The Suzuki method: Developing the whole child

The Suzuki approach deals with much more than teaching a child how to play an instrument. It seeks to develop the whole child, to help unfold his natural potential to learn and become a good and happy person.

Participation in the Suzuki method requires a strong parental commitment, including attending every lesson, practicing with your son or daughter at home every day and making sure the Suzuki lesson audio CD is heard daily. Parents do not need to know how to read music.


Suzuki is a listening approach. Children are first taught how to play and, later, how to read music. It’s the same philosophy as teaching children to speak their native tongue. In the end, both Suzuki and traditional students can become fine musicians.

The purpose of Suzuki training is not to produce great artists, but to help every child to find the joy that comes through music making. Through the Suzuki growing process, children thrive in a total environment of support; they develop confidence and self-esteem, determination to try difficult things, self-discipline and concentration, as well as a lasting enjoyment of music, and the sensitivity and skill for making music.

The Suzuki approach

By Libby Dixon and Molly Johnson

1. Begin as early as possible. Dr. Suzuki recommends that ability development begins at birth. Formal training may be started by age 3.

2. Move in small steps so the child can master the material with a total sense of success, thereby building confidence and enthusiasm for learning. Each child progresses at his or her own pace.

3. Either the mother or father attends all lessons so that (s)he understands the learning process and can feel secure when working with the child as home teacher. To this end, parents receive initial instructions in correct playing posture and all the beginning steps including the playing of a simple piece. The most important single ingredient for success is the parent’s willingness to devote regular time to work closely with their child and with the teacher.

4. Daily listening to recordings of the Suzuki repertoire, as well as good music in general, is the nucleus of the Suzuki approach. The more students listen to their records and tapes, the more quickly they learn. This approach derives from the way all normal children learn to speak their native language.

5. Postpone music reading until the child’s aural and instrumental skills are well established, just as we teach children to read a language only after they can speak. This enables the main focus of the teacher’s and student’s attention to be on the sound: beautiful tone, accurate intonation, and musical phrasing then become a basic part of the student’s earliest training.

6. Follow the Suzuki repertory sequence, for the most part, so that each piece becomes a building block for the careful development of technique. Equally important is the strong motivation this standardized repertoire provides; students want to play what they hear other students play. Constant repetition of the old pieces in a student’s repertoire is the secret of the performing ability of Suzuki students.

7. Create in lessons and home practice an enjoyable learning environment, so that much of the child’s motivation comes from enthusiasm for learning and desire to please. When working with children we should remember Dr. Suzuki’s exhortation that we must come “down to their physical limitations and up to their sense of wonder and awe.”

8. Group lessons, in addition to private lessons, and observation of other student’s lessons are valuable aids to motivation. Children learn from advanced students and from their peers possibly more than they do from their adult teacher directly — children love to do what they see other children do.

9. Foster an attitude of cooperation — not competition — among students, of supportiveness for each other’s accomplishments

The keystone of the Suzuki method

By Shinichi Suzuki

First of all I would like to ask you all to use the practice method which I describe below. This is the primary important point for developing children’s abilities through the Suzuki Method. If your children or students practice at home using this method every day, they will never fail to become wonderfully talented people.

This is the way abilities are developed

When a student becomes able to play a certain piece of music very well after studying with his or her teacher in the class, and practicing at home for some time as well as listening to the recorded tape of the piece again and again, you should let the student play with the tape and practice over and over again with it. After that, then you may allow the student to proceed to the next piece. Then he or she, of course, continues practicing the same piece, which he has already learned together with the recorded tape at home as well. Working for perfection of the previous piece is the most important point for cultivating abilities. New home work for the piece should be secondary.

When the student becomes able to play three pieces in this manner, he or she has to practice these three with the tape or in solo again and again in order to acquire the ability of producing a more beautiful tone. What I said previously should be habitual practice for children. Repeated practice of the previous pieces, which he or she has completely mastered, creates a new ability for the process of learning. If you use this sort of practice method at home from the beginning, your students or children will surely develop the ability to play well and will begin to progress at a marvelous speed later on. Children always enjoy practicing the pieces, which they can perform with ease. Gradually you should make the period of the review practice longer and longer. You might as well divide the daily practice into two parts. One part is for the review practice and the other for the new material practice. Finally every child will surely grow as a fine person with high abilities.

