The ABC’s of Suzuki Education

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All children can learn. The Suzuki method is based on the idea that just as children learn to speak their native language fluently, they are equally able to learn the language of music through the daily immersion of listening and practicing with others. 

Building a repertoire. The Suzuki books are carefully designed to teach one new thing in each new piece, so that the student can build skills gradually with confidence. The ten-book series has undergone multiple revisions by an international committee to ensure teaching a high standard of musicianship and technical skills.

Creating family bonds and friendships.  One of the most joyful experiences of the Suzuki program is the long-term bonds forged between parents and children and also between Suzuki families. This comes from attending weekly group lessons and semester recitals, all while watching the children grow in maturity and ability over the years. Students in the program form life-long friendships and often stay in touch with each other long after high school.

Daily listening and review. Daily listening to the audio recordings is an important part of the immersion process, which is reinforced in lessons and group class. Playing the pieces together in group class also builds enormous confidence in technique, memory, and solo performances. 

Early beginnings.  Just as in learning a language, it’s never too early to start dancing or clapping along to the audio recordings. The most wonderful Suzuki phenomenon happens when younger siblings absorb every bit of music that their older bothers and sisters are playing and can’t wait to join in. When it is their turn to start lessons, they have already internalized a great deal of the essential elements of music. 

Frequent performances.  Learning to perform together in group class helps to prepare students for positive first solo performances, taking away the stress and worry of preparing for ‘the big day’ of recitals. Performing frequently also helps students focus on playing their best, rather than expecting perfection once a year. 

Group work.  ‘Peer-based learning’ is a phrase that means students oftentimes learn just as much from each other as they do in one-on-one lessons with the teacher. Whether it is the reassurance that a tricky passage is indeed tricky for everyone, or showing off new skills to a friend, or the joy of being able to play songs well together by memory, student-to-student learning is a joy to watch and where life-long friendships begin.

Happiness is a journey, not a destination. Dr. Suzuki envisioned that the process of learning and acquiring new skills through deliberate and patient practice is the essence of joy. The friendships that emerge from learning together in a supportive environment are the priceless gifts of traveling the musical journey together.

Ideas shared between teachers.  Part of the success of the Suzuki program is due to the regular teacher meetings at institutes, workshops, national conferences, and ongoing professional development opportunities. Suzuki teachers meet often to share ideas, trouble-shoot learning hurdles for students, and constantly brainstorm together new ways to help students.

Just practice on the days you eat. Yes, that is everyday! But the goal is to always end on a positive note, even if that means 5 minutes of playing for the day. Practicing is essential for improvement and study after study shows that focused practice means more in the long run than ‘talent’ or ‘natural ability.’ In every case, hard work pays off. For more on the topic, read Anders Ericsson’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Kindness and cooperation. Never has it been more important to model kindness in our communities and to our children, and show the importance of cooperation in everything we do. When students are in group class, they will learn to listen to each other, cooperate with each other, and work as a group to accomplish a specific goal – often in literal harmony.

Loving, respectful philosophy. Dr. Suzuki’s viewpoint was that children should learn character first through the practice of music, then learn to master music as a consequence. Musical mastery is only secondary to learning to be a loving, respectful human being to self and others.

Memory skills. All pieces are memorized and performed by memory together in group class and in recitals. When music (or any information) is memorized, it travels to the long-term memory portion of our brain and remains there. We experience the music more fully and in a new way when we are able to play it from memory. 

Natural progress. Learning is a natural process that develops over time through repetition and practice. Recent studies show that all skills can be mastered best through a growth mindset, where students understand that their brain works just like a muscle and can get stronger through practice. For more on this, please watch Carol Dweck’s talk on the “Growth Mindset.”

One step mastery.  The violin is a challenging instrument, which requires processing multiple kinesthetic and aural channels at the same time. We listen and feel as we play the violin, and it can be overwhelming to try to overcome more than one new aspect at a time. That is why Suzuki teachers practice the ‘one point’ rule, where only one technique or musical aspect is given at a time to work on for the week. 

Positive approach.  While blanket praise for being ‘talented’ has been proven to cause more harm than good, focused and specific praise helps students learn what they are doing right so they can recognize and repeat a successful skill. It is the goal of Suzuki lessons and practice to focus on the positive and make learning as fun as possible. 

Quiet mind. Having a quiet focus and patient concentration is a skill worth developing for a lifetime and is very helpful in learning the violin as well. Just the act of listening to the Suzuki audio recordings can be a wonderful respite from the frenetic activity of our daily lives. To learn more about the value of learning patience skills in young children, listen to this fascinating study titled “Mischel’s Marshmallows” hosted by NPR’s Radiolab.

