Can Suzuki method just not suit some children?

Gillian said: Dec 1, 2015
 2 posts

My oldest daughter has been learning Suzuki violin since the age of 4. She just hit aged 7 and is at the end of Book 3. Alongside she has been doing the abrsm exams with distinctions at Grade 1 and 2. The problem we are finding is that she really struggles to remember the Suzuki pieces, so she has to go back to reading the music. So at a Suzuki group reviewing old pieces she really struggles as cannot remember then so compensates and tries to hide this by doing by little bows etc so wrong notes are not noticed. This is then impacting all her technique and her bowing arm.

My younger daughter is at the same place in terms of book 3 but can remember the pieces when reviewed and if she is sketchy on a few notes with a quick try she gets it.

Both girls get the same amount of practice and review of old pieces. Does the Suzuki method in terms of going back and playing old pieces from memory work for everyone? My daughter has a better ear in terms of scales and repeating back things she hears on the radio etc but is less bright generally.

Eva Brodbeck said: Dec 1, 2015
 18 posts

I think based on what I learned from Constance Starr ‘ s article of reading music
from her book To learn with love, your child can start reading music at this stage.
It should be able to compensate her short memory if she can do sight reading. Most instrumentalists don’t need to memorize the pieces by heart to perform.
As the statement goes, every child has high capability but not all children are at the equal level. Your daughter cannot remember every old piece accurately that’s normal, she sure has other merits to make it up such as good musicality. It doesn’t affect her potential in making progress. Don’t mark her as less bright in general or not suitable for being a Suzuki student. She has made so far it’s already an accomplishment for a young child. Just keep on believing in her abilities.

Kelly Williamson said: Dec 1, 2015
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
248 posts

How regularly are they listening to the reference recordings? If they don’t listen to the recordings, it is not surprising that they start to forget them—even if one child can remember them and the other can’t, with the same practice and listening routine. In addition, I find that students who rote-learn and memorize their pieces (as opposed to learning them by ear) find themselves in the position you describe your elder daughter. As you’ve noticed, your second daughter has a more developed ear. That is why she recalls the pieces without difficulty—she is following her ear, whereas your older daughter is struggling to retain a whole lot of recipes by memory.

I don’t think it’s a case of the Suzuki method not suiting all children. After all, the main tenet of the Suzuki approach is that we need to adapt the teaching method to the needs of the child. As teachers we need to be very vigilant that the correct skill development is taking place, beyond the ability to execute pieces. Charles Krigbaum wrote an excellent article for the American Suzuki Journal called “Truly By Ear” which explains the process beautifully (ASJ 43.3, page 43). It isn’t too late to help your older daughter to develop her aural skills so that they are more equal with her playing skills. She is very young still, and it sounds like she has done a lot of things very well. But clearly she lacks confidence in her ear. I’ve had students—usually later beginners—who had this struggle, and they were able to improve their skill and confidence quite quickly with short but focused and systematic work in every lesson on play-by-ear skills. Again, speaking as a teacher, I commend you for working with your girls and observing, so that you are asking this question and looking for the answers! Best of luck.

Kelly

Melanie Drake said: Dec 1, 2015
Melanie Drake25 posts

I actually had a similar post drafted for months. My question is regarding the role of memory in the Suzuki method. My 12 year old (guitar book 4) has a lot of trouble with memory. My 9 year old (cello, end of book 3) has no problem with memory. Both kids have been “listening like maniacs” for a few years. Both have practiced each day since they were 3 or 4. They both have the same Suzuki parent and same environment. My guitarist spent many weeks (months?) preparing for his book 3 recording (a graduation requirement at our school). My cellist is prepared for his recording after just a couple of weeks preparation. (Really, they are constantly preparing, but you get the idea.) I had a theory that cello music is more easily intuited (?) than guitar, but it’s probably that they are just different people.

I will try to get the courage to finally post my questions on memory. :) Sorry that I don’t have any answers.

Gillian said: Dec 1, 2015
 2 posts

Many thanks for the comments. It is odd because my older daughter despite struggling to remember pieces has the better ear in terms of being able to hear a tune and repeat it. I should also add that a lot of the memory problems are whether a song starts with an up bow/down bow and bowing patterns through a song. Both girls get daily listening, the same time and watch a lot of YouTube players etc. She is very much an on or off learner, if she likes a piece then it’s bliss as she will focus and wants to learn it and if she doesn’t like it then that’s it, she shuts down and can’t be bothered.

