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A Little Background
If you want to spice up a party with a lot of violinists in attendance, take a stand on this question: What is the best teaching method for beginning students—traditional or Suzuki?
Before you know it, the baked Camembert and apricot Brie will be flying and people who have been long-time friends, even stand partners!, will turn their backs on each other.
The debate is an old one, but I don’t know why it still rages. It’s like different religions, each claiming to be the true religion and the only way to get to heaven. Like a religious debate, people on each side are passionately devoted to their belief and almost antagonistic toward the opposition.
The only question that should matter is, “Does the violin method help students play violin better?” The answer is yes: both methods can lead a student to musical success. But there is a good reason to put some thought into choosing which method you will use. I’ll start out by giving you my bottom line first, and then I will justify my answer with the rest of this article.
My bottom line: There is no better way to start a beginning violin student than the Suzuki Method. However, the absolutely PURE Suzuki approach, in my humble opinion, comes with some problems, and I have modified the method in my own studio to combat these problems. I will represent the facts to you as I know them first hand, having grown up on Traditional Violin lessons, and learning the Suzuki Method much later in life.
Traditional methods have been around practically since Plain Chant! and they obviously aren’t going away any time soon, either.
The reason I want the debate to stop is that it creates unnecessary fears and suspicions in the minds of parents whose children are starting to learn to play the violin. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard some form of this question: “Do you teach Suzuki? Because I’ve heard that kids who learn it can’t read music.”
Suzuki Method Myth vs. Facts
To assuage your fears regarding some of the hullabaloo surrounding the Suzuki Method, read on. I will show you the pros and cons of each method and how to compensate for the cons.
MYTH NUMBER 1: Kids who start with the Suzuki method can’t learn to read music.
FACT NUMBER 1:
The Suzuki Method delays the reading of music until much later in the student’s musical development. This is referred to as the “Mother-Tongue” approach, and basically treats music as a language. The theory is that no one taught you to speak your native language…you absorbed it by hearing it spoken all around you.
So it is with music (the theory goes). Even though you can’t read, you can understand and speak just fine thanks to your immersion in the language of your birth.
Advantages of this fact
- This approach allows beginning students to focus their entire attention on the zillions of mental tasks involved in good bow technique, tone, posture, and intonation. This advantage is huge.
- Suzuki kids are able to learn pieces at an incredibly fast rate, if they hear it played. This is because the method of learning songs by ear has taught them to quickly recognize pitches and to pay attention to details, including even being able to tell what the bowings should be just by listening.
- Suzuki kids can begin learning the violin at an earlier age. Basically, if a child is too young to read a book, they are too young to read music. (It’s the same brain activity.)
Problems and Solutions with this fact
- Problem 1: Many kids become reliant on FINGER NUMBERS instead of true EAR TRAINING.
- Solution: White out ALL fingerings. Make certain students are learning songs BY EAR.
- Problem 2: Note reading is delayed so long, and the pieces become so technical and difficult that students really only imitate the sounds they hear….and inevitably they miss some notes, resulting in a sloppy “generalization” of the pieces. I call this “Suzuki Slop” and have spent many painful lessons undoing this damage which was done by previous teachers not paying attention to this tendency and allowing the slop to happen.
- Solution: Introduce note reading earlier than the “Pure” Suzuki Method. My teacher trainer, Ed Kreitman, begins teaching his students to read music in Book 4. I took it a step further and I start teaching it in Book 2, for many many reasons. Click here to read my article, if you want to know my reasons in more depth.
- Second solution: Don’t allow Suzuki Slop! Demand that all notes be there!
- Problem 3: Suzuki Kids have a hard time participating in orchestra because they don’t read music. This is true. Orchestra usually doesn’t involve enough repetition for Suzuki kids to learn all the pieces by ear. They can fake it pretty well, but I think that adds to the problem of general imitation, including missed notes.
- Solution: Start students reading earlier. This is the other reason I introduce note-reading in Book 2. Doing so enables students to participate in this incredible social learning environment as soon as possible. My fondest memories are from orchestra and the friends I made there. There are numerous summer programs involving orchestra. You don’t wanna miss out on this!
MYTH NUMBER 2: The Suzuki Method is just for those few kids who are or will become prodigies.
