The Customer is...

September 18, 2020, 3:57 PM · I recently voiced my opinions about who the Suzuki method is aimed at, which produced a terse reply. Since then I've been thinking about this from the perspective of my former career as a Supply Chain Management Expert.

While Bell Laboratories placed me in their "Education" department and I went around the planet teaching I learned that the customer isn't the person sitting in the classroom, the customer is the person authorizing both the money and the time in order to achieve a business objective. Making the customer happy was the key to success even though some students were not overjoyed at what I was teaching them. Because their boss was happy with the results I got a lot of bookings for additional education and consulting.

I see music education in those terms - therefore the customer is the parent who pays the bills, brings the young musician, et cetera. The young musician is both the raw-material and the work-in-progress product. At some point the student becomes the customer when the student takes on the full responsibility including payment.

From what I have observed and read about while learning about Suzuki-san is that his method is aimed at making the parents happy while teaching their children how to play the violin. Suzuki-san knew exactly what he was doing.

Working with the local Youth Orchestra over the years I've been within earshot of the parents comparing their children - "What book is she in?" "My son is playing (Fill In The Blank)" "Your daughter hasn't played (Fill In The Blank) yet?" The parents are very competitive. They love and promote the Suzuki method and as long as they are satisfied customers the promotion continues.

That being said, Suzuki isn't everyone's best method. As an adult I would have been turned off by Suzuki while the Doflein method captured my "thinks like an engineer" mind. There are a lot of other methods that work better with other students.

The bottom line though is that, as the old saying goes, "The customer is always right."

There have been, and will continue to be, methodological approaches to teaching how to play violins and other string instruments and each one will gain customers who will pay for lessons, drive young musicians around to lessons, rehearsals, concerts, et cetera.

Your thoughts and comments will be appreciated.

Replies (29)

September 18, 2020, 5:08 PM · I always thought of being a self employed music teacher as being a three legged stool. You need to be a good musician, a good teacher, and a good entrepenuer to be successful. Any of those fail, and it doesn't work. My biggest weakness is the business side of teaching. It's just my opinion, I can elaborate more when things settle down after dinner.
September 18, 2020, 5:35 PM · Mr. Suzuki disliked competition-that is a silly, unnecessary parent issue. The idea is to encourage the less advanced students by example, not to show off "book levels". Perhaps idealistic of him (though I agree with his higher motives), but know that the "competition" model is not an original "selling point" at all. It was intended to enrich lives, not just making parents "happy".

No offense intended-I am sure many do not care about whatever Suzuki intended in the first place, which is likely at the root of your view, Mr. Wells.

September 18, 2020, 6:19 PM · I don't see how Suzuki especially caters to competitive parents. Any method that has a sequence of books and pieces is going to be treated as a point of comparison. The only reason competition based on Suzuki is so widespread is that the use of Suzuki books is so widespread. If some other method were the most popular, parents would be comparing their children based on that.
September 18, 2020, 6:33 PM · Yes, the customer is the decision-maker or more specifically, that one that holds the purse strings. I can go with "the customer is right" until:
- the customer's exception process requirements interfere with my ability to serve customers who are not requiring exceptions
- the customer's contribution (raw material) is severely contrary to my desired teaching and operating principles (gumming up the machine or production line by feeding it unacceptable inputs)

If a customer isn't satisfied with what I'm selling, they should go and buy from another company, not demand that I change my product (which I might change only for the purpose of satisfying the overall interests of myself and my business, not for one customer). In fact, one family has recently done just that, freeing up my mental energy considerably. I suppose in terms of big business, an unhappy customer could broadcast the negative experience on social media and cause a PR problem that could affect future business. As a sole proprietor teacher, that is not a risk I need to consider.

September 18, 2020, 8:51 PM · I think that Suzuki never thought in terms of "customers", and arguably one of the weaknesses of the present Suzuki Association (whether the ISA or SAA) that preserves his legacy is that they, too, are not a customer-centric organization.

Suzuki was ultimately child-centered, perhaps almost naively so. The Suzuki philosophy is explicitly non-competitive -- arguably anti-competitive. But the clear sequencing, the use of group classes to supplement individual lessons (thereby teaching basic ensemble skills and usually some supplemental music history and theory), and frequent recitals inevitably results in easy comparisons between students -- not just what book/piece they're in but how well they're playing that piece relative to others.