Henry Flurry said: Dec 2, 2015
Henry FlurryInstitute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Prescott, AZ
22 posts

I’m offering some random thoughts on memory below because it is a subject dear to me!

I teach my students that there are several different types of memory. Kinesthetic memory is the one that most of my pianists rely upon (unfortunately!). In my experience, it is also the weakest memory—a different piano can throw a student off, or an environment with distractions. Ideally, Aural memory (hear it in your mind, be able to anticipate and play the correct notes) is developed through the Suzuki method. Lots of listening helps with this, I think. I strongly encourage Mental memory—a student can visualize and/or name the notes away from the instrument, and this is ideally backed by a strong theory background. It is a lot easier to memorize things like “I Chord to V7 Chord …” or “parallel motion here” or “this type of sequence” then to mentally memorize every note. A fourth type of memory that I sometimes encourage in my students is Visual memory—anything ranging from photographic memory (never seen it in my students) to drawing out a map of the music and visually memorizing that to follow in the head.

Kinesthetic memory is strengthened through intentional and accurate repetition, starting slow, building speed when appropriate. Fingering, control of the body and tone, etc. must always be there for this memory to be strong. I also encourage my students to go to music stores and play their recital pieces on different pianos. I imagine a violinist could play in different environments and different ways—outside, sitting, standing, quietly, loudly … upside down? (That would be a trick!) Aural memory is strengthened through listening AND ear training. I play something on my piano, the student plays it back for me. Mental memory is strengthened through the study of music theory, the analysis of the music, and sometimes something as simple as giving names to different sections (descriptive, like “wandering,” or not, like “George.”). I can then have a student practice starting from any of the named sections. If a student can’t do that, then the memory is tied to a sequential chain of notes that will break when the first link fails. If a child is struggling with memory, a common game we play involves having the child NAME (or SING!) the notes or chords they are to play. We might do this sitting or in some activity that involves standing and moving. Mental memory is frequently tied to Ear Training—the more you can predict what will happen through music theory, the easier it is to hear it and repeat it. Visual memory I spend less time on, although I do use drawings with my younger students to help them when needed.

Finally, with all types of memories, I think it is valuable to stress the memory through games. One game we use is the “Distraction Game,” where before a recital a child attempts (and usually succeeds after the first few recital cycles) to play their piece while others in the room make noises (e.g., animal noises, people noises, etc.). We can also stress the memory by demanding new tasks of the student with an old piece: new musical phrasing, new refinement on the technique, improve tuning accuracy (not an issue for pianists!), practice making mistakes (!) when I make a signal (e.g., ring a gong) and then recover without pause, playing sections of the music out of order, etc. All of these are designed to give the student more opportunities to be present in the music rather than just letting the fingers “do the work.” When a child accuses me of making them “forget” a piece with these activities, I remind them that I’m only making it easier to remember the piece, because I’m teaching them to share their brain with other thoughts while playing the piece.

I think it is important to understand where a student’s strengths and weaknesses are so that one can use the strengths and improve the areas that need help. Is the child visual? Kinesthetic? Aural? These are important things to understand when helping a child memorize.

Before a child picks up a review piece, you can have a piece of paper with notes on what the child should think about before playing it—places where memory typically slips and things y’all have figured out will help her remember.

My guess about your older daughter is that she is relying on kinesthetic memory, and perhaps she is not mentally engaged in the music while she plays it.

As an aside, one of the struggles I have with transfer students is that they rarely memorize well. In contrast, almost all of my students I started at a young age memorize easily. I see this as a significant strength in the Suzuki approach.

Thanks for tolerating my stream of ramblings, and good luck with your daughter!

Henry Flurry said: Dec 2, 2015
Henry FlurryInstitute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Prescott, AZ
22 posts

In re-reading my post, it looks like I might have come across as criticizing your daughter and not encouraging you enough! That was not my intention—merely a short sight as my thoughts on memory were coming faster than I could type.

I should have added you and your daughter have already accomplished much and by all means celebrate that! If memory becomes a sticking point that is preventing joy of music in your daughter, please be flexible. Keep her joy of music (and your joy of practicing with her) paramount while giving her space to continue growing as a musician. The memory can be strengthened via a path and a pace that is compatible with her learning style.

Again, good luck!

