Why Do Some Violin Teachers Stop Using the Suzuki Books Before the Student Completes All Ten Volumes?

Updated on December 1, 2017
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Courtney is a violin, viola, and cello teacher and professional violinist from Kansas City, MO. She has been playing the violin since 1992.

The Suzuki Method is, if not the most popular violin method, at least one of the most recognizable names in violin pedagogy. Many beginner violin students buy first Suzuki book before they even talk to a violin teacher about what they will need for lessons. Some music stores and violin shops include it with instrument rental. As a result, those who are new to the violin as well as the general public have come to see the Suzuki books as if it is a standard for measuring progress in violin lessons. Each new volume is viewed like completing a year of school. If a student completes more than one book in the same year, they and their parents tend to assume they are progressing at a faster than average rate. If they take more than a year to complete a book, this often leads to them assuming they are not making progress and therefore must not be "talented." Both of these extremes are based on misconceptions about the Suzuki method which will be addressed here and in future articles. However, this article is, as the title suggests, about a common practice among violin teachers that seems counter-intuitive to this notion of using the Suzuki books as milestones: discontinued use of the Suzuki books, often around Volume 4 or 5, even though the student is still taking lessons and continues to do so for years.

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About The Books

Suzuki Violin School consists of ten volumes. The first consists of a few folk tunes commonly used by beginners regardless of the method, a few of Suzuki's own compositions, three minuets by Bach, Schumann's "Happy Farmer," and Gossec's Gavotte arranged for beginner violinists. There are also some scales and fingering exercises scattered about. The revised edition begins with 24 pages of pictures and instructions in several different languages about holding the violin and the Suzuki method in general. Volumes 2 & 3 are filled mostly with simplified arrangements of classical pieces and a few arrangements of pieces already introduced in the first volume. Beyond that, the series is mostly single movements of violin solos, often edited to be used as exercises for developing specific skills. Volumes 9 & 10 are each one entire concerto, specifically Mozart's Concerto in D Major, K. 218 and Concerto in A Major, K. 219 with the cadenzas written by Joseph Joachim. None of the volumes have any information about how to play the violin or about music theory. This is primarily intended to give the teacher the freedom to introduce theory and technique when they believe the student is ready. There are huge skill gaps between some of the pieces in the Suzuki books. Many teachers fill these gaps with supplemental exercises and pieces.

About The Method

Shinichi Suzuki had a dream that children would learn to play musical instruments at a very young age, before they could read, in a manner consistent with how children learn to speak and in an environment in which the parent was so invested in the child's education that they took an active role in the learning process. He initially called this the "Mother Tongue Approach." It has since been expanded into what we now call the Suzuki Method, which is not just for learning to play the violin. The method is also available for viola, cello, bass, classical guitar, harp, piano, flute, recorder, and voice. Trumpet is currently in the trial stages of being added to the method, as well.

Suzuki's own education with the violin was very atypical. He learned what he could by experimentation - listening to recordings and trying to reproduce what he heard - starting around the age of seventeen or eighteen (sources are conflicted about his exact age). The Suzuki Association of the Americas website claims he "taught himself" to play the violin by listening to recordings, but he could not possibly have had any knowledge of proper technique without books and a teacher to demonstrate, especially since even today with our more advanced technology, recordings do not accurately capture everything that a violinist listens for when they play. Suzuki did seek lessons from a teacher in Tokyo, and later he studied with Karl Klinger. There has been some controversy over Suzuki's (auto)biography as it relates to his time in Germany, including a claim that he never actually studied with Klinger. For the purposes of this article, we will assume that both Suzuki's book "Nurtured by Love" and the biographical information provided by the various Suzuki Associations around the world are accurate and perhaps address the controversy in another article. The controversy doesn't change the point to be made: that nothing about the Suzuki Method is actually unique to the Suzuki Method.

The Suzuki Books Are Not The Suzuki Method

Karl Klinger was a famous violin pedagogue whose influence extends far beyond Shinichi Suzuki and by extension the Suzuki method. Many violin teachers today claim that their teacher or their teacher's teacher was one of Klinger's students, which, if true, means they were taught according to methods handed down by the man who reportedly taught the founder of the Suzuki method and as a result would have greatly influenced Suzuki's notions of what violin students should learn. In other words, there are violin students out there who learn similar things as Suzuki students without following the Suzuki method simply because they share a common pedagogical heritage. In fact, all violinists ultimately share the same heritage. All violin performers, teachers, and luthiers, regardless of how they were trained, what music they prefer, and whether they have the documentation to trace the lineage or not, owe what they do to one sixteenth-century family-owned shop in Cremona, Italy.

As already stated, nothing about the Suzuki method is actually unique to Suzuki. There were very young children who learned to play before they could read long before Suzuki. There were parents actively involved in the learning process, as well. Some actually served the role of both parent and teacher, but nearly every violin prodigy has a parent who is always present at every lesson, rehearsal, and performance and who carefully manages their child's career. Many violin methods start students with "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and nearly all methods that remain start with "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Hot Cross Buns" with "Twinkle" not far behind. Other methods also use "Lightly Row," "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," "O Come, Little Children," "Long, Long, Ago," Bach's minuets, "Happy Farmer," "Judas Maccabeus," and "Humoresque." It should also be noted that there is also a lot of common beginner material that is completely missing from Suzuki, and scales are not addressed in a way that prepares students for auditions which may require a two or three octave scale with no advance notice of what scale they will be asked to play.

