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Why the Suzuki approach is so polarizing

Thomas Gregory

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Published: April 5, 2013 at 7:47 PM [UTC]

I was delighted to read Christian Howes' blog featuring Gabe Bolkoski, a fellow student of mine at the University of Michigan, extolling the virtues of Suzuki’s philosophy and the method that sprung from it that has been championed by so many fine teachers ever since. I am not Suzuki trained. I find the mystery surrounding the method quite beguiling, if a little intimidating to the uninitiated. What I have noticed at various conferences and string teacher gatherings is that the method is very polarizing and despite my desire to open discussion, I have been almost afraid to.

It seems to me that few could argue with Suzuki’s essential philosophy that instrumental study can, and should ideally begin as early as possible, with considerable parental involvement. To learn to play with the same ease that a child learns to speak, with love and appreciation seems an attractive model. But what happens when you teach older beginners, who perhaps have no parental involvement? Is Suzuki’s approach still an attractive option?

On a weekly basis, I visit two schools and teach classes of 30 children at a time, mostly 8 years old when they begin who have little or no parental involvement. This popular model is increasingly common as an affordable way of introducing children to instrumental music who might not otherwise have access.

The immediate objective is to find material that appeals to that age group enough that they practice at home with or without parental cajoling. The material would need to be simple enough for them to grasp immediately, very memorable and motivating. A varied and musical backing track would provide a context such that they would automatically recall and apply some of the technical instructions they hear during the lesson. In some cases they would direct their own learning by moving through the material at their own pace, with as little input from the teacher as necessary. They would be able to perform with a sense of pride, knowing that they achieved their level without their parents’ help. Their musical discoveries would be their own, feeding a sense of wonder and desire to explore.

I would happily use Suzuki books when teaching these large classes, but am acutely aware that the material simply doesn’t appeal enough to this age group. Is it perhaps fair to suggest that the Suzuki method is most useful for the young beginner with parental involvement, but less so for the older beginner without?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 6, 2013 at 4:45 PM
There's been a lot of talk over whether the Suzuki "songs" appeal to kids. I would say that one has to remember the fact that children don't necessarily know if they'll like something they've never heard, and there are very, very many things they've never heard. Because they are children!

I was introducing a 7-year-old child to "Oh Susannah," and guess what? He had never, ever heard that song. Didn't know it at all. I taught him to sing the song, then he liked it pretty well. But I didn't get the sense that he liked it more than, say, playing "Allegro" by Suzuki, which is quite peppy, simple to play but with a few challenges for the beginner, etc.

So I would say, don't assume that the kids won't like music. Use your own sense: what do YOU as a teacher like and believe in? What do you think will help kids develop their musical sense and their abilities on the instrument? It's a musical diet that probably has to include veggies, meat, potatoes, dessert... Not even kids like to eat nothing but dessert. :)

From Pavel Spacek
Posted on April 6, 2013 at 5:51 PM
My daughter is 7-year-old, one year younger than your kids and she loves Suzuki approach at home. She started quite late, not at 3 as other lucky kids could have started. Her violin journey was quite thorny (lack of teachers, properly sized instruments; in fact only in the last 9-10 months we are on the the right track).
We do not use Suzuki Violin School, it requires an experienced Suzuki trained teacher, we use Step By Step by Kerstin Wartberg which is Suzuki repertoire with extensive notes, pictures to colour and CDs to play with in three different tempi and my daughter absolutely loves it. She is singing/humming Suzuki repertoire up to book 3 happily even if she is not there yet.
So my daughter is proof that older learner can find an appeal in Suzuki repertoire and approach.
Your problem is that you have a group of 8-year-old that are forced to become independent learners from the very beginning regardless whether they are ready for it or not.
If they are already independent learners than any method including Suzuki approach will work successfully for them and you main question could be what repertoire they would prefer and want to play.
If they are not independent learners yet than the chance of success with any method including Suzuki approach without parental support is a lot lower. Parental involvement is beneficial for any violin method
and not just at preschool age.
You will probably get quite a few recommendations of violin literature in subsequent posts and have to review all those books to decide what might be best. You can also have a look at Kerstin Wartberg's Step By Step and make an opinion if it suits your purpose or not. It is written for Suzuki students and parents but it is written so well that it might be used by independent learner with a good teacher in my opinion.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on April 6, 2013 at 6:00 PM
That is a difficult question to answer or conclude one way or another. We have opposite hard to interpret cases:

