The Suzuki Method of violin instruction is brilliant for starting new players of all ages as well as for teaching advanced players. Often people think of Suzuki as if it’s only for youngsters because it is a system that works brilliantly for those who are preschool age! But the brilliance of this method is that the skills built early on are continuously developed through the advanced pieces.
Suzuki teachers who instruct advanced students have studied how advanced books and supplementary materials complement each other. They know how and what their student needs to advance their skills. At the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point, for example, the advanced students have developed high level skills solely through their Suzuki instruction.
In traditional violin instruction, parents often are told that their children should not begin learning the violin until age 10. Starting much earlier was Suzuki’s revolutionary idea. This idea was not new. After all, Jascha Heifetz started violin at age two! But certainly Suzuki made the idea much more mainstream. We have strategies for working with some children as young as 2. These same sequential strategies work for older students including adults. Everything we learn in Suzuki builds flawlessly on previous skills.
In the past many traditional studios required students to pass a “talent test” to join their studio. However, Suzuki said that anyone who wished to play violin could join his studio. He encouraged other teachers to do the same. “Suzuki famously believed that every child has innate ability that can be — and should be — cultivated with a nurturing and music-rich environment.” It is often easier to mold a malleable brain of a young child. However, everything depends on the motivation and persistence with older students.
Another old-fashioned idea that also doesn’t hold up is that you can tell when a student walks in your studio for the first lesson, whether or not he or she will be a good student. Most Suzuki teachers would not agree with that, nor would anyone who has taught for a long period of time.
Many students who seem to lack talent at their first lessons will work hard and turn into fine musicians. And those who seem talented in the beginning will grow only with practice and persistence. Sometimes they aren’t inclined to do the necessary work and see little progress.
Traditional violin instruction used to be based on musical pieces that were manufactured specifically to learn to play violin. The Suzuki Method uses real music pieces with high artistic merit. Professor of violin and violin pedagogy, Mark Bjork said his childhood teacher told him he was not ready to play “real music.” Suzuki wanted children to play real music, the same type of music he wanted them to listen to.
He used folk music, Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi and other composers to reach that goal. The music is organized in a way that helped students learn skills which were key to each piece. He didn’t want to use cute kids’ music, only music which had artistic or cultural merit. Kids can tell the difference. There is a popular movement today in many traditional methods to use music that lacks artistic merit. It is manufactured to appeal to children. Suzuki believes children like to play real artistic pieces.
Since Suzuki teachers use real music for all students, there is no music that doesn’t fit the age they are at right now. We don’t have to search for appropriate teen or adult pieces. You can study the Suzuki repertoire at any age!
Suzuki was a man ahead of his time! He said listen to the recording before you try to play the piece. Bjork says, “These days nearly every method book sold to schools comes with a recording. Why? Because it works.” Listening to what the piece should sound like will not hinder the ability to play the piece.
Many and diverse artists have emerged from the Suzuki method—Leila Josefowicz, Hilary Hahn, Anne Akiko Meyers, Regina Carter, Lara St. John, Jennifer Koh, Nicola Benedetti, Ray Chen, Frank Almond, Brian Lewis, and Martin Chalifour, to name just a few. They are a testament to the fact that they did not turn out to be “robots” because they listened to the repertoire!
Listening is a strategy to use when you need to learn a piece. It only makes common sense that you would listen to recordings to hear what the piece sounds like before you begin to sight-read.
Perhaps the most unusual Suzuki idea was his Mother Tongue approach. He said that since all children learn to speak their native language, they can gain musical fluency in that same way. “All his ideas — start early, repeat things, do things as a group, listen before learning — stemmed from [the Mother Tongue] approach.”
I can attest that we observe how learning takes place in our Suzuki Early Childhood Education class for babies and toddlers. We repeat, have a group, encourage good listening skills, and start the youngest babies as soon as mom can get to a class. Yet even advanced violin students must listen to the recording, practice over and over, and play with others to hone their skills.
The Mother Tongue idea applies to more than beginners; it also applies to students who have moved beyond the Suzuki books. Some people have the mistaken idea that Suzuki is only for beginners. However, the Suzuki program is based on analyzing pieces. You study the piece for skills you have learned in the past, always building on previously learned skills.
Bjork has written a book on the more advanced student called Expanding Horizons: The Suzuki-Trained Violinist Grows Up. He explains how the Suzuki Method is expanded to use with more advanced players: “Children’s early efforts at speaking involve a great deal of ‘parroting’ what they hear from the people around them. ‘But then the individuality and thought processes start to develop.’ Just as adolescents and young adults learn to speak their own ideas through their acquired language, so does the violinist discover his or her own expressive capacities on the violin.”
The Suzuki teacher who relied on the Suzuki triangle (teacher, child, parent) early on gives the child more and more independence. The parent does the same. When is a good time for parents to give steps of independence to their child? Perhaps it starts with the student practicing by herself for part of her practice time. The parent checks in for the other half. Perhaps the student will ask to attend lessons without the parent. That’s the time to see if it’s appropriate to let go of the earlier need for that strong Suzuki triangle which led to the child’s success.
In our studio, I begin a process of developing an independent attitude very early. Children and parents have to believe that they have the ability to work together. They have the teacher at only one private lesson a week and one group class once a week. The parent-child team carries most of the burden of learning.
Furthermore, I teach young children the steps to lead a group and to lead in front of an audience. They learn to play outside the Suzuki environment such as a retirement home without my presence (Obviously the parent has to make the physical arrangements, but once there, the student takes over.)
Although Suzuki’s original fame was for violin instruction with the very young, he never indicated that this method was no longer useful after a certain level of achievement. The method he designed is strategically planned and used by trained Suzuki teachers with students who play at the highest level of competency.
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