Suzuki vs Traditional method for older adult

Edited: October 5, 2018, 7:47 AM · I'm 65, taking Suzuki lessons. I've played music (accordion, some fiddling) since about 2000. 99.99% learned by ear. But not always with an emphasis to exactly copy the original player, but to do what I could and get a feel for the song and then do it my way.

I've had a life-long decrement in rote memorization. Been tested and that is documented. I am memorizing the Suzuki pieces, but it just seems slow. Could do one per week (not two), and Etude took a couple of weeks because I was sick and not playing. I can't just memorize as a long string of notes. My brain spazzes out. Doing one measure at a time is not how my brain works. It works better to memorize complete phrases, and search for some sort of structure within the pieces. And, the exact copying of a piece is not the way I've done it in the past.

I'm wondering if Suzuki is the best approach for me. I don't necessarily want to be tied to sheet music for stage work (fiddling). I also sound pretty bad, though I'm improving. Previously, playing cajun music, there were a lot of drones to keep me in tune. Not so with Suzuki (and other types of music too).

So, I do see progress, but I just sound awful tackling a new song, and not quite up to snuff before the teacher moves me on. That's not so bad, as I'm not wanting to keep much of the Suzuki stuff in my repertoire, and am more interested in building the skill set to apply to music that enthuses me.

Just looking for thoughts on this. I like the structure of Suzuki over past teachers saying "try this, ok, try that now, ok now try this" and I'm not sure where we're going or why.

Just wondering whether I should try something else. I might have to give up this particular teacher as my job in my current location is coming to an end next week and I don't know if I can find other work in this area.

Replies (18)

Edited: October 5, 2018, 8:12 AM · I taught music (violin and cello in the late afternoons after my regular job) for over 40 years. I had students from age 5 to age 60. I used the Suzuki books for the last 30 of those 40 years because they provided a logically progressive path that I think is very good. I did not require memorization nor even encourage it.

I saw the results of genuine Suzuki training on many young students of other teachers of the Suzuki school in my town and those results were phenomenal (actually Anne Akiko Meyers got her start in that school). But since own my violin lessons had begun in the late 1930s I was never taught that way. I used the Suzuki books because they formed a basis upon which I could teach in a manner similar to my own learning experience (but with an obvious pathway) - using the Suzuki books as well as selected other study materials.

I think using a Suzuki course and requiring memorization on an intelligent adult might be problematic. Twelve years ago I had one mid-20s beginning cello student with a strong background in wind-instrument playing and vocal(sight-singing) who was able to advance from Suzuki book 1 to book 7 in 10 months. There is no way that could have happened the way you are doing it, David. Her boyfriend, who shared a 90-minute lesson time with her was taking violin lessons from me - he had somewhat less wind-instrument background and he only made it to Suzuki violin book 4 in those 10 months (Vivaldi A-minor concerto, 1st movement) - also remarkable in my experience. They were running some kind of competition, it seems - each trying to do the best they could. Then, unfortunately, they moved away - from California to Florida and the lessons ended.

Obviously I would suggest you try to find a teacher willing to teach you using the Suzuki books but in a different way more suited to your specific abilities.

October 5, 2018, 8:34 AM · She is not a "Suzuki teacher", but is familiar with the books and does teach from them. So, no recitals (as of yet anyway).

I like her and have made the most progress with her than the couple of other teachers I've tried. But I've also repeatedly told her about my memory issues. I finally told her "If you want me to learn two songs per week, they will not be exact duplicates of what is in the books. If we do one song I can handle it somewhat." And I don't necessarily remember them after we've moved on to new work. They're throw-away songs to me, with no meaning.

I'm not sure what that teaching in a "different way more suited to my specific abilities" would look like. My stage work will be fiddling, and no sheet music, so I'll have to memorize, but with the freedom to improvise. I do want the reading skills under my belt though, to give me options. I still need lots of intonation work, though it has improved greatly in the last couple of months.

October 5, 2018, 9:08 AM · I would not teach an older adult in the Suzuki way (lots of listening and rote memorization) for exactly the same reason that an older adult dropped into a foreign language environment would not pick up the language in the way a child would. Adults need to study a new language in a way a child does not.

