SUZUKI VIOLIN VERSUS TRADITIONAL VIOLIN – A Suzuki Violin Teacher’s View
by Richard Coff
Article first published at MusicStaff.com in 1998
Esteemed Guest Writer is: Richard Coff Suzuki Music Academy founder/director, Richard Coff, was a conservatory trained violinist when he became one of the first teachers in America to work with Shinichi Suzuki, the creator of the Suzuki violin method. Mr. Coff began his teaching career at Boston's New England Conservatory Preparatory Department and was one of the first in America to use the Suzuki Method to provide training for young children.
SUZUKI VIOLIN VERSUS TRADITIONAL VIOLIN
A Suzuki Violin Teacher’s View
by Richard Coff
The Suzuki violin method has come to dominate the way violin is taught in America and throughout much of the world. Mention the Suzuki violin method to music educators, and you will get a variety of responses: “Suzuki violin study produces child geniuses … Suzuki violin method produces mindless imitators … Suzuki violin method is the most natural approach to learning the violin … Suzuki violin study is introduced to children when they are too young to begin study … With the Suzuki violin method, any child can learn to play violin beautifully … Suzuki violin students never learn to read.” The list goes on. There certainly is no shortage of opinions!
How to make sense of the claims and counter-claims in the Suzuki violin versus traditional violin debate? It’s easy to see how music educators and parents could be confused by the many mixed messages. Examination and comparison can help to clarify the issues raised.
VARIABLES THAT EFFECT THE DISCUSSION
A difficulty with comparing Suzuki violin and traditional violin study arises from the fact that in practice, if not in theory, there are different versions of Suzuki violin study. There is even less standardization in generic traditional violin study. Add to this that it is common for teachers to mix elements of Suzuki violin method with the traditional approach, and matters are further complicated.
It is not the intention here to present a detailed in-depth analysis of the variability found within “Suzuki violin” and “traditional violin” schools. Perhaps this would be a good subject for another article. Instead, descriptions and comparisons of some key features of these approaches are outlined to clarify points raised in the “Suzuki violin versus traditional violin” debate. It is hoped that this will help educators and parents to better evaluate the various approaches, practitioners, and claims concerning the different approaches to violin study.
WHEN TO BEGIN FORMAL STUDY
Suzuki Violin method practitioners advocate starting formal violin training by age two or three. The so-called, “Talent Education Movement,” created and developed by Suzuki and his colleagues, was based on the notion that the earliest years of a child’s life is the best time to begin training children to play violin. While the Suzuki violin method is uniquely suited for training the youngest children, it has proven to be effective in training students of any age.
Traditional violin teachers are rarely willing or qualified to teach the very youngest students. Beginning in the six to ten year old age range is favored by most, if not all, traditional violin teachers.
THE ROLE OF PASSIVE LISTENING AND ABOUT READING MUSIC
Suzuki violin study emphasizes passive modes of learning – watching and listening. Before engaging in formal study, Suzuki violin students are exposed to recordings of the first and subsequent pieces they will play, as well as recordings of great performances from the general classical repertory. This continues when students begin formal study and as they progress. Recordings are played as “background music”, for hours each day and at low volume levels. Here, the thinking is that exposure to recordings is similar to the effect of immersion that naturally occurs in the process of primary language acquisition. Successful study is enhanced by prolonged repeated exposure. Suzuki violin students develop an internal model of the music to be studied. They memorize the music and internalize the nuances of pitch, tone, timing, articulation, and dynamics demonstrated in recorded performances.
Suzuki Violin method also uses language acquisition as a model for teaching students to read music. Just as one would never teach young children to read before they have learned to speak, Suzuki violin teachers defer reading until there is a technical mastery of basic skills for playing and musical memory has been developed sufficiently. As a result, students learn to express music with ease and fluency. Suzuki teaches that students can more readily develop technical mastery if the student’s attention is not divided by learning to simultaneously read and play.
Traditional violin study favors a type of training that virtually ignores passive learning approaches. While students may be encouraged to listen to recordings of the more advanced repertory played by concert artists or symphony orchestras, beginning students are generally not given the opportunity to listen to recordings of the beginning pieces that they are or will be studying.
