What is the Suzuki Method? As a Suzuki teacher for about 20 years, as well as the editor of Violinist.com for the past 15, I have tried to make this guide to the Suzuki Method both simple and comprehensive, to help you understand the Suzuki Method and have access to more information about it.
The popular 'Suzuki Method' grew from the educational philosophy of Shin'ichi Suzuki (1898-1998), born in Nagoya, Japan. He was one of 12 children, and his father owned a violin factory. Shin'ichi began playing the violin at age 17. In his early 20s, he studied with violinist Karl Klingler in Germany, where he met his wife Waltrud, who also was German. His struggle to learn to speak German gave him the idea that sparked his philosophy of teaching: that every child easily learns his or her native language.
Suzuki's "Mother Tongue" approach to teaching music builds on the principles of language acquisition. Those principles include an early beginning, listening, loving encouragement, parental support, constant repetition, learning with other children and then learning to read. Because all children learn and master their own language, Suzuki believed all children could learn and master music in the same way. He sometimes called this "Talent Education," meaning that musical talent is not inborn, but can be developed in everyone. He personally taught hundreds of students, including many with disabilities. He also toured the world with his very large group of extremely accomplished and young violin students, and music teachers - profoundly amazed with his accomplishments - begged him to share his methods.
Suzuki called his method a "philosophy" and not a method; saying teachers must all devise their own methods. Suzuki began by teaching the violin, then his "philosophy" grew to encompass viola, cello, bass, flute, guitar, harp, piano, organ, voice, recorder and early childhood education.
The fact that Shin'ichi Suzuki lived through the horrors of World War II in Japan might account for his sense of higher purpose in teaching children to play the violin: "Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens, noble human beings. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets beautiful heart."
It's a big commitment. Students begin very young, usually at a pre-school age. Parents also must attend the children's lessons so that they can supervise home practice every day. Some parents take separate violin lessons themselves, to learn at least how to hold the violin themselves and to play the "Twinkle Variations." As the student ages and progresses, the parent's obligations dwindle until the child takes the reins and the parent no longer needs to attend.
Students typically take weekly lessons from a private teacher, who often starts students with a cardboard violin to learn how to handle and hold the instrument before playing it. At some point you'll have to rent or buy (or borrow, beg or steal...) a violin. I recommend that you wait to ask your teacher to help you procure a good-sounding violin that will serve you well. Buying a violin by yourself on eBay can cause you major grief.
Also, students will need to listen to recordings of the music they learn, so be prepared to listen to the Suzuki recordings many, many, many times: in the car, at breakfast, after school -- and for long after the point when you'd like to chuck them into a dumpster. (Please don't tell your child you want to chuck any of their music into the dumpster.)
There are 10 Suzuki books, and it takes many years to work through them all. The last two books are Mozart concerti, and by then, it's likely that the teacher has the student on a much wider path that involves other pieces in the violin repertoire. Most Suzuki teachers supplement the books with other things like scale books, etude books, other pieces from genres of interest to the student (pop, fiddle, Celtic, klezmer, you name it), exercises and more. Suzuki students don't start to learn to read music until they have learned to hold the instrument well and have developed a good ear. Then they typically learn to read very well.
Suzuki music students also are expected to take regular group lessons. Usually, several Suzuki teachers pool their students together to create groups of children at the a similar playing level. Those teachers teach group class, having the children play together, learn to follow a leader, play music games and review music they know. Usually there is a "recital" time where kids can play individually with a piano accompanist. Depending on the group, group class may be once a week, or a few times a month.
In the summer, you can find Suzuki Institutes all over the world. Institutes are like music camps where the parents come along. Students have lessons, group classes, fun activities, and meet a wider group of children who also are learning to play.
There are some good reasons for the big commitment the Suzuki Method asks. Once you see the big picture, all the detail makes a lot more sense. So here's the big picture:
Early Beginning: Children are especially open to learning new mental processes and physical skills when they are very young. Children are especially attuned to sound during their years of language acquisition (primarily birth through age 5), so this is an ideal time to start developing sensitivity to music as well. That process can begin at birth, and programs like Music Together and Kindermusik are excellent for giving babies (and parents!) a thoughtful and happy start in music of a wide range, before they start an instrument. Can older children and adult students learn the Suzuki way? Certainly, just like an older student or adult can learn to speak French. A good Suzuki teacher will have the creativity to apply the Suzuki philosophy in a way that is appropriate for an adult.
Pace: "Start young, go slow, and don't stop!" is another Suzuki saying. Children go at their own, individual pace. The Suzuki way is thorough, challenging, but not pushy, and certainly not abusive. Parents should never measure their child's progress by their book level or their peers. Focus on the details of making beautiful music at every stage, and the progress will come.
