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The Traditional Way / The Suzuki Way:

A comparison of piano lessons-- from the past, to a more modern approach....

by Katharine Austin  ©6/2013




In the Traditional Way:  Many teachers presume that some students have musical ability and others do not. Musical talent is thought to be a genetic gift, and inborn talent is  assumed to be the main factor in explaining a teacher’s success with some students and not with others.  Some teachers may give up on particular students claiming they lack musical talent, without considering that something in the teacher’s approach may be lacking.


          SUZUKI WAY: Suzuki begins with the belief that nearly anyone can be trained to a very high level of musicianship, and with good teaching, can learn to play fluently and musically. Just as everyone learns to speak his or her native language, so the language of music can be taught successfully to anyone.  He refers to his philosophy as "the mother-tongue approach", and he uses the learning of one's native language as a fundamental analogy to the learning of a musical instrument. 

          The presence of spoken language, and the verbal communication with others in the environment, is the basis of language mastery. Likewise, Suzuki proposes that we undertake musical instrument training in a musical environment. The engagement with music in the environment will cause the child to be musical.  This is the single most important factor in the educational foundation of any musician. He advises playing all kinds of music (live or recorded) at home, including the music the student will be asked to learn.   This should be done at the earliest possible age.

         With effective training in a musical environment, most students will experience great rewards along the path toward mastery of the instrument.  As concentration improves and expands, and as attention to detail refines the student's expression, the discipline of practice becomes a deepening of awareness of sound, emotional content and aesthetic beauty--not merely an exercise in mechanical repetition.  In Suzuki’s view, such practice is transformative, builds character and leads to an experience of flow and freedom of the highest order. This lofty path is one that all students have the “talent” and gift to pursue. 






In traditional lessons: Typically, the student comes to his or her first lesson not having any idea what to expect.  The prospective student may well come to his first lessons with thoughts, feelings or behaviors that interfere with his learning. A student may begin lessons with anxiety, lack of focus (sometimes even to the point of being unable to sit at the piano or to concentrate even for a few minutes), or attitudes that will not serve him well in the task at hand.


           SUZUKI WAY:  The student is brought to observe the lessons of others.  By observation the student becomes knowledgeable about many things, not the least of which is:  how a piano lesson begins.  In the Suzuki method the lesson begins with a mutual bow, which is symbolic not only of the respect student and teacher have for one another, but also signals the beginning of a special dedicated time frame, given over exclusively to the process of learning.  The bow is a ritual that helps clear the mind of extraneous thoughts and brings focus to the lesson.  


          The observing student also takes in and grasps what might be expected of him when he himself becomes a student:  this includes the behavior and attention expected of him, as well as valuable information about the student/teacher relationship, and how student and teacher are fully and positively engaged in listening to one another.  The observing student will at all times see an excellent rapport between teacher and student.

          All the while, the observing student is spending time in the musical environment, listening to the repertoire that he, himself, will be able to play. In addition, students who come to the lessons of others often develop an eagerness to finally get their turn to play.  In Japan, where students usually observe for a year or more before they begin lessons, they are primed and ready to go when they are finally called forward to their first lesson.

          Last but not least, over time the student has gained enough basic understanding about piano lessons to allow the teacher to teach most effectively: That is, instead of needing to resort to long verbal explanations in order to instruct the new student, the teacher may now work with the student almost entirely through the senses, and by the process of "modeling".  (See "teaching by modeling" below.)


          Suzuki students generally start observing the lessons of others around three years old (if not before). After many observations, the student begins lessons when he or she is ready.  "Ready" in this context means willing and able to accept instruction.   






In the Traditional Way:  Typically, parents drop the child off at his or her lessons and are not considered an integral part of the learning process.


           SUZUKI WAY:  In this philosophy the parents are considered to be an essential part of the learning process.  While the students are young, the parents are considered to be a part of a “ teacher/student/parent triangle”. It is important for each parent to understand his or her role in order to be an effective part of the Suzuki triangle, and in order to foster success in the complex process of learning the instrument, especially in the early stages.

          Parents of Suzuki students are asked to take on specific responsibilities:

          Before lessons start, the parent needs to play the CD of the Book I material daily and often enough that the child internalizes the whole book. After lessons begin, the parents continue to play the CD daily.   In order to provide a musical environment parents also need to see that children hear as much music as possible.  Taking children to age appropriate concerts, recitals, musicals, and playing music on CD at home is essential.

