Learning music: Understanding the Suzuki Method
Are you thinking of enrolling your child in a music course? Unsure of which teaching method is best? Here is a comprehensive guide to understanding the Suzuki method.
If you have been exploring your options for a music class for your child, I’m sure you would have heard of the Suzuki Method. What exactly is this approach to learning music, and how is it beneficial?
Don’t worry, this is not a scholarly article on the approach to learning music. It’s just a quick and easy guide.
Before you can understand what is different about the Suzuki approach to learning music, let’s get you acquainted with the four most common methods of teaching music.
To help us understand these approaches and the Suzuki method, we spoke to Mac, the founder, and Elaine, the vice-principal of the popular Mac’s Music School.
The Orff Approach
A German composer and educator Carl Orff developed this approach in the 1920’s and 30’s. Carl Orff places great emphasis on rhythm and movement.
Also known as Music for Children, this approach to learning music places emphasis on play. This method engages kids through activities like singing, dancing, acting and using percussion instruments like the xylophone.
The Orff Approach makes children take ownership of their music learning by developing their own compositions based on their creativity. Lessons are conducted through play and children learn at their own pace and understanding.
The Kodaly Method
Zoltan Kodaly started this approach to learning music, in Hungary. It is now used all over the world either on its own, or in conjunction with other approaches. This method believes in teaching musical concepts from a very young age.
Children learn through folksongs, hand signs, pictures, and rhythm, to name a few. Singing is of great importance.
The fundamental philosophy of this approach to learning music is that everyone is capable of musical literacy and has a right to it.
The Dalcroze Method
Also known as Dalcroze Eurhytmics, this approach to learning music was started by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze. This is used to encourage children to appreciate music, train the ears, and improve musical abilities.
This approach to learning music is built on the foundation of connecting music, movement, the mind and body.
The Suzuki Method – Introduction
The late Shinchi Suzuki, a Japanese violinist, developed this approach to learning music. This approach is mostly used for teaching children how to play the violin. It started off in Japan more than 50 years ago, and was introduced to the United States in the 1960’s.
Philosophy of the Suzuki Method
Shinchi Suzuki developed this approach when he realised the implications of how children all over the world learnt to speak their mother tongue. He noticed how it happened so naturally and easily.
He observed how the German children learnt their mother tongue with no difficulty. Likewise, Japanese children naturally learnt their native language.
This led him to understand the importance of the child’s environment in shaping and influencing their language development. He then adopted the principles of language acquisition and applied them to learning music.
Mac, who has been teaching the Suzuki Method since 1990, explains how the Suzuki method is known as the mother tongue method.
“It follows the same principles of mother tongue learning. Music is introduced to very young children, through imitation, role modelling and creating a supportive environment for music learning. It’s tough to learn a new language, take German for example. But it’s not so much about the language as it is about the environment. It’s about how the mother introduces the language to her child.”
Read on to find out how language acquisition principles apply to learning music.
Language acquisition principles in the Suzuki Method
Let’s examine some of the principles of language acquisition and how they apply to learning music by the Suzuki method.
1.Role of the environment
From the very beginning, children learn language by watching, listening and imitating their parents. Likewise, for this approach to learning music, parents must be their children’s music teachers every day of the week.
Parents should attend the lesson with the child to know what they are learning and what is expected of them. Parents also need to work with the teachers to make the learning environment fun and enjoyable for their children.
Mac emphasises that it is crucial to create a positive musical environment at home. Children attend music lessons once a week and that is far from sufficient. In fact, the bulk of music learning and appreciation takes place in the other 6 days of the week, when children practice at home.
“You practice on the day you eat.”
2. Start young
Children are exposed to language learning from the time they are born. Likewise, the Suzuki approach to learning music advocates that parents let their children listen to music from birth. The formative years are of paramount importance for developing mental processing, muscle memory and coordination. As such, formal music lessons should begin as early as 2 to 3 years of age. While that is ideal, it is also never too late to start learning.
Children, or even babies listen to those around them repeating words hundreds of times. This is the foundation of language learning. Likewise, for the Suzuki approach, children need to listen to music every day. It is especially important that they listen to pieces in the Suzuki repertoire. This enables them to recognise and identify the pieces quickly.
Upon learning through listening, children start repeating the words and that’s how they learn language. Music is no different. You don’t learn a music piece, then just forget all about it. Similar to how children add and build their vocabulary by repeating words that are familiar to them, children should keep repeating the pieces that they know.
If you observe a child who’s learning to speak, you will discover that they are more confident to use a word when they use it right and it is met with praise and affirmation. Similarly, the Suzuki approach to learning music believes in sincerely praising and encouraging a child’s effort to learn music. Children learn at their own pace and we should build on the baby steps. We also need to encourage children to support each other’s efforts and learning.
6. Learning with other children
Language is also learnt through socialising. The Suzuki approach to learning music creates a platform for children to learn in regular group sessions and performances. They learn from each other as well as draw motivation and inspiration from one another.
7. Delayed reading
This aspect of the Suzuki method has sparked controversy and drawn much criticism. Mac explains that this is due to a misconception that music reading is not involved at all. Often it is a lack of knowledge coupled with incompetent teaching methods that amplifies this misconception.
Mac parallels this with language learning. Think of it as such – a child learns to speak even before he turns a year old, but when does he learn to read? Usually reading begins at the age of 3.
Likewise, the philosophy of the Suzuki method is to develop the child’s technical competence on their instruments before learning how to read notes. But that does not mean that they do not learn to read notes.
