When to start teaching music theory?

Ryan T said: Feb 27, 2019
 3 posts

Hi All
At what period in a child’s Suzuki instruction should we expect her/him to understand basic music theory (letter names of notes, time signatures, measures, rests, expressions, accents, etc.)?

I have a niece that has been with the same instructor for 6 years that I feel should have a grasp of the fundamentals by now.

I appreciate any comments, suggestions or opinions!

Thanks,
Ryan

(Note: I’m the only one in the family with music skills and have been a mentor to her, so I’m posting as a parent!)

Tanya said: Feb 28, 2019
Tanya CareyTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Cello
Glen Ellyn, IL
43 posts

I start the end of book one with pre- reading skills. I wrote a book of 100 games called Ready to Read which is for all strings in the areas of pitch, rhythm, and symbols. (Shar). The materials for the games are included. If the student is older, I may start earlier.

Kurt Meisenbach said: Feb 28, 2019
Kurt Meisenbach
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Plano, TX
44 posts

Opinions vary widely on this issue, and the logic behind the differing opinions usually sounds reasonable. My thoughts are based on my own experience of teaching five to ten year old children in Uruguay, where I lived ten years before returning to the States. They are not necessarily better than someone else’s thoughts and experience. They just happen to work for me and my students.

If the child is at least five years old, I introduce the concept of following the written page while playing very early—usually by the 5th or 6th lesson. I use different size pizzas to indicate different lengths of notes. Each of the five rhythms in Twinkle have an animal or a colorful picture to capture the student’s interest. I gradually move into musical notation for each rhythm, letting each student decide how fast they want to learn them. In Uruguay, all of my students learned to recognize each of the five rhythms written in standard musical notation after four to five months.

After that, I continue to expose the student to music theory that follows what they are learning in their pieces. Again, I use colorful charts and diagrams, super hero names and animals to convey the concepts. The process is fun, easy, and all of my students gain a working knowledge of music notation early in their studies.

I am finishing a series of books for Pre-Twinklers (one each for student, parent and teacher) that brings together the child-friendly materials I have developed, and I will use this series of books for my class here in Plano, Texas. The Parent Book has special importance. In the Parent Book each page in the Student Book has parent instructions on how to practice each page at home with their child. This helps to take away the uncertainty that some parents have when they first start practicing with their child. This approach was very favorably received by the parents of my students in Uruguay.

My experience is not the only one, and it is not necessarily the “right” one. It is just one of several approaches that can work successfully.

Kelly Williamson said: Feb 28, 2019
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
294 posts

Hi Ryan,

There would be many different answers to this question—not only different opinions, but also the variables depending on the age and readiness of the student. It makes no sense to introduce note-reading to a child who isn’t reading letters yet. That said, I started learning to read before the age of four, and many kids do. Others need to wait much longer. Even the instrument will have a role in dictating what they need to know, when. I am a flute teacher, and because of the lack of visual references while we play, plus the relative lack of logic to our fingering patterns, flute students learn to play by ear very differently than piano, or even violin students. (Eg. sometimes to go up, we lift a finger. Sometimes we lower a finger… sometimes we move fingers in the direction of the head joint, and sometimes in the opposite direction, to go up… sometimes we lift two and put down six!) Unlike most of the other instruments, we go through about seven keys in book 1—so we have to use quite a different approach when it comes to the theoretical/knowledge part. Flute kids can’t just rely on visual patterns, whereas you can go quite far on the piano with only visual information. It’s so logical!

Anyway, to get out of flute-specific stuff—I appreciate that you specify what you mean by theory. For some people, teaching theory would mean sitting down and writing exercises. I would call what you refer to as (generally-speaking) knowing what it is that you are doing—having certain accepted labels to talk about and explain it, and a system wherein that information relates to other information so they can keep building onto the system. Again I’ll have to speak to my specific area, briefly. There is never a time when my students don’t know the letter name of the note/fingering they are playing. B A and G are the first notes, and even if they are very small, if they are playing those notes on the instrument, they know the note names in very short order. While they are learning the first notes and first pieces, they are also learning to read rhythms on their head joints. (There are various approaches to this, as you will know—I use Kodaly symbols and then go to proper names when they are proficient with the basics.) They are not reading music at this time, but I give them cards with various rhythms and they sort out the basics (quarter, half, eighths, whole note, quarter rest) while playing them on their head joint. Happily, most of my students are learning the musical alphabet (either ABC or Do Re Mi) at school during this time, but if they haven’t learned it, I need to introduce that before we get to visual symbols.