Reading when ready. As the Suzuki method shows, reading music is not a pre-requisite for playing music. Just as young children learn to speak first and read second, the same can be true of musical skills. Children learn so much by just observing and mimicking! For most students, reading will be introduced by the end of book one and will be reading in the fullest sense by book three as the music becomes more challenging and complex.

Self-confidence. Through group lessons, private lessons, and recitals, students can become leaders as they acquire the special gift of musicianship. When they are able to play a piece for show-and-tell at school, play for a worship service, or even for a grandparent, students are learning to be confident in their hard work and proud of their newly acquired musical skills.

Tonalization daily. Tonalization refers to a specific melody written by Dr. Suzuki to highlight the naturally resonant tones on the violin. Some of the first tones are introduced in book one, and the full melody is introduced in book two. As students practice it daily, they are able to learn about intonation and pure tone production from listening carefully to their violin as they play the tonalization melody. 

Unemotional feedback. Feedback is an important tool of every teacher to help students understand what to change to improve their playing. Some of the best tools are video and audio recordings, chromatic tuners, mirrors and metronomes that help provide unbiased feedback to students. In my studio, we often make “practice videos” on parents’ phones to illustrate a teaching point that the student can practice with during the week. Similarly, when students can see in a picture or video what they are actually doing, versus what they feel like they are doing, it can shed light on a teaching point instantly and without judgement. 

Values – love, truth, virtue, beauty. These are values Dr. Suzuki held in high esteem and wanted to pass on to every student. They are self-evident in their value but often over-looked in the constant striving for scholastic achievement. Stopping for a moment to listen to something beautiful, to appreciate the skill in creating something beautiful, is worthy of our time and energy.

Whole brain learning.  Playing music is the embodiment of whole brain learning; music incorporates the areas of language and motors skills similar to learning both a foreign language and a sport at the same time. Also, in learning about the composers and musical directions, students are exposed to the Italian language and Western art history.

‘Xcellent’ teaching and parenting.  The ‘Suzuki Triangle’ is the wonderful cooperation between parent, teacher, and child to form the best learning outcomes for students. Every family dynamic is unique, and the shape of the triangle may vary greatly from family to family, but the teamwork between the parent and teacher can be a wonderful source of encouragement and growth for the student. For more ideas on this, consider enrolling in the Suzuki Association’s courses, Parents as Partners and Every Child Can.

Yields high musical and academic results. Simply by attending a Suzuki workshop, institute, or play-in, one can see students performing at all ages at the highest level of achievement. There are no auditions required, only hard work and consistent participation!  

Zenith of human development.  The Suzuki method is based on the value of each individual’s human potential and the belief that everyone can learn music, not just the naturally talented and gifted. Working together to achieve great things is the highest form of learning and the primary goal of the Suzuki program. 




What's My Motivation: how to find your fire

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but I have fallen in love with practicing as an adult. When I was younger, it was not so! As a child, I remember my mom hiding chocolate behind the pages of my music to entice me to practice on my own, to no avail. I rarely practiced my assigned pieces outside of lessons or orchestra rehearsal, and it wasn't until I decided to major in music when my teacher opened my eyes to the art of practicing. As an adult, now I realize how powerful mindful practice can be and how difficult it can be to carve out that alone time.

The spark that really lit my fire ten years ago came from reading Daniel Levitin's book, This Is Your Brain on Music. His chapter on expertise explains the often cited 10,000 hours rule and asserts that no musician has achieved mastery without massive practice at their art. Somehow, putting a quantifiable number on the idea of mastery was so freeing to me - instead of questioning my innate musical ability, I refocused my efforts on the quality and quantity of my practice. From that day on, I began to chart my practice hours and set a goal of roughly 1000 hours per year. Some years I have fallen very short, due to my teaching load or moves for my husband's work, but some years I have come closer. In 2017, I was able to log 960 hours, and I hope to practice even more this year!

Kindling for my fire seems to be there every time I have really needed it. This past year, my favorite motivation has come from audio books and podcasts that I can listen to while I am running or driving around town. Nathan Cole's new podcast with his wife Akiko called, Stand Partners For Lifechronicles their musical growth from childhood to raising their own children all while leading the LA Philharmonic's first violin section. Another bounty of positive motivation can be found on the Per Service podcast, where four friends support each other through the trials and tribulations of musical auditions and contracting life.

To kindle your own fire, check out these motivational books that can turn up the heat in your practice life:

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Practice of Practice: How to Boost Your Musical Skills by Jonathan Harnum

Practice: 250 Step by Step Practice Methods for the Violin by Simon Fischer

The Musician's Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness by Gerald Klickstein

I'm still on the hunt for kindling for our practice fires! Please let me know if you find a gem not listed here.

And for now, Happy Practicing!!



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