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Suzuki piano: A student-centered approach

Suzuki piano: A student-centered approach

Shinichi Suzuki's (1898-1998) ideas about music education were well ahead of his time. His philosophy and approach to teaching were based upon a unique understanding of how children learn, and many of his ideas have since been validated by scientific research. The Suzuki method started with violin, but it has been applied to a multitude of instruments, including piano, which was one of the earliest instruments to adapt the approach. Thousands of teachers around the world have been inspired by Dr. Suzuki's ideas, and in this article I will explore the basics of the Suzuki approach to piano. You may be interested in pursuing Suzuki training, or you may just consider how you can apply the philosophical framework to your current approach.

The Suzuki approach is founded on the Suzuki triangle. This triangle is comprised of the student, the teacher, and the parent. Each "side" of the triangle is equally important, and they all work together toward progress and success.

There are seven volumes of Suzuki piano repertoire, ranging from beginning variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to the advanced pieces of Book 7, which include Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, and Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. post. 

Suzuki teachers enroll in highly organized pedagogy courses that cover the teaching strategies for the repertoire found in the method. These courses also include detailed discussions on the most effective ways to work with children and their parents. The Suzuki method focuses not just on what to teach, but also on how to teach, with an emphasis on the student as a person.

A young start

In the Suzuki approach, children often start lessons at a very young age, taking advantage of the very acute hearing of young children that has been documented by many scientific studies. At this age, the young child is intimately involved with his parent for many hours of the day, so the parent can quite naturally be involved in the lesson. It is here that the parent gains the knowledge that will help him or her to be actively involved in the daily practice at home.

Parents learn and teach, too

Parents help their children to learn many things from morning to night, and they want to help their children learn skills correctly and effectively. They monitor how their children brush their teeth, and they are vigilant that their children become aware of road safety. Children absorb the culture, traditions, language, and lifestyle that they see at home in their parents and other family members. 

Most parents, however, are not always sure how to teach specific skills to a child, and, in this situation, parents must take on the responsibility of helping their child learn to learn. When parents help their children carry out the assignments proposed by the piano teacher, learning to learn begins to happen. 

When a child begins Suzuki lessons, say at the age of four or five, it is the parents' decision to start. Some prospective parents are keen to be part of this learning experience but feel insecure about their lack of knowledge and experience. But parents do not have to be pianists; in fact, the non-musician Suzuki parents often have more success than musician parents because they do exactly what the teacher asks! These parents learn to learn along with their children and appreciate the challenges their children are facing.

Teaching the parent

The Suzuki teacher shows a child what to do at the piano, but they must also help the parent understand how to help the child to do it at home. A child cannot remember the step-by-step approach followed by the teacher at the lesson to help a left hand play more softly than the right hand. Nor will a child comprehend the necessity to repeat a task a specified number of times and distinguish between the successful and less-than-successful trials. A young child does not have the self-control to deal with frustration.

While Suzuki parents do not have to be musicians, they do need to understand how their children learn. Suzuki lessons are a great opportunity for parents to learn how to work with their children. The Suzuki teacher carefully observes the dynamic between a parent and child, and sometimes the parent can be the bigger challenge!

Learning together

Dr. Suzuki recognized that children learn best from other children, so Suzuki teachers often create an environment that facilitates collaborative learning. Having two children of similar age attend lessons together (with their parents) creates a very effective setting for learning and growth. One child will be naturally interested in doing what the other child is doing, and less interested in getting his parent's attention. Often, in a lesson where one child is watching and one is at the piano, the teacher will discover that when he goes to demonstrate a skill to the child on the piano, she will say, "I know how to do that, I already saw/heard you show Molly." 

Children can learn together.

Parents also benefit from this scenario. Each parent sees how the other child learns, and how the teacher works with each child individually. The parent appreciates the skill development of his own child as well as that of the other child. Moreover, parents support each other and do not compare one child to another. There is a recognition that one child may have greater ease with one aspect of piano playing, while another may find it more difficult. But that is OK. No child is a "star", and it is OK to be ordinary. Each child is encouraged towards a musical goal, to improve her skills in a pleasant environment. The teacher desires to instill in children and parents that learning requires effort, but the teacher strongly believes that every child can learn at his own pace. Moreover, learning can bring pleasure and satisfaction in this environment.

Parents benefit from this scenario.