Head on the next page to learn more about the advantages of the Suzuki approach to learning music.
Advantages of Suzuki Method
1. Group Recitals
One of the key advantages of the Suzuki approach to learning music is that students are given a platform to perform together. When they prepare for a recital, it gives them a goal to work towards. And of course, after they perform, they feel proud of their accomplishment and it helps to build their self-esteem.
Suzuki recitals are group performances and this in itself has a host of benefits. Children feel safe, and more confident to play. Imagine asking a 4 year old to stand in front of an audience and play the violin? The very idea of it is daunting!
Mac says that an avenue, or platform to perform is incredibly important for budding young musicians. After an entire year of learning music, if children still don’t get to perform, it kills their morale.
“Music is a communicative tool. If children don’t perform, the instrument eventually becomes a white elephant. We need to give them an avenue to perform.”
Elaine explains how group recitals also pave the way for children to forge friendships. They work together and they see someone else doing the same thing as them. This is one of the major elements of the Suzuki method – the environment that is created.
“It helps children to be part of a team through the element of music. The beat and rhythm binds musicians together.”
Mac’s Music School places great emphasis on group recitals as well. Elaine explains how the child starts playing, then gets the opportunity to be part of a duet, and then eventually plays as part of the ensemble.
Violinists always get to perform while only the best of pianists get a chance. This is why in Mac’s Music School there are recitals that give all students the opportunity to perform. This is in line with the Suzuki approach to learning music.
“An ensemble performance is not just about placing 5 pianos together and asking them to play. There’s a lot of coordination, discipline, practice and work that goes into that.”
2. Rote Learning
This approach to learning music only introduces note reading after a few years. In the initial stage, students learn by rote (memorising). This trains them to be excellent listeners and creates a sense of awareness of their rhythm and tune. Even if they don’t know the note on the sheet, just by listening they would recognise that they have made a mistake. That’s an important skill.
Mac equates this to language learning where young children memorise stories without the actual phonetic knowledge to read on their own.
It enables the young (or old) musicians to free themselves from the task of note reading and to concentrate more on the quality of sound that they are producing.
While note reading comes naturally to some, it isn’t always the case. Some students struggle with note reading and eventually give up music because of that. The Suzuki method enables these students to play and enjoy music even if they aren’t able to read notes. It may be the reason they still persevere and don’t give up music altogether.
In Mac’s words,
“Read what we can read and play what we can play.”
Also, children have the ability to replicate music before they can read and so the Suzuki approach to learning music allows them to start learning and appreciating music from a much younger age!
3. Strong Parental involvement
Parents have to attend the lessons, or even learn the instrument with their child to aid them in practicing at home. This of course helps their music development because they have adult supervision and reinforcement of what they learn during their lesson. Otherwise, true to their nature, children will forget half of what they learn.
On another note, it also encourages parent-child bonding. This however may seem more of a con for parents who are too busy to afford that kind of involvement.
Here’s an added bonus – if you have no musical background whatsoever, you are paying for your child’s music lesson and getting one for free! At the end of the day, you both learn music!
3. Going Further
Earlier in the article, we explained the 4 major approaches to learning music. Mac reminds parents that if you wish for your child to learn music until tertiary level, it only happens with the Suzuki and Kodaly methods. The other 2 focus more on learning music through discovery.
As mentioned earlier, the drawback of this method is mainly due to misconceptions. People have a misconception that note reading is not involved. Wrong. It is about familiarising and experiencing music before understanding the technicalities of it.
In Macs words, instead of explaining what a cat is to a child before showing him one, where the Suzuki approach to learning music is concerned,
“You see a cat before understanding what a cat is.”
The Suzuki approach is more prevalent for string instruments like the violin. But of course, the philosophy is adopted for all the instruments that are taught in Mac’s Music School.
When it comes to the piano however, the Suzuki method is rather taxing, explains Elaine. In Mac’s Music School, they use a 2 part pedagogical approach whereby they adopt and adapt the Suzuki Method with their own sets of repertoire.
“We use the Suzuki philosophy – creating a positive environment, repetition and review of performance but we use our own songs or adapt some of the pieces.”
In a nutshell
Mac summarises it all as,
The Suzuki method stresses on building up repertoire, it increases the brainpower, and makes students remember the pieces they have done.
We hope that you now have a better understanding of what the Suzuki approach to learning music is all about.
Jeanette Ang, a full-time mum of four swears by the Suzuki method.
3 of my kids have learnt to play the violin by the Suzuki method. Along the way, I could see them working to unravel the joy of learning to play the violin. And after some time, it’s almost as if playing the violin is second nature to them!
What I especially like about this method is how it emphasies on character development in addition to learning music. My kids learn to respect their teacher as well as each other. This is excellent. This is the way to learn music!
John Lim, a doting daddy to a 6 year old daughter, shares how the best part of it was his involvement.
I never got the chance to learn music, so this is enriching for me as well. And so to parents who are worried that they lack musical background, don’t worry, you learn with your kids. And it really creates space for you to bond with your child over music. Great experience.
On a concluding note, do remember that whatever approach to music learning seems best for your child, finding your child the right teacher is most important. Using one method over another does not make a teacher better or worse. His commitment and ability to engage your child make all the difference.
And of course, even with the best teacher, without practice, magic doesn’t happen. You need to invest the time in guiding your child, and your child needs to have the discipline and dedication to practice regularly!
We leave you with a quote from the founder of the Suzuki approach to learning music.
“Teaching is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they get a beautiful heart.”