The Suzuki method for instrumental teaching

by Sebastian and Jenny Macmillan

EPTA Newsletter, April 1998

What we know as the Suzuki method was devised in Japan by Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998) who named it the Mother Tongue approach. Noting how rapidly children learn language - through constant exposure, imitation, repetition and parental praise at each new word or sentence - he realised that the same approach could be used for learning music. Through drawing this parallel with language, he also reasoned that every child has the ability to make music - it is not the preserve of a few precocious individuals. Suzuki�s writings reveal something of his oriental philosophy which is concerned with educating the whole person through developing their musical ability, for example: �A person with a fine and pure heart will find happiness�.

To us in the West the most memorable image associated with Suzuki is probably that of literally several hundred children massed on a stage playing the folk song, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on the violin. This tune, and variations on it, is the first that all pupils learn. Unfortunately such images cause mixed emotions. While we admire the extraordinary co-ordination they demonstrate, we doubt whether such regimentation encourages the flight of the individual spirit that music has the power to release. But for all its apparent contradictions, the Suzuki method has developed into a system of teaching whose results can be quite exceptional. It has broadened from the violin and is now applied to the piano and many other instruments including flute, cello, viola, guitar and harp.

There are about ten major differences between the Suzuki method and conventional instrument teaching, including the age at which pupils start, parental involvement, extensive listening to music, learning from demonstration, step-by-step mastery of each technique, use of a common repertoire, playing from memory, reviewing old pieces, group work, and the emphasis on educating the whole person. Many pupils start from an early age, 3� or 4. Before starting lessons, they attend other pupils' lessons and see for themselves how they are conducted. Lessons are planned so pupils observe children who are just one stage more advanced, and hear the pieces that lie just ahead of them. The pupil being taught, meanwhile, becomes used to concentrating on playing despite distractions and loses (or rather never develops) that sense of embarrassment or self-consciousness playing in the presence of others.

Parents have an active role in the Suzuki method. Traditionally often viewed as a liability and kept out of the lessons, here they are are expected not only to attend lessons, but to make detailed notes about what needs to be practised and how, and then (at least in the early years) to supervise daily practices. In this way, pupils are well-prepared for each lesson, so lessons are spent refining and polishing the performance, not learning notes. Parents are also expected to help the pupil listen to music in general and to the pieces being learned in particular.

In the early stages pupils learn by listening and from demonstration, not from playing printed music, and they memorise pieces. A good relaxed posture for all instruments is emphasised; young piano pupils, for example, use a footstool to improve their balance, rather than just dangling their legs from the piano stool. Music making is treated as a rite - pupils begin each lesson by bowing to the teacher, which helps to ensure they are giving their full attention when they start. Group lessons for pupils of similar ages and abilities complement individual instrumental lessons and are used to teach general musicianship. Crouching low and whispering pianissimo before jumping high in the air and yelling fortissimo at the tops of their voices is just one - although possibly the most popular - of the many games that have been devised by Suzuki teachers to make learning enjoyable. By the time pupils have started school, they will be playing their chosen instrument fairly competently, and will be introduced to reading music.

For any one instrument, all pupils learn a common repertoire, carefully selected to develop particular techniques, and which takes them up to grade 8 and beyond. Typically starting with a theme and variations based on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, they progress through various folk songs, minuets and sonatinas, to major works by the great classical composers. Most teachers will also introduce supplementary pieces, according to the needs of the student. Long before reaching the end of the repertoire they are no longer learning by demonstration but playing from the music. However, they are still memorising pieces. This helps them to concentrate on the performance of the music, rather than on playing a sequence of printed notes. Children have little difficulty doing this and it does mean they are able simply to sit at the keyboard and just play, anywhere and at any time. Pupils keep up some of their old pieces and build up their own repertoire, with the benefit that they refine and hone these earlier pieces as they mature musically.

For the parents observing children more advanced than their own, it is inspiring to see how playing quality progresses and how quickly pupils move through the repertoire. Because progress is so easily visible, because preparing pieces for termly concerts and group lessons motivates them to practise, and because the repertoire provides its own milestones, Suzuki pupils are generally not put in for the traditional graded examinations, although most teachers will do so if parents request it.

British music teachers first learned of the method in the early 1970s, and the British Suzuki Institute was formed in 1978, exactly 20 years ago, in the same year that EPTA was founded. One of the BSI's main functions is to offer courses for training music teachers in the method. The training leads to five levels of attainment and, typically, each level takes a year to complete. There are now about 80 Suzuki violin teachers and 60 piano teachers; of these about one third are qualified to the highest level. This is a very small number compared with the total number of instrumental teachers in Britain, and the BSI is always seeking to recruit good teachers to the training courses.

Most teacher training takes place in London where trainees attend regular short courses - six weekends plus two full weeks a year. Regional training has recently commenced in Scotland, and the BSI is hoping to start more regional courses. Three main areas are covered in the courses: understanding Suzuki's educational principles including something of his oriental philosophy, learning how to educate very young children through demonstration and repetition, and developing a thorough understanding of the common repertoire. Trainees observe experienced teachers giving lessons, and give lessons themselves under supervision. Through this training they study the most effective ways to respond to the abilities and needs of different pupils. The BSI's courses provide a supportive environment in which teachers learn how to teach through playing, practising and sharing experience.

Examinations at each level involve giving a music lesson, presenting examples of pupils' performances on video, writing about the philosophy, and performing the repertoire from memory. Memorising the early pieces is quite straightforward at the lower levels, although to give a technically and musically accomplished performance can be challenging. But, as trainees move towards level 5, the music becomes increasingly difficult. The piano repertoire, for example, includes Bach's Italian Concerto plus other works that are equally demanding. Requiring this level of performing ability ensures that those who reach level 5 have not just attended the courses and studied the philosophy, but are competent musicians capable of taking a pupil up to and beyond the traditional grade 8 level. However, it is not essential to attain level 5. Many excellent Suzuki teachers are qualified to levels 2 or 3. Other teachers use the repertoire and elements of the method without undergoing the training but, less desirably, refer to themselves as Suzuki teachers.

The results of the method speak for themselves. At the national Suzuki concert held at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, in November 1996, there were many outstanding performances from solo performers, chamber groups and orchestras. Suzuki trained children have consistently shone at the National Festival of Music for Youth, and have regularly been selected to play at the Schools Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. It has been estimated that about a fifth of the National Youth Orchestra violinists are Suzuki-trained, with a similar proportion in the National Scottish Children�s Orchestra. As yet the method is too recent to have produced many outstanding professionals - in any case it is not intended to do so - but there are nevertheless a number of exceptional young performers who are a testimony to its strengths. Katharine Gowers, for example, performed the Bach Double Concerto on tour with Nigel Kennedy at Symphony Hall and the Barbican last autumn and has embarked on a career as a professional violinist, while Antonio Cucchaira, a violin student of Felicity Lipman, has led the Philharmonia Orchestra. Marianne Thorson is the violinist in the Leopold Trio. All three have won several awards.

Teachers who would like to find out about the training, and parents who are interested in obtaining details of qualified teachers, may contact the British Suzuki Institute.