Cheers,
Henry

Kelly Williamson said: Dec 2, 2015
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
248 posts

I’d like to add just a couple of thoughts to the discussion—great to have so many ideas exchanged! Melanie, I do think it is very different to memorize on different instruments. I play piano at a fairly high level as well as being a professional flutist… I memorize equally well on both, but there is no question that it must be more complicated to memorize two lines than one, and it must be more complicated when you can play the same note in several different places on your instrument, than when it doesn’t move around. :) On the flute we have the luxury that most of our fingers inhabit the same real estate, most of the time!

One more idea re this suggestion: “One game we use is the “Distraction Game,” where before a recital a child attempts (and usually succeeds after the first few recital cycles) to play their piece while others in the room make noises (e.g., animal noises, people noises, etc.)” If children are experiencing frustration or anxiety, I suggest that this might not be a suitable approach because it amps up the stress, rather than lowering it.

Certainly the most solid memory is that which is well-grounded in all of the different modes (aural, kinaesthetic, visual, theoretical, etc.) and some of us are strongest in a couple of these, though it is helpful to develop as broad a range as possible. Last—some people find it much easier than others. I have always found it easy. On the other hand, some of the teachers who come for training find it so very challenging that it is a block for them. But it is very valuable for us to build the skill and increase our ability, no matter where we fall on the spectrum. To the original poster, I encourage you not to give up on developing it, even as you investigate ways to help your daughter to ease her current frustration with working by memory.

Kelly

Henry Flurry said: Dec 3, 2015
Henry FlurryInstitute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Prescott, AZ
22 posts

Re: The Distraction Game and “amping up the stress”—I could see how this might happen if the child is put in a situation where they may not succeed. Your point is well taken, for it recognizes the need to be completely sensitive to where the child is.

It is important that all games played in a lesson or at home be designed so that the game is joyful (not stressful) and that the child can always “win,” ideally while learning something along the way. (As an aside, I have the child play most games with stuffed toys and not with mom or teacher, so that any sense of “competition” the child (or parent!) brings into the game is disarmed.)

The distraction game is focussed on humor so that the child laughs at the silly sounds (the joy part) and learns after becoming “used” to the noise to play the piece from beginning to end, even if the laughter continues (the learning part).

There are two important aspects I always consider before embarking upon the distraction game:

(a) All recital repertoire is chosen one month before the recital from the pool of music that the student ALREADY knows well. (We do 4 recitals a year.) I am reminded of words from my late friend Armena Marderosian: “Recitals are for old friends,” meaning that I try to avoid putting brand new repertoire onto recitals. Ideally, the memory is well ingrained before we get anywhere near the recital or the time for the “distraction game.”

(b) There are times where I do not offer the distraction game if, for some reason, a student clearly is insecure in their memory of the piece. Occasionally, a piece will get WORSE during the month lead in to a recital—go figure! And sometimes a child is not ready to be challenged by distractions. For example, I have a student (diagnosed as autistic) with whom I did not do the distraction game before several recital cycles. She was so easily distracted that we practiced preparing her so that she could play her first couple of recitals with her eyes closed. (It worked great!)

Memory of a piece of music (or anything, I suppose) is mysterious. If I recall correctly, recent brain research shows that when we relate a story of an event, our memory is actually rewritten, which can explain how stories evolve over time. I wonder if this affects music, too.

There is a fabulous book, “The Musician’s Way,” by Gerald Glickstein which covers, among many other topics, learning and memorizing. This is the most accurate and detailed book I’ve come across that thoroughly covers the practices of a “serious” (for lack of a better term) musician. It is a book that I now invite my high school students (particularly those considering music in college) to read and discuss with me. His chapters on learning music and memory are well worth studying, and I think that the disciplines he recommends are long term habits we can slowly instill in our students from the beginning.

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

Cheers,
Henry

Elise Winters said: Dec 3, 2015
Elise Winters
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Austin, TX
37 posts

My first question is, can she sing through the whole song from memory? Also, has she done the form analysis (I assume at this point you’ve already done that)?

If both of those are “yes,” then the problem may be a multi-tasking one. Make sure she is “singing” the music in her mind … the internal singing should be very loud (i.e. louder than her playing). This is a very effective mental strategy and fixes the problem for many students.

One frustration I have with the layout of the Suzuki books is that the phrases are not lined up visually. So it looks like one long string of notes. In my own book series each phrase is on its own line so it’s a stronger cue for visual memory. You could photocopy the pages, cut out the lines, and line them up in this way (paste onto a manila folder). Would take some time but probably really clarify!!