My daughter is 16, started 8 years ago and is obsessed with her violin/music. From day 1, she was so enthusiastic she practised routinely twice a day on her own happily early in the morning before and immediately after school: she neither needed nor desired any supervision so we let her be in spite of her teacher's nagging us for parental supervision. He told us that she was a very fast learner and could go even faster if we supervise. Of course, we respect her teacher but at the time, my initial thought was: What's the big rush? So I just followed my instincts and she also seems very mature for her age and independent-minded having nagged my husband for 3-4 years to try the violin (instead of piano or school recorder) so it might be counter-productive to ask to watch her when her door is already shut. She did not learn the Suzuki way because we searched and found there was no Suzuki teacher at all where we live then. Recently my 10-yr old son started Suzuki music this year and he loves it and all the Suzuki songs. He cannot bear it if we do not supervise partly because he needs parental supervision and partly because he counts his mum/dad as audience and he gets such a thrill out of parental supervision that it is a joy to him. In his case we don't think he could have learnt any other way. Maybe it's not so much to do with age but other circumstances or temperament of the learner?

From Jim Hastings
Posted on April 6, 2013 at 7:07 PM
Yes, the temperament of the learner is key. I had already completed writing the following when I read your post, which echoes strongly what I was thinking.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"They [the pupils] would be able to perform with a sense of pride, knowing that they achieved their level without their parents’ help. Their musical discoveries would be their own, feeding a sense of wonder and desire to explore."

Exactly. Like the old ad said: "Mother, please -- I'd rather do it myself!" I didn't learn by the Suzuki method. While Suzuki unquestionably works very well for some kids, I definitely don't think it would have worked well for me.

Parental involvement is one factor that I suspect makes the subject so polarizing. To be sure, some kids prefer to have their parents involved in lessons and practice -- I've seen evidence of this in posts. My guess is that Suzuki is at its best in that kind of environment -- especially if the parent is also a skilled player.

I first made an early start in piano -- this was my parents' idea. They wanted me to have experience playing an instrument -- not necessarily piano and not necessarily long term; but we already had a piano, so this was my first instrument. Even then, as I recall -- little geek that I was -- I got more fun out of Hanon's 60 Exercises than I got out of the above-mentioned "Oh Susannah."

But violin lessons were my idea -- not my parents' idea. The violin muse stole me from piano soon enough when a professional orchestra played at my school. I asked my parents if I could switch to violin. They consented -- after being sure this wasn't just a passing fancy with me. It wasn't. They were involved, of course -- but only to the extent of paying for lessons and requiring regular practice. They need not have worried. I was a practice geek -- and still am.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 7, 2013 at 12:25 PM
I agree with the two previous posters: I think a lot depends on the temperament of the learner, and I also think the parental involvement piece is a much bigger issue than the music itself. I've seen that the music in the Suzuki books can be quite appealing to kids, at least depending on the kid, but the degree and nature of parental involvement expected in Suzuki instruction is highly problematic for a number of families--and not because the parents are selfish, bad parents, overcommitted to shopping (as Suzuki himself implies in "Ability Development from Zero to Three"), or not serious about music.

My 9-yo son's cello teacher is using the Suzuki books and some of the learning by ear approach in traditional private lessons, and he likes the music in the Suzuki books, they are his favorite. He especially liked "The Happy Farmer," "Hunters' Chorus," and "Bouree."

I'm not Suzuki trained, I'm an adult amateur who plays in a local community orchestra and some chamber groups. I have two kids. One of them (my 9-yo son, who plays the cello) is more open to having me involved in his lessons and practice. My daughter, who is now 13 and plays the violin, has always been really hard to guide, coach, or whatever you call the expected Suzuki level of parental participation. She started with a Suzuki teacher and the experience was a near-disaster. She went from being happy and enthusiastic to uninspired and wanting to quit. Then the teacher started trying to rely on me to get the motivation back that the lessons seemed to have suppressed. I failed completely at that. We found another teacher and it's been okay since then, although I don't think violin is going to be a calling for my daughter in adulthood. It could be a hobby, though.

