Suzuki violin method

We’ve just signed up our 3 1/2 year-old boy for lessons. Anybody have any helpful tips to share?

So far, so good, but it’s often very difficult to get the little guy to focus for more than a few moments at a time.

Lack of focus is sort of normal for a 3.5 year old, isn’t it?

Personally, I am not a fan of the Suzuki method. I confess I am biased, having learned to read music at the age of 5 or 6 (the same time I was learning to read and write English), what actual instruction I received being more traditional and formal, and concentrating much more on 20th Century works (with some older things sprinkled in.

First, what I like:

  1. The instruments are sized to fit the child. This is a good thing. If you can’t hold onto or properly finger your instrument you will not enjoy playing it and you will not play it well.

  2. The attitude that everyone has some musical talent that can be cultivated and improved.

  3. Children are encouraged to play in groups and perform. While I, personally, am not that thrilled with those things I really do feel trying and experiencing them were invaluable parts of my development and to this day I feel little if any stage fright when doing something in front of a crowd.

  4. Less emphasis on competition than more traditional western music instruction. I hate competing in music competitions (which I have done a few times). I play purely for my own enjoyment now, and if I have my way will never compete in that manner again. Ever. I think I would have done better in an instructional environment with much less emphasis on sending people to competitions to win prizes.
    Here are my criticisms

  5. As you noted, a child of 3 or 4 years isn’t very focused. This is normal for that age. I’m not sure how *capable *a child that age is when it comes to being a musician, rather than learning to play a few simple tunes almost as a parlor trick. Yes, some children are musical and motivated at that age but it’s rare. Your child might even be one of those kids, but the odds are against it. Personally, until a child of mine was really asking for music lessons, or showing real strong interest/self motivation I’d wait until 5 or 6 for music lessons of any sort. Meanwhile, I’d expose the kid to a lot of music and let him/her fool around with toy instruments and the like. Just my opinion, obviously lots of folks feel different.

  6. Over-reliance on “by ear” learning. There is nothing wrong with being able to play by ear (frankly, I wish I had more skill at it myself) but musical notation is muscical writing. It’s considered normal to learn to read and write one’s lanague as well as speak it, and if you don’t learn musical notation at some point you’re an illiterate musician. Granted, there have been many successful musical illiterates - Paul McCartney, for example, never learned to read or write music and he’s a billionaire. However, most musicians don’t have the level of talent needed to succeed despite that limitation, and that’s very much what we’re talking about here - a limitation. I understand some Suzuki teachers do teach musical notation eventually, and I suggest you seek such a teacher out if you want your child to continue in music. Even more so if the kid wants to continue in music.

  7. Over-reliance on rote learning. While it is necessary to achieve a certain level of technical mastery and craft in order to play an instrument you do want someone capable of expressing him or her self. You don’t want to sound like a robot. I’ve heard some young kids who play Suzuki method and, frankly, that is how they sound to me. They’ve learned to play one or a few tunes with technical precision but with all the emotion of clock or paperweight.

So, where does that leave you? Well, my advice, which you may take or leave as you choose (you’re the parent here, you decide for your child) is

  • either wait a couple more years to start music instruction, or be VERY involved in your child’s practice. For sure a child that age is not going to be focused. If it doesn’t work out try again in a few years.

  • find teachers that have some enthusiasm for teaching their students how to read music and incorporate some sight reading along with by ear learning. Again, learning to read music, like learning to read language, isn’t something most 3-4 year olds are ready to do although, just as a child that age can learn to identify the alphabet and numbers, a child that age could learn to identify notes on a page.

  • don’t limit the child to Suzuki. If your kid develops and interest in playing (and certainly can occur with Suzuki) make sure they have a means to branch beyond “the method”. That one reason for learning to read music - you have more ability to learn things on your own. If the kid wants to play pop or jazz help him or her find a way to do that. If I recall, Suzuki puts heavy emphasis on Western classical music. That would have killed half the musicians in my family - I have a niece and nephew who are jazz enthusiasts, my sister is both a classically trained musician who played in a professional orchestra for awhile AND played professional jazz sax, my husband is classically trained in tuba and played for the Chicago Pops at one point AND played/taught Highland bagpipes (now there’s a contrast…), I like pop and folk (and lest you think folk is easy - the level I enjoy it you’re having to “transliterate” oddball notation and improvise your own accompaniment from chord notations if you’re lucky enough to have them so there quite a bit of musical theory involved, with more modal scales than what we normally hear in classical, jazz, and pop), and so on.