The Suzuki Method is the way of teaching the mother tongue where every child can be highly developed without failure. Let us consider how a baby acquires his own mother tongue. At first he speaks just a few words repeatedly every day, and then he gains more words little by little, day by day through the repetition. This shows that a baby is gradually acquiring higher abilities by repeating what he has learned and mastered. The average child never fails to master his mother tongue. Every one in the world has a good command of his own language. Suppose a child was too interested in learning only new words, neglecting to use the words he had learned before, what would be the results? He would not only fail to acquire his own mother tongue, but also would develop certain learning disabilities. If a student continues at home to practice only the piece, which he is learning in the class with his teacher, and neglect the review practice, then he is not using the Suzuki Method. In reality, that person in going in the opposite direction.

Understanding the Suzuki method

By Lorraine Fink

The Suzuki movement in the United Stated is coming of age. In March, 1964, string teachers in the Western World heard a concert at a national music conference which demonstrated the results of the teaching philosophy of Shinichi Suzuki. The years that followed were filled attempts to emulate those results, but unfortunately the efforts were premature on the part of most teachers due to insufficient understanding of the factors that make the method work.

Today, the early doubts that a system which developed in Japan could work in America are being dispelled. With continually improving education for education for teachers and parents, thousands of families find their children achieving musically high standards and enjoying the process as well.

Regrettably, there are still many teachers whose knowledge of the method consists of little more than the printed material in the first Suzuki book. Yet, unlike other teaching approaches, it is the philosophy of the Suzuki method which is to be emphasized, and it is through an understanding of the philosophy that the techniques of teaching are developed.

As one studies and gains in understanding of the Suzuki method, its depth and significance continue to be revealed. At first, however, one becomes acquainted with some of the basic ideas of the approach, each worthy of further study.

1. Rote learning

It seems that it is now common knowledge that the Suzuki approach is based on the “mother tongue” method of imitation and rote learning which parallels that of acquiring language skills at an early age. More and more, this concept is meeting with approval on the part of teaches as they deal with it logically. As an example , the prodigies of the past as well as many of today’s artists learned their musical skills in a Suzuki-like learned manner because they had intense exposure to family, friends, or teachers who were performing models. The idea that great talent is inherited must have originated through observation of those families where music was a consuming passion and the progeny reflected this while very young.

2. Environment

We now know that all children have talent which can be developed. It is hoped that teachers and parents will make use of today’s technology and psychology to establish an environment which will contain the positive elements that helped develop musicians of more then a generation ago. For example, the cassette player can bring music into every home at a reasonable cost. Television can show how violinists look and move, and before long video cassettes and video disks will be a common supplement to the weekly lesson. Active involvement of the parent daily at home as well as at the lessons is essential, particularly when the child is young.

3. Listening

Listening daily to recordings of the music studied is important. It helps accomplish several things: 1. It acquaints the student with the elements of the total composition; 2. It serves as a model for tone, tempo, style, and phrasing; 3. It enters the melody into the subconscious for ease of learning to play it, and 4. It motivates the child in that he will want to play familiar pieces.

Teachers should demonstrate abundantly for their students, because the style of Bach cannot be gleaned from the printed page. Those who resist playing a piece for a student for fear it will make it “too easy to learn” have much more to understand about how children learn as well as how to structure a lesson.

4. Use of the Music

At first glance the Suzuki books seem woefully lacking in the material traditionally used to develop an instrumentalist. With the exceptions of a few concise technical examples, the books are indeed albums of pieces. The conventional teacher, accustomed to having a step by step procedure to follow, has reason to ask “where are the etudes, the introduction to new skills, the scales, arpeggios, and drills?”

The answer is that those elements are present within the material used, but more expressly they are a part of the teacher’s creative approach to each child’s needs and, based on predetermined goals, his analysis of what is appropriate, and when and how to present it.

