March 2013

Suzuki vs. The Traditional Method for Teaching Violin: Which is Better?

March 3, 2013 20:23

If you’ve ever considered violin or piano lessons for a young child, you have probably come across the Suzuki Method. Developed in the mid-1900s by Japanese violinist Shin’ichi Suzuki, the approach is now used by thousands of music educators across the U.S. who call themselves “Suzuki teachers."

On the other hand, there are music programs, musicians, and teachers who use what is called the “traditional" approach, based on centuries of European violin training.

Unless you’re a violinist, it’s difficult for a parent to choose the route that’s best for their child. So, speaking as a parent, a musician and a music school director, I’ll explain what, from my perspective, are the key differences between Suzuki and the traditional method for young children, and why I believe the traditional method is better.

Compared to Suzuki, the traditional method offers:

1. Note-reading from the start

With the traditional approach, music students are taught to read notes on paper from the very beginning. Reading music is an essential aspect of classical music, and traditionalists believe children should become comfortable with it as soon as possible.

By contrast, Suzuki players can go for years before they are taught to read music. When they join a school or orchestra outside the Suzuki system, many experience frustration and embarrassment because they cannot read music. Some even drop out.

2. Stimulating pace

In Suzuki, information is doled out to students over a long period of time. And Suzuki has a perfection policy. One Suzuki school website explains it this way: "Discipline in practicing the same piece over and over, up to perfection, is of major importance. One cannot go to the next piece until the studied piece can be performed perfectly. A studied piece is always a prelude to the next piece, and perfection is important no matter how boring the exercise might be. "

With the traditional method, teachers strive not to bore their students; they look for ways to keep them stimulated, and move them forward, by teaching them new techniques and giving them new pieces, while revisiting problem areas as needed. How fast can a student move? With my approach, based on the traditional method, it is not uncommon for a student to play a 3-octave scale within a year, and to achieve a beautiful vibrato within two years.

3. Unlimited repertoire

Suzuki students are encouraged to play only the Suzuki repertoire, contained in their numbered books. (One thing that’s always bothered me about Suzuki is the preoccupation with book number – ‘What number are you on?’ – as if a higher book number reflects the student’s overall violin ability. It doesn't.)

The traditional method doesn’t tell teachers to go by any particular book or series. They may use Suzuki books - alongside many other books and pieces that the child will enjoy, and which will challenge and motivate them.

4. Tangible rewards

Suzuki believes motivation should be intrinsic, and tangible rewards are generally discouraged.

I and many traditional teachers take the opposite position, and we will motivate the youngest children in class (and at home) with everything from stickers to erasers. We understand that after the first month or so of studying the violin, the thrill wears off. That’s when a sticker, a pencil, or a plastic bust of a famous composer for extra practicing can help motivate the child.

5. Encouragement to 'Leave the Nest'

Traditional teachers encourage their students to play in as many different venues and groups as they would like. By contrast, Suzuki wants students to stay within the Suzuki world for as long as possible.

6. Bowing Only to the Audience

We're talking here about bowing as in leaning over from the waist. Suzuki parents tell me that their children were required to bow – not only to their teachers, but also to parents, before and after practice.

As a traditionalist, I think that violin teachers and parents are asking enough of children without adding an awkward bowing rule.

7. Beautiful Form

Suzuki claims it creates students with good form from the very beginning. I find the opposite. Time and again, Suzuki kids come to my school from with the same problems; Their bow hand is stiff, and their wrist doesn’t bend. Their left arm isn’t tucked in enough to produce tall fingers which allow them to play in tune more easily. In the past, my experience has been that it takes months or even years of frustration to correct bad form. Now, I encourage these students to switch to cello, bass or piano, where they can have a fresh start.

8. Teacher Quality

Anyone can hang a shingle and declare themself a Suzuki teacher. People assume that because of the Suzuki credential, they’re very able teachers. But the truth may be the opposite. For one thing, Suzuki system offers many different (and confusing) levels and certifications, and it's difficult for parents to make sense of them. And then there are all the concerns listed above. Whatever the level, Suzuki certification doesn’t prevent you from winding up with a teacher who can do a lot of damage.

Of course picking a traditional teacher can be just as confusing. Credentials are nice, but you really want to know what results that teacher is getting, and you need to do your homework.


Finally, I'd like to share a story that came to me recently from a mother who I'll call Martha. She came to my music school after she and her daughter, Jane, had spent nine months in a beginning Suzuki program. Martha’s story is not an isolated example; I’ve heard numerous stories like this from other former Suzuki families.

Martha says, “My daughter started violin last March. She was just 6; she had just been given an old family violin, and was super-excited about it. She’d begged for lessons for months. I’d done my research, and Suzuki is all you read about for young children. So we signed her up, and they gave us a three-meetings-a-week schedule: an individual private lesson, a group class, and a music appreciation class.

“The part that I liked, especially in the beginning, was that I was doing it with her. We were going on this journey together. I wasn’t just dropping her off for lessons. I felt like a good mother.

“But the demands quickly became just overwhelming. Along with three classes a week, and practice every day, we were asked to listen to a Suzuki CD with variations of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ for two hours a day.

“A lot of each lesson focused on her posture. It had to be perfect;they gave her coins to stand on and she couldn’t move. For the first couple of months, she didn’t touch the instrument; she used her arms to pretend she was playing.

“The heavy schedule was okay in the summer, but once started school started, I couldn’t listen to the music for two hours a day. And it got to the point that, when I would play the CD, my daughter would plug her ears.

“It was so tedious that I told the teacher we were having trouble. She seemed disappointed with us. She said, ‘Your problem is that your daughter is not bowing to you. She needs to bow to you before and after each practice’. But I never made her do it.

“I started to feel in my gut that this is just strange. Practicing just meant holding the violin with her jaw. The teacher kept saying that she had to do this to build up her neck muscles. I didn’t get it.

“By the end of nine months, she was using the bow to play the rhythm of ‘Twinkle Twinkle’, but still wasn’t allowed to touch the fingerboard. All she could play was the open E string.

“We did see other families enjoying Suzuki. Some parents told me that the first year is the hardest. Although this teacher was really lovely, I felt like it was a cult. Everybody is nodding and saying ‘It’s so great.’ On top of all these lessons, they have parent classes they want you to attend at night, because they know you’re about ready to jump off a cliff, trying to get your child to do all these things.

“One day, when I turned on the Twinkle CD, Jane again plugged her ears, and then she started crying. She didn’t deserve to feel this bad, and we didn’t deserve to have our lives interrupted like this. I went to her and said, ‘Would you like to take a break from these violin lessons?’ ‘YES!’ she said, and gave me a big hug. I stopped the CD."

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