Anyhow - good luck. I hope the kid learns to love music. I’ve been playing piano (as well as trying my hand at a few other instruments) for over 40 years now, it has brought me a great deal of enjoyment. I wish the same for you and yours, however you get there.

Contrawise, pushing is okay. I started to learn guitar at… call it 14. And gave up after a few months. Mostly cause I had one lesson a week and didn’t realize I had to practice at home.

I’m regretting that now.

Moved MPSIMS --> Cafe Society.

Both my kids started Suzuki when they were four. I don’t think this is a particularly accurate criticism. The tunes they started with were, yes, very simple–so simple, it wasn’t anything even close to a parlor trick for them to play. They’re extremely simple tunes that build a very basic foundation for moving on to the next set of skills. And a teacher who insists that a four year old practice intently for a half hour a day or whatever is probably not a good Suzuki teacher.

Not being able to read music is indeed a limitation. But every single Suzuki student my kids’ teacher teaches eventually learns to read music. She just doesn’t start the four year olds on it. After all, as you point out, they probably can barely read English yet.

Both my kids read music, and all the kids I’ve seen at the annual recitals–except the tinies–do too.

But we’re talking about young kids, here. They’re doing good just to get the notes right. The older students–say, middle school age–of course do better. And I’ve sat there and heard the teacher talking about expression to all of the older students, and I’ve seen and heard the results in my children’s playing. Maybe some teachers don’t go into it–or maybe it’s something certain kids find harder than others, and isn’t the fault of the method. I’d be inclined to assume it was something that particular kid had to work on, rather than assuming the teacher just didn’t care about it.

It’s been pretty amazing watching my kids progress over the years. They started barely able to play Twinkle and it was hard to believe they would ever get to be like the “big kids” who we heard at the recitals every year. But sure enough, there they are, and when I hear the new tinies play “Train Song” or pluck their one note for “Pop Goes the Weasel” I know that eventually, if they stick with it, they’ll be playing Vivaldi too, just like my now “big kids.”

You absolutely have to be involved in a little kid’s practice. I never did take violin, but dang if I don’t know the fingerings for the first half of the first book by heart.

“Practice” for that first bit was really only something like ten, fifteen minutes a day, doing the “wheels on the bus” bow exercise and/or “up like a rocket” and then “Pop” and “Train Song” and the different rhythms on open strings. Heck, maybe only five if that’s all the attention I could get–any little bit helps.

By the time they’re playing “Twinkle” you’re maybe doing twenty minutes. As they get older, they can focus longer, but any teacher who’s used to dealing with little guys knows they’re not going to be doing a half hour of intense practice a day.

Have you tried something like stickers? My kids’ teacher puts a sticker in the kids notebook for each lesson, and then I would put one in for a practice. Maybe you can say, “Let’s do “Wheels” and “Up like a rocket” and then play “Train Song” and that’s practice” and then put a sticker in the notebook. That has the added benefit of letting your kiddo show his teacher he practiced every day, which the teacher is sure to praise, I would imagine. As time goes by you can say, “Train Song three times” or “Twinkle four times” and build it up gradually like that. That’s how I did it.

I don’t think Suzuki is the only or absolutely best method for teaching kids violin–but I’ve seen it work really well. Of course, my kids’ teacher is fantastic, and a bad teacher can sabotage anything. But most Suzuki teachers expect to deal with small kids, and enjoy it or they wouldn’t do it.

Thanks a million for your very comprehensive response!

This is what I’m finding. He has some good practices, some bad ones, but the bad ones often end in tears.