I might use the Suzuki books for an adult just as a useful progressive repertoire, but I would teach from the page.

The whole concept underlying Suzuki is to teach a child music in the way that same child learns their native language. Why would anyone think this would be successful with an adult?

October 5, 2018, 9:32 AM · David,
You seem convinced of your cognitive decline, but all the evidence seems to suggest that tasks such as memorization of new material can slow that decline. Isn't it a bit like saying "I'm not a great runner and don't have a lot of endurance, so I think I'll stop running...."

Anyway, there's more here than just whether or not to memorize, and it depends on your goals and time available. Is your goal to learn more classical technique? If so, I can see that you feel bogged down trying to memorize silly little Suzuki pieces. That takes time and effort away from all of the other skills we need for classical music, such as familiarity with high positions, bouncing the bow, double stops, etc.

I definitely feel your pain about memorizing music.

Edited: October 5, 2018, 10:00 AM · It’s not decline per se. but a life long problem. Plus some mild traumatic brain injury from a car accident. Not a huge decrement, but lower than normal. My music of choice to play is not classical (though I would if I could) but rock, blues, funk, Cajun, etc. Stuff my band could do. I do really need some technique though, and I was the one who picked the Suzuki method over the O’Connor books.

However I do like the idea of playing in a community orchestra if I developed the chops, just as a way to ingrain what I learn.

October 5, 2018, 11:01 AM · David, you wrote:
"I can't just memorize as a long string of notes. My brain spazzes out. Doing one measure at a time is not how my brain works. It works better to memorize complete phrases, and search for some sort of structure within the pieces."

Very few people can memorize long strings of notes. Nor should they. You have your own solution- it does work better to memorize phrases. It seems to me like your problem is that you aren't finding the music within your Suzuki pieces. You're seeing them as long strings of notes rather than actual music.

Edited: October 5, 2018, 11:57 AM · David wrote: "I do like the idea of playing in a community orchestra"..."I can't just memorize as a long string of notes"

Pretty difficult if not impossible to do if you can't and won't learn to read music. Perhaps you would be better served with a folk music teacher and forget classical.

Addendum: I started learning at 50, and still remember my first rehersal night with my community orchestra when I was presented with all 13 pages or so of the Beethoven symphony #2 second violin part, most of which with little to no recognizable melody (1st violins get the melody). Sight reading was not an option, it was a must.

October 5, 2018, 12:28 PM · I didn’t say I can’t or won’t learn to read. I am slowly. It’s just not the focus of Suzuki at the beginning.
October 5, 2018, 1:20 PM · The Suzuki Method is intended to start 3-4 year old children at a pace that matches their acquisition of their first language, by speech, then by symbols. It makes no sense to approach learning the violin the exact same way as an adult.

However, the Tonalization exercises are invaluable, and anyone who is using the Suzuki books and skips them is missing out on one of the biggest concepts in the Method.

October 5, 2018, 1:47 PM · David, are you repeatedly listening to the songs, or just attempting to play them to memorize them?
October 5, 2018, 3:23 PM · David,
Just to clarify: The Suzuki books are not a "method." A method is what the teacher does. That's why few teachers use the books exclusively...because you can't. Especially for beginners. The Suzuki collection is only that, a collection. And one that has become rather obsolete.

There are better collections out there with more interesting repertoire and a more well-thought out progression of pieces. There's nothing terrible or fantastic about the Suzuki collection. Just what he came up with at that time. I think the real reason its still used, frankly, sheer inertia. Or rather laziness on the part of most teachers.

"I know it's not great. But it's there and otherwise I'll have to hunt down all sorts of repertoire myself and put it in a logical order...."

To me, it's like going to breakfast at McDonald's. Yeah, there's better breakfast food out there, but look, it's just off this exit, and I know what's on the menu. Don't expect eggs benedict though.

October 5, 2018, 3:33 PM · David,

You already "fiddle" which means that you are familiar with a lot of the basics of handling and playing the violin. In the "classical" world the idea of always memorizing isn't written in stone. I can remember when soloists had music stands and music while performing and nobody complained. Then came the conductors who memorized their scores, no music stand, just the podium and a baton. Suddenly everyone had to memorize everything.