In Book 3 so many of the songs have such a repetitive structure, memorization really can be a barrier. To me there are other more important aspects of playing the violin than this. I incorporate more songs that have a through-composed structure (easier to memorize), and I often de-emphasize memorizing Gavotte-style pieces. I’d rather them learn MORE music (at that same technical level), then get stuck on memorizing one thing that’s hard for them.

The more fluent & musically experienced a child becomes overall, the easier it will be for them to memorize less sophisticated songs … even if their memorization ability lags behind. For example, playing Twinkle from memory is hard for a beginner, but it would be easy for child with intermediate skills to memorize a similar song in a day or two.

So, if the above strategies don’t work, I would relax (at least a bit) on the memorizing requirement, perhaps give her shorter songs to memorize (as an auxiliary assignment), and just make sure she’s progressing at a nice pace.

Kelly Williamson said: Dec 3, 2015
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
248 posts

Hi Henry—I started reading that book—must put it back on my list! I’m sorry if this comes across as preachy, but not knowing you personally, I will not assume anything and just try to speak to the room (i.e. the whole forum). I really think this game is to be discouraged when students are feeling anxious about memorization. With respect to stress and anxiety, people have different experiences. Some people find noises (or crowds of people for another example) “joyful”, and some people find them stressful. Sometimes it does not just come down to the level of preparation, or competence with the material. People who have not experienced anxiety (or other mental illnesses) sometimes have a difficult time realizing what the difference really is. These people often have even more difficulty realizing that children can experience real, crippling anxiety just as adults can. As one of my colleagues said to me the other day, “They [students] just have to acquire more confidence.” She has No Idea. (I’m happy for her that she has no idea. Until you have a panic attack playing Amazing Grace for a room full of seniors, it might seem ludicrous that a professional musician could break down over something that is so below their technical level, as to be an absurdity. There is a point at which it’s a much deeper thing that’s going on—and we have to be really careful that we are setting kids up to be as stress-free and tension-free as humanly possible, without assuming that they experience things the same way we do, or other children do.)

I had one student have a very bad experience with the distraction game many years ago, and I have never used it since. Yes, it worked for the other kids I had used it with, but it was a horrible experience for that one child. Was she marked by it forever? No. But that is because she was basically a healthy, though sensitive child, and she was able to get over the experience in a normal way. It could have been worse. Most of the parents in my studio do not mention when their child has received a diagnosis of some kind, including anxiety, ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s… they generally tell me eventually, usually after well over a year and I have already figured it out a long time ago! We have to be careful. I have seen this approach discouraged by at least one expert in performance anxiety, and it makes sense to me. I think we have to aim to eliminate tension of any kind in the whole body, as much as is possible… we do not want a child bracing or forcing through tension to avoid being distracted by noises or movements. I think it’s better to focus on other ways of improving and securing memory.

But that’s all I have to say about it. :) Thanks to all for “listening” and considering this perspective.

Kelly

Alan Duncan said: Dec 4, 2015
Alan Duncan
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
60 posts

I would just offer something from my experience helping my 7 year-old violinist daughter—there are other issues that can masquerade as a true memorization deficit. Kelly touches on this above. My daughter memorizes easily; but in practice she does not necessarily recall each piece perfectly. In performance she does; but not in practice. I’m convinced that it’s an issue of focus. It’s laid-back enough in the practice room that her mind wanders while the fingers and bow are on autopilot.

With varying degrees of success I’ve approached it by trying to build her focus through mindfulness exercises, doing a “briefing” before each piece, coming up with characters to represent different sections (especially in the gavotte en rondeau form pieces.)—the sort of analysis that Elise mentions above.

As an aside, Kelly mentioned the differences in memorizing on different instruments (e.g. piano vs. flute). Interestingly I personally can memorize much more readily on the piano than the violin despite the density of notes on the former. Perhaps it’s because piano is my primary instrument. But there’s also something about a much more discrete supporting harmonic structure that aids memorization on the piano (at least with some music…)

Henry Flurry said: Dec 4, 2015
Henry FlurryInstitute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Prescott, AZ
22 posts

Thanks, Kelly. Your perspective is valued!

There are activities that I have dropped after a single student’s negative experience, so I certainly will keep your thoughts forefront.

And I can relate to the potential of panic attacks. For me to have a successful performance of composed music (improvisation is much easier), I have to memorize not only the music and ALL of my musical choices, I have to memorize where to breathe (!). (Something I sometimes ask my students to do, too.)

Cheers,
Henry

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