I personally am glad that I wasn't trained by a Suzuki teacher, because, like my daughter, I wouldn't have wanted my parents involved at the level expected by most Suzuki teachers. My learning style did not match their teaching style and it would have been an exercise in frustration on both sides.

As a parent who knows some homeschooling families, I've run into this much more than I expected. Many times it is really better to have a teacher other than the parent, and for the parent to get out of the way and let the teacher do his or her job.

From di allen
Posted on April 7, 2013 at 3:02 PM
as an adult learner, using Suzuki books but not method, I can only say I think the songs are great, they are somewhat difficult, but newer editions present scales and helpful guidelines. i have looked at other beginning courses (like o'connor) and find the suzuki books to be best, for me, at least.
From Duane Padilla
Posted on April 7, 2013 at 8:09 PM
Greetings! I am a grown up suzuki kid and a suzuki trained violin teacher, who also uses many other methods when teaching. Something I've noticed over the years is that because the suzuki group performing ensemble is the most visible aspect of the suzuki method, many assume that it is a group method. I have been asked many times to start a suzuki program in various public schools and tried with not that much success. The thing that many people forget to keep in mind is that the suzuki method is not really a method designed to teach kids in groups. It is an individual teaching method where the triangle of involvment between the parent, the teacher and the student is closely intertwined. The group classes are a supplement to this private instruction method. In a classroom setting where you see 30 kids during the school day and no parents are there, its pretty difficult to create this triangle of involvement that is at the core of the method. Perhaps you might look at the work of elizabeth green. Her methods were designed more for the kinds of situations found in public schools.

There are many beautiful and different ways to teach violin and they all arrive at the same place. good luck with finding the method that works for you.

From J Ray
Posted on April 7, 2013 at 11:38 PM
"Is it perhaps fair to suggest that the Suzuki method is most useful for the young beginner with parental involvement, but less so for the older beginner without?"

It's fair to say that many people have such misconceptions, that Suzuki is for kids who have parental support, and different approaches are better for others. When you have children, you have parental involvement, and the younger the child, the greater the need and benefit from positive parental involvement. Bach, Mozart, and many if not most other luminaries had parental involvement in their musical education, and their experience should not simply be excluded as exceptional, but rather as exemplary, to answer the teachers and students who hold that parental involvement is not ideal. Of course there are exceptions, but in such cases it would generally be the parent who is at fault, not the general notion of parental involvement.

Suzuki parents themselves are counterexamples to the claim that the Suzuki method is for kids who have parental involvement, as many of them are beginners, don't have their parents supervising them, and learn the same material with a similar approach. Suzuki's push for parental involvement is simply a natural consequence of his thought and experience, and I think a disservice is done to both Suzuki and parental involvement when an association is made in this manner -- that Suzuki is a unique method which involves parents, whereas the traditional ones don't have them.

In fact, parental involvement with modern Suzuki practice is often in name only, due to a general difference in lifestyle since the time that Suzuki originally wrote, and conversely, many non-Suzuki students have their parents directly involved to great benefit.

Modern Suzuki practice also emphasizes learning to read music with supplementary material, but to a lesser degree at the onset and obviously not at all for the very very young. This has to be addressed when you have no parental involvement, including Suzuki parents themselves.

The child who has or develops a personal urge to play and practice music diligently is I think an exception to the general rule, and arguably such a child will do relatively well despite parental un-involvement, but it's hard to argue that positive parental involvement would be harmful. There also arises a question of where this taste developed -- it cannot develop in the absence of exposure to music, and that is also a part of the Suzuki philosophy and instruction regarding the manner of parental involvement.

On the subject of older beginners having a distaste for the Suzuki repertoire -- I think that it is unfortunate that this arises. Suzuki is classically based, and the repertoire is a good sampling and representation of that, despite it being limited in scope. Much of the philosophy of Suzuki and other musical education methods is to broaden the knowledge and appreciation of classical music through active experience, which often happens. A greater exposure to classical music often makes playing pop music seem dull, and even children have the ability to learn and appreciate good music.