Suzuki's structured books of repertoire are intended to convey skills in a particular sequence, but the "teaching points" are not necessarily obvious -- and as the Method is something of an evolving tradition, the teaching points have evolved a bit over time, too.

Note, too, that many people who call themselves "Suzuki teachers" are not actually trained in the Method, and many more who don't call themselves Suzuki teachers nevertheless use the books for repertoire.

The Method was designed to teach children the violin starting as early as two years old. While in the US, it's now fairly unusual to start kids on Suzuki before the age of four, even at age four, there's practically nothing else that can be used (other than possibly O'Connor, but O'Connor also seems to require training in order to understand how it is intended to be taught, unless one just intends to use the tunes adapted to one's own pedagogical approach). You're not going to get a typical four-year-old to do Maia Bang or other dry pedagogical material.

Now, I can entirely believe you don't have many competent violin teachers out in the sticks where I think you've mentioned you live, George. (Abundance and competence are not the same thing.) Those teachers would probably not be especially competent regardless of what pedagogical material they were using.

September 19, 2020, 2:11 AM · "The customer is always right" if he/she becomes a customer in the first place.

Many established professionals will screen prospective clients to see if they want to deal with them at all. If the professional picks up some bad vibes, the person get referred to colleagues (with a sigh of relief).

Edited: September 19, 2020, 8:32 AM · The Suzuki Method may have been anti-competitive by design and intention, but it still might not have turned out that way. Competitive parents will seize upon anything that satisfies their egos. "What book is your child doing" is just one extremely convenient measure. School grades, invitations to join National Honor Society, scouting badges and Pinewood Derby trophies (I still have my first-place car), even volunteer service activities for 7-year-olds are counted and coveted by the competitive parent. After all, when kids are involved in sports, especially individual sports like tennis or golf or track, that's intrinsically competitive by intention, and nobody faults a parent for wanting his or her kid to win. Parents of kids who are more academically inclined have just as much native competitiveness. And I don't think that's necessarily all bad (after all, children must be prepared for a competitive world), but one does often see it being taken too far -- hockey dads shooting one another, millionaire twits cheating their kids into University of Southern California ...

I know parents who absolutely bask in their kids successes. You can just feel their aura when other parents are saying "oh your son (or daughter) is so talented" etc. And I know others who just shrug, and you can tell they're genuinely perplexed as to how their kid got to be so accomplished.

September 19, 2020, 9:24 AM · Youth orchestras that rank players front to back:

"What chair is your child?"
(don't even have to ask, the results are emailed)

Suzuki not required.

(I know of one competent violin teacher in George's area but of course that hardly counts for any useful representation.)

September 19, 2020, 9:49 AM · The real competitiveness doesn't show up until well after Suzuki I thought, then it's more endemic and intense than any academic competitiveness I've seen. Excess supply and limited demand hasn't helped.
Edited: September 19, 2020, 12:07 PM · Viewing education as a "product" with a "customer" is pretty messed up and probably the reason why American education is also so messed up.

September 19, 2020, 1:29 PM · I think George would be better off and more successful elucidating the Doflein method which he understands and supports than taking pot shots at Suzuki.

But because he's a person and not a product or process, he does what he wants.

Edited: September 19, 2020, 4:01 PM · Suzuki has a devoted following and people are extremely defensive of his method, so take the responses you get with a grain of salt. All opinions aside, however, I would like to point out that your astute observations have more to do with the culture of stage-parenting than any particular method. It's only the popularity of the Suzuki method that brings it into focus. As soon as students get past the point where the Suzuki books have any relevance, you hear the same thing from parents, but it becomes "which concerto is your kid doing? Mine did that last time"...you know the drill.
September 19, 2020, 4:07 PM · I suspect part of George's issue with Suzuki is that he doesn't really know very much about it except to the extent that he encounters random parents and students in his small hometown who reference Suzuki repertoire (probably regardless of whether or not their teachers use or have been trained in the Method, as opposed to just using the repertoire books).

That does not prevent him from loudly expressing his opinions on it nevertheless -- this being an Internet discussion forum, after all. (This is similar to all those people who clutter my Facebook feed complaining loudly about movies that they've never seen.)

That said, I am an engineer by training and profession, and I too like structured, methodical approaches to teaching and learning the violin. Suzuki is actually quite well-structured, which is probably why it's essentially become the de facto set of repertoire books used for beginners.

