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Why the Suzuki Method is indispensable

christian howes

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Published: March 12, 2013 at 3:35 PM [UTC]

I've always been proud of being a Suzuki-trained violinist, having long defended Suzuki against criticisms ("Suzuki students don't learn to read, develop bad technique, sound too imitative, etc..."), none of which ring true in my experience.

Yet, since veering away from my classical roots into jazz, I've cried out about the limits of classical music training in general, and made recommendations for augmenting it.

You might even say I've been on a high horse trying to "reform classical music education," pushing my progressive ideas in articles, an online method, an annual camp, and a busy schedule of teaching at conferences and schools.

When I spoke with my friend Gabriel Bolkosky the other day, his impassioned and thoughtful comments inspired me to shut my big fat mouth for a second and think about what is enduring and right about the Suzuki method, and why all the things I've been saying are really just a matter of details.

He made me realize that teaching music is not about the way you hold the bow, shape the hand frame, choose repertoire, improvise, phrase, compose, produce sound, groove, order your pedagogical sequences, or any of that geeky stuff. It's about teaching people, through music, "to be good human beings."

The tenets of Suzuki's philosophy and approach focus on nurturing the good in students and parents.

Case in point: my former teacher, Ginny Christopherson, embodies the best of Suzuki through her unwavering commitment to instill the discipline and love of music in her students, all the while demanding from parents that they never give up on encouraging the same from their children. Now that I am a "Suzuki Dad" (Ginny also taught my daughter), I'm all the more aware of how important our teacher's role has been for my entire family, and even our community.

Suffice it to say, I now concede that, while there are many new-fangled things to discover and implement in music education, some things must not be tampered with. (Let it be noted that for once I have taken a "conservative" position!)

But don't take it from me...

Violinist, Suzuki teacher, and director of the Phoenix Phest Grande, Gabriel Bolkosky says it much better than I can, and his words in this video were the reason for my writing this introduction in the first place. Check it out:

What do you think?

Feel free to comment, like, poke, throw, eat, share...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 12, 2013 at 5:39 PM
I think these are really valuable thoughts. Personally, I've taught for more than 20 years, and I've done a lot of training (Suzuki, El Sistema,, O'Connor, Juilliard Symposium, teaching in public school, teaching privately, getting a bachelor's degree in music...). I always come back to the Suzuki Philosophy, and the Mother Tongue method. His philosophy, if one understands it, allows and encourages a teacher and student to branch out as much as possible, and in the ways that are organic to them.
From Scott Cole
Posted on March 12, 2013 at 8:46 PM
"some things must not be tampered with"

The editing of the Suzuki books are obsolete and should be tampered with. For example, the added slurs in Vivaldi concertos are preposterous. So are the fingerings high on the G and D strings for Baroque and Classical repertoire (not to mention the gratuitous 19th-century use of harmonics).

Even the repertoire, which to me lacks variety (in a time of incredible variety) needs to be examined and broadened. I still don't know why that infernal Bach Double concerto is in there.

In the later books, more editing of any kind should be omitted so that the student can make his or her own choices. We are leaving the age of the Galamian edition and are now in the epoch of Barenreiter and Henle.

From christian howes
Posted on March 12, 2013 at 9:20 PM
Scott, you're definitely preaching to the choir when it comes to discussing expanding repertoire and skill set- I'm practically a poster boy for eclecticism and variety... We're not necessarily in disagreement there. Gabe's argument, which i agree with, is that we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Some other "methods" are more like collections of pieces without the foundation that the Suzuki method provides. Good Suzuki teachers really work magic with kids. That's the essence of the point I tried to make, which i think Gabe expresses really well in the video.
From Boris Kipnis
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 1:43 AM
Suzuki Method is a cancer on the skin of The Music! I feel very sorry for Mozart and Paganini who miss out of Suzuki.
From Benedict Gomez
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 2:05 AM
Boris Kipnis said

Suzuki Method is a cancer on the skin of The Music!

So, I'm guessing you're not a big Suzuki fan?

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 4:07 AM

Are you somehow suggesting:

--That non-Suzuki teachers do NOT teach humanity, self-expression, or how to be(come) "good human beings", well-rounded individuals and artists with discipline and love of music?

--That "traditional" teachers are only concerned with technique, or teaching the craft? (then how come "traditional" players sound more diverse?)

--That any one method or approach to teaching ANYTHING can appropriate and monopolize a sensitive, encouraging, student-centered approach as its exclusive philosophy?

--That non-Suzuki parents are not (or cannot be, wouldn't be) involved as partners in every step of the learning process?