5. Motivation and Repetition

The Suzuki method is no different than other approaches in its critical need to motivate the student to repeat the material constructively many times. However, the motivation is easier in the Suzuki method because assignments are custom made and woven in with the other tenets of the total philosophy. Suzuki believes that repetition results in technical security, an expanding repertoire and-above all-the child’s feeling of satisfaction through achievement.

6. Mastery

Of great importance is how the student is paced through the material. Emphasis is placed on the degree of mastery the student can be encouraged to develop with a specific piece. Less importance is placed on moving rapidly through page after page of material. Students not only continue to polish a piece to a higher standard while they move into new challenges, but they are asked to maintain every piece learned and improve on them as their level of ability increases.

7. Small Steps

When a traditional teacher becomes involved in the Suzuki method he learns that what he once considered a single step is really several smaller steps, each one important to understand and execute before the next is undertaken. The beginning stage seems much longer, but it leads to more rapid advancement later since less remedial work is required.

8. Reading

Fortunately the myth that Suzuki students typically are inadequate music readers is disappearing. Of course, much depends on the individual teacher and his ability to integrate the study of notation with the other elements of the method. However, it seems that much of this “non-reading” reputation is the result of comparing a Suzuki student’s reading ability to his performance level-certainly not a very objective method for evaluation.

Our present generation of Suzuki students tends to read at a level comparable to traditional students in its age group. They learn to read notation, once introduced, in a comparatively short time, and the skills they already possess are likely to result in their reading with better rhythmic accuracy, intonation, tone quality, and retention than their traditionally-schooled counterparts.

Tips for Suzuki parents

At the lesson

1. Bring a notebook to the lesson so that you can write down not only what is taught, but how it is taught.

2. If your child sees that you are absorbed in needlework or in reading to yourself during his lesson, he may feel that what he is doing is not important enough for you to put aside what you are doing. His attitude and musical progress will suffer. If you are not willing to play an active and attentive role during the lesson, then perhaps the Suzuki method program is not for you.

3. Please refrain from making musical corrections or comments about your child’s playing. This is the teacher’s job during the lesson and your job at home.

4. Be especially careful to avoid making expressions of disappointment or delight while your child is playing. Any kind of emotionally-charged exclamations — whether positive or negative — will break his concentration, and cause him to remove his attention from the business of making music and displace it to the person making the exclamation. Distractions include not only verbal comments but also groans, facial expressions, tsking, etc.

5. Regarding discipline and behavior during the lesson: If the child’s short attention span and restlessness is the cause of behavior problems, please leave the disciplinary task to the teacher during the lesson. Above all, refrain from constant nagging to “sit still,” “stop giggling,” etc. If, however, the child is testing to see how much he can get away with, a single word from you often will help.

6. If a reprimand is necessary, try to frame it in the positive, rather than in the negative. You will find that scolding and direct commands often set up resistance and do not make the child stop misbehaving. Distraction is much more effective, and avoids a battle of wills.

At home

1. Please complete the assigned reading. Much of the psychology and philosophy behind the Suzuki approach, which cannot be covered in the lesson, can be learned from the available books and pamphlets. It helps to regard the Suzuki program as a course that you are taking, instead of merely music lessons for your child at which you are required to be present.

2. It is your responsibility to see that your child listens to the recording, every day. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized; in the absence of written music, the recording is all the child has to go on. (Cassette tapes are available. They are easier for the child to operate and may be played in the car.)

3. Do not try to play an instrument along with the recording: This will cause frustration if the child cannot keep up with the performers on the recording. Also, your instrument may not be in tune with the recording; your player may not be operating at exactly the correct rate, thus causing slight, but noticeable distortions in pitch, when compared to the pitch of your instrument.

4. Make sure your child’s posture is correct. For example, at a piano, he or she must be seated at the center of the keyboard, in an erect but relaxed manner. There should be a footstool, at such a height so that feet rest flat on it and the player’s knees do not bump the piano. The bench or chair must be high enough so that when the player’s arms are hanging down in a relaxed position, bent at the elbow at right angles, the hands will be level with the keyboard. Because there are no miniature pianos, as there are miniature Suzuki violins, you must compensate.