Traditional violin teachers often justify the avoidance of making use of recordings of the pieces the beginner plays, suggesting that students will become dependent on learning by rote at the expense of developing the ability to read music, and that learning by rote leads to mechanical imitation. Instead, traditional teachers have students read pieces note by note, when learning and playing pieces.
MASTERCLASS/GROUP LESSONS VS. ONE-ON-ONE LESSONS
Suzuki violin incorporates the passive mode in class. Before Suzuki violin students ever receive the violin, they observe others who are doing what they will eventually do. Even after receiving and working with the violin, they continue to observe others in the masterclass setting and group lessons.
Suzuki violin classroom structure enables students to work alongside with peers who share a common repertory, musical skills, and aspirations. Social interaction and the opportunity to play as a group are important features that make lessons a productive and satisfying. Cooperation is fostered. Great care is taken to avoid competition and its negative effects.
Traditional violin teachers use a classroom structure based on the one-on-one lesson model, using a “hands-on” approach that offers little or no opportunity for observing the lessons of others. Typically, children are given a violin without much, if any, preparatory observation. In this environment, the teacher conveys points by playing musical samples or use verbal explanations.
Traditional violin lessons are modeled on an environment of isolation. When students do interact, competition between individual students is often used as a means to motivate them. Cooperative learning techniques are neglected or ignored. With the one-on-one model, students don’t get much opportunity to study and play music with peers.
THE PARENT’S ROLE
Suzuki violin study is “parent intensive”. The parent and the teacher become true partners. Parents attend all lessons and attentively note the teacher’s instructions. Parents’ attendance at class enables them to work closely and skillfully with their children at home. They assume the role of “home- teachers”. Parent involvement gives the Suzuki violin student a substantial advantage.
Suzuki violin study requires so much parent involvement that many might feel that the time and dedication needed is excessive. While Suzuki violin study demands a great deal from parents, the payoff is big. Students achieve greater success with the skillful assistance and participation of parents, and the shared activity is an opportunity rather than a burden.
Traditional violin study typically has the parent play a marginal role in their children’s training, reminding (or admonishing) them to practice. They may attend or deliver the student to the occasional recital.
Traditional violin lessons are usually conducted without the parent’s presence in class. Parents are rarely trained or encouraged to work closely with students at home. Although many parents may feel that this is convenient, by excluding the parent, a student lacks the advantage that a parent’s help can bring, and both miss the shared experience that is made possible through Suzuki violin study.
Suzuki violin pedagogy imparts technical skills needed to play the violin in a way that has similarities with the approach used in traditional Asian martial arts. There is meticulous attention to form, detail, and movement. Suzuki formulated a highly original violin technique that is radical and remarkably efficient. He has disseminated these ideas to teachers and students in the form of “teaching points” – specific descriptions, each dealing with a single aspect of technique and recommended exercises for its mastery. In the process of renovating violin study, Suzuki dramatically improved the way the violin is technically mastered.
Traditional violin pedagogy is far from standardized in its approach to violin technique. Some traditional teachers focus on “musical” aspects of playing and are vague or not concerned with form, position, and movement. Others teach laborious, elaborate, and inefficient ways of playing, using standard scales and the traditional etudes. On the whole, technical training in traditional violin pedagogy has been a clumsy affair. Many students with the potential to become fine violinists have been discouraged by the “trial by ordeal” nature of technical study taught in the traditional way.
At the beginning of this article, the section, “VARIABLES THAT EFFECT THE DISCUSSION” referred to the differences found within each of the violin teaching schools. To round out the discussion, some points should be noted. While the Suzuki violin method may be the superior approach, within both the Suzuki method and the traditional schools of violin teaching, there are some good teachers, few excellent teachers, and too many teachers who are less than adequate. Additionally, certifications don’t mean as much as one would hope. When evaluating a teacher or program, all of this should be taken into consideration.
Copyright 1998 – R. Coff/Suzuki Music Academy All Rights Reserved
Used with Permission, MusicStaff.com, © 1998