Inheriting Suzuki Students- My Experience
Found in: Other Methods
Cathy H. California
Let me share my recent experiences regarding inheriting a number of Suzuki students from a local, certified Suzuki teacher. I will also provide you with some background.
Laura V. has been teaching Suzuki in our areas for 22 years. She is retiring from teaching and moving to Texas and will study to become a Suzuki Trainer. She currently has a young studio of 35 students. She had researched the Simply Music website and, although impressed by the program, was apprehensive because of the comment “anyone can teach it” which gave her the impression that SM was not a music education program, just one that taught a few songs to have some fun with.
I started receiving calls from parents telling me their Suzuki teacher (Laura) was retiring. Since there are no other certified Suzuki teachers in our area, they were looking for a program as close to Suzuki as they could find. They had seen my ads and Simply Music became their choice. None wanted to go to traditional lessons. However, there was a big push by these parents for ‘performance etiquette and ability’.
Several parents began discussing Simply Music on the Suzuki bulletin board. One mom, Uma, called to find out if I would meet with the parents individually. I asked if she thought Laura might setup an FIS so I could answer all questions at one time. She was very excited and called Laura to see if we could work this out. Laura called me very pleased with the idea. We talked several times over the next few weeks, and educated each other about SM and Suzuki. We also discussed which students might transition well (personality and ability wise). Laura found that her students that live 30-40 miles north of my studio decided to go to a Suzuki teacher about 1 ½ hours away. Some decided to go to a new Suzuki teacher about 20 miles south. Our conclusion was that students with three years or less of Suzuki training (about 10-15 of the remaining students) would be good candidates to come to SM.
We agreed it was a good idea to hold and FIS, and spent several hours preparing for the FIS so she would be comfortable talking to the parents about any issues that might arise.
On the night of the FIS, only about ½ of the expected group (10 out of 20) showed up and Laura was a bit disappointed. However we enrolled six on the night, and there will be a few more who will enroll over the next week or so.
With regard to the FIS itself, I had spent several days trying to figure out the best way to approach this, worked out a plan, then totally changed my mind the moment everyone sat down. Talk about a serious bunch! Holy cow you could cut the air with a knife. So, I opened with remarks about myself and background, the history of SM and Neil’s background. I then told the group that instead of me talking for an hour, in the interest of time and to allow for a long question and answer session, I would show them a short video so they could hear direct from your thoughts on SM. I used the video from Foundation Level 1 Student Home Materials (SHM) starting just past the introduction. Everyone loved it and Laura (the teacher) came to me after and said she was shocked. She had been telling her parents much of this for years and had never heard anyone but Suzuki speak of music the same way as you. She was very surprised and pleased I used the video because it was extremely helpful for her parents to hear it directly from Neil. The question period was long, but they were good questions from very concerned parents.
As I mentioned above, one of the most interesting was the question regarding ‘performance etiquette’. It started with a question about recitals. One asked about monthly recitals. I explained I could do them, but don’t at this time. I talked about the fact that children who are in group play for each other all the time. I also discussed how I feel that the most important thing for children to gain from a recital is confidence. At this stage “etiquette” is basic and nothing more. I explained my own personal experiences with pressure and how discouraging pressure is as a musician. I told them how my goal was to provide a secure non-pressure environment in which all students felt capable of succeeding while playing. I stated that their children are still young and that they had plenty of time in their lives to experience performance. I let them know that someday in the future, my goal was to rent Amador Theater and host a formal recital, but I didn’t see that happening for several years, and that what they needed to focus on right now was building confidence and self-esteem.
Although there were many positive head nods, my comments were NOT appreciated by one parent who twice questioned when I would teach etiquette. My answer was the same, “I don’t know”. All in all, the FIS was a very successful experience.
The following is my summary of information that I received from Laura, from talking to parents and from research I did on my own. Quite interesting I think.
Like SM, Suzuki requires their teachers go through formal training. In theory once teachers are finished there are required to join the Suzuki teachers association. However, there is no control over who is a member, who isn’t or who even goes to training! To add to the problem, training is only available on a very limited basis. There are only two trainers in California and apparently Suzuki teachers do not know where they are or when their training will be. The trainers travel and usually show up twice a year or so. Complicating matters, much of the material is available for purchase without training (I actually purchased some at a local music store) and there is no follow up on the part of Suzuki to maintain a sense of unity among the teachers or consistency within the method. Commonly, teachers venture off on their own, thinking they are teaching the method when they really aren’t. Each teacher must select their own theory method (usually according to the needs of the individual student). This makes transferring teachers difficult, especially if one teacher does not teach the method the student is currently learning.
There is a third teacher in our area who claims to be a Suzuki teacher. According to Laura, she has never been formally trained yet still claims to be a certified teacher. Laura is angry with her for this and, believe it or not, doesn’t even know who to contact to report that she’s claiming to be a Certified Teacher when in fact she’s not.