As far as Suzuki goes, the real issue is that the typical Suzuki student cannot read, let alone read music.

Personally, I'm a proponent and user of Doflien - what I like is that it speaks to someone who can read and understand concepts and what I really love are the Duets for student and teacher that appear on every page turn. They aren't too long and they are fun as well as instructive in both technical playing as well as ensemble playing.

October 5, 2018, 7:18 PM · "I don't necessarily remember them after we've moved on to new work. They're throw-away songs to me, with no meaning."

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you're in the early pieces in Book 1. In that context, that above statement makes sense, especially for the very early ones, which are essentially exercises, not pieces. However, the Suzuki repertoire does have a lot of good music, and is more music-based than other programs which have more emphasis on technique and studies.

Memorization occurs naturally when there is a lot of repetition, and memorization frees you from being stuck to having and reading the music. However, it does take additional effort and is not strictly necessary for playing. Suzuki emphasizes memorization for internalization, and as a learning method for large numbers of very young children, for which there is practically no alternative, but beyond that there is nothing which forces you to memorize the music.

I think the greater distinction between Suzuki and other approaches would largely be with respect to the emphasis on technique, studies, and also theory. The last element is often largely ignored, but is very helpful for sight reading and improvisation. As I understand it, Suzuki himself was frustrated by having spent a lot of time trying to improve through studies, and he felt that he might have made equivalent or better progress through music, learning more of it in the process.

However, I believe that the quality of the teacher makes much more of a difference than the method they employ. Teachers should emphasize technique and studies if they find that that works better for their students, and conversely if so. Find the best teacher that works for you, and learn from them what you can in however they teach best, rather than trying to pick a method first.

I also find the method your teacher is using, of having you learn one or two pieces in a week and moving on somewhat dubious. Those pieces are meant to be used for forming certain technical advances, and should be played well before moving on. Or at least, there should be an emphasis on quality, so you might advance to the next piece, but come back to it again and be expected to play it better then. Successful Sukuzi students didn't get that way just by rushing through the repertoire.

Finally, the Suzuki repertoire can be used even with a non-Suzuki method. After all, the bulk of that material is just a selection of the earlier classical repertoire, and might have been chosen before Suzuki. There is a subscription service called Smart Music which has all the Suzuki repertoire, and lets you play along with the music to accompaniment of varying speed. I like that they have Baroque accompaniment in addition to piano. Playing with such accompaniment takes additional effort, but it has the added benefit of helping your intonation, rhythm, speed and ensemble abilities.

October 5, 2018, 8:55 PM · I don't memorize easily either. Never have. There's a lot of us non-memorizers out there who would like to enjoy the violin just the same. I see nothing wrong with it.
Edited: October 5, 2018, 11:35 PM · I posted a response and it disappeared.

@Erik, to learn the song, I do a combination of repeated listening, looping sections and playing what's in the loop, and playing the whole thing once I can get all the pieces together.

Something about my memory with my other instrument, my fingers and the melody memory are linked somehow. Sometimes on stage, if I'm about to start a song, and I try to remember the melody and lyrics in my head before I start, I freak out because I draw a blank. Once I hit the first couple of notes, it's all there. I've learned not to think about it beforehand. BTW, half my song lyrics are in a language I don't speak. I had to memorize phonemes. Memorizing new lyrics in a foreign language is the hardest part.

@J Ray, yes, I've just started the Minuets in book 1. Minuet 3 I already like from before, so that will have more meaning. And, I too have questioned the quickly moving on with the pieces, once she see's I've memorized it. But, so far, she calls the pieces before now "props", just studies of a sort. Not sure how she'll want me to do the Minuets.

@George, my fiddling skills are minimal. Self-taught, and only tried what was easy. Mostly playing the A and E strings in key of A.

And now, after all my complaining, I can do up bow and down bow staccato (up bow much better than down).