If I recall correctly, George has said that his own early training on the violin was not particularly well done, and that as an adult he's managed to autodidact up to a reasonably competent intermediate level, but boradly, he's never received much structured training himself.

I therefore conjecture that without explicit pedagogical intent written into the text (as is the case with Doflein), he might not be able to immediately intuit what skills a particular piece is intended to teach, making Suzuki seem like just a random collection of pieces to him.

September 19, 2020, 4:36 PM · A dear friend of mine was a student of Dr. Suzuki as a small child. He studied with Mr Arai and Mr. Takahashi, the flautist and music appreciation instructor in Matsumoto. My friend went on to study at the Paris Conservatory and has had a wonderful and enriching teaching and performing career.
What Dr. Suzuki espoused is not what, in general, we see in the US Suzuki programs, and that has been made quite clear to me on my visits to Japan and in conversations with these teachers and students in Matsumoto at the Suzuki Institute.

A 6 week course on the Suzuki Method does not qualify you to be a Suzuki teacher. It is not just a method but a set of concepts geared toward a life of appreciation and love of music. Playing the instrument is a vehicle to something and somewhere else. Students are not commodities, and the recitals are not competitions.

The O'Connor method is fine. I have a problem with the need to denigrate the Suzuki Method and Dr. Suzuki in Mark's promotion of his method. Doflein is fine, as well. If you don't like the Suzuki Method, don't study with a Suzuki Method teacher. Like it or not, the Suzuki Method has brought music skills and appreciation to a very large number of children, and some adults, since it's inception. It is just one of many ways. If you don't like it, learn some other way/method/style.

In ones progress toward competency in anything, you usually just need to shed your own ideas, at some point, and do what someone else says or agrees to teach you. Suzuki, O'Connor, Doflein, or a good violinist who can teach you to be able to teach yourself, just don't ding your last instructor because you didn't progress as you wanted to or you disagree with their methods.
The customer is not always right. Sometimes you have to send them elsewhere to get what they need. Sometimes they eventually appreciate it. Sometimes they won't.

September 19, 2020, 4:44 PM · some long, meandering thoughts re: Laurie's post above:

we live in a time of very fine shadings of resource value, we use money as a convenient universal and transferable unit of value. from this, we seem to have slid down a slippery slope to where we consider monetary value somehow equivalent to other, more abstract, considerations of value in areas where such considered equivalences are not relevant to the true value or function of the area in question.

one result, is the insidious penetration of the idea that economic models and concepts are universally accurate and useful methods of analyzing a given system. not that there is not value in considering monetized aspects of systems, but in having that become the predominant currency (pun intended) of discussion.

I remember when patients became customers and doctors became providers, and the healthcare industry began to consider medicine as some type of product delivery. still makes my skin crawl. and, more to the point, it glosses over non-monetized value (long term patient relationships, trust between doctors and patients vs. a more cog-like mechanism that considers all involved parties to be generically interchangeable, with primary value placed on numbers of customers seen and profit vs liability generated, for example)

it changes the nature of our social connections and what we subtly perceive as being our social responsibilities to one another.

it seems fundamentally wrong to me to consider the parent the "customer", and the student the "product". neither should be generically encapsulated in so simplistic a fashion. it robs us all of a bit of our humanity.

and, fwiw, my daughter is learning cello with a teacher who is using Suzuki. I have no idea what book she's up to and I have no interest in how she "compares" to other kids, but I do love hearing her play and can't wait for when she gets to where we can play interesting things together.

September 19, 2020, 5:23 PM · There are a nontrivial number of middle and upper-middle-class parents who look at the investment in music lessons in terms of potential ROI on college admissions and scholarships.

Although frankly, if that's someone's prime consideration, their kid should be playing bassoon.

September 19, 2020, 6:18 PM · "It is not just a method but a set of concepts geared toward a life of appreciation and love of music. Playing the instrument is a vehicle to something and somewhere else. Students are not commodities, and the recitals are not competitions."