Of course nobody should regard twinkle variations as great music -- they are exercises, and complaints about them being dull is soon deserved because of their repetition. Real music comes later in the same book, and while it can become dull to teachers over time due to the lack of further variety, it doesn't have to be that way for the student learning for the first time, and as music stands comparison with other classical music learning repertoire.

That said, if you find other music which hold greater immediate appeal, and is worthwhile to learn as good music, I imagine that Dr. Suzuki wouldn't object, but to the contrary would encourage you further.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 5:05 AM
A four-year-old needs help from a parents when learning violin. A ten-year-old, a lot less so. Again, we can compare to language, as did Suzuki. Usually a parent teaches a baby every word, and by rote. A ten-year-old could probably learn a foreign language in a class that was heavy on rote learning, plus with a bit of reading. An adult learns a language with a combination of listening and reading.
From Man Wong
Posted on April 8, 2013 at 1:39 PM
I'm a Suzuki parent (w/ no real/significant, prior, formal musical training) w/ 3 (quite different) Suzuki kids going into our 7th year at it. And I quite agree w/ J Ray above. I think much of the misconception/misunderstanding comes from boiling it down to being just a rather rigid (technical) method instead of a philosophy that yielded a fairly malleable approach w/ some key guidelines (and the mentioned supporting repertoire books, etc.).

I don't necessarily agree w/ every nuanced detail of Suzuki's beliefs, but in general, I do think his approach works very well when understood and executed properly probably w/ few exceptions as J Ray mentioned. Also, I suspect parental involvement might not mean quite the same thing to everyone -- and what's best may well vary in actual practice (as illustrated in various earlier comments)... And many, including myself, may well find his philosophy and approach quite helpful toward learning to become better parents in general, not just specific to music training.

For anyone interested in the Suzuki approach, you really should read his book Nurtured by Love before embarking further...


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 10, 2013 at 12:13 AM
"Usually a parent teaches a baby every word, and by rote". I was quite surprised to read this. As I mentioned, I have 2 children. They are fluent speakers in their native language, good students in school, good writers, and read significantly above grade level. I didn't teach a single word to either one of them by rote when they were babies. I assume they must have learned language from me and the other adults around them. I read to them, I talked to them, in a way similar to the way I played music for them. But I have to say, I believe the active part of the learning process came from them, not me, and it didn't resemble rote learning at all, at least as I understand the term. There was no parent-led repetition, no parent-derived structure or routine, no parent-derived motivation for their learning language. But providing all that--a structure for repetition, evaluation, routine, and motivation--was expected of me in Suzuki.

I also find it a little curious (and, dare I say, polarizing) that Leopold Mozart's version of parental involvement would be described (in a different post) as "exemplary." I'm not going to criticize Leopold, nor argue with his results--at least musically speaking--but I think it's a bit much to hold him up as an example for us mortals to emulate.

In "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Amy Chua admits that Suzuki-style parental involvement appeals to "Tiger" parents. One can legitimately argue that she takes it too far, but I think that's where the polarization comes in.

From J Ray
Posted on April 10, 2013 at 1:26 AM
I find it odd that a parent who actively performs music and has children who are also playing instruments would decry parental involvement in musical learning. It's a case of wanting to be unexemplary I suppose.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 11, 2013 at 2:59 PM
J Ray, I'm not sure if you're talking to me or not, but I'm going to assume that you are and address this anyway. You're right, on the surface mine may sound like an odd position to take, and it isn't one that I necessarily expected to take, going into it.

However, my experiences with my daughter, as a teacher (science, not music), and with parenting in general, suggest that it really depends on the child and the parent, whether parental involvement in music education will be helpful, harmful, or even possible. I am not decrying parental involvement in cases where it is possible and helpful. If I am decrying anything, it is making parental involvement a requirement. I am arguing that it is this *requirement* that is polarizing.

I think that music teachers such as the original poster will continue to have to deal with the issue of teaching students who simply do not have access to positive parental involvement for a variety of reasons. If the answer to that problem is, merely, "oh, but you have to have parental involvement" as opposed to finding ways to serve students who don't have it, then you are going to continue to have polarization.

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