April 2013

Why the Suzuki approach is so polarizing

April 5, 2013 12:47

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?


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