Welcome to Art's Articles for the Month of:
There are many differences between the Suzuki and traditional methods of violin instruction.  The issue I would like to address this month is the role of listening in the instructional and learning process.

The Suzuki method violin study emphasizes passive modes of learning - watching and listening.  The say that this more perfectly models the way that we learn things in real life.  We hear speech before we speak.  We see walking before we walk. 

Before engaging in formal study, Suzuki violin students listen to recordings of the first pieces they will play, as well as pieces they will move on to later.  As the students begin their study parents are urged to play the recordings as a sort of background music.  The effect here is an immersion of the student into violin music.  The belief is that this immersion mimics acquisition of the student's primary language.  The thinking is that in the same way a child recognizes, imitates, internalizes and eventually expresses thoughts in his native language; the violin student will learn to recognize qualities such as pitch, tone, rhythm and dynamics that they hear in these recordings.  They will come to understand that these qualities are all intrinsic to good violin performance, will begin to imitate them, will internalize them and eventually will independently perform violin pieces at a higher level of expertise than would have occured otherwise.

The argument from Suzuki proponents is that traditional violin instruction ignores passive and natural learning of music in general and the violin in particular.  They argue that traditionally trained students primarily learn to read and play music via rote imitation of what they see their teacher do.  They argue that just as a child is taught to speak before the concept of reading is ever introduced, a violin student should learn the essence of his instrument and the production of high quality sound on that instrument prior to being introduced to any written notation . . . especially the traditional staff and symbols.

The traditonal method of violin study, on the other hand, tends to introduce the instrument and its basic capabilities for a short period of time before moving quickly to note recognition and playing.  Students are encouraged to listen to performances that will expose them to the capabilities and beauty of the instrument . . . especially via listening to advanced pieces.  Seldom, if ever, does a young student hear pieces that he will play any time soon.  The only performance he hears that is relevant to his immediate situation is that of his teacher during lessons.

The traditionalist will argue that while listening to performances is helpful, it is important to introduce notereading early so that a wider repertoire can be introduced more quickly.  The result is less boredom for the student in that there are more songs to play, and anyone who has been around a Suzuki student during the first year can tell you that Twinkle wears thin pretty quickly. 

I think that there needs to be a balance here.  I agree that quality sound production is important and should be addressed early on.  I agree that guided imitation is a great way to learn language, and the model should work in music instruction as well.  I also agree that the boredom that sets in with seemingly endless repetition of the same piece and only minor progress being anticipated weekly can kill a student's enthusiasm for the piece.  And the repeated listening to Twinkle suggested by Suzuki teachers can become counterproductive . . . especially for students entering a Suzuki program at the age of 6 or 7.

It seems to me that what would be productive would be the production of CD's of properly played exercises that could be distributed with printed copies of the works.  Not only would this help traditional students by letting them hear what they are playing, it would assist them in their practice by letting them re-hear what they heard in lessons.  It would give them a target to shoot at that was far more accessible than the Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Beethoven concertos.

My suggestion?  Teachers, record yourself playing the pieces your students will work on, and give them a copy of the CD.  They can play it as background music.  They can play along with it during their lessons.  They can use it as review after they have substantially mastered the piece and moved on.  Let your students gain by means of natural music acquisition as well as by learning to read and imitate early on!