I was with you all the way until the last part, which I'll explain. But yes, the idea that Suzuki is competitive is laughable. If anything, American culture as a whole is very competitive, and is in part having something of a meltdown with the fear that America might not be #1. The violin playing world as a whole, and American teenage violin players and up, are also extremely competitive, regardless of the method, which as has been said is normally non-Suzuki at that point. Moreover, if in a recital we happened to have a bunch kids doing Suzuki or whatever method, and one kid was doing Doflein, there would be an immediate comparison - implicit competition, with whether or not the Doflein kid has better technique, intonation, etc., from either side of this 'competition' - most probably from the Doflein kid's parents because they know of the difference.

In Canada, RCM plays a large part, and with that we have not only levels, but independent testing at each level, and thus grades, with which to do comparisons and have competitions among parents and students if we want. Moreover, because the tests are formally conducted by not one's teacher, the student must be prepared for outside scrutiny - to be prepared to perform in an unusual context with formal evaluation. It is largely for this reason that my son's piano teacher strongly us to have my son participate in local competitions - including ones given by Kiwanis. I was very reluctant to have him do that, because I didn't want him to look at music as competition. But I was persuaded somehow, and the experience itself was the opposite. The other kids and their parents weren't hostile or negatively competitive. They encouraged each other and applauded each others' successes. The kids were organized into peer groups - e.g. separately for each grade level, with age restrictions at times, etc., and finally, they each got their own appraisals from a professional who was not out to find and expose all their flaws, but rather to recognize their achievements, while also advising in what ways the performer could improve. It didn't hurt to have that experience, and, as the original intent, they came away with more experience, and better prepared in advance of their tests, which meant that they played the music better.

To me music has always been about exposure to art and expression, and its growth, not as a means for anything outside of music. I initially chose Suzuki for my son because it expressed those values to me in a way that I could appreciate. As it happened, because of the teacher and RCM presence in Canada, we happened to diverge from that in some details, but we haven't left those principles in the least, and so can, and do, many others like us, regardless of program and apparent level of competition, commerciality, etc.. To us, success isn't winning a competition or bettering our neighbours; it's having a family which loves music.

September 19, 2020, 6:19 PM · Single reeds might be a bit easier...
September 19, 2020, 7:28 PM · I’m grateful that my parents signed me up for Suzuki when I was 7 years old. I’m not sure I would have been interested in western classical music otherwise. Without a doubt, the musical education I’ve received has been the most valuable to me personally.
September 19, 2020, 8:18 PM · Competitiveness is an inherent instinct in the animal,world. It’s geared to survival.
Think of the nature programs showing stags, bull seals...... fighting for control of their herd, and as many females as possible .
When you walk a group of dogs, or ride in a group of horses , there are always some who have to be at the front.
Communism is ostensibly about equality , but produces the greatest inequalities..
September 19, 2020, 9:08 PM · Regardless of original intent, the fact is "Suzuki" is done differently by different teachers, so I will always run into people who heard that Suzuki is such and such, think Suzuki is such and such, maybe even experienced various implementations of Suzuki programs. It would be better if they didn't focus on what Suzuki "is" or "isn't" but examine the substance of what I'm actually doing (although the substance of what I'm doing isn't really useful to anyone who isn't a local parent looking for a teacher).

Also, I don't actually view students as customers. I only put it in those terms, following the example of citing a perspective from one's former career, but it's perhaps more like an apprenticeship. There are prospective students (parents) who treat me like a service provider or product though. I'm by no means an upper tier teacher but I still don't have to tolerate that.

September 19, 2020, 10:36 PM · "fighting for control of their herd, and as many females as possible"

That sort of thing is generally frowned upon here. But I've never been to Melbourne.

Competition is associated with sports more than music, but I suppose there are possibilities we might not have considered duly. Imagine if it was opened up to something like this - a concerto's being played, and someone in the audience (Perlman) says "Stop, stop, I can play it better". And then we let him try - maybe that sort of thing would bring more people to the concert halls? And then he gets all the females?

Maybe I haven't thought it through enough, but my sense is that cooperation has a greater role in music - ensemble, harmony, even when discordant than competition as such.

September 20, 2020, 2:44 AM · Contrary to what what you might have heard, we actually don’t have bull seals or stags ( or kangaroos, although unbelievably , somehow one did get inside Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport a couple of years ago) wandering the streets.
I would venture to suggest that your current president could be likened to the human equivalent.
I was referring to the competitive parents discussed above, not to the actual playing of music.
You’re right in that music is more of a cooperative thing , as opposed to sport .
September 20, 2020, 9:17 AM · I only view teaching as a business because I do need to charge my students money and make sure they are paying every month, keep track of expenses, file taxes and (more agressively when I had first started my studio) know how to advertise. I work for a studio now so I don't have to deal with the business side as much.

