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The Suzuki Piano Method – Is It Right for Your Young Child?

The Suzuki Piano Method – Is It Right for Your Young Child?

When parents begin the process of finding music instruction for their child, the “Suzuki” method is often something that they seek out. It may be because they have heard other young children performing at an exceptional level for their age and found out that they were receiving Suzuki instruction. It could also be because there are very few other methods of piano study that have done such an effective job at branding themselves in the minds of consumers. As it stands, the Suzuki method is an important force driving music education today, and parents should be familiar with what it stands for and how this translates into pros and cons for their child’s future music study.

First off, the Suzuki method isn’t so much a method as it is a philosophy. Teachers are not given strict instructions on how to teach a specific piece or concept, but are instead given principles that are designed to guide the student to a path of success. The foremost principles of Suzuki music education are the following:

  1. Begin music study at a young age. It’s common knowledge that the brain of a young child is more receptive to learning new skills (such as language and music) and that these tasks become more challenging as we get older. Not impossible, but more dificult. Suzuki education encourages children to begin their formal music instruction at the age of three to five, whereas piano students have more traditionally waited until about age six or seven to begin lessons.
  2. Start out with the expectation that “Every Child Can”. It would be foolish to say that all children are equally gifted when it comes to music, but I think it would be fair to say that almost all children possess enough built-in musical aptitude to become proficient at the piano and enjoy making music for their entire lives. Suzuki teachers are not going to tell you that your child just doesn’t have a knack for learning the piano. They will instead try to find ways around any natural deficiencies and maximize each child’s inherent gifts to achieve success.
  3. Parental involvement is key. Suzuki teachers realize that the half hour to an hour or so that they get to spend with each child during the week is not sufficient to teach them to play the piano. Especially for very young children, the parents or other caregivers have to take responsibility for ensuring that the child practices at home and completes the required listening activities. In order for this to work, the parent or caregiver must be present and actively involved in the child’s weekly lesson.
  4. Just as we learn to speak before we learn to read, Suzuki students learn to play before they learn to understand music notation. It seems only natural that students should get comfortable with the mechanics of the instrument and with the methods for producing beautiful tones before they are saddled with the additional responsibility of deciphering a code of musical symbols.

So far, this all sounds pretty good, right? So why hasn’t the entire music community embraced the Suzuki philosophy for music education?

In practice, there are some other unwritten principles that most Suzuki teachers follow that could actually serve as a detriment to students enjoying their lessons and being successful in their endeavors.

  1. Classical music is viewed as being superior to all other types of music when it comes to piano study. I love classical music, especially the classical piano repertoire, but I can’t agree with this statement. Great music exists in many forms- classical, jazz, rock, blues, folk. We all have certain preferences for one genre or another, and students should receive an exposure to all styles of music to unlock interests they may not even know they have. In the Suzuki method book 1, students spend the first one to two years or more playing repertoire that is limited in style to a very narrow portion of music history- the mid to late 18th century. There is much to be learned from this time period in music, but, boy, are children missing out if they aren’t being given the opportunity to explore all of the other wonderful types of music the piano is capable of creating.
  2. Music reading is sometimes delayed for one, two, three years or more after lessons have begun. While I think it is great to have students work on technique and tone and develop their ears by learning pieces without the sheet music, delaying reading for too long can have disastrous effects on a child’s future enjoyment of music making. At the piano, in particular, music notation is more complex because the player is responsible for many notes at the same time, with independent rhythms, divided between two hands! Students need to be taking small steps into the world of music notation from the very beginning. Once their playing level starts to get way out ahead of their reading level, it is very difficult to convince them to learn new music from a score. They will always want to have a teacher show them how to do it or have a recording they can copy. When my students finish their studies with me, I want them to be capable of walking into a music store, buying a piece of music that looks interesting to them, and then going home and playing it. Too many Suzuki trained students, even those who play at a very high level, are not capable of doing this.
  3. In practice, Suzuki teachers place great emphasis on a high level of musical performance. Nothing wrong with that. But when taken to the extreme, it tends to limit the time spent exploring other facets of music making, such as improvisation and composition. There are more than enough concert pianists to satisfy the current demand. We don’t need to try and push anyone down that route. And please understand, I’m all for setting high standards, but let’s set those standards as goals that will help each child live a fulfilling and creative musical life, not ones just designed to show how proficiently they can play difficult repertoire.

In addition, children who are raised to see music as solely an academic subject, where the goal is to progress at being able to play more and more difficult repertoire, are really not being taught music at all. Music is an art and it has a direct connection to our innermost emotions- our creative being. If a student studies the piano diligently for years, becomes quite proficient, and then never has the desire to play again after high school, something went terribly wrong along the way. The creative side of music making must not be sacrificed to technical mastery.

No single philosophy or method for learning music is going to be the best way for every student in every situation. I am very proud of my Suzuki training. It has taught me a great deal. But the experience I have gained in twenty-plus years of teaching has taught me even more. It has taught me that each child is a unique individual. The best teachers are the ones who are not wedded to one particular method for all students, but who have the ability to adapt their training and expertise to the specific needs of the child before them.