Can a 3-year-old learn to play an instrument? They can with the Suzuki method apparently. Here, a champion of the method, a teacher and a Suzuki student’s mother argue the toss.
Suzuki is a style of music teaching invented by Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese teacher and violinist, during the 50s. It differs from traditional music teaching in a few key ways, the first being that students start young – usually at three. They learn to play by ear and imitation, copying rhythms rather than reading music. This – combined with three lessons a week and a lot of practice – means that children can play sophisticated tunes at a relatively young age.
It sounds impressive, and it is. But the method isn’t without controversy. Some baulk at the level of work involved and say it’s manna for pushy mothers – this isn’t without foundation: Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, apparently chose the Suzuki method for her daughters.
Others suggest, perhaps less fairly, that Suzuki is uncreative and produces little robots because students play the same tunes and follow the same set books. A few disgruntled music teachers have even compared it to a cult, because to those on the outside it can seem insular and mysterious.
But even the nay-sayers can’t deny it produces some spectacular results. If you want to immerse your child in an instrument, then Suzuki could be the perfect way to do it. Here, three people who know something about it give their opinions…
Kate Conway is director of the Suzuki Hub, the UK’s only dedicated Suzuki centre, in Haggerston, East London.
‘Suzuki Method is based on the mother-tongue philosophy – the idea behind which is that every child learns to speak his or her mother tongue. Obviously they learn at different rates, but what Dr Suzuki, who invented the method, thought was: all Japanese children learn to speak Japanese, so why can’t we teach other skills like this? It’s a method that can be applied to many different fields.
So one of the main elements of Suzuki is that children start young. It also involves parental input, and having lessons in a group, as well as individually. Students play little and often, and one of the big differences between Suzuki and other types of music teaching is that students learn by ear before reading music. Because obviously some of the students are so young they can’t read, let alone read music! Suzuki teachers use musicianship games from the start, to teach them the skills they need to read music when they’re ready to do that.
At the Hub we teach violin, viola, flute and cello. You can’t learn every instrument with Suzuki as there are physiological reasons why young children can’t play, say, the oboe, but it works with everything from the piano to the harp. YouTube is full of tiny children playing music really beautifully.
But probably the most important tenet of Dr Suzuki’s philosophy is the idea that every child can. Lots of music teachers feel that you have to have aptitude or a certain hand shape to succeed at an instrument. We think that is completely wrong. I can’t guarantee I can produce the next Nigel Kennedy, but I can definitely teach any child to play to a professional standard if that’s what they want, and they’re ready to practise and the parents do as I ask. Although this isn’t the point – we’re teaching self-confidence, discipline, a can-do approach and a love of music.
Suzuki lessons are very positive – there’s a lot of encouragement. A Suzuki teacher would never say, ‘You’re rubbish at this, you should stop.’ When they’re doing solos, students always find something positive to say about each other’s performance, even if it wasn’t a great performance. It teaches them how to find the best in something and recognise effort, even if the outcome isn’t the best it can be. Suzuki also teaches friendship and good manners – if a child doesn’t say please, she doesn’t get the sticker.
In terms of what age you should start your child, it’s different for every child and their family. If you don’t think your child is ready for it, then they’re probably not. The point is that you need to have the resources and time in your life to do it properly. This was easier back in the 50s, when Dr Suzuki was teaching, because no mothers worked and children did what they were told. Back then his mission was to create noble human beings, which doesn’t translate into English all that well, but the general message remains.
You have to remember that Japan was coming out of World War 2 – it was a hideous time. His desire in developing the method was to give something back to the children of Japan. His number-one priority was to make better people. Which sounds a bit culty and makes people feel uncomfortable, but when done in the right way it’s a really great philosophy. Suzuki students are basically learning to be good kids as well as learning to play an instrument.’
Alex Manson-Smith’s son Emilio, 6, has been learning violin with the Suzuki method for 14 months.
‘I’d never heard of Suzuki so had no opinion on it, but one of the other mums at Emilio’s nursery was raving about it. The Hub is only a mile from my house, so it seemed a shame not to take advantage of having that resource on our doorstep. And I was impressed by the website, which made learning an instrument sound so much fun. I also liked the Suzuki philosophy that everybody can be great at an instrument, not just those with an innate or special talent.