5*. Limit the child’s practice time to his attention span. As soon as his attention wavers, switch to another piece or a game, or stop entirely. Nothing is learned but resistance and negative feelings toward the instrument if practice time is pushed beyond the attention span. (You will find that the attention span will grow naturally with the child’s age and increasing ability.)

6. Concentrate on one aspect of the piece at a time. Choose to work on either the fingering/notes, or the breaths/phrasing, or the loud/soft, or the hand position/weight. While you are working on one of these aspects, overlook errors made in other aspects. (For instance, if you are working on loud/soft, overlook a less than perfect hand position.)

7*. When you demonstrate, take care to perform all the aspects correctly, even though you may be pointing out just one of them. Try to be as exact as possible in your role as a model. Remember, children between the ages of 3 and 5 copy what their parents do, more so at these ages then at any other time. They will copy your errors right along with your good points.

8. Do not make verbal comments — either positive or negative — while your child is playing. Save these for after he is done. (See tip no. 4, at the lesson.)

9. In fact, refrain from verbal explanation and criticism as much as possible. Instead use nonverbal communication, such as: demonstrating the correct way; silently moving the correct key; manually “conducting” for loud/soft and of breaths/phrasing. (Observe the teacher for further nonverbal ways to communicate.)

10*. When you do use verbal criticism, always give the positive criticism first, the negative criticism last. Even if the child seems to have done everything wrong, find something you can praise him for the first. (“You sat up straight!” “You played it all the way through!”)

11*. Phrase the negative criticism in the positive, and use an emotionally neutral tone of voice. You are giving the child information, not scolding him for naughty behavior. Say, “We need a breath at this point,” rather than exclaiming with annoyance, “You didn’t take a breath here!”

12. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 delight in repetition and will not find it boring, unless you communicate this attitude to them. (Then they will copy your attitude.) If you are tired of listening to the same pieces over and over, please do not communicate this attitude to the child, either by direct statement, (“Oh, not ‘Twinkle’ again,” or by sighs or groans.)

13*. Dr. Suzuki has said that the word patience should never be applied to the learning experience by either the teacher or the parent. Patience has the connotation of controlled frustration… Very few parents show impatience when an infant is learning to walk or to talk. They realize that the child has an inner time table, and he will progress at his own rate. Yet when the child begins his intellectual learning or the learning of a skill, the attitude changes. Many parents become over-anxious, impatient…

14*. Although all normal children can learn music, they do learn at different rates. One child may need 500 repetitions to learn something well; another child may do it well after only 50 repetitions. The point is, both can learn it. Problems arise when you give up too soon, with the excuse that he “has no talent.” “I can’t” then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Dr. Suzuki teaches that talent is largely the result of environment and training. Although our genes do determine our limits, we tend to use them as an excuse. The person who has fulfilled his genetic potential to its utmost would truly be an exception.

15*. Ask the child to do or to answer only tasks and questions which you know he can do or answer correctly. Never ask him to do something which he is physically, intellectually or morally incapable of doing at his particular stage of development, or else it will make him feel stupid, naughty or like a failure.

16*. Physically, the nervous system is not fully developed until age 14. What the child sees and hears is actually different to what you see and hear. Intellectually, what may seem obvious to you may be a concept which the child has not yet developed, and cannot develop until a certain age. Morally, children are not born good or bad. They learn the sense of right and wrong from their parents, mostly by imitating. Beware of creating inconsistency between your own action and those which you demand of the child (as in, “Don’t do as I do; do as I say.”) Modeling is the basis of the Suzuki approach.

17. Don’t evaluate your child’s progress on the basis of what book he is in, or what piece he is on. Rather, evaluate him according to how his technique and musical understanding has improved. (Instead of saying, “Mary, what piece are you up to now?” say “Mary, how’s the legato coming along?”

18. Review earlier pieces. When recital time rolls around, it best to have the child play an “old” piece from his repertoire… and play it well, instead of having him play the newest piece he has been working on… and be uncertain of it.