Inconsistencies in Suzuki students:
1. Reading. Parents are told their children can read well. In reality, I have found that they can read somewhat, but not well. They are reading below Level 1 Suzuki. How frustrating for the student who has memorized Suzuki pieces that are many levels about their reading ability. This was also a major complaint I found in reading several reviews about the Suzuki method and makes me question just how self-generating a Suzuki student is when they have completed the three-year, 7-level program.
(As a point to note, Laura is very close to her students and parents, and provides a 10-week training course for parents that includes instruction in how to work with children, what to do if your child doesn’t practice or gets bored etc. I assumed that since the parents had been through such an extensive course, they would be very knowledgeable. While talking to the Suzuki parents about the SM Reading Program and how it unfolds into two languages – rhythm and notes – I had one parent say, “I don’t understand, what is rhythm?” I actually had to give her a definition. (I just started a former Suzuki violin student of two years who didn’t even know that notes had names.)
2. Musicality. Although I have found that the Suzuki students that I had already inherited from other studios have excellent technique, their interpretation and musicality is poor. This was the second most common complaint in my research and from parents, and in direct contrast to what Laura had told me about Suzuki’s belief about playing for the beauty of the piece. This surprised Laura. As I explained to her, all my current and former Suzuki students had come from non-certified, non-trained Suzuki teachers which may explain why this is an issue. However I have now heard some of Laura’s students play and the same is true, technically great, musically…I’d describe it as flat or without feeling.
3. Suzuki has seven books that are expected to be finished on the average in three years. The seventh book is considered early advanced. There is no real comparison to SM within the Levels. Sonata in C is taught in Suzuki Level 6, but in it’s original uncut version.
4. Repertoire. I could never teach it as all of the music is classical, a lot of Bach and quite boring (sorry not a Bach fan!) just my opinion.
5. Inconsistency in what is taught. Laura for example does not stick strictly to the method – she brings in other methods and some jazz and blues to keep her students happy. This is a big Suzuki ‘no no’, and she admits it.
6. Inconsistency in how it’s taught – inconsistency in methodology. Part of this stems from non-certified teachers. The inconsistency is a Suzuki control problem and was the third biggest complaint.
7. Practice Schedule. Parents also complained about the rigid practice schedule – 45 minutes per day in conjunction with listening time, as well as the mandatory recitals and the uninteresting repertoire. The rigidity of the program scares off many children, the music bores them and, as we know, it’s highly technical.
8. Ear Training. I was really shocked at how this is accomplished – listening over and over to the same thing for an hour until you can figure out the next note? How bizarre is that? None of the children have focus on their hands. Some of the Suzuki parent’s at the FIS complained about this, saying that their children are visual learners and could not work with the listening.
Laura and many of the parents asked if I could expedite the children through SM and I told them that I have never been able to do so with a Suzuki student. They were very surprised and did not understand why. The problem again is the child’s strong ear…that’s all they’ve got. They have no idea what they are playing in their hands. This puzzled Laura. I did suggest supplementing their education with Arrangements. Experience has taught me that although the Arrangements are best for these kids, they are VERY difficult for them. The students comments – “I need to hear it in order to play it correctly”. That’s NOT a good thing.
Incidentally, the Suzuki parents are paying $350.00 per month for lessons (killer huh?). Laura suggested I raise my rates to match this because I would have a very dedicated studio of students. I told her “no”.
The following is an addendum to the above:
Over the last two years I have assembled a story with regard to questioning the Suzuki method and how the teachers treat their students. After corresponding with several SM teachers, we came to the conclusion that it had to be the Suzuki teachers who were responsible. About 2 months ago I was fortunate enough to inherit part of a Suzuki studio (this is chronicled above), and have now confirmed that there are in fact serious issues with two of the Suzuki teachers in our area as well as how the method itself is handled and taught. I have continued to receive numerous phone calls from disturbed parents including the one below.
This morning I had a long conversation with a mom who was very upset. Her six year old daughter has taken lessons for a year with this teacher and, during class, could not figure out how to play an Alberti bass. The teacher stood up in front of the class and said “You’re the only one here who can’t play this. All the other students can play it, but you can’t. You’re just being lazy and playing it wrong. You’ll never learn it and you’ll never learn how play the piano.”
Mom decided to quit based on that remark and that fact that her daughter was so pressured not to make mistakes that she now refused to practice. Mom said she should have quit 5 months earlier.
During the conversation I also found out that the teacher is teaching what she called a “hybrid” of Suzuki and other methods so the students can pass CMEA testing. The teacher also requires the parents to video tape the lesson and teach their children at home from the video. Unfortunately, the teacher is making numerous mistakes in the video which is not helping the parents whatsoever. This particular teacher is a non-certified Suzuki teacher. In other words, she never went though Suzuki training, only took a year of Suzuki lessons, bought the books and teaches based on her own learning experience instead of following Suzuki methodology. Parents often assume they are paying for a trained certified teacher, but sometimes are not.
I make it a point to tell all prospective parents that we are all personally trained by Neil and have a huge shoulder of teachers to lean on for support.