European Suzuki Association - Teachers Newsletter Vol 43 2023

16 Suzuki - Myths and Magic Jenny Macmillan I was recently invited to write an arƟcle for Piano Professional, the journal of the European Piano Teachers’ AssociaƟon UK, addressing criƟcisms that are oŌen directed towards the Suzuki approach. In it, I explain that many of the criƟcisms are no more than myths, and that the results of the highly logical process of Suzuki teaching are magical: every pupil is shown to have potenƟal, all develop perseverance and stamina, and many become fine musicians. For this ESA NewsleƩer, I have edited my original arƟcle to be relevant to Suzuki teachers of all instruments, and also to reflect welcome and construcƟve comments from several Suzuki piano teachers and Suzuki parents. The myth of poor sight-reading skills There is a belief that Suzuki children don’t learn to read music because they play by ear – that the Suzuki approach relies primarily on rote learning and memorisaƟon. Dr Suzuki discouraged note reading at the instrument for very young children, because they learn through their senses – through hearing, listening, watching and feeling – rather than their intellect. He wanted them to listen carefully to the sounds they produced and create a beauƟful tone. Suzuki-trained children in Japan reached advanced levels of violin playing when very young. Also, in the mid 20th century in Japan, children learned to read music at school, so it was not necessary for Dr Suzuki to include the reading of music at the instrument in his philosophy. When the Suzuki approach spread to the West, teachers not fully trained in its philosophy thought Suzuki children shouldn’t learn to read music even when older. There was a failure to differenƟate between postponing music reading at the instrument versus introducing music reading concepts through acƟviƟes away from the instrument. Nowadays Suzuki teachers understand that learning to read music is essenƟal. As soon as children start their individual instrumental lessons, they join group lessons with other children of similar age and level for musicianship games – learning, in effect, the early stages of reading music – playing games with flash cards, rhythm and listening games, singing and moving to music. Good instructors teach wriƩen theory, too, when children are ready for it – perhaps around the age of 6. As with learning their mother tongue – first listen, then speak, then read, so the same with music – first listen to the sounds, then develop the technique to play, then learn to read the score. Having the musical language first in the ear is an essenƟal preparaƟon for music reading. If focusing on reading the notes in the early stages, it is not possible to focus also on the sound and the technique. We teach each aspect of musicianship when the child is ready. This means a young pianist aged 10 or 12 may be performing Bach minuets, ClemenƟ sonaƟnas and even a simple Beethoven sonata very musically. However, in common with most children of that age (who may have been learning non-Suzuki for three or four years), their sight-reading skills are sƟll at an early stage. Because their listening is very well developed, and because they are learning to pracƟse well, in their early teens their reading abiliƟes usually improve rapidly to catch up with their musical abiliƟes. This is a benefit of sound before symbol – reading is delayed unƟl the child is ready for it, but the magic is that it then develops quickly. The myth that imitaƟon produces unmusical, roboƟc playing All Suzuki pupils follow a common repertoire. This means children can play together easily and, combined with a shared manner of playing, can make it appear as if their performances are mechanical. Some argue that pupils may become overly reliant on imitaƟon rather than developing their own interpretaƟve skills, leading to a lack of musical creaƟvity and expression. However, one could say: imitaƟon first, innovaƟon second. It’s much easier to become innovaƟve if the basic techniques are in place first. And, parƟcularly at the higher levels, Suzuki teachers acƟvely seek to nurture musical creaƟvity rather than mere imitaƟon. Suzuki children learn through their hearing – by listening regularly to the music they are studying. In the early stages, there is much demonstraƟon by the teacher of the sound required and the movements needed to produce that sound. The child will copy the sounds and movements. Young children are soon able to pick out the notes of the next piece for themselves, but they will conƟnue to watch and listen to the teacher’s demonstraƟons. As children grow older, they will develop their sensiƟvity of touch and quality of tone. There will be more discussion of the theory and how to play with style and character. Well-taught Suzuki students learn to listen well and to play musically, arƟsƟcally and creaƟvely. Listening to recordings has been a source of criƟcism on the grounds that it discourages individual interpretaƟon of the score. However, even the ABRSM now produces recordings of examinaƟon pieces, so clearly this Suzuki pracƟce has become mainstream. At the intermediate and higher levels, Suzuki teachers recommend pupils listen to several different performances of each piece they are learning, and to other pieces by the composers they are studying, so as to raise their sensiƟvity and awareness of alternaƟve interpretaƟons and to develop their own creaƟve responses. Suzuki instrumental repertoire The Suzuki repertoire has been criƟcised for its limitaƟons. But for each instrument it has been carefully chosen by panels of highly experienced musicians to introduce technical and musical issues in a progressive way from the simple to the more sophisƟcated. There are many advantages, not least that teachers are fully familiar with the repertoire for their instrument and can therefore concentrate on teaching each child rather than having to focus on the score. Also pupils are easily able to parƟcipate in group music making. Good teachers will assign addiƟonal non-Suzuki music as appropriate, such as tradiƟonal regional music and ensembles. This broadens pupils’ exposure to different musical styles and develops their reading skills. In the case of the piano repertoire, when it was selected in the late 1960s there was an emphasis on music from the baroque and classical periods because, in Japan, young children with small hands who were not yet ready emoƟonally for romanƟc music were playing at a high level. However, in the early 2000s, the repertoire was broadened significantly, and now includes music by composers such as Chopin, Debussy, Bartok and Villa-Lobos. Advanced level children listen to performances by the finest musicians. It is important to be aware that the Suzuki approach is not the repertoire! Unfortunately some teachers follow the Suzuki repertoire without having undertaken Suzuki training or understanding the principles and philosophy. Others state: ‘I teach Suzuki but I also teach other method books’. Cases such as these have, unfortunately, detracted from the reputaƟon of the approach. ‘Suzuki children are all taught in groups’ – another myth! There is a myth – a misunderstanding – that Suzuki children are taught only in