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Why Some Violin Teachers Stop Using the Suzuki Books Before the Student Is Finished

Updated on August 21, 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.

Suzuki Violin School consists of ten volumes. The first consists of a few folk tunes commonly used by beginners regardless of the method, Suzuki's own compositions; and three minuets by Bach, Schumann's "Happy Farmer," and Gossec's Gavotte arranged for beginner violinists. 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.

Before addressing the decision that many teachers make to discontinue the use of the later volumes of Suzuki, there are a couple of misconceptions about the books that should be addressed. First, Suzuki books are not used exclusively by Suzuki teachers, to such an extent that it is likely that a student using the Suzuki books is not being taught according to the Suzuki method. Second, the Suzuki books are not an objective measure of a student's abilities.

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The Suzuki Books Are Not the Suzuki 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 called this the "Mother Tongue Approach." It has since been expanded into what we now call the Suzuki method.

However, Suzuki's own education with the violin was very atypical. He learned what he could by experimentation - listening to recordings and try 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. This is really important because Karl Klinger was a famous violin pedagogue whose influence extends beyond 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 might be 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 teachers and luthiers, regardless of how they were trained and what music the prefer and whether they have the documentation to trace the lineage or not, owe what they do to one family-owned violin shop in Cremona, Italy.

As a result, 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 musical activity and closely 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 beginners for auditions, especially those in which candidates may be asked to play a scale which they are not informed of in advance in order to prepare, requiring at least some supplementation for students who advance to that point.

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 not 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 there is no more objective alternative. Even when the audition is blind, which sometimes cannot really be true in youth and community 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 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.

What these other students 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. 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. 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 measuring contests of my peers.

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.

Public Domain Music

Public domain music is either so old that the copyright has expired, 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 draw 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.

© 2017 Courtney Morgan

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