19. Now, reread the “tips” that have an asterisk. Only this time, keep in mind how they have a wider application than just to music lessons! Remember, Dr. Suzuki aim is not to mass produce child prodigies or professional musicians. In his own words, “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”

How to help your child at home

By Lorraine Fink

Practice regularly, every day, seven days a week, no matter how many other demands present themselves.

Play the artist’s recording of the music being learned. Do this casually, several times a day, without concern for whether the children are listening attentively.

The age of your child is a major factor in your approach to practice. If your child is a pre-schooler, keep the elements of a game in high priority since learning takes place best when an activity is fun.

Let your child have some say about the schedule for daily practice. Make a chart showing the times that you have both agreed to and post it as a reminder.

Be enthusiastic yourself about practice time!

Find an interesting practice routine that will cover the tasks to be done. List the assignments for the week and decide in what order they will be practiced. This can be done by using a prepared chart, by drawing lottery cards, or by some other system.

Precious moments between parent and child for making and working together should not have to be shared with a younger sibling. Make special arrangements if necessary.

Know (ask your teacher) what is reasonable to expect. Children learn at different rates, but excessive demands (or leniency) as a regular diet will create tensions and disinterest.

Actively involve your child in determining specifically what is to be learned and how to go about it. Do not tell him what the teacher said, ask him.

Learn how to work in very small steps, one note, two notes, a measure. Connect one small step to another and rejoice in the progress.

Motivate your student by making a chart which shows his progress. Be creative!

Tape your practice sessions. The child hears himself. You hear yourself. You both are sure to get some objective feedback.

Learning the notes, fingering and other technicalities is the beginning of study for a musical piece. Only through mastery will it contribute to the building of permanent skills.

Never begin work on a piece unless your teacher has suggested it or approved.

Be generous with encouraging remarks, even though a good effort may not have produced successful results. Treat “praise” with caution, avoid verbalizing irritation, and reward your child with your love and appreciation.

As you advance in the repertoire, spend more and more time reviewing and improving the pieces learned.

Once or twice a week, give a home concert for the parent who does not usually supervise the practice sessions. Include bowing and applause.

Sense when a practice session is over. It is more important to return to the instrument with joy and enthusiasm tomorrow than to force a few extra minutes today.

How to help your child at lessons

By Juliana McAshan

Attend lessons regularly and teach your child to watch lessons in progress if he must wait his turn. The best way to do this is to watch the lesson yourself. This indicates to your child that something important is going on, and also gives him a role for good behavior.

When you practice at home, use the same routines and sequence of events that you observe at the lesson. Use the same language and practice the same exercises that the teacher uses. The teacher is watching for signs that these exercises have become easy and natural for the child, so that he will be ready for the next steps in his learning.

Often a child will appear to be forgetful at his lesson, or do poorly in exercises which he did well at home. Do not become alarmed at this or interfere by giving him hints and reminders while he is trying to pay attention to his teacher. The reason he is having difficulty is that he is working with a relatively unfamiliar person. By “helping” too much you will only postpone the day when the relationship between the teacher and the child is an easy and natural one. The child’s attention should be centered on his lesson; his work is with the teacher. You can best help him to focus his attention by not intruding on his work.

If you have your child’s best interests at heart, let him make mistakes, because the lesson is a learning process. He is learning through his errors; he is also learning that it is all right to take a chance and that a mistake is not the end of the world.

If a child makes many mistakes in his lesson, do no scold him but resolve to practice more and better with him before the next lesson. Good practice is always the cure for bad lessons.

Sometimes, the teacher will invite the parent to participate. At such times, a complete response is expected, so pay close attention to the lesson.

Take a notebook to the lesson and write down the important points as the teacher presents them. Study the notes before practice times. If you do this, the child will make steady progress, and will soon be ready for the next step in his learning.

About younger brothers and sisters at the lesson… they are always welcome to come to listen and to learn, but this must never be at the expense of the child receiving instruction.

When watching the lessons of other children, show interest in these students, but avoid making comparisons between your child and others. Such comparisons can be unfair to all concerned, especially since you know a great deal about your own child and very little about the backgrounds of the others.

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