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The Suzuki Piano Method: pros and cons

In my opinion, the Suzuki method of learning piano has more drawbacks than advantages.

The traditional Suzuki method, devised by its pioneer advocate, Shinichi Suzuki, applied originally to violin instruction. Students as young as 2 or 3 learned to play their instruments in the way language was acquired, through imitation. (I recalled black and white film footage showing hundreds of Japanese children lined up in rows with baby-size violins, bowed in unison. It looked like a public holiday celebration.)

The music, a CD package of folk and classical offerings, featured “Twinkle, Twinkle” as a primer favorite that gave impetus to volumes of published Suzuki albums. They were hot-sellers nearly overnight!

David Cerone, a violin teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory during my undergraduate years, was the official player-soloist on all Suzuki recordings, making his effort a lucrative one.

The philosophy of Suzuki instruction embraced an early immersion in instrument study without exposure to note-reading. The latter would be shelved for a future time. It mimicked the sequence of language-learning with a delayed development of writing skills.

Part and parcel of the Suzuki construct was aural absorption of recordings to the point of saturation. The child would listen to pieces he was playing and basically “copy” the melody, tempo, phrasing, nuance etc.

During private or sometimes group lessons, the teacher was the leader with her copycat student as a full-blown follower. And mom or dad’s required presence at lessons was a mandatory prelude to a pulverizing process that took place during the week. (A parent chewed up bits and pieces of music to regurgitate and feed the child.)

Peers, teachers, parents, and an assortment of relatives, provided a solid support system for the “method," which could take on village proportion.

***

Ironically, the Suzuki Violin method one day was magically transferred to the piano, with its original precepts remaining.

Some Suzuki piano teachers, however, integrated traditional methods into their approach, while others were more strictly orthodox. (Religious wars in the making?)

From my personal experience, piano student transfers who had been immersed in a pure Suzuki learning environment from age 4 or 5, turned out to have poor note-reading skills when I interviewed them at age 9, 10 or 11.

One 12-year old admitted that her “Suzuki” piano training made her resistant to reading music. (She definitely displayed a lag.)

I did, however, notice her physical comfort with the piano. She had a nice hand position, supple wrist, graceful, relaxed arms and could be easily prompted through any technical routines (a tribute to her teacher’s technical skill and agility in the modeling process).

****

Disadvantages of Suzuki instruction:

1) note-reading was far too delayed.

Because a child relied on copying the teacher or parent during his formative years of study, there was no particular motivation to read music.

The Suzuki-saturated students had considerable difficulty psyching themselves up to the cognitive challenge of staff note recognition–a Freudian predictor of notation avoidance pathology–N.A.P.

COPYING

2) While it was valuable to have a good pianistic model for the physical side of playing, I’m not sure making a child ingest one particular way of interpreting a piece, or standardizing it made sense.

3) Having students churn out the same pieces at recitals fostered comparisons of performance between students.

I once attended a Suzuki recital in four parts that lasted for three cumbersome hours. Pieces like,”Twinkle, Twinkle” were played relentlessly with little relief, though by and large, the Suzuki miniatures were delightful.

4) Enlisting parents to be surrogate teachers during the week could be a living nightmare for some children!

How many moms or dads would have enough emotional distance to mentor their own kids? Too many had little patience and made unrealistic demands on their children to play perfectly.

***

On the positive side:

The idea of mirroring back a good physical relationship to the piano in the earliest years of study was sound, but traditional mentors could provide the same, while integrating elements of note-reading into the lesson.

Depending on a child’s age and readiness, a teacher could expose children to parcels of notation in digestible form, as I had done with Rina when she started lessons with me at age 4.

My approach to a child this young would be creative and innovative — borrowing materials from varied sources where it applied. For example, I used Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey as my springboard, but on my own, I developed simple duets based upon transcribed versions of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals.

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/rina-5-shows-outstanding-progress-over-6-months-of-piano-lessons-videos/

I didn’t adhere to any deadlines, preferring to take cues from the child. Any other instructional modality, whether it be PURELY Suzuki-based, or a strict instructional path with little room for variation, didn’t seem to work.

Why, then, I asked myself, were piano teachers so dependent on organized teaching materials instead of tailor-making a learning journey to suit each child’s needs?

Food for thought.

***

LINK:

Suzuki Association of the Americas

http://suzukiassociation.org/about/

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:52 AM
Sammi, It was only to ascertain if YOU were the one who just posted at my You Tube site who is from an Asian country. I don't think this has any meaning deeper than trying to figure out if YOU posted Let's not go there, when the reference was self-limiting, period. The poster had a user name..and a country listed.
Gene Wie April 23, 2013 at 08:09 AM
> My article on Suzuki instruction faulted the PURISTS for their > restrictive method of YEARS of playing by COPYING the teacher- These aren't "purists" in any sense of the word. These are incompetent teachers who don't know what the heck they're doing, and seem to have missed the entire concept of what the Suzuki Method is about. The general concept is that playing by ear is learned first, mimicking the process by we learn our first language. As soon as the child developmentally starts recognizing symbols (aka the Alphabet), note reading is introduced. There is no avoidance of note reading, rhythmic training, and all the other things that allow musicians to learn on their own as well as collaborate/communicate. I am not a Suzuki teacher, but my wife (who grew up in Nagoya, Japan) and many colleagues are...and I am continually amazed at the numbers of people who continue to propagate the lie that there is this "purist" Suzuki Method that insists on rote memorization and copying to the exclusion of everything else. That's just bad teaching, period, and those teachers would be awful regardless of the method involved.
Cat May 15, 2013 at 01:24 AM
My goodness. I came to this site as part of my research on Suzuki. I am now TOTALLY put off the Suzuki method because of the churlish, narrow-minded, brain-washed comments of the Suzuki teachers who commented above. Shirley, I have no idea who you are, but I can't believe you even bothered to answer some of them! I'll wait for the Suzuki backlash against me now...
shirley kirsten May 15, 2013 at 04:12 AM
Thanks for sharing. I try to impart what I have observed over 4 decades plus of teaching, seeing and hearing students who have either transferred from Suzuki based teachers, or were themselves premature piano lesson dropouts. I, myself, don't adhere to a method but prefer to view each pupil as a seed needing various degrees of individual nurturing to full growth and development.. I often videotape various student's lessons to share their landmarks of learning by way of differing avenues and approaches. Many will compose to learn ABC's of note reading. What better way to thrive than create one's own original offering. Others will incorporate art into the piano studio...fashioning note heads and juggling them on the rack. I have eons of videos of a 4 year old who blossomed at her own pace in her own time. If we are less end-oriented and more process-centered than the teacher and student are engaged in an ever-expanding, mutual musical exchange. Copying a teacher from lesson to lesson closes a door that should be left open.
shirley kirsten May 16, 2013 at 01:43 PM
In response to the comments posted on the Suzuki method, I have attached a link to my blog today re: "The Russian School of Piano Playing." The interview I conducted with Rada Bukhman, pianist/teacher/author is compelling and provides a perspective on teaching that's worth a look and listen. http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/an-interview-with-rada-bukhman-pianist-teacher-author-about-the-russian-school-of-piano-playing/

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