You have to go along and watch a few lessons before you can sign up, which is quite a clever idea. Firstly it makes the kids keen to play – at that age they’ve probably never seen an instrument before, so it’s a tough call pretending that it was their idea to sign up. It also gives you a good idea of what’s involved and limits the dropout rate, which is likely to be high with such young kids.
It’s pretty demanding on parents. Emilio has two 45-minute group lessons on a Saturday morning, plus a private lesson on a Tuesday. Parents are expected to go to each lesson so they can supervise practice, which in theory should happen most days. I’m not exactly the ideal Suzuki parent. I’m often working so have to get someone else to take him to the lesson, and am pretty lax about practice. I have been known to use the Saturday-morning lessons as an opportunity to read the papers and catch up on email.
If I’m honest, I find it embarrassing turning up at the school gates with Emilio’s violin slung over my shoulder. It’s not so bad now he’s getting older, but when he was in reception I might as well have been wearing a sign with ‘pushy mother’ written across it. On sunny days I do feel bad that he’s not out playing football or something instead. But most primary children get hardly any music education at school, so I do feel that as a parent, you’ve got to give them the opportunity without beating them over the head with it.
Emilio veers between enjoying it and saying he never wants to go again, but the teachers are pretty good at offering rewards – stickers, that kind of thing – which the kids find motivating. His teacher promised that if he practised for a month, she’d make him a Darth Vader cake for his birthday. They both kept to their word, which was lovely to see. He improved more in those five weeks than he did the entire previous year.
Unlike Amy Chua’s kids, we’re not exactly whizzing through the books – after 14 months he’s just started playing Twinkle Twinkle, the first song in the book. But he’s young and we’re in no hurry. Who knows how long it’ll last, but at the moment he’s getting a real kick out of being able to play a tune.’
Tim Scott is assistant head and teacher of music at Haberdasher’s Aske’s School for Girls in Hertfordshire.
‘What’s really important when learning an instrument is building a relationship with a teacher. If you find a child a great teacher, you’ll find that they’re learning in a more supported way. Their progress might not be as quick as it would be through Suzuki, which is very intensive, but it will happen steadily. My opinion of Suzuki is that it can work for a certain type of child – perhaps the kind of child who learns better when they’re told what to do.
Over the years I’ve come across Suzuki students through the school, and what I’ve seen is that there’s potentially something of the machine about them. They can play some sophisticated pieces, but that innate musicality isn’t always there. A lot is about technique and playing proficiently, without playing musically.
I know Suzuki teachers believe there’s no such thing as innate talent and that it’s all about how hard you work. And actually there’s a lot to be said for that. We had Matthew Syed in to talk at school, and he has the 10,000 hours philosophy – where if you do anything for 10,000 hours you’ll be good at it. As a teacher I’d say that obviously if you practice something you’re going to get better at it.
Similarly, if you start anything young you’ll get good at it. My general view would be that if it works for you, great. Anything that’s getting children to play instruments is a good thing. But equally it’s important for children to be taught in a way that they find enjoyable. There’s no point trying to bash something into anyone.
The only time we really notice children are doing Suzuki is when they come in for scholarship auditions. They may be technically proficient and playing quite complex pieces, but if there’s no personality behind it, we’re much less interested. As a teacher I can see through which children it’s been bashed into and which ones have a genuine love for playing. We want potential and musicality, not robots.
But really it’s down to the teaching. I wouldn’t say traditional teaching is the opposite to Suzuki: individual teachers offer different things. What you’re working for is to foster a love of the instrument. Suzuki is definitely a way to get them going and give them a decent grounding. Certainly by the time they’re older we find that fewer children are doing it.
And I’d agree that, in terms of starting, it’s often a case of the younger the better. We run a strings scheme from year 2 (ages 6-7). You can start learning an instrument at any age, but if you’re going to go on and be serious about it then 6 or 7 is a good age to start. In those four junior-school years you can make really amazing progress in a way that adult learners aren’t able to do.
But if you don’t start then, it’s not like all is lost – it very much depends on the child. And if they can maintain focus for half an hour at 5 or 6, they’re doing very well. But ultimately I don’t think you can get it wrong as long as the child loves it.’To learn more about the Suzuki Method, go to the British Suzuki Institute or visit Suzuki Hub.