Somewhere within those five first pieces, even with young kids, I am likely to introduce the five lines of the staff, the treble clef, then the position of B. We usually draw them together in lessons, and label as appropriate. So they have to have that much control of a crayon or pencil to go to that step! (Keep in mind that there are alternate ways of introducing the five lines and staff, without drawing them… I like to draw them, but it depends on what I want to do with the student, and what they can do physically.) I may spend quite a long time over that, or move through it really quickly, depending on the age, background knowledge, and intuition of the student, as well as their needs. After that point, we add in the positions of A and G, followed by the other notes they already know how to play on the flute… we may play games with cards using the musical alphabet, where I give them four cards with one missing and they have to put them in order. There is a lot of “pre-reading” preparation before the reading book will be introduced.

To skate over to that point, I introduce the actual reading book at around the 10th or 11th piece in our book 1, which has 17 pieces. We use another book—I do not use the Suzuki volume 1 to teach reading concepts. Dr Suzuki said that reading should not be introduced until the student has solid posture and tone development. Given the complexity of our pieces—at that point they have learned at least fourteen notes, gone well into the second register, and have experienced playing in at least three keys—I would hope that their physical posture is not very mobile, even though we will continue to fine-tune and make adjustments for a very long time. Of course I am presuming that their physical and cognitive development are also such that they can start music reading, as well. Once they are in the reading book, I will introduce most of the other concepts you mentioned (time signatures, measures, etc) as they come up in the pieces. Some things (like accent) may actually come up well before we see the visual symbol, because it is in the piece and they learn to play it before they see the visual cue.

Of course that is the heart of the Suzuki approach—experience before symbolism. I think that should be non-negotiable, no matter what instrument you are playing. I did not learn that way. I learned really young, from a piano teacher mother. So many of the elements of the Suzuki method were present—including quite a lot of pre-reading experimentation on the instrument—but I mostly learned by reading. To give you an idea of the time it would take for my flute kids to get to most of the concepts you asked about, again, it depends. Some students might spend only one year in book 1. Not usually, for my students—usually it’s more like two years, and the longest has been four years. But they would not spend even that first year without some form of pre-reading, whether that is the Kodaly rhythm symbols and musical alphabet, as well as keeping a steady beat, singing, and other necessary ingredients which do not involve the written symbols, or more. In the course of learning by ear, I think we need to label half-steps (semitones) and whole steps fairly early, but I start b referring to intervals as “steps” and “skips” or even leaps, and fine tune as appropriate—they experience or discover it first, and we attach a label at the appropriate time.

I don’t think it is easy for adult musicians to relate to the process of learning holistically and intuitively, if that was not their own experience. One of the parents of one of my students thought their child should have two lessons per week when that child was eight, one for playing, and one for theory. That is what worked for them… it is not what was appropriate for their child, who was a jumping bean! I can say from my perspective of having learned a different way, that this way is most like learning a genre other than classical music (think folk music or even jazz), except that music reading is necessarily introduced in Suzuki teaching, where it might not be considered necessary for a folk musician. I once invited a Celtic flutist to give a workshop for my students, and it became evident to us that he couldn’t read music. My students were horrified! But I explained that you can separate mastery into many different components… this person was a fine musician who couldn’t read, but our aim was to be masters in all areas of musicianship.

I hope this is helpful. I’d be happy to elaborate further, but maybe you’d like more specifics from teachers of your niece’s instrument. That said, you can expect a wide variety of approaches even there, and also we still do come across kids who don’t have a thorough foundation for good music reading—whether they are Suzuki students or “traditional”. (I heard a piano kid in a traditional studio playing the right hand of one of the Bach G+ minuets in a recital last week… every note had exactly the same duration, where there should have been a mix of quarters, eighths, and dotted half notes. It was fascinating… and very undesirable…!)

Thanks for coming here to ask the question!

Kelly

Mengwei Shen said: Feb 28, 2019
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
193 posts

In deciding when/how/how much/how in depth to go with reading and theory, I look at age of the student, place in the repertoire, condition of overall posture and technique, capacity to handle multiple learning objectives, participation (or not) in my studio group/orchestra, among other things. If a child is doing reading in school or another orchestra, I do want them to be learning concepts with me too that so that they get the same vocabulary and approach that they will encounter in my group (although some teachers would just let the other class take care of it).

Also, having knowledge of or being able to identify symbols is different from being able to apply it to reading/playing. My practical suggestion would be to ask about the things you want (or she wants) to learn and find out what the teacher’s plan is. If a student/parent asked me this, I would gladly tell them how we could incorporate what they want or what needs to be done first before we can.

