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.


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.


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.



Suzuki Association of the Americas


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shirley kirsten March 24, 2013 at 06:56 AM
Example of a lesson with a 9 yr. old combining singing, shaping, and note reading to advance phrasing. I apologize for the lack of synch in the audio and motions. but the points I enumerated are made loud and clear. I am blogging about this right now and will embed at Word Press. But you can see how so many musical elements are integrated into the lesson with the benefit of the score as reference. http://youtu.be/pi7y6-Yunh4
Sammi Cheng March 24, 2013 at 06:14 PM
My little one started formal suzuki lessons before he turned 3yrs old. He has turned 4yo and can read notes.
Sammi Cheng March 25, 2013 at 12:01 AM
I am a parent, and after 4 kids, I am convinced after extensive reading and experience of the "mother-tongue" method. I doubt an adult like the one who posted above, can actually learn piano the true Suzuki mother tongue method, simply bc he/she would also not be able to learn to speak a language the same way due to age. If my child can speak at 2mths and read before 10mths, has been listening to music before he was born, I don't see why he cannot be learning to play music by immersion. Before he even started having formal lessons, he was already playing by ear on the piano. It is all just a natural progression of the nurture he gets from his environment. Just like no child would refuse to speak in his mother tongue and not be fluent in it. Learning to read music scores is just like how a child learns language too. The child can speak long before he/she can read. Some children are early readers, some don't read until they are 7 or 8 or even 10 or 12yrs old! So likewise with music. Some children are late readers. Do children learn to read before they speak their mother tongue?
shirley kirsten March 25, 2013 at 01:22 AM
I cannot find this comment that landed in my inbox.. so I will reproduce it. Hi Shirley Kirsten, Sammi Cheng commented on your blog post, The Suzuki Piano Method: pros and cons: "I am a parent, and after 4 kids, I am convinced after extensive reading and experience of the "mother-tongue" method. I doubt an adult like the one who posted above, can actually learn piano the true Suzuki mother tongue method, simply bc he/she would also not be able to learn to speak a language the same way due to age. If my child can speak at 2mths and read before 10mths, has been listening to music before he was born, I don't see why he cannot be learning to play music by immersion. Before he even started having formal lessons, he was already playing by ear on the piano. It is all just a natural progression of the nurture he gets from his environment. Just like no child would refuse to speak in his mother tongue and not be fluent in it. Learning to read music scores is just like how a child learns language too. The child can speak long before he/she can read. Some children are early readers, some don't read until they are 7 or 8 or even 10 or 12yrs old! So likewise with music. Some children are late readers. Do children learn to read before they speak their mother tongue?"
shirley kirsten March 25, 2013 at 01:31 AM
In today's blog, on the issue of being a Carbon Copy of the teacher, I fleshed out the point, that copying the teacher, verbatim, so to speak, is not always a blessing. Imagine that as you grow and develop, you must still depend on the teacher to interpret the music in a fixed way. This is why I discourage my students, from listening to packaged CDs that are often wrapped into Chopin albums or the like. Now if the teacher, is not musical, and plays with a lack of fluency, the so-called ear training, or mother tongue transfer has little value. I purposely posted a lesson in progress with a 9 yr old whom I had started at 7. She used the music to see and hear RELATIONSHIPS that bear upon interpretation and phrasing. Learning notation is a challenge for many.. and when I see its delay going into the 4th year of study, as sometimes happens under Suzuki teaching methods, then, it's easy for the student to become resistant to achieving notational literacy. I am zoning in here on two things.. COPYING the teacher...as not in my opinion being always the best way to learn piano.. and delaying notation as creating aversion to reading music. The blog today addresses these issues. http://elcerrito.patch.com/blog_posts/should-a-piano-student-be-a-carbon-copy-of-the-teacher
Sammi Cheng March 25, 2013 at 05:06 AM
I have a 16yo violist and violinist who started off with the Suzuki Method too. He performs often throughout the year in school and in public, Solo Items, Chamber, as well as in 2 orchestras. He'll be performing solo at Carnegie soon altho' I dread the 24-hr flight just to get there. Except for the pieces that he is preparing for his ABRSM Diploma Recital, the rest that he performs are learnt on his own - articulation, bowing, expression, etc. With how he has developed, I don't see how he could be "copying" his teacher? Only 10 or 20% of his performance is based on training from his teacher, as far as I see it. He could read notes shortly after starting suzuki violin lessons. Even if a suzuki student learns mostly by ear, he certainly does not do so mindlessly, I'd think. Aural is also my elder son's very strong point - good for him too bc he finds Aural Dictation in school easy. He also does improvising and composing for the small groups he leads and performs with.