Parent Involvement: Just as a parent models correct speaking during language learning, the Suzuki parent guides music practice every day at home, encouraging and motivating in a positive way. To do so, the parent must attend each lesson and actively take notes. Parent lessons on the violin are optional, but recommended for the parent with no familiarity with the instrument. A half-dozen parent lessons in the beginning can be helpful for home practice, as the parent learns the basics of playing and correct posture. A small child cannot be expected to practice on their own until age eight or older, depending on the maturity of the child. As the child progresses, parent involvement evolves into a less active and more supporting role, until the child is playing and practicing on his or her own as a teenager.
Environment and Listening: Children learn to understand speech and to speak in an environment saturated with language. In the same way, music must be part of a child's environment if he or she is to learn to understand and play music. Students listen frequently to recordings of the music they will be learning to play. The more music is a part of the entire family's enjoyment, the better.
Repetition: In learning to speak, children learn a word and then use it many, many times. It becomes part of their vocabulary, and a building block for their communication. Similarly, children continue to play their "old" Suzuki songs long after they first learned them, so that they become part of their musical vocabulary. "Old" pieces are used to teach new skills.
Group Lessons: Children practice their language skills by talking with friends their age. In the same way, children can develop their musical skills by playing with other children who are playing the same music. Group lessons build motivation and community, as children see other students' accomplishments and make new friends.
Whole Person: Shin'ichi Suzuki felt a higher purpose in teaching music, and that rubbed off on a lot of us Suzuki teachers. Some of the other things we try to instill while teaching "Twinkle" and trying to get kids to hold their fiddles higher than their belly buttons include: confidence, love of learning, goal-setting, perseverance, team work, memorization abilities, improved concentration, coordination, appreciation of others, and more.
The Suzuki Association of the Americas grants certificates to teachers who have completed teacher training for each of the 10 Suzuki books. Visit the Suzuki Association of Americas Teacher Finder, which lists registered Suzuki teachers and their levels of training.
If you'd like some perspective when selecting a Suzuki violin teacher, please take a look at one of our Violinist.com readers' advice on How to Find a Great Music Teacher For Your Child, as well as Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles' blog entry, What I've learned from 'Suzuki'. Music teachers and students on Violinist.com also have debated Traditional vs. Suzuki: Which works better?
Here are some Violinist.com blogs from the past 10 years about some of the world's greatest Suzuki teachers and pedagogues:
Barbara Barber is a teacher, violinist, pedagogue, and editor of the Solos for Young Violinists series of supplemental pieces to the Suzuki method. A teacher for more than 35 years, she currently teaches in Estes Park and Longmont, Colorado.
Mark Bjork is a Professor of Violin and Pedagogy at the University of Minnesota School of Music. In 1967 he started one of the first Suzuki programs in the United States at the MacPhail Center For The Arts, which was part of the University of Minnesota at the time.
Helen Brunner studied with Shin'ichi Suzuki and brought the Suzuki method to England. She is a Suzuki teacher trainer and teaches in London and owns an Amati that she bought by selling her family home. She teaches in London.
Teri Einfeldt, a teacher of nearly 40 years, is a registered teacher trainer and chairman of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. She studied the Suzuki method with Shin'ichi Suzuki, William Starr and John Kendall and is on faculty at the Hartt School.
Cathy Lee studied with Shin'ichi Suzuki over a period of 10 years in the 1970s. She is a Suzuki teacher trainer and teaches in Santa Rosa, California.
Brian Lewis grew up with Suzuki, as part of the Ottawa (Kansas) Suzuki Strings program under the direction of his mother, Alice Joy Lewis. A graduate of The Juilliard School, he is artistic director of the biennial Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard and visiting professor at the Yale School of Music.
John D. Kendall brought the Suzuki Method to the United States of America, translating the ideas of Shin'ichi Suzuki into American culture and helping spread its popularity around the country.
James Maurer is a Suzuki teacher trainer who taught violin for 35 years at the Lamont School of Music in Denver, Colorado. He was Founder and Director the Denver Suzuki Institute and the Denver Talent Education Program, served on the SAA Board of Directors, was Secretary of the ISA, and President of the Suzuki Association of Colorado.
Nicolette Solomon is a native of South Africa who studied with Shin'ichi Suzuki at the Talent Education Research Institute in Matsumoto, Japan in 1992. She is President and Executive Director of the Suzuki Institute of Dallas.
William Starr took his entire family to Japan in the 1960s to study with Shin'ichi Suzuki. All eight of Starr's children studied instruments, using the Suzuki Method. A violin teacher and writer of many books and arrangements, he was a close friend of Suzuki's and spoke at his Memorial Service in 1998.
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