 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 worldwide who endorse 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 method of study encourages parent involvement and parent-student interaction. Parents take several classes prior to the start of their student’s studies and are encouraged to participate in the student’s lessons once they have begun. Parents are also the primary means of motivating the student to practice and of making sure that the student follows the instructions once the lesson is complete and the student has returned home. This means that the parent will, at least at the beginning, be actively involved in every single practice session.

* The Suzuki method emphasizes both active and passive learning. Before a student ever touches a violin he is exposed to the music he will play in the form of recordings. These recordings are repeated over and over until they are completely “internalized” by the student. In doing this it is believed that the student will have a tremendous advantage in learning to play the music that he has already heard… in some instances hundreds of times. And for quite some time the only thing that the student will play is “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

* The Suzuki method encourages students to learn by following the example of other students and by 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 hands-on instruction by the teacher. But periodically the Suzuki student will attend “group lessons.” At these group lessons the student interacts with other students from his teacher’s studio. They play together. They study together. And hopefully they progress together. In any case, when other students are present students who are not actively being instructed are urged to sit and observe what is happening.

* Individual lessons frequently concentrate on a single “teaching point.” Progress is made one step at a time in one area at a time. At least early in the learning process more emphasis is placed on the student’s posture, technique and tone production than on playing recognizable tunes. In fact, many Suzuki students don’t even start their violin careers with a real instrument; they use a box on which they can bow so that they learn 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 instruction parents’ involvement is frequently very limited. While parents may be invited to attend lessons, the majority of instruction usually takes place outside the parent’s presence. The parent is requested 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 he has taken the initiative to form some sort of ensemble group, the student does not usually interact with other students at his skill level. If ensembles do exist, they are usually focused on performing works together preparing for a performance, as opposed to Suzuki group lessons that may be focused on developing a specific technique together.

* Listening to 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 the note. Learn the note. Play the note. This is quite common even immediately following the initial lessons in the Traditional Method. After several weeks of instruction the student can already recognize the written notes that he will play.

My Evaluation: A Pox on Both Their Houses!

Both Traditional and Suzuki methods have strengths and weaknesses.

Suzuki emphasizes teaching a philosophy through which a skill can be developed. A successful Suzuki student will be a good performer early if he doesn’t burn out playing and hearing Twinkle over and over. If there is a good student-parent dynamic this can also be a really successful method, and an even stronger bond can develop. But at times the intensity of the parent-student involvement can become a bit overwhelming.

The traditional approach emphasizes the development of a skill, and through the acquisition of that skill the realization that practice and dedication usually leads to success. Parental involvement is not usually nearly so intense in the actual instruction and practice, and the student is much more likely to play recognizable works earlier since he is actually taught notes sooner.

The Solution?

Integrate the best of both methods and then throw in a little fiddle! An integrated system of listening, observing, performing and having fun seems to me 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 skill acquisition. There is no doubt that music theory introduced early becomes a strong foundation on which a student can build an amateur (or even professional) music career. And there is no doubt that students learn from seeing and interacting with other students.

We need a single system integrating the whole world of violin into a happy amalgam.

Why not start with a Suzuki approach in which the parents are introduced to the instrument and understand the instructor and her expectations at the start? Allow parents to observe lessons and encourage them to participate in practices at home! Teach the parents the games that Suzuki students play with their bows and let them play along the same way they would in a Suzuki studio!

But at the same time, why not let the students start working on note recognition at the same time they learn technique? When we show them the violin’s A-string, show them the note on the staff! When we show them the D-string, show them the notation, too. Why not use the flash card or “big book” approach that is used in our schools and hold up a picture of a rest symbol when we want them to be quiet? Let the student see as well as hear what they are doing. It seems to me that this is really implementing Shenichi Suzuki’s message. Just as we don’t expect our children to communicate only verbally and we show them how we use written language early on, we should let the student see what they are playing, not just hear it. In the same way that our four-year old daughter used to “write” stories by scribbling lines on a page, she could have “composed” songs by drawing on a staff. And think of 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 fiddle, a child who picks up the fiddle doesn’t particularly care about if he is holding the fiddle correctly. He doesn’t care if he can read the notes on the staff. All he wants to do is play something that sounds good and have fun. He is highly motivated, and is thrilled when he finds out that he can produce something that makes him smile, although those others may actually want to plug their ears. We need our young students to be excited about picking the instrument up! We need our young students reluctant to put the instrument down. We need our students to truly experience success on their instrument very soon after they first touch the instrument!

And let’s integrate listening in a realistic way! Why not let the students hear the music they will play, but also introduce them to the local symphony orchestra or bluegrass group so that they don’t think that violins only exist on CD’s. And speaking of CD’s, develop a library of a recordings that feature the violin in various settings. The Suzuki CD’s are fine if that is all you are playing, but what about Sarah Chang’s recording of Sarasate’s Concert Fantasy on Carmen when she was just nine years old, and Stephane Grappelli’s Jazz in Paris album so that there is some jazz violin in the house, and maybe even an album by the all-woman string quartet Bond.

Recently there has been considerable discussion about pedagogy and method in teaching violin. Work by people such as fiddler Mark O’Connor and rock violinist Mark Wood have advocated a new approach, although other music educators have disputed some claims (especially by 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 the theme parks, the children’s television networks, the toy companies and the fast food restaurants realize that the key to influencing your child’s decisions is a multi-sensory approach. We should be just a wise as they are in our approach to our children.

The Bottom Line

Either the Suzuki or Traditional method can produce competent violinists. If parent-student interaction in what can be a frustrating situation is good – by all means consider Suzuki. But if intense child-parent interaction frequently leads to tears in either party–or both, the traditional approach is probably better. And in either case, make sure that the relationship between child, parent and teacher is a good one. Three individuals tugging in different directions never make good progress. Finally, have fun with the violin. After all, we don’t say that I “work” the violin… the verb we use is “play.”