October 5, 2018, 11:37 PM · I'll add that, I don't usually do well with weekly lessons. My brain needs a little more space to assimilate, and some down time. I'm seeing more and more teachers who want to see you every week. I'm trying, but, sometimes I need a rest.
Edited: October 6, 2018, 4:35 PM · David, I am not a fan of Suzuki. I tried learning cello around 2012 or 2013 with a leased cello. I was in my late 50’s. I told my instructor that I need to go slow. That I need to do a song over and over and cannot move on until I get the skill or technique that that song is trying to instill in me. I said she might find it boring, but to me it is necessary. She said that was no problem. Turns out that she did not follow that. We were moving along like it was a race. I was not capable of learning the current technique or skill before she moved on. I to her I was not in a hurry. Every week a new lesson. This was built on the weak ability to do the previous Suzuki lesson. What a complete waste of time and money. When my lease was up, I quit. Suzuki needs a trained Suzuki teacher, from what I am told. Also, I think adult learners need teachers trained in adult students. We do not learn the way a child does.

I have taken up cello again and have a different teacher. We are moving slower and I am refusing to move on until I am comfortable. I told this teacher that I am in no hurry, and she listened. I am now working on violin.

I might suggest that you maybe find a violin lesson series that works for you and ask the instructor to use that. Essential Elements for Strings Violin is a really good series. This also has online help so you can play along. You can even select a speed for the recording to play. Play Violin Today is also a pretty good series, and has online support. Both are Hal Leonard. The Play Violin Today states it is a self taught series, but I see no reason why you could not present this to your instructor, too, for consideration. These books have a different method than Suzuki. Both of these series start with the same strings. You could probably get both and give yourself a sister book to use with whichever you use to get a few more exercises for the same strings and notes. Method is really not the right word. They start with different strings than Suzuki, and more information is provided. I prefer this way over Suzuki.

I have finally found a POSSIBLE violin instructor. I am waiting for her to call back, probably won’t be for a couple days, as it is Saturday. The music store she leases a studio from said that she does teach adults. She is their orchestral instructor. I will bring my two books with me and ask if she can use these instead of Suzuki. I will explain that the Suzuki does not work with me. I liken it to the Music Man “think” system, rightly or wrongly. This is because there is really no written techniques of any depth in the books and once you leave the lesson and are home, if you have an issue, with me the issue is I forget, you have nothing to fall back on. I tried taking notes in lessons before. Does not work. The entire time I am trying to manage pencil, paper, instrument and bow. I can’t record it because when I record myself, it is like playing in front pf people and I cannot do that, and, luckily, have no desire to.

With these books, I find more information. There is the online assistance, once you log in with the code inside the book cover.

So, try finding a different system. Be firm with the instructor that you cannot move on and can only do one song until you have it learned. You are paying this instructor for his/her time. You are in control. Took me a while to figure that one out. If you are having problems with holding it correctly, make sure you habe him/her work on that with you until you are good. If you are having trouble hitting the mark on the fingerboard, make sure you work on it.

I had to redo all of this when I restarted my cello because intonation, proper bowing etc was forgotten. The instructor mentioned it then moved on. I also told her I had no intention of playing in front of anyone. I can’t do that and have no desire, this is for me. After a few lessons she started bugging me about joining some group of hers. “You will learn quicker”. Every week we went through this. Finally, I just said that I would THINK about it. After that she brought in some concert piece to work on. Well. Orchestra part. We literally sat there counting 25 measures until a few measure of cello came in! I paid to sit there. I just want to be able to play songs for myself. I have no desire to cart my cello around to play in some group and just sit there. Luckily, that was a few weeks before the cello lease was up, and I quit.

So, make sure you stick to your guns on what you need to learn. What your goals are. Stick to it. If the instructor sways, be firm and get her/him back on track. This can be does firmly and nicely.

You mentioned you will be moving due to a job being finished. These books would work out well, because in between instructors, you can go online. Nothing replaces an instructor, but, you could also join They have terrific lessons and terrific videos. You might be able to use this to get help with what you are having trouble with in the lessons by using the lesson from that that coincides with your lesson. Also, between jobs and instrucotrs, you have that as a fall back, too.

Understand, I am just learning, myself and am no expert. But being an adult student learning, with a bit of a memory issue, not huge, but a little, and it takes a bit for things to sink in, my suggestions may be of help. Don’t give up.

October 6, 2018, 7:58 PM · Learning to read music is not that hard for an adult. It just takes a bit of time and determination. It won't stop you from memorizing things, it just frees you from having to memorize everything.

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