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 holiday celebration)
The music, a CD package of folk and classical offerings, featured “Twinkle, Twinkle” as a primer favorite. It gave impetus to volumes of published Suzuki albums that were hot-sellers almost 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 identification–A predictor of permanent “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.
Comments from Suzuki-schooled students
Suzuki Association of the Americas