I have heard children's music programs target prospective "teachers" with the phrases like "start your own business, be your own boss, become a (insert brand name) music teacher." That makes me cringe. I teach because I want to teach my students, not because I'm looking for a way to own a business.

I am not a Suzuki teacher but am somewhat familiar with the method. From what I've observed, I never got the impression that Suzuki Association is trying to recruit musicians whose passion is to run a business and make money. I was always under the impression that they want teachers who are passionate about teaching and want the best for their students.

If there is "competition" between the parents, it seems like in the long run it would only turn out more unhappy students, or "customers".

Edited: September 20, 2020, 11:34 AM · From a pure business perspective, I think parents tend to be more comfortable going to community music schools which at least give the illusion of structured instruction with teachers who have been background-checked. But parents tend not to have much of a sense of which teachers are good and which aren't, especially if they aren't musicians themselves -- or competently play the instrument that's being taught.

Parents do have a sense of which kids are apparently doing well and which aren't, which can have a self-perpetuating effect on studios. If a studio has a reputation for producing very successful students, it will attract more involved parents and better students; successful teachers are typically more selective, even when picking what families are accepted for brand-new beginners.

Musicians do have to be business-aware if they want to bring in an income. But by and large, most violin teachers at the local community level tend to operate off word-of-mouth rather than any form of active marketing. Retaining a student in a studio tends to be grounded in being pleasantly professional and ensuring that students demonstrate some reasonable level of progress given their possibly-limited practice time.

I don't think parents care the slightest about pedagogical approach as long as the student is making progress.

Much of the attraction of Suzuki programs is the constellation of things that surround the private lessons -- the group lessons, the play-ins, the (possible) string orchestra for kids far too young to join a youth symphony, the performance opportunities, the masterclasses, etc.

September 20, 2020, 1:51 PM · I'm sure you are going to get blow back from many, but IMNSHO you were right in original post about Suzuki, and this post is not far off either.
September 20, 2020, 3:33 PM · Let's never forget what Suzuki said, that there was only one person who teaches the Suzuki Method, and that's Suzuki himself.

I am really not sure the OP actually has much grasp on Suzuki (the man)'s philosophy and the method...as it's designed for young children, e.g. I doubt the OP would need his parent help him guide his bow in his practice. I think Lydia's observations about the OP and the general teacher/parent/student eco-system have been spot on.

September 20, 2020, 8:29 PM · "I would venture to suggest that your current president could be likened to the human equivalent."

I'm in Canada, although it's so closely intertwined, even politically, with the US that we can also see similar problems among ourselves. But my thoughts turn to Ginsburg instead. We should celebrate and honour her memory - with meaningful actions, including compositions. For her to continue at her work until death despite serious illnesses and her age was nothing short of heroic. America should be proud to have had her working for their country, and humanity in turn.

Yet McConnell is eager to have her replaced, and has told the American people that he's doing it as an expression of their will, amounting to a lie to the same people given that they will have a perfect opportunity to express their current will soon.

George, in this thread, is saying that the customer gets what he wishes for, and as an outsider, I sometimes have the same reaction - that the American people get what they wish and earn as a consequence of the principles they practice. Yet that thought is unsatisfactory; an indication of insufficient understanding, ineffectiveness, and fear of doing or saying the wrong thing due to lack of knowledge and conviction. Even faith can work against us, together with the use of Bible and Church as political props, as comfort food keeping the customer happy - that COVID will go away in April; it's all going to be fine; you have the best leader in the best country in the world.

Perhaps I should be quiet, and impressed by the restraint of the people who live this situation in their own country yet keep such topics outside this forum of music which can serve as solace, yet I hope that the readers will forgive this indulgence as they have similar stirrings, and are encouraged to clarify and express their will in our shared human experience.

September 21, 2020, 1:15 AM · That was a naughty comment by me, but I figured amongst a community of musicians I was on safer ground. ...
Even in Australia ( thanks to last years movie for most of us) we understand what an extraordinary person, and what a great loss Ms Ginsberg was, primarily to the US , but with ramifications to the rest of the world.

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