         While the students are young (until about age 11) the parents come to the lessons and are asked to take the assignment notes on what the child is to practice at home.  A parent comes to the lessons so that he or she will understand what is going on and will be able to help the student focus on the assignments at home on a daily basis.   Having a parent take notes also vastly improves the quality of each lesson itself, as the teacher and student are thus free to focus more on the musical process itself during the lesson.

          Even non-musician parents are carefully shown what the student is working on and how to work on it at home.   Parents are taught some of the Suzuki Book One repertoire so that they can understand piano fingering and other basics.  The parent then takes an important role in supervising daily practice.  The parent continues on a daily basis at home what the teacher taught at the lesson. 


          In addition, parents need to provide a well maintained, good quality acoustic piano (as opposed to electronic keyboard, a quiet place to practice,  encouragement  and as much music as possible in the home. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to have a good quality instrument.  A quality grand piano in excellent condition is mandatory for a serious student.

          All parents are responsible to play the CD of the repertoire that the student is working on. 






In the Traditional  Way:  Traditionally, the teacher relies heavily on verbal instruction. After a student plays a piece or an exercise, the teacher tells the student what or what not to do.  Students usually go home to practice on their own, based on what they remember the teacher SAID to do. 


           SUZUKI WAY: There is very little talking and explaining.  The lessons proceed mainly by the direct communication of "antiphonal" playing (of the repertoire the student has learned to play by ear).  First the teacher plays; then the student plays.  All the while teacher listens and student listens.  Learning, especially in the early years, takes place mainly through the senses rather than through verbal explanations. Lessons proceed step by step, (or we might say, “sound-step by sound-step”), little by little, at the student’s own pace.  As the lesson proceeds, the teacher keeps in mind five basic rules for effective teaching:  learn through the senses, learn at the student’s own pace, teach only as long as the child can concentrate, allow for plenty of review, teach only one point at a time (sometimes only one note at a time!).  

          The point in this philosophy is that music is expressive sound, and students must learn to listen well in order to learn to play expressively.   In Suzuki philosophy the high quality of the expressive sound is pursued from the very first lesson.

A mere recitation of the correct notes, mere mechanical playing, is never an acceptable goal to a good Suzuki teacher.  (When Dr. Suzuki heard such playing he would quip,  “A good typist was nurtured.”) In Suzuki training, the minimizing of verbal explanation and the maximizing of the sensual experience, creates lessons that are exceptional for their directness, clarity, focus and musicality.


           For students who are ready ---"ready" in this context means that the student can play fluently and musically at least half or more (depending on age) of the Book I material -- there is a segment of the lesson devoted to reading and theory.  (Please note here that many Suzuki teachers give a separate group lesson devoted to reading and theory.) 

           At the end of the lesson the teacher confers with the parent to make sure the parent knows exactly what to help the young child with at home.  Generally there is one point to work on per piece.  There is also a reading assignment given where applicable.






In the Traditional Way:  All piano methods require practice of the material presented at the lesson. 


            Suzuki Way: No matter whose philosophy we examine, the fine physical movements required to play the instrument demand ongoing, consistent practice. In the Suzuki philosophy, it is essential that the student (and parent) understand exactly what to practice. It is the teacher’s responsibility to be specific, and send the student home with clear goals and clear means to achieve those goals.  

           We must also cultivate an attitude for productive practice.  Over time, the student must develop a positive and problem-solving attitude in order to progress.  Indeed, this positive and encouraging practice attitude is taught (modeled) at every moment at every lesson! 






In the Traditional Way:  By slowly learning how to read music, the student works on two or three pieces for his weekly lesson.  If he is preparing for a recital, he works on one piece longer and harder.  Most pieces are discarded after the correct notes are learned.


           SUZUKI WAY:  By listening to a CD, a student learns by ear a large number of repertoire pieces.  The Suzuki Repertoire is a course of seven books.  (It should be noted here that many Suzuki teachers do not teach all seven books.  Many of us use the beginning books and then branch out into a much broader range of repertoire.) Students usually work on one book at a time, and eventually  perform the entire book on a solo recital.  (As an example, Suzuki Book I contains 19 short  pieces that the student learns at his or her own pace.) The music that the student learns to play by ear forms the foundation from which to comprehend (at a later date) the abstract symbols of music notation.

