Is teacher limiting repertoire and growth?

Mary Richardson said: Mar 23, 2019
 3 posts

I am becoming very concerned.  My child is playing quite well in Book 6, but the teacher does not supplement the Suzuki materials, only returns and re-works early pieces.  For instance, vibrato is being monitored with by hearing Chorus at each lesson.  My niece of similar age and ability in another city has been taught Meditation from Thais and similar works by her teacher as an encouragement for vibrato development.  Similarly, the niece has studied Wolfhart and is now engaged in Mazas studies while my child is referred back to passages in earlier Suzuki repertoire for technical work.  I would understand if these earlier pieