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Susan Pascale

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

March 4, 2013 at 3:23 AM

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."

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on March 4, 2013 at 3:42 AM
While I believe there are cases in which your statements about Suzuki training are true, I believe many of them are inaccurate as an overall representation of the philosophy. Numbers 3 and 5, specifically, I have never seen to be true in any Suzuki studio I am familiar with; and several of the others I don't believe are portrayed fairly.

I am not myself a Suzuki teacher, but have had the training and interacted with many other teachers who do use Suzuki. I am probably not the best person to write a point by point response, but would encourage readers to look a little further for a fuller perspective. On this site, I can think of Laurie Niles and Danielle Gomez as examples of Suzuki teachers who would offer a completely different perspective of the Suzuki philosophy, its methods and results.

Presenting Suzuki as a whole vs. Traditional as a whole poses some problems anyway. While one could argue that Suzuki teachers should have some similarity as a group, it's not a hard and fast method; there are all sorts. As for "traditional" teaching, it consists of enough different school of thought as to be practically indefinable; at least I've never seen a definition other than the antithesis of Suzuki :). So it's hard to attempt an accurate comparison when you don't have secure definitions on both sides to compare!

Having said that, I do think that Suzuki has some inherent weaknesses *if* it is viewed as a method unto itself rather than a guiding philosophy. And I do think many teachers, maybe especially a generation ago, took it to that extreme hence the stereotypes-of which your descriptions are probably a reasonably accurate portrayal. I'd just ask caution in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I have learned a ton from the Suzuki people, though there are aspects of it I wouldn't use personally. I would hazard a guess that the really good Suzuki teachers and the really good traditional teachers are not that far distant from each other, and while I understand the frustration with bad teaching, and the fact that it can get passed off as good teaching based on a Suzuki label, I hope we eventually can get past the stereotypes and work with and learn from each other!

I do write with a lot of respect for your viewpoint--your experience as a teacher, musician, and parent qualifies you probably much more than my relatively short and small-scale music teaching career. Just had to put a word in for perhaps a more balanced perspective. Thanks for your thoughts!

From Susan Pascale
Posted on March 4, 2013 at 4:05 PM
Your comment is greatly appreciated. After teaching in LA for 12 years and seeing many former Suzuki students walk through my door who were in very bad shape both physically and emotionally, I was compelled to write the article.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 5, 2013 at 4:07 AM
Interestingly, Shinichi Suzuki's approach is also based on centuries of European violin training. It's quite a traditional approach! Here is an article I wrote to help people understand the Suzuki philosophy, which is so much more than a method:

As such, I would never argue for the superiority of "Suzuki over Traditional," despite my use of a lot of ideas from Shinichi Suzuki and so many wonderful Suzuki teachers across the world. His philosophy was extremely inclusive, and he encouraged teachers to continue learning, growing, sharing their best ideas and using their own creativity.

A bad teacher, traditional, Suzuki or otherwise, can obviously put you down the wrong path, with bad habits, emotional problems toward the instrument, etc. etc.

In the end, a student needs an accomplished violinist who is a good teacher of children, whether the teacher uses traditional, Suzuki or other methods. The more curiosity your teacher has about the benefits of various teaching methods, about merits of various kinds of music -- the better. The more close-minded your teacher is, the more limited your training will be.

From Pavel Spacek
Posted on March 5, 2013 at 10:12 PM
Well, I am just a 'Suzuki' parent living in the Suzuki desert but I am surprised by your rather negative reaction to Suzuki approach and philosophy of learning the violin. We are using Kerstin Wartberg's Step by Step which is Suzuki complemented with preparatory exercises and detailed notes. Kerstin Wartberg herself studied with Suzuki in Japan.

We never had a Suzuki trained teacher, always 'traditional' but they never objected to using Suzuki materials. One of them (because of frequent moves we had to change a few times) never even heard of Suzuki; after seeing the printed music of the first four volumes he said 'I never saw such beautifully methodologically arranged school.
Each piece brings a new technique and builds on the previous one.'

To reply your points from the viewpoint of the parent; I wish we had Suzuki teachers you described striving for perfection, we frequently met lenient 'traditional' teachers who let things pass.

1. Note-reading from the start

At the beginning the child has enough on her plate, posture, violin/bow hold, playing and listening to herself, why not eliminate temporarily one distraction. Suzuki knew well what he was doing when he postponed (not eliminated entirely) note-reading. Both Suzuki and Kerstin Wartberg published note reading books. Kersting Wartberg: My First Note-Reading Book and Shinichi Suzuki: Note reading for violin. It is not the mistake of methodology that they are not used.

Once I said to our teacher after the concert (traditionally trained pupils and my daughter): 'Everybody went to the stage with a piece of paper but she went with the musical instrument'. He choked with laugh - different approach.

2. Stimulating pace

We go at our own pace, one piece after another and my daughter was never bored. We are not striving to play 3-octave within a year, she plays for her pleasure, not to become the next Paganini.

