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Suzuki Books Are Not Suzuki Method

I have some mixed feelings about transfer students.

I love new students of any variety, and transfer students are certainly no exception. Transfer students currently make up a good chunk of my student base. Without my transfer kids, I wouldn’t really be making a living at all.

But.

I’m growing increasingly weary of the state in which my transfer students come to me.

My intro lessons are largely the same with these types of students – show me your bow hold, play the last song you worked on for me, can you play an A/D/G scale, etc. Nearly every time I have an intro lesson with a transfer student, I sit with a poker face that thinly veils my internal horror with the state of the student’s technique. Collapsed left hands, bow grips akin to an arcade claw game, instrument teetering perilously on the chest, and a tone closer to nails on a chalkboard than a violin. Without failure, I am astonished at what the former teacher “taught” the student currently standing in front of me, because to me it appears that the child has scarcely learned a thing except remedial lesson in muscle tension. I grow more troubled as I learn that the former teacher taught “Suzuki method” to the child – because to people who do teach Suzuki method it’s painfully clear that this is not the end result that Dr. Suzuki spent his life trying to produce.

This predicament certainly isn’t the child’s fault, nor the parent’s. I cannot fault the parties who often don’t have the expertise or experience with the instrument to know what a good private teacher can accomplish. The issue is with teachers who claim to teach the Suzuki method without putting the principles in practice, and with teachers who do not have appropriately high expectations for their students.

To my first point, teaching from the Suzuki method books is not teaching the Suzuki method. That’s just using the repertoire that Dr. Suzuki selected. Let’s be clear: there’s not anything wrong with this. A traditional teacher can do great non-Suzuki based work with the Suzuki repertoire, and for a violin teacher who needs a starting point, grabbing the Suzuki books is the path of least resistance because Dr. Suzuki already put the thought in for us. But simply using the book is not teaching the Suzuki method. There are philosophies of the Suzuki method that matter infinitely more than the repertoire – do one thing at a time, learn with your ears before your eyes, prioritize beautiful tone, establish a strong relationship between teacher, student, and parent, reinforce through review. When a student arrives for a lesson and throws the method book onto the stand to struggle through reading a Suzuki piece with terrible tone and horrendous posture, I know that the former teacher didn’t truly teach the Suzuki method, they just used the repertoire.

To my second point, I often ponder the priorities of my students’ former teachers. Maybe this is my education degree talking, but I have always felt that my expectations of my students are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect that your students will play with correct posture and beautiful tone, and prioritize your teaching strategies to that end, you students will develop correct posture and beautiful tone. If you expect that your students will be able to read music effectively, you will prioritize your teaching strategies to that end and your students will meet your expectations. If you have no expectations for your students, or you don’t know how to prioritize foundational skills of successful violin performance, or you’re just taking students to help you pay rent, you have no idea what they should be able to do in six months, one year, five years time. What are students going to get out of lessons with you if you don’t establish your expectations of them and reinforce and build upon those expectations each week? What service are you really doing for these children and their families? I’ve always felt teaching with little to no articulated expectations is futile, and futility is essentially the antithesis of education.

Parents (and adult students!) – do yourselves and your child a favor and talk with prospective teachers about their vision for a new student and what they expect to see out of a student on a weekly basis. If they don’t have an answer, keep looking. If they can articulate their expectations for students without skipping a beat, and they see a clear vision for your child and are willing to put a plan into action, you’ve found a teacher worth working with.

Just some food for thought on this subzero Monday night in Chicago.

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