On the very extreme, once when I was observing at a Suzuki summer institute, there was a student in the teen advanced program (open to non Suzuki students) who had brought a very advanced concerto to the master class. The teacher had to explain about the scale degrees in melodic minor and explain 4/4 time although she could play the scale by ear. However, we don’t know what goes on with the home teacher or even if she had a teacher or how that piece was chosen or what were her goals in attending the program.

Ryan T said: Feb 28, 2019
 3 posts

I really appreciate the responses to my question. I admire the dedicated work of the instructors here.

The bottom line, to reiterate—My niece that has been with the same instructor for 6 years. She started at about six years of age, and is now 12.

What she lacks:
1) Cannot read the letter names of notes
2) Has no idea what a time signature is.
3) Does not know the time values of notes or rests
4) Does not know what staccato or tenuto, etc. means
5) Does not know what “f” (forte), “p” (pianissimo), etc. mean
6) Does not know what vibrato is

The short story, she is completely illiterate in reading music. I know this may seem surprising, just as much I am.

In spite of that, she plays extremely well by ear, learns new pieces (and memorized) quickly.

I understand the philosophy of the Suzuki method and am a huge advocate for it. Her instructor started her out on the classic Suzuki books (although not a member of SAA).

I have been waiting patiently for her to be taught the “nuts and bolts” of things.

Is it time to find a new music school?

Edmund Sprunger said: Feb 28, 2019
Edmund SprungerTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Saint Louis, MO
103 posts

“Her instructor started her out on the classic Suzuki books (although not a member of SAA).”

The above is some cause for concern.

Edmund Sprunger
sprungerstudio.com
yespublishing.com

Edmund Sprunger said: Feb 28, 2019
Edmund SprungerTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Saint Louis, MO
103 posts

To be clear…the fact that she does not know the six items on your list may or may not be a cause for concern. It depends on a whole host of factors, which one would want to look at in a larger assessment of the situation.

Edmund Sprunger
sprungerstudio.com
yespublishing.com

Ryan T said: Feb 28, 2019
 3 posts

Well, with that said, I’m having to answer my own question based on what I feel is best. Changing schools.

I started piano at five years of age, and had a good grasp of music theory after six months.

After six years of weekly lessons and thousands of dollars spent, I would expect any 12-year old, regardless of method (Suzuki or otherwise) to be able to tell me where the note “A” is on the treble clef.

Wendy Caron Zohar said: Mar 1, 2019
Wendy Caron Zohar
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
99 posts

Ryan, I can hear, and understand your frustration. It’s no wonder that you are considering seeking a different studio or music school for your niece. After six years a child should have been exposed to at least the rudiments of music construction, have a basic grasp of notes and musicianship skills.

It’s a complex subject and has much to do with the stages of learning for the young child; cognitive processes and neural development also differ greatly from one child to another, and a lot rests on the home environment and how early the child may have been read to, and exposed to music, rhythm and movement, challenging books, art, theater, and other intellectual stimulation.

I have been teaching for nearly half a century, in the US and abroad, and am an ardent student and proponent of the Kodály Approach, which develops ear training right from the start with an emphasis on singing. A large part of my ethos and approach to the violin was formed by my esrly training which was the Francko/Belgian/Russian and Galamian school of playing. study of the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais, and in graduate school I immersed myself in the Rolland approach through my violin professor.

Only for ten years of all these decades have i been in the embrace of the Suzuki teaching philosophy. It is a different pedagogy than anything I’d learned before. It is intuitive and child based. I love it.

I’m working now to incorporate my insights into my approach which adapts certain aspects of ear training, aural awareness and theory learning, which is based on our ears and on our string instruments. I teach a non-piano-centric study of theory that is intuitive and rises out of the notes starting with pre-Twinkles. It begins with listening, matching an A with the voice, and continues with tuning our strings by P5s. My approach uses movable doh and sol-fa, letter names, as well as numbers for scale degrees. The students become equally comfortable switching easily between one to the next.

I use home made rhythm flash cards for clapping and calling out the rhythms, for ex.: tah, tah, teh teh tah—tiri tiri teh teh taaaah. It’s felt, internaluzed, and understood first, because that’s how children naturally learn.

When the child is ready, we apply this understanding to the Suz. pieces, and we sing all of bk 1 in solfege, tying together more and more principles of music construction as the pieces grow more complex.

We make up our own pieces. The children learn to write out the notes, their own creations, and play them in group class off an erasable white board. They love these activities! As they compose I’ve taught them how to write notes on lines and spaces, proper stems, time and key signatures, and beautiful clefs.