          Just as new words and new language are not dropped and forgotten, the repertoire that the Suzuki students learn is cumulative.  Sooner or later, the student has a long list of pieces he can play by ear (memorized), one after the other.  With this ability, he can then go to a piano anytime, anywhere, and play fluently for a long time.  Because he is playing without the printed score (just as a dancer learns dances and performs them without a printed score), his ear is freed up to listen to himself as he plays, and the use of the hands and body (the technical foundation) can be established.

           This repertoire becomes the basis of the piano lessons.  The student plays all (or most) of his pieces at all of his lessons.  As he learns more, his concentration time lengthens.  The fluidity of his playing improves.  At each lesson, the technical and musical problems introduced in each piece are brought to a higher level of performance.  Through modeling, the teacher can guide the student to hear fine detail in the music.  Students are usually given a new piece to work on each week, and, in addition, they also work to improve the previous pieces.

            Reading music becomes a major priority in Suzuki training, just as word reading becomes the highest goal in first grade, after the student has gained a reasonable level of speaking fluency.  Students learn to play a good variety of pieces in their reading books.

            Reading is taught after the student has a body of memorized repertoire and a good basic technique.    Reading music is certainly as important as playing by ear.  The only difference is that it is taught after playing by ear, not before.  This is consistent with the acquisition of language.






In the Traditional  Way:  Beginning students are shown a 5-finger hand position at middle C, which correlates with most beginning reading method books.  Unfortunately, the traditional 5-finger hand position is unnatural and detrimental from a technical point of view.  Because the focus and attention of most beginning students is given over to the task of deciphering the notes on a page, both the technical quality, tone quality and fluency of the playing usually suffer.


           SUZUKI WAY: Though Suzuki was not a pianist, and the Suzuki philosophy does not encompass a comprehensive piano technique, most modern Suzuki teachers are in touch with good technical practices and principles. These principles may be effectively integrated into the teaching of the repertoire from the very first lesson.  The student is in the right position to form good technical skills from day one, as his attention is  focused on HOW TO play, and what sound he is producing, NOT on deciphering abstract  symbolic notation.






In the Traditional Way:  Recitals tend to be major once-per-year events.


          SUZUKI WAY: Students perform for others often.  Workshops and informal recitals are held to help students become accustomed to playing for others.  Students are not asked to a play piece that they have recently learned exclusively for the purpose of performing on an upcoming recital.   Students play one or more pieces from their expanding repertoire that has accumulated over a long period.

          Suzuki students also give solo "Book Recitals".  These recitals establish the student’s accomplishment of a major body of work, and the performed pieces becomes a (more or less) permanent part of the student’s expanding musical language.






           SUZUKI WAY:    Suzuki has stated from the beginning that the goal of lessons is not awards, prizes,  or competitions etc.. Nor is the speed of learning the focus.  Suzuki's goal is, as he put it: “beautiful tone, beautiful heart”.  Suzuki’s vision was to help each child develop heart and character through music. Though this is a long subject in itself, suffice it to say: it takes refinement, character and self-discipline to play an instrument well.  (I might add, it takes a nurturing heart and character on the part of the parents, too.)   

           That being so, there are only students traveling along a musical path.   They go at their own pace. In our classes, our Suzuki teacher-trainers seemed to be operating in a Zen-inspired manner, free of all arbitrary time references that would compare one person's speed of learning to that of another.  In our teacher-training classes, we heard a student who had spent a long time--over 4 years-- working on Book 1 of the Suzuki repertoire.  We were impressed by the teacher's unwavering confidence in his ability and musical growth!   On the other end of the spectrum, we saw and heard 5 and 6 year olds play whole books of very difficult music beautifully--with feeling, nuance and confidence.      As parents and teachers we cannot be attached to the speed of progress, we can only be fully committed to the growth and character development of each student in his or her own time.





         What is the sound of good, productive piano practice? OK. What is the sound of a construction site on demolition day? Piano practice should sound bad (in particular ways).  If it’s pretty and pleasant, especially during the early stages of learning a new piece, then likely little progress is being made. Students:  your parents should be thrilled if your practice sounds energetic (though not necessarily fast), incoherent and repetitious!  If, for any reason that is not the case, please read on.*


          First I should say I agree with William Westney who lamented in his excellent book, “The Perfect Wrong Note”, that home pianos are most often located in living rooms. It’s unfortunate that students usually have to practice there, because the sound of good practice will be disturbing to those nearby.  Knowing that’s the case, students sometimes practice in uptight, inhibited ways.  It can be a bit like walking on eggshells, which is totally counter-productive.  In an ideal world, once you’re at the stage that you really know how to practice, no-one should have to listen to you!