3. Unlimited repertoire

My daughter loves Kerstin Wartberg's books. She can draw into them and she always asks when she will play in the next one - they are colour coded. There is plenty of repertoire in those books but she is not restricted to them she can play what she likes and wants to play (within her abilities) so she learnt on her own Frere Jacques and plenty of folk songs (transpozed for her scale abilities by me).
We can't care less when we will be in book number 5, 8 or 10, when that will be it will be.

4. Tangible rewards

My daughter loves playing her violin but she does not reject beautiful stickers either. In fact, I had to buy and suggest to our teacher to use them :-). But stickers are not her motivation, her biggest motivator is the possibility of a concert and playing the song at the concert.

5. Encouragement to 'Leave the Nest'

Don't really understand the point, what is the difference between school concerts in Suzuki group and school concert in traditional school - both are school concerts right?

6. Bowing Only to the Audience
What is wrong with little courtesy and showing the respect to the teacher and/or parent? That's lovely and it is a nice start and end to the lesson, I will try to teach that my daughter too. BTW, I think the teacher bows too.

7. Beautiful Form

I think you are barking at the wrong tree here. Both Suzuki and Kerstin Wartberg too emphasizes beautiful posture, it is not the mistake of Suzuki methodology that some teacher do not enforce it. I can assure you that after spending time with 'traditionally' trained teachers we still have work on posture and bow hand to do but that is the part of the journey.

8. Teacher Quality

I do not think that is Suzuki methodology and approach problem but general teaching problem. Due to our frequent moves we met quite a few teachers ('traditional' ones) and I could notice differences in approach and quality.

Your Martha story sounds very strange. Did the mother push her daughter to sit in front of loudspeakers for 2 hours without move? Then I would understand such reaction.

My daughter also listened and still listens to her CDs and she asks me on her own to start them. She loves listening to them, it makes nice breakfast music before school and in the evening before sleep she often asks for My Trio Book (Kerstin Wartberg arrangement of Suzuki repertoire for 3 violins). I never needed to push her to listen to music. During the time I downloaded contents of all 10 volumes of Suzuki repertoire from youtube, some 93 pieces, and she listened to all of them and loved them all. Her questions 'When will I play this?' are answered 'If you practise every day, in the near future'.

I wish we had a genuine Suzuki teacher knowledgeable of Suzuki approach and methodology but there are none where we live. We visit a 'traditional' teacher once a week and the remaining 4-6 days a home are Suzuki style, nurtured with love. There was nothing difficult about the first year, Kerstin Wartberg makes it easy in her Step By Step book volume 1A (brown).

For the lack of another label I used 'traditional' for non-Suzuki repertoire but after 50 years is not Suzuki traditional? And is any method done with Suzuki approach - nurtured with love a Suzuki one?

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 5:34 AM
Susan--I commented on "the other side of the coin" of my opinion on another post this week-that the Suzuki approach is one of the hardest to teach well (because very little other than the songs is laid out in stone)-and because of that, those who try to teach without any good understanding of the philosophy or of good teaching principles can actually be very harmful. Is it possible that those are the kids you've been getting? The ones that got the bum job of. 'Suzuki" teacher who didn't really teach well? I've gotten a few of those too and it is so frustrating, so I see the basis you're coming from. I wonder if you're judging based on the lowest tier of "Suzuki teaching" a.k.a. those who need to change because they've had a bad teaching job and it's not working for them?
From Susan Pascale
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 7:13 AM
Thank you everyone for your insightful comments regarding Suzuki vs. traditional methods of teaching violin.
From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on March 6, 2013 at 5:08 PM
Susan, I'm a little surprised at how unceasingly negative your blog is towards Suzuki instruction. You describe it as something bordering on child abuse, which is as far as can be from our family's experience.

My son, currently a senior music student at a fine arts high school, started Suzuki violin at five. His teachers (the first one moved away) were both excellent violinists, and have taught him much about being a musician and a well-rounded person as well as teaching him violin. He has been encouraged to join the local youth symphony, to play in chamber ensembles, and to go to non-Suzuki summer camps as well as Suzuki Institutes. His teachers have supplemented the Suzuki books with etudes and other pieces as was appropriate. He learned to read music at a developmentally appropriate time, and sight-reads well. He was never forced to bow to anyone, and listening to the tapes for 2 hours a day would have sent us to the madhouse. That length of time was never a requirement. He was never bored or resentful and frankly, never needed the promise of a plastic bust of a composer to keep with it. Although he is mainly playing viola, and studying that at school, he has wanted to keep up his violin lessons with the teacher he has had for the last 10 years, despite an almost impossibly busy schedule.

No method of teaching is intrinsically better or worse than any other; it comes down to to the skill of the teacher, the motivation of the student, and the chemistry between the two. I'm sorry you have had such dire experiences with the ex-students of one or more Suzuki teachers. Maybe someday you will have the opportunity to work with kids who have thrived, learned, and grown in a good Suzuki program.

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