We also do non-written, improvisational playing to develop the ear and the imagination, based on various principles. These, like everything else I introduce, we play as games, with challenges, targets and rewards. It seems to bear fruit. My students prepare for and take the Strings SAT each year, sponsored by the MTNA. I enjoy learning from my students, and am excited by every breakthrough my students demonstrate. Little steps at a time!

Yes, you could say that I’m equally passionate about the Suzuki approach, and for children to become musically literate and sophisticated from the start at their appropriate level—when they’re ready. It’s on a Case by Case basis!

Wendy Caron Zohar
www.wendyzohar.com

If we work hard, music may save the world.—S. Suzuki

Kelly Williamson said: Mar 1, 2019
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
294 posts

Without knowing all of the circumstances and possible factors, this does sound undesirable. To implement the Suzuki approach effectively, teachers need to have a very good understanding of the following (among other things):

-the difference between learning by ear and learning by rote

This may seem obvious, but many people assume that if a child isn’t playing from music, that they are “playing by ear”. In fact they may be playing something they have been taught through rote memorization, or something they have read and then memorized. Teachers have to be thoughtful and also vigilant, so they know where the student’s aural development is actually at.

-how to teach students to be really accomplished music readers

Part of being a great sight-reader is having a well-developed musical ear. Many musicians who learned with an approach that did not include sufficient aural development, actually aren’t fantastic sight-readers. Nor are they flexible or versatile chamber musicians, because they don’t hear (internally) what they see, and often can’t listen freely while reading, because they don’t absorb the written score in big enough chunks of information.

-how and when to introduce the written symbols so that kids don’t have a period of struggle with reading, or else long-term weakness in that area, while being proficient in other areas

For my flute students to be able to earn a position in a youth orchestra, they have to be competent readers by the time they are 12 or 13. There are only 3-4 students accepted in an orchestra, so they have to be both fluent players, and able to sight-read at a reasonable level—otherwise, other kids will be chosen. Violin students do not have this pressure. Youth orchestras and studio programs are often looking for as many string kids as they can put in chairs. So I’ve seen many violin kids aged 9-12 who have basically no reading skills but who can play, get integrated into the back chairs of the violin sections. They then get a pressure-cooker approach to music reading—which often bears some results, but often has holes which need to be filled over time, and isn’t usually as successful as a slow cooker version!

You mentioned that your niece’s teacher isn’t a member of SAA. Many people use the Suzuki books without any training at all… or they take very basic training and then continue to teach to high levels, using that partial foundation. Teachers also come to Suzuki training with varying musical backgrounds. All of this may factor into how effectively they use the materials. All of us who call ourselves Suzuki teachers are concerned with making sure that we reflect well on the approach. As you say, it’s a really great philosophy, and when well-applied, yields excellent results. But it’s up to the individual teacher.

Best of luck with helping to guide your niece and her family in having a really thorough musical education. It’s great that you have not been wanting to interfere, and have just observed what’s been happening over the past six years. (As you can imagine, that’s not always the case… I had an uncle try to re-teach articulation to one of my students over the course of a weekend visit, when she’d only had a few lessons. Not helpful.) That said, I think it would be good if you or her parents had a discussion with the teacher prior to switching programs. At the very least, the teacher should know that this has been a concern, in case they might rethink their approach. This may be something general, or something specific to your niece’s experience.

Kelly

Mengwei Shen said: Mar 1, 2019
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
193 posts

“Is it time to find a new music school?”

My suggestion, before this question was posted, was to ask about the things you want to learn and find out what the teacher’s plan is, and that still stands. If the response is not aligned with what you’re looking for, then this can lead to a graceful exit from the current school/studio. (I mean for the person who is known by the school to initiate this; if a student’s uncle who I didn’t know wanted to come in and talk about this, I would find that extremely strange and direct back to the parent or whoever has usually been present to determine if it’s appropriate to have a 3-way discussion.)

Although a better time to ask would have been 3 years ago, second best is now. It’s great to wait patiently, it’s great to be an involved parent (relative), and this has to extend to communication between the adults or else risk misunderstanding and resentment. But if you (general you) are set on the decision, you don’t need the whys and hows. On behalf of teachers everywhere, I ask that you (or the decision maker) PLEASE do your teacher the courtesy of following any closure requests or notice periods.

Also, the 12 year old has known the teacher for half her life, and it’s right to consider her feelings. If she is happy to move on or indifferent or neutral, the conversation is different from if she is attached to the teacher and needs a little more guidance on going through a change. This would be an excellent time to demonstrate a life skill of handling closure and transition.