Teachers who do not follow the Suzuki method often use the Suzuki Violin School books as a convenient source of graded music in arrangements they consider to be more suitable for students. The books provide longer pieces for recitals or just to generally keep students interested while they work through the more tedious and traditional approach of scales and etudes. On the other hand, teachers who do follow the method do not teach students to read music until they have been taking lessons for some time. They use recordings (which is how Suzuki supposedly began) in addition to individual and group instruction and parent-child practice sessions. If a teacher has a student reading from the Suzuki books from the beginning, they are probably not using the Suzuki method, at least not exclusively, and they definitely are not using the Suzuki method if the beginner is not a very young, not-yet-literate child whose parent is actively involved in the learning process.

Suzuki Volume Numbers Do Not Accurately Rate Student Ability

One of the reasons completing all ten volumes of Suzuki Violin School is so important to some students is that they consider each passing book to be a milestone. When I was a teenager, there were other students in my school and youth orchestras who had completed more Suzuki volumes than I had but ranked below me in the orchestra. Some of them saw this as a great injustice because they believed the fact that their teacher had assigned them things my teacher had not assigned me made them objectively better performers.

There are two things that are wrong with this reasoning. First, placement in an orchestra is never objective, but we do not have a more objective alternative. Even when the audition is blind, which sometimes cannot really be true in school and youth orchestras if the director hears students play individually often enough to subconsciously recognize some of them, opinions of who played better will vary. Even if everyone who plays a given instrument plays the same material and is scored on a very clearly outlined syllabus, two different adjudicators would not arrive at identical scores for the same performance and so quite possibly would not reach identical conclusions concerning where the members of the orchestra should sit. Second, no two private teachers are going to have identical standards and methods. In fact, no private teacher will do exactly the same thing with two different students. Ideally, the teacher will be skilled in identifying and addressing a student's individual strengths and weaknesses, and this means a unique approach for everyone. Student A might be further along in the Suzuki books than Student B because Teacher A has lower standards for passing students on pieces or because Teacher B uses the Suzuki books to address specific things while simultaneously assigning other solo pieces requiring a greater skill level than the Suzuki assignment.

What my classmates did not know about my education and experience was that my teachers did not follow the Suzuki books at all. I was assigned the third book first, following two of the All for Strings books and a few other things, simply so I could have a collection of solo pieces to enjoy playing while I continued with my scales and etudes. Then, I did the second book with a different teacher, who felt I had a bit of a gap that needed to be filled in because I had taken a short break from lessons. After that, I was assigned the fourth book by the same teacher who had assigned the second book, after quickly playing through the third book to prove I could. I never went through the first book or volumes 5-10. Instead of the later Suzuki volumes, I played individual concertos and exercises as well as duets with my teacher. When asked how many Suzuki books I had completed, the honest and technical answer was three, but it was simultaneously deceptive by omission, and it was usually all the information I provided because I wasn't interested in the achievement-measuring contests of my peers. In fact, I was so disinterested in how I ranked relative to everyone else that I was known to sabotage myself just to get away from the pressure, but that is a story for another time.

My experience is actually not uncommon. Many teachers choose to assign Suzuki pieces out of order and not use some of the volumes. Part of this is due to the fact that not all teachers who use the books are Suzuki teachers, as already explained, and part of it is because the later books are single movements of public-domain pieces that can be obtained for the cost of downloading and printing, thereby making the purchasing of the books an unnecessary expense.

Public Domain Music

Public domain music is either so old that the copyright has expired, if there was such a thing as copyright at the time and place it was published, or else it is traditional music that was not published until it was already so widely used that no one can identify the composer. Exactly when copyright expires varies from one nation to the next, but most famous composers lived long enough ago that no one has any claim to their work. Public domain was really only advantageous to composers and arrangers before the internet. Those who wanted to arrange an existing work or borrow a theme from folk music were free to do so without paying royalties. Musicians could perform and record these works without paying royalties, but only if they could obtain it without having to purchase a copyrighted arrangement. Now, there are websites musicians can use to legally download public domain music. All Suzuki Violin School Volume 4 pieces can be freely downloaded online. The same is true for most of the pieces in the remaining volumes, and for the ones that are harder to find, substitutions can be made. This is beneficial for students who progress very quickly. Teachers are sometimes left waiting for a parent to purchase the next book, so even if they do intend to use the book, they can print just the first piece to occupy the student in the meantime. However, now that students who own devices such as tablets can put their music on the device and never worry about printing it, many may choose to do that, in which case there really is no justification for paying for a digital copy when a free digital copy exists elsewhere. My own violin teacher stopped using the Suzuki books after Volume 4, but I stop after Volume 3, since that is when nearly everything is widely and freely available. Music lessons are expensive enough as it is, and asking clients to purchase things they do not need or can obtain for less or free elsewhere may eventually be the straw that breaks the financial camel's back, meaning the clients will no longer be able to pay for lessons.

Ultimately, Teachers Should Do What Is Best For Their Students

Teachers need to be free to teach in the manner in which they are comfortable teaching, and they also need to be free to decide that a student needs something that requires them to depart from their usual curriculum. If a violin teacher decides it is best to not use some or all of the Suzuki books or to use them with some students and not with others, that doesn't mean that teacher is either better or worse at what they do than another violin teacher who faithfully takes every student through all ten volumes.

© 2017 Courtney Morgan

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