He loves music and is quite good at identifying pieces and instruments and composers, etc. But it also seems (so far) that he’s as tone deaf as his father. I guess we’ll find out about the “capable” part when the bow meets the strings.

That’s a good point I hadn’t considered. I’ll have to ask the teacher about musical notation. If he’s not so enthused, I guess I can try to teach him on my own.

Eek! I’m trying to raise an Itzhak Perlman, not a jukebox! Maybe Suzuki at 3 & 4 and some other teacher at 5 & 6?

That’s quite an eclectic clan you’ve got there! At Carneigie Mellon University, here in Pittsburgh, you can get a full scholarship, provided one of your majors is “Highland bagpipes”. It was in Andrew Carnegie’s will or something. Our family is not nearly so musical. I played clarinet through high school and college, and am fumbling my way through guitar now, but otherwise, the little one’s on his own. Anyway, it’s good to know that there are some options out there. Food for thought.

Thanks a bunch.

I was in the same boat re piano. If only my parents were Chinese…

Both my kids took it, starting at 4 or 5. While there was nothing wrong with it, they got a lot more out of piano lessons in the traditional fashion. The younger one then also took cello. The older one plays the piano now for fun, the younger has no interest in playing at all. (They are both now in their 20s) and I don’t think Suzuki had any positive or negative influences. I suppose a musical genius might show up through it, but they got half their genes from me, who is tone deaf, which diluted the quarter they got from my father in law who is a composer and who has perfect pitch.

I’d say do it as a nice social activity, and follow the lead of the kid.

Beni, I’m doing something about it now, too. You can too.

Yes, well, I actually didn’t cover all of it, just the highlights. I come from a very unusual family where, if the kids misbehaved, the parents didn’t take away the TV they took away the piano. My parents didn’t have to force us to practice, they have to force us to stop and share the one piano in the house - we were driven to a large extent by sibling rivalry. We all played piano and at least one other instrument because we wanted to do so.

(Between my sisters and me we played piano, recorder, violin, viola, autoharp, tenor saxophone, flute, classical and steel string guitar, drums, bagpipes, mountain dulcimer, and harmonica. By the way, there were only four of us. Add in the nieces and nephews you have trombone, baritone, and vocals in addition to four more piano players and another sax and drummer.)

Despite all that, only one of us became a professional musician. You know, that’s totally OK. Those of us who remained amateurs have a challenging and enjoyable hobby and a great appreciation for music. But we are not the norm here.

Yes. One thing about my family - we all took different paths to through the music world. Some paths do require a strict and narrow road (symphony level classical, for example) but many genres are more flexible. Not everyone has to be a genius or a professional, music is enjoyable even as “just” a hobby.

At the school my children attend, Suzuki is part of the curriculum for primary through to grade 5. Although over time, I wished they would branch out into other genres to hold the kids’ interest, I think it’s a great place to start for little ones. As others have said, age 3 or 4 is usually too young to read music so this method allows them to progress without knowing how. I always had problems reading music as a kid and would have loved to have learned this way. I might not have gotten frustrated and given up so easily. My inability to read music didn’t get in my way as a parent in helping them with their practice.
You get pretty sick of Twinkle Twinkle pretty quick but eventually you see how they build many of the rhythms, bowing techniques and others skills off that one simple tune.
I still have one kid out of two who still plays the violin so it’s not all bad. My biggest criticism is the narrow choice of music… at the annual concert, the kids got to play only one fun tune…Harry Potter or Star Wars.

I wasn’t taught with the Suzuki Method, but my teachers did use the books for literature. At 3 1/2, I’d just make sure to let the kid practice as little or as much as he wants and a teacher that accepts the limitations of your average 4 year old. Playing music should be fun no matter what your age.

So, the consensus seems to be: “Give it a whirl, but don’t get wedded to one particular method if the Suzuki regimen doesn’t work out.”

Sound advice, I think I’ll give it a shot.

Thanks, all.

I grew up with Suzuki violin method. It has some major advantages but also major drawbacks. As a result of the Suzuki method, I and almost everyone else I know who went through it, are very weak in the areas of sight-reading and improvisation, which are both very important to mature musicianship.