FACT NUMBER 2:
Suzuki’s priority is not, should not be about creating child geniuses. The mission has always been to create better human beings by enrichment, teaching them discipline and patience, deepening their relationships with parents, and giving them a way to express themselves. Often the result of the Suzuki Method is some pretty darned amazing young violinists, which sort of invites the expectation that the Suzuki Method will create child geniuses. This is not the mission, it is a fringe benefit.
Advantages of this Fact: There are so many and they should be obvious, so I won’t list them here. OK, I’ll summarize: happier, better-adjusted kids don’t grow up to be serial killers.
Problem with this Fact: When some kids outperform others, there is a tendency for the focus to shift from enjoyment and learning to comparisons and competitiveness. But this is not a flaw of the Suzuki Method. It’s a human flaw.
MYTH NUMBER 3:
The Suzuki Method is elitist and designed for overachievers and their helicopter parents.
FACT NUMBER 3:
The Suzuki Method teaches that EVERY child can learn violin. This goes back to the Suzuki Mission of creating better human beings, not musical geniuses.
MYTH NUMBER 4:
Suzuki Students are helpless without their parents.
FACT NUMBER 4:
The Suzuki Method does encourage a great deal of parental involvement. Parental involvement is required by most Suzuki teachers.
Advantages of this Fact: From a practical standpoint, when parents attend the lessons with their children, they learn right alongside the student. This makes them the perfect coach for practice sessions at home. They see and understand what things need fixing, and they learn how to fix it. They understand what passages of the music need the most work, so they can help their child focus on that at home.
This is a huge advantage to the student, because an external pair of eyes and ears can catch what the violinist misses, due to the concentration required.
From a more personal standpoint, the time spent at Suzuki lessons and practicing at home with your child is some of the highest quality time you can spend. Shinichi Suzuki understood this.
Remember, the Suzuki Method is all about creating better human beings through enrichment, and parental involvement intensifies the enrichment process. The child/parent team is a beautiful thing to watch. When they learn to work together as a team musically, they learn to work as a team in all aspects of life. The child gets plenty of one-on-one time and attention with their parents, and much more time than the average American parent spends with their children.
Problem with this Fact: Problems can arise with parents who don’t know how to work together with their child, and vice versa, but Suzuki teachers are good at spotting this and can offer suggestions on how the parent and child can work better together. It’s almost a little dose of family therapy!
Another problem with this fact is when parents don’t know when to let go, and continue to micro-manage their child’s progress. The solution is simple: at some point, we must prepare the student to be independent from their parent, just like at some point, the student must learn independence from the teacher.
Sometime in Book 3, I have my parents start encouraging independent practice skills, and sometime in Book 4, I instruct parents to only attend every other lesson, and when that goes smoothly, they only attend every so often, as needed. It all happens very naturally, and really isn’t much of a problem.
Answering the Suzuki Opponents
The following are the chief complaints I have heard made about the Suzuki Method by proponents of the Traditional methods:
COMPLAINT NUMBER 1: Suzuki Method does not create MUSICIANS. It just creates a bunch of robots who don’t know how to do anything except imitate and regurgitate other people’s work.
Answer: Yes, if students never learn to break away from pure “imitation” and into their own interpretation. It is the job of a good teacher to make the distinction, and begin teaching music rather than song-learning. This is not solely a Suzuki problem. Students of Traditional methods can become good at reading music and learning pieces, but they too need to be taught how to make music.
COMPLAINT NUMBER 2: Suzuki Method creates a bunch of illiterate violinists who can’t integrate into the normal musical circles (like orchestras).
Answer: This has been known to happen, but there is a way to avoid it. Please refer to the pros and cons and antidotes of Fact Number 1 at the top of this article. Besides, I’d rather sit next to an illiterate violinist who plays in tune, listens to what is going on around them, and has good technique than a violinist who has their head buried in their music while playing out of tune or with poor tone!
COMPLAINT NUMBER 3: Suzuki students don’t learn “real” music. They just learn what’s in their Suzuki books.