         The conscientious piano student, wanting to master a new piece in the shortest possible time, will do best to tear into the music like a savage beast (or, at least, a cunning one). With high energy and extreme focus, you, the student, must break it down and chew it up.


         Though it may be tempting to do so, you need not waste a lot of time awkwardly trying to play through the whole piece. (I admit, I do that sometimes-- but try to learn from my misspent hours…).  Instead, you will be practicing well-chosen, but, by themselves, musically meaningless, fragments. These bits and pieces, these elements, must be worked over many times, often to the point that those in earshot might think you’ve gone off the deep end. 


         To one degree or another, as you repeat a small segment, you’ll be experimenting, trying things out, comparing different fingerings, experiencing different articulations and hand placements (in or out?, rotating or not?, flatter fingers or more rounded?), all with a goal to solve the unique musical problems presented in a small part of the score, and all the while working toward and maintaining a feeling of ease in hands, arms and shoulders.


         You’ll be in the trial-and-error phase, and you’ll need to pay particular attention to those errors. Your mistakes will be essential guides telling you where to make necessary physical adjustments.  (Without your errors and audible hesitations, you won’t know what you have to work on.)  While listening intensively, you are, at the same time, aiming toward a coordinated and secure feeling in your body.


         In order to solve each multi-dimensional problem, often you must repeat the same notes many times (again) using different rhythms, stopping and starting in different places, and with different dynamic levels. Where a  “soft and delicate ” sound is indicated in the score, you’ll be working at full volume, thus making the practice sound even more gross to anyone who might be nearby. Listening to, say, Claire de Lune, broken to bits and at full forte will probably be obnoxious to others, but this loud practice will strengthen your physical connection to the notes, which is an important first step for you.


         Sometimes, after a large number of repetitions you’ll make a breakthrough to mastery. There are times when after the first 99 reps (trials), even though you were concentrating well, something is still “not working”. On the 100th, a discovery or an insight just happens. Without those first 99, you might not have accomplished anything that day.  Someone listening to you would have no idea why you had to keep going over that same part so many times.  And we certainly don’t know in advance how many trials it will take.   Everyone learns at a different pace, but be assured, very few people achieve mastery by instantaneous magic!


         Unlike those who may have to listen to you, you’ll be in a non-judgmental frame of mind. You’ll be focused, engaged and in a positive state of consciousness (also known as “flow”). The repetition does not annoy you, because you’re involved in a goal-directed process.  Like a basketball player perfecting his shot from a particular point on the court, you’re “in the zone” until you can make that shot with ease, every time.





         With experience and help, the right physical motions will come to you more quickly when learning something new, at least in parts of the piece. Still, that leaves all the other parts with which you have no past experience to help you.  That’s why, once again, you will have to break it down into manageable chunks. Again, this is no problem for you because you know how to do it and it works. 


         Ultimately, like good construction projects, the parts will come together to create an extraordinary whole. 1 + 1 might even equal more than 2!  Soon you’ll have large sections of your piece joining up,  feeling connected and fluent.  (Indeed, you’ll be moving on to the next phase of learning--which is a subject for another day.)  Eventually… behold! The sound of your playing will resemble music!  The hills will come alive again with your exciting, beautiful performance!


Katharine Austin




*       (Though there are countless ways to practice and several phases to learning a new piece, I’ve tried to touch on a few basics here.   As always, I’ll be teaching good practice techniques specific to each piece at the lessons. It might be helpful for parents to be aware of what kind of practice they are hearing at home.  It should be, first and foremost, energetic (though not necessarily fast)! It should involve breaking the piece down into elements.  Finally, playing beautifully through a whole piece, or group of pieces, will be important, but that comes in the later stages of practice. By that point, the piece(s) should sound fluent and musical, not “stumbly” and weak.  If the playing is ragged, more “elemental” practice (with optimal fingering etc.) is needed. Though you may not be around when they do it, I think it would be great to commend students for their good, “bad” sounding practice. On the other hand, just so you know, mindless “playing through”, non-fluently, weakly and with many mistakes totally ignored, is not really practice. …


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