Sammi Cheng March 25, 2013 at 05:10 AM
By the way, Shirley, you say you couldn't find my earlier comment and you copied it down - but I can see it up there, right under your comment made at "8:16 pm on Wednesday, March 20, 2013" - because I was replying to that comment.
shirley kirsten March 25, 2013 at 06:21 AM
As you know, my focus has been the Suzuki imported method to the piano. Obviously your son had a teacher who thought note reading was vital to his development and I applaud any instructor who uses an integrated approach. I can only tell you my own experiences with Suzuki piano students who were transfers and bemoaned the fact that they had note reading difficulties into their 3rd and 4th year of study. And now reading comments of students themselves that have a common ring to them at reddit.com, in response to my blog, it does become a point of concern. I have watched two Suzuki piano teachers play for the student, asking the pupil to play back exactly as rendered. Of course fingering must be assigned. One of the contributors to this forum said the child cannot look at the teacher's fingers.. But fingering MUST be part of instruction. You cannot craft smooth phrases with haphazard fingering. I think a study is in order of Suzuki piano students who have had varying degrees of pure to modified instruction and compile the positives and negatives. Then we can obtain data that would be valuable.
shirley kirsten March 25, 2013 at 06:33 AM
I found this thread at Pianoworld.com re: responses to Suzuki piano instruction http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/450485/Suzuki%20method%20of%20piano%20instruc.html
shirley kirsten March 25, 2013 at 01:44 PM
I've excerpted a comment from the above thread, and this may be emblematic of the purist form of Suzuki instruction: "Anyway, once I switched to a traditional style of teaching I discovered a whole new world of information. My Suzuki lessons never taught me how to count out music, never taught me how to read music, never allowed me to "interpret" music, never showed me how to hold my hands, rarely discussed fingering, rarely discussed any pieces other than the Suzuki pieces, and so forth. Everything was learned by listening to the piece I was learning, and then trying to play what I heard. "In short, I am VERY glad that I switched to more traditional lessons. While I probably play *fewer* pieces now than I would be playing if I had stayed in the Suzuki system, in my opinion I'm playing the pieces better, and have a much broader appreciation of piano music. "Perhaps my Suzuki experience is not typical, but IMO you should be looking to change teaching methods. Otherwise, your daughter may end up being able to *only* play the Suzuki pieces."
shirley kirsten March 26, 2013 at 05:00 PM
"Traditional lessons" of course have wide range expression and interpretation. But the commenter was focusing more on what Suzuki teaching lacked for him, and how another form of learning better suited him.
El March 27, 2013 at 01:40 AM
Sure Shirley, your method of teaching sounds fine. So why didn't you write a blog to enlighten us all with your method? You specifically attacked Suzuki without really giving any hint as to how yours is different or better. It also sounds like you are going off typical misconceptions. You can't punish Suzuki teachers trying to convince you that Suzuki is a satisfactory method, when you have no experience in the field. Yes there are negatives, but they absolutely do not include the 'copycat' playing type (that's specific to the type of student and parent combination there is, or how the teacher teaches. It shouldn't reflect on the entire method.), or the distancing of parental figures in the early years. Also, the practicing method that you stated is fully suited to how the brain works! Do some neurology! The repeated process of learning one segment to perfection is what everyone should be doing. What's the use of knowing the vague outline of a piece of music and putting your own spin on it before you know how to play it accurately? Learn the notes, THEN individualize it. The knowledge of individualizing is already assumed within the Suzuki method. Please open your mind and try to help young musicians, as opposed to merely slagging off a particular method without any grounding.
shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:03 AM
i think there are over 100 blogs at this site that sample my teaching, and at you tube, easily in the hundreds... over 750 postings, performances, lessons in progress with children and adults http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 I believe there are two examples embedded in the blog just published at El Cerrito Patch. But as mentioned so many more as well as the published paper at MTAC.org with more embedded you tubes of my working with a 4 year old, Rina. If you look at my blog list at Patch, there are several. My piano blog offers tutorials and embedded you tubes of my teaching as well. http://arioso7.wordpress.com Publications in the California Music Teacher Magazine, Clavier, and Piano Quarterly. Over 40 years, actually teaching.
Sammi Cheng March 27, 2013 at 05:03 AM
My son's teacher never taught him note-reading. He just could read.
shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:06 AM
I have also authored Piano Students as Composers, and Moonbeams and Other Musical Sketches. These exemplify how I integrate composing into the teaching environment. (Students NOTATE their creations) My life is creative and exciting. I am about to review a book being sent to me my a Russian teacher in Vancouver, so stay tuned. It should be an inviting adventure.
shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:14 AM
I taught young children since my graduation from the Oberlin Conservatory decades ago..have had a private practice focusing on kids for most of my teaching career. Lately, my interest is with adult pupils.. though I've kept two youngsters here in the Bay for a number of years. I emigrated recently, but was prior commuting to El Cerrito, My Central Valley pupils were a mixture of children and adults. My Skype students (international) are adults. Therefore, my published writings have also encompassed these experiences with the older population. I would summarize that I have dedicated my life to teaching.. plus recording, and writing.
shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:17 AM
Hi Sammi, Most students don't learn note reading spontaneously by themselves, so I congratulate your son on his achievement.
Sammi Cheng March 27, 2013 at 05:21 AM
Why wouldn't students just learn reading on their own? After seeing it many times, it just becomes familiar, and they realise that notes going up the staff are higher in pitch and those going down are lower in pitch. And that notes that are white and black or with/without tails have different note values & rhythm - they recognise after a while... Just like how a child who goes thru lots of books read to him/her would eventually figure out how to read without being actually taught.
shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:27 AM
Sammi, I think that's the $64000 question? Kids if given the chance to play only by ear.. or copying the teacher in whatever form would be complacent. That is the feedback I've gotten. Most of us had to discipline ourselves to read notes, learn steps and skips, struggle with this and that until the process became automatic. One of my colleagues, Elaine Comparone, wrote the same in so many words when I shared the link to these thread of comments. The last Suzuki kids who came to me were gifted, but refused to read the notes.. The mom was not pleased with their attitude. I just assessed that for too long they had been kept from note reading. Once again I congratulate your son on his achievement.
Sammi Cheng March 27, 2013 at 05:31 AM
Hey, why $64,000 question? How did u ascertain that value?
shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:36 AM
Tongue in cheek comment. If you were older, you would remember the popular TV Show. The $64,000 question.. Jack Barry host. And as it turned out, they gave answers to the contestants and Charles Van Doren was one of the cheaters.
Sammi Cheng March 27, 2013 at 05:38 AM
Ok, 1955-1958 is a little before my time. But gee, I'm not even in the USA.
shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:41 AM
Were you the one who just posted at my You Tube site about letting a one yr. old learn to read notes by climbing the same staircase, little Rina did (age 4) Of my 530 you tube subscribers MANY are from Asian countries.
shirley kirsten March 27, 2013 at 05:44 AM
No grounding. Please do your research first.
Sammi Cheng March 27, 2013 at 05:47 AM
I'm Chinese. Guess that makes me Asian. ;D But soooo??? How did we get into "race" here?
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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