--That developing listening skills and seeing music (learning) as speech/language is exclusively a Suzuki trademark?

That would be quite the stretch...

You say: "Some other "methods" are more like collections of pieces without the foundation that the Suzuki method provides."
--- You CANNOT be serious, Christian... Am I missing your sarcasm or irony? Why is it that the Suzuki "method" has to be constantly "supplemented" with borrowed material, since it's so "complete"??? Please...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 5:48 AM
Andrei, I really don't see that in what Christian is saying. He's talking about what the Suzuki philosophy is, more than what other things "aren't." As far as I know, there is no identifiable "traditional method philosophy," which does not mean that teachers have no philosophy. But since there is a well-defined Suzuki philosophy that means that people talk about what it means, and whether or not they feel it is relevant or useful. Christian seems to be saying that he finds it both relevant and useful, despite his use of many different teaching techniques that are neither "traditional" nor "Suzuki."

That said, the "Suzuki philosophy" does relates learning music to learning language, and not all traditional teachers embrace that, though many do. Personally, I find the "Mother Tongue" idea to be extremely useful in understanding the way people learn music, and in devising ways to teach.

From Sal Peralta
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 6:18 AM
In practical terms, does any student really learn from a single method?

Suzuki provides a framework that is pretty easy for parent/adult students like me to grab on to. It's not that other frameworks aren't also valid, potentially superior, or whatever. But, for me as an adult student who is trying also to facilitate my daughter's training, the material hits a sweet spot in terms of being easy enough to learn, enjoyable enough to practice, and challenging enough to keep improving through regular practice.

In terms of philosophy, I take it as self-evident that the more a child is exposed to violin music and materials and immersed in a culture of music, where music is treated like a language and constantly present in the environment, the greater is the likelihood of success.

Regarding the supplementation of materials...

I think that the core materials are laid out in a way that encourages interest and advancement, but are spartan enough to spark independent learning. I can see how that might be frustrating for some, but I see it as a strength of the philosophy, not as a weakness.

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 12:42 PM
I agree that Christian is singing the praise of Suzuki because he finds it "relevant and useful" to his needs, as many do... (Oh, but he actually claims it's "indispensable" and, on his blog, "irreplaceable", which is the difference between "convenient" and "life-saving cat's meow"...)

But, to suggest that many of the S method's precepts are original and/or exclusive is blatantly erroneous, much like saying that, say, Christianity's (pun intended!) embracing and promotion of empathy and selflessness is either original or exclusive.

When one first judges and then champions an approach as superior based on claims of implied originality and/or exclusivity, one merely falls prey to "arrogance by ignorance". Are trombone, clarinet, percussion players "bad" and "ugly" human beings and lower musicians because "Dr." S didn't adapt his "method" for them?

If I write down the phrase "my pencil is a writing tool" and keep telling that to everybody, does that make me an insightful, original person, because I may be the first to have written down the obvious? No... Provided anybody believes me, it just makes me a good salesman, but not much of a pioneer!

Also, some say on one hand the strength of Suzuki is its codified comprehensive philosophy, but then also (conveniently) portray its omissions as "features" that encourage individuality... Well, which one is it? Following the same logic, the fact that there is no "identifiable traditional method philosophy" means that there is implied, full, self-evident support of individuality and customization in non-Suzuki teaching and learning. Then how again is Suzuki superior/original?

I hope more teachers/parents/students would realize that teaching/learning by rote and memorization (using the prescribed daily doses of "reference" CDs) is NOT the same as ear training and tends to stifle, not encourage tone development (Suzuki trademark "clubby" tone, anyone?), any more than, say, mindlessly memorizing to recite the Koran or the first 10,000 decimals of Pi. Uniformity, regimentation, predictability – quite the polar opposites of individuality and personal creativity.

And let's not even get into the actual editing of the Suzuki core materials: wrong composers (have they heard of Pezold, author of two of the "Bach" minuets?), mis-numbering of Minuets from NAMB, articulation ignoring stylistic awareness, all perpetrated "revision" after "revision", the latest edition of which you're supposed to buy $ for your institutes, of course?

From Justin Wong
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 4:00 PM
It seems like most criticisms aimed at the Suzuki Method really ought to be aimed at bad "Suzuki" teachers. Just going to a couple seminars or buying a few books doesn't make one a Suzuki teacher, though he or she may advertise themselves as such. What good teacher, regardless of methodology or philosophy, allows students to have terrible technique, play without expression or thought, or do things a certain way only because the book says so?

