Creating a learning environment

by Jenny Macmillan

Readers’ Forum EPTA Piano Journal, Summer 1997

I was very interested to read Eve Holden’s ideas on teaching arising from her tour of the Far East. She points out that Malayan and Chinese children are very obedient and very ambitious, and that parents spend long hours helping their children with their homework. She cites the Japanese Suzuki method of teaching, in which children from the age of 3 or 4 are taught by rote. She suggests that repeating things by rote is not favoured by the teaching profession in the UK, and suggests this is probably one reason why the Suzuki method has not really established itself in this country. Although in Japan (where parents are more amenable to learning by rote) Suzuki teachers do expect many repetitions in practice, over here the Suzuki approach has been ‘westernised’ and few, if any, teachers demand such a way of learning. A four year old child might be asked to repeat a short section four times every day, a six year old six times, but that must be common with many teachers’ requirements.

Actually, the basis of the Suzuki approach has nothing to do with repetition or teaching by rote. Rather it lies in creating the right environment for developing the child’s potential. This means:

Again in Japan, in the early stages of the development of the Suzuki method, there were few orchestras for children to play in, and little chamber music, so reading music was not considered particularly important. In the West, the situation is different, and nowadays Suzuki-trained children generally start to learn to read music at the same time as they learn to read their own language - around the age of 5. Although there may be a period when their reading ability is not as highly developed as their playing ability, most teachers ensure that the reading soon catches up, and many Suzuki students become very fine readers (not all - but then not all traditionally taught students are fine readers, either).

Most interestingly, Eve Holden writes that:

All these ideas are well established in Suzuki teaching.

One problem for many teachers is coping with very young children, and finding the best way to teach them. Teachers on Suzuki teacher training courses are shown how to do this, as well as how to develop the children’s potential to the full. It is enormously rewarding to teach by the Suzuki method, but it is expensive and time-consuming to train as a Suzuki teacher. Britain has relatively few such teachers - about 50 piano teachers, 70 violin teachers, 15 cello, 5 flute, 1 guitar - although many more have travelled from other European countries to train in England. Not all Suzuki teachers are excellent, but the majority are. Many parents who wish their children to learn by the Suzuki method travel considerable distances to the nearest appropriately trained teacher. In America, where the method has been around for much longer (about 35 years) than in this country (about 20 years), it is a much more widely accepted way of learning, and the majority of violin students now at the Juilliard School were Suzuki trained.

I believe the reason the Suzuki approach is still in its infancy in this country is a shortage of trained teachers. Few piano teachers in this country have been in a position to study the method in detail, and its advantages and achievements remain largely unsung. The majority of those who know about Suzuki - both teachers and parents - are more than satisfied with the method.

For more information about the philosophy, I would recommend Shiniki Suzuki’s book Nurtured by Love, available from the British Suzuki Institute. British Suzuki Institute (BSI)