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Laurie Niles

What I've learned from 'Suzuki'

April 3, 2004 at 5:33 AM

My husband can bear witness to the contradictory views I’ve held over the years on the merits/horrors of the ubiquitous Suzuki approach to teaching children how to play the violin. It’s gone from, “No way am I joining that wacko cult!” to…well, getting teacher certification and joining a Suzuki group.

I was not raised in the Suzuki way, though my childhood teacher and his wife, Jim and Jackie Maurer, were some of the rather early Suzuki experimenters in the U.S., or at least in my little part of the U.S. at the time -- Aurora, Colo. Like many my age, I studied traditional methods but still owned some of the Suzuki books so I could play pieces in them.

I was lucky enough to live one block away from the Maurers, allowing me to walk to lessons with one of the best teachers in town. Jim taught me right after he got home from work, so I went upstairs to his office while he put his things away and got ready.

There was a little window in his office which looked onto the downstairs studio, where Jackie taught. As I unpacked my violin, I would peek downstairs and muse about what was happening down there. Wow, those are some young children, they can really play that young? And is that a stuffed bunny rabbit she’s holding there? Wait, they are clapping their hands – no, tapping their heads – no, tapping their shoulders. What? Is this a violin lesson? Now they are singing and tossing the bunny to each other. What is the puppet for? And the drum? Wow, they seem to be having fun. If I ever want to teach really young children, these are the people that know how to do it.

I was a babysitter for some of those young children, and I saw that they had review charts, which prescribed a practice routine for going over all their old pieces. Hmm, this sounded like a good idea, as opposed to moving on to a new piece and flushing the old one down the mental toilet.

But I had my misgivings as well; I was disturbed by those images of dozens of children lined up, all playing the Vivaldi concerto simultaneously. They seemed like so many robots! And the idea of parents deciding that a child wants to play the violin and making that child practice – my parents did no such thing!

I didn’t give it much more thought until after college, when I started teaching. I enthusiastically took on reasonably advanced students, and I enjoyed helping them actually emerge from the Suzuki books. I found myself more intimidated by the young beginner! How on Earth does one teach a four-year-old? And where does one begin, with anyone?

So when I had the opportunity to take a Suzuki pedagogy class with Jim Maurer at the University of Denver, I took it.

Did I learn anything? Did I become an audio-animatronic droid? Did my students?

Yes, no, no….

I still don’t think there’s any one “prescription” for how to teach the violin, and any teacher who uses any single method, not just the Suzuki method, to this end is destined to miss the point with a great many students.

Anyone who takes Suzuki as a mindless formula is also corrupting the ideas of an endlessly creative man, Shinichi Suzuki. This is a man who had so much faith in everyone’s ability to cultivate “talent,” he would make up a hundred ways to bring it out. Here’s something he said again and again:

“My prayer is that all children on this globe may become fine human beings, happy people of superior ability, and I am devoting all my energies to making this come about, for I am convinced that all children are born with this potential.”

The Suzuki-ites have some fantastic ideas and a great many creative and wonderful teachers among their ranks.

Including….ME! (Hah!)

Suzuki has given me a great many creative approaches to solving violin problems and to communicating with children. It’s also given me a network of other teachers to work with, observe and learn from.

It hasn’t meant that I could graduate from “figuring it out” for each and every student – nor would I want to. I write a new prescription for each one. And frankly, much of the time that prescription involves something completely non-“Suzuki.” I don’t agree with every fingering, every bowing in the Suzuki books, or with every part of the method. I don’t always agree with my fellow teachers. But we enjoy each other, respect each other, and learn from each other.

And fundamentally, I do think that children can and should be “Nurtured by Love.”

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