Joanne Shannon said: Mar 1, 2019
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Los Angeles, CA
140 posts

ok, I know I have it easy because of the visuals on the piano. However, one does have to have some organizational skills in presenting this often complex topic.

I only have group lessons once a month, but aside from the recital everyone performs in, my students are immersed in Music Mind Games. I have all the materials and even took the teacher training last summer. Well worth looking into even if you want to use only a fraction of the beautiful &B insightful materials.

Once students start book 2 (piano) I start them on the path to playing all of their book 1 pieces in all 12 keys. Since it takes a year to transpose four pieces (1 key per week, 12 keys), this is a long slow process and easy for students to accomplish without getting overwhelmed. Two of my students have actually finished transposing book 2. Not only is this a good way to review pieces, but a great way to build reading and theory skills. Each lesson I start with the question, What key are you in this week? Without going into too much detail, the students learn to notate and write scales, understand all the keys, chord inversions, chord progressions, etc. I have a chart that I created some years ago which helps me keep track of what we do in each piece. If anyone is interested, I’d be happy to send you my latest update. It is for piano but I’m sure a string teacher could come up with their own version to fit strings. My oldest student is currently in a high school music theory class. We looked through his book and we had covered almost everything in it already.

Lori Bolt said: Mar 2, 2019
Lori BoltPiano
San Clemente, CA
259 posts

May I have a copy of your update please, Joanne? I have been using your guidelines for writing scales and transposing Book 1 pieces. It’s working well so far with my Bk 2 students. One is almost through the Major Circle of 5ths (one octave)

Question: when do you like to introduce the minor scales, and do your students transpose to the minor keys?

Thanks!

Lori Bolt

Joanne Shannon said: Mar 2, 2019
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Los Angeles, CA
140 posts

Lori
You’ll see the minor scales on the Little Playmates line.
Are you having your students write out the scale each week? This really helps with not only teaching notation but it enhances their reading skills. I have a worksheet called how to write a scale…..step by step. I’m happy you are able to use my ideas.

Joanne Shannon said: Mar 2, 2019
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Los Angeles, CA
140 posts

And yes, for the fun of it, they have come to lessons with various versions of the pieces in minor keys. Some of my students are very creative. And of course, they are able to figure out which of the pieces are already in minor.

Kiyoko said: Mar 2, 2019
 95 posts

If your niece is progressing, enjoying, and learning, and you are otherwise happy with the teacher I would not worry. Music theory is traditionally taught and studied early on in piano, but less so with the violin, especially in the Suzuki Method. Study for young kids is by listening to the music and learning to play it by ear and is why do much emphasis is placed on listening to upcoming repertoire.

It’s never too early to informally introducing music theory concepts. Rhythm, syncopation, measures, time, tempo all of those can be learned from an early age without formal music theory. Pitch, note names, and note position can also be introduced at the same time a child learns colors, numbers, and letters.

That said, just because formal music theory can be taught that early, doesn’t mean it should be or must be. Many kids who learn music by ear, inherently learn to structure music. Twinkle is comprised of the first parts of the A major and E major scales. Keys to kids who learn aurally, are almost like different language dialects, and key transposition becomes instinctive. They can do it without caring what key it is, if it’s major or minor, or how many sharps or flats. Note length, rhythm and syncopation are much the same. They discover and play it, almost without thinking—allowing them to focus more on how to play and express themselves instead of worrying about if they’ve read and played the music properly as written. It is also why most kids will improve their playing should you ask them to close their eyes and play.

The US trends in Suzuki Method these days are different from the 70’s when I started. Most kids truly did learn aurally back then, like Dr. Suzuki intended. You learn to speak your native language by ear, not by reading it. He realized it directly applied to young children learning music—his example of the infant listening daily to a Vivaldi concerto and being able to play it by the age of three. Suzuki parents were expected to teach kids music much like they do their native spoken language, playing music like you would read a book to a child. Parents often learned the instrument at the same time as a toddler. I remember parent-child group classes and watching my mom take a lesson before me.

When young, I too learned concertos entirely by ear. In the long run, it has been a tremendous benefit to hear something and be able to work out how to play it with ot without music. It didn’t affect my playing or ability negatively, except I was a slow sight reading when I was younger. That was remedied in high school when a traditional teacher taught me extensive music theory.

You must log in to post comments.

A note about the discussion forum: Public discussion forum posts are viewable by anyone. Anyone can read the forums, but you must create an account with your email address to post. Private forums are viewable by anyone that is a part of that private forum's group. Discussion forum posts are the opinion of the poster and do not constitute endorsement by or official position of the Suzuki Association of the Americas, Inc.

Please do not use the discussion forums to advertise products or services