Answer: This is false. The Suzuki repertoire draws from great masterworks by Bach, Mozart, Handel, and others. Only the first few songs in Book I are folk tunes. Not only that, once you get to Book 4, Suzuki students are learning standard violin repertoire. Furthermore, once they do learn to read music, they have the whole universe of Traditional methods and music at their disposal, and a killer technique to boot!
COMPLAINT NUMBER 4: Suzuki students don’t do etudes or scales, which is detrimental to their progress.
Answer: This is false. Good Suzuki teachers incorporate scales into their lessons. Suzuki teachers also frequently utilize an etude book called Quint Etudes, which is easy to use play by ear, but effectively addresses common technical problems. There are other etude books availble to Suzuki students, however, I will concede this: The etudes utilized by the Suzuki Method are sparse and pale in comparison to the rich repertoire of etudes available to the Traditional Student—yet another reason I have modified my approach to Suzuki.
COMPLAINT NUMBER 5 and my own personal pet peeve: The purest of Suzuki Teachers teach the bow arm that Shinichi Suzuki taught, which, in my opinion is a debilitating technique. (dropping the elbow at the frog)
Traditional Violin Method
First of all, this name, “Traditional Violin Method” was meaningless before Suzuki came along. It wasn’t until Suzuki came along that pedagogues had to distinguish their methods from Suzuki’s. It came to be known as “Traditional”, meaning that they teach note-reading along with beginning violin technique (as had been the “tradition”), as opposed to Suzuki’s new “mother-tongue” approach.
The fact that note-reading is taught to beginners is what unifies an otherwise diverse and wildly contrasting variety of violin methods. So “Traditional Violin Method” includes dozens of pedagogical methods, but they share the common link in that they predominantly introduce note-reading to beginning students. Make sense?
- FACT NUMBER 1: Traditional Methods teach note-reading to beginners.
- Advantage 1: This gets students comfortable with note reading very early, and after years of exposure to it, they become incredible sight-readers.
- Advantage 2: Reading music enables them to participate from the get-go in youth orchestras and other social musical groups.
- Problem: More often than not, the note-reading comes between the student and their technique. It is just too many mental tasks all at once, so posture, tone, and intonation suffer because the brain is busy reading the music.
- Solution: Have the student memorize pieces as soon as possible, and use those pieces as tools for the student to focus on their posture, tone, and intonation.
- Problem: Students aren’t ready to learn to read music until they are ready to read books. This delays the starting age of traditional students, although exceptions do exist.
- Solution: Either wait until reading age, or begin lessons, but without note-reading. (hmmm…sounds like Suzuki Method!) I think most traditional methods feel it is unnecessary to start younger than reading age, and I can see their point. What’s the hurry?
- Problem: If you aren’t lucky enough to have a teacher who takes time to teach a lot of ear training, your ear will not be as well developed as with the Suzuki method.
- Solution: Find a teacher who will work on ear training with you. You can also do this yourself by trying to play songs by ear. (Any song will do! Try to get it EXACT…have your teacher check you.)
- FACT NUMBER 2: The Traditional Methods do not stress or require parental involvement.
- Advantage: This is very low maintenence for parents.
- Disadvantage: The student is not accountable at home
- Disadvantage: The student does not have the assistance of a qualified coach for practicing.
- Disadvantage: The parent and child miss out on the enrichment and deepening of their relationship through teamwork and problem-solving.
- FACT NUMBER 3: The Traditional Methods of Violin have a huge body of pedagogical tools available. There exists many treatises written by great masters of the instrument from which the Traditional Methods draw their material.
- Advantage: You have a dozen choices as far as which method you want to learn. You will have RICH resources to choose from as far as repertoire, tutorials, scales, and etudes.
- Problem: The problem is that most traditional teachers do not teach a clearly definable violin method. Most teach a potpourri of techniques they have picked up through the years. So, you really don’t know what you are getting into without doing some serious sleuth work. Please sign up to receive my free article on “How to Choose a Good Violin Teacher, or How to Know the One You Have is Legit”. It applies across the board to Suzuki AND Traditional teachers. To sign up, just enter your name and email address in the box at the top of this page.
That is really all I can say about the traditional method without delving into the various approaches and specific methods out there. There are many, many GREAT methods. I should also mention that since Suzuki, many other methods have been developed for youngsters to learn violin WITHOUT introducing note-reading, and many of them are very good.