One of the benefits of SM is that it has numerous opportunities for teacher training, introducing would-be or novice teachers to a standardized form of pedagogy, imperfect or incomplete as it may be. Good teachers will always continue to find education and inspiration from a variety of resources to grow and improve. But plenty of bad teachers use Galamian, Flesch, Kruetzer, Mozart, Paganini, Bach, etc. and produce horrible students - because they're bad teachers! But will someone say that Flesch and Kruetzer are useless?

Give Suzuki a break, many teachers use his name in vain.

From Gabriel Bolkosky
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 6:37 PM
Hi everyone - Gabe here. I'm sorry to see that this is quickly devolving into anger and defensiveness. As Galamian said, there is no one way to play or learn the violin. It's true also that Montessori was talking about music in the environment before Suzuki did. I'm sure that the Greeks understood that too! But that was not the point.
My point is that we need to be better to one another in the process of creating anything: students, projects, pieces, etc. I would even include in this discussion! Chris is not somehow saying that the Suzuki method is the best and only method. I didn't see anything like that. I don't know why the conversation has to move to this tone.
From Sal Peralta
Posted on March 13, 2013 at 8:17 PM
Wonderful comment, Gabriel!
From Andrei Pricope
Posted on March 14, 2013 at 2:26 AM
So, Chris, were you just "dumping" (tech term, no qualification intended) your Suzuki-gushing article here to promote links to your own website, or would you care to actually address constructively and specifically ANY of the concerns expressed? (mind you, there's nothing wrong with fishing for page-clicks, I'll do it at the bottom, too... :)

Gabe, you say "we need to be better to one another in the process of creating anything"... Well, yes, just as we must also recycle plastic bottles and save the baby seals. And this is specific to the S method, how exactly?!? Sorry, it's just a meritless "directive" that adds nothing substantial to this particular topic...

You also say "Chris is not somehow saying that the Suzuki method is the best method". Well, what are we to think of then, when presented with something so awesomely "irreplaceable" and "indispensable"?!?

From my almost 20-yr teaching experience, ALL ex-SM students that move into my studio need intensive remedial teaching that is painful and frustrating on ALL sides of the triangle (I basically need to restart them). Parents, especially, LOVE that!!! /s

These ex-SM students come to me not knowing about music, just a little about bio-mechanics (fingerings and very basic bowing/rhythm patterns that non-SM kids get in 1 month tops!), learned mechanically, by rote. NO exceptions! (But they proudly display their SM book and CD collection!).

They are most dependent on a spoon-fed model and teaching dynamic in lessons, they struggle in orchestra and chamber music due to their sight-reading being abysmal to nonexistent, they simply don't get notes/intervals, they do not auralize/audiate, and they mostly freeze when asked questions about what they hear coming out of the instrument and why (or why not...?). All very common complaints about SM students across the board – simple coincidence?!?

What are your specific experiences? (I told you!) :)

From christian howes
Posted on March 14, 2013 at 8:33 AM
Andrei-In answer to your question, no, I'm not suggesting any of the things you inferred or inquired about.
I believe that the application of Suzuki method must be handled by skilled teachers who adapt the core tenets flexibly to the needs of individual students, and as I've said before, I am in agreement about augmenting and updating (as Gabe also speaks to in the interview). Your disagreement seems to stem from how you interpret my use of the words "indispensible" and "irreplaceable", which you have equated with "superior" and "totally original'. I never said Suzuki was superior or that all the ideas in his method are original. I never said all other methods are inferior, nor did I denigrate all other methods. I stand by everything I said. I find many of your comments to be thought-provoking, and your experience is certainly legitimate, but I think you have misinterpreted the meaning of my post.
What else... Oh, Yes, one reason for my blogging online is to generate awareness for the curriculum and services/products I create/provide. I make my living as an educator, composer, performer, writer, and producer. And I do it all of it having had my original training as a Suzuki violinist:) Any reason you ask? thanks for your interest and lively discussion!
From Gabriel Bolkosky
Posted on March 14, 2013 at 6:57 PM
Andrei - have you read any of Suzuki's literature? His goal was world peace. He lays it out fairly clearly. He spoke to the United Nations about this. John Kendall to his dying day said that Suzuki devised an approach and not a method. I believe that there is still much debate about that.
Although he did not talk about recycling dear man, he did speak of solid citizens. He did speak of the noble heart. He did speak of the care that one takes with one's music will carry over into ones life. And that was his primary focus. You can disagree/think it's ridiculous, but to say that it is not there in the method's philosophy is incorrect.
. . .and very nice site by the way.

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