"Mother-Tongue" approach

Dr. Suzuki called his approach to learning the "Mother-Tongue" approach: it is a given that every normal healthy child will naturally learn the language he hears spoken at home—his mother tongue. A child hears the sounds of the mother tongue from birth and has a natural desire to learn to speak, to be part of the family, to be like the others in his daily existence. If music is also part of the daily listening, a child absorbs the sounds and they too become a natural part of his environment. Dr. Suzuki wanted parents to capitalize on this rapt audience and let children hear beautiful music in their daily lives and internalize the melodies of songs they will learn. Music speaks to the hearts and souls of children. Through the medium of music, children develop a sensitivity to beauty.

Music is an aural medium. The Suzuki teacher takes advantage of the young child's ability to hear. A young child has superior ability to hear nuances of sound, and a Suzuki teacher utilizes this natural gift. The early pieces in the method are learned by ear, so lessons can be focused on developing a healthy physical approach to the piano and making beautiful sounds. Each of the early pieces in the Suzuki repertoire—mostly traditional folk songs—presents opportunities to create a beautiful tone and expressive phrases, setting the stage for future lessons. A child cannot "do" at the piano until he can "hear." At the same time, the parent's ear becomes more sensitive to tone quality as he or she learns to recognize beautiful tone.

Beautiful sound

Suzuki teachers must be able to play with beautiful sound, so they can personalize the music their students hear on the recordings. Imitation is an important teaching tool. The teacher performs a small segment of a piece and asks the child to repeat it on the second piano. "Do we sound the same?" If the answer is "no," then can the student identify what the difference is? If the child cannot identify the difference, the teacher will repeat the passage, or perhaps try a different approach. Teachers, of course, need to recognize if the task was appropriate for that child at that particular moment.

Groups include fun activities to reinforce skills initiated at the weekly lesson.

Training never stops

Suzuki teachers are encouraged to continue train-ing, and they are motivated to learn more about work-ing with parents effectively and gain insights into developing the techniques needed to play the repertoire. The better the teacher, the better the student will play. When students play well, they are pleased with themselves. They gain self-confidence and are eager to learn more.

Meaningful praise is offered to a child for the effort made towards achieving a goal. Suzuki teachers learn how to give meaningful praise and offer constructive criticism. The oft-heard general comment "very good" is best avoided. Instead, the teacher and the parents need to provide specific praise for the effort made by the student. "Praise the effort and not the child" is a useful motto.

When I hear a parent compliment a child other than her own in the studio, telling him how she liked hearing a beautiful phrase, I am delighted. First, I recognize that the parent was able to hear this, and secondly, she could appreciate the accomplishment of a child who was not her own. There is no admonition attached; her child is not the object of a comparison.

Suzuki parents

Suzuki parents develop good relations with other parents; they support each other, discuss "good" practice strategies, and regale each other with stories of both good and bad practice sessions. It is a community of learning—a small society where everyone is appreciated. 

In the early stages of lessons, when learning habits and effective practice are being established for young students, the parent participates in the lesson, watching and listening to the teacher. Parents are fostering practice habits and helping children deal with the ups and downs of learning a skill, including the important skill of music reading. Eventually, as in all areas of life, parents want their children to be independent, but these early experiences provide excellent preparation and teach students how to work and manage their time at the piano.

Group lessons

Besides the weekly lesson, Suzuki children come together for a group lesson. The frequency of group lessons varies according to the teacher's studio and/or limitations of space. Groups of 4-6 or even 8 students of similar level and age create a different learning environment. I reiterate the notion that children learn best when they are together. Groups offer opportunities for students to perform for each other, practice performance skills, and learn about stage presence. The group is an excellent setting for learning to read music. Rhythmic activities use repertoire that the young students already play, and singing helps the ear connect with the eye. 

Games and fun activities help reinforce skills and concepts taught at the weekly lesson. These can cover a variety of topics, such as finding keys on the piano quickly, naming the keys, hearing notes going by step or skip, transposing a piece they know to a new key, etc. All of these activities prepare young students to handle reading tasks from a reading primer. 

The group lesson is suitable for all levels of students—the program depends upon the ingenuity of the teacher and the needs of that particular group of students. The group program at each level evolves naturally, as certain activities are particularly suitable for students in different books. Once the students are readers, the group lesson provides opportunities for students to play duets and ensemble repertoire. 

Suzuki teachers like groups, too! The hallmark of the Suzuki teaching experience is sharing ideas with colleagues at workshops, conferences, and other professional exchanges. Experienced colleagues happily come together with younger teachers, sharing experiences through the common repertoire. What unites all Suzuki teachers is that every Suzuki triangle—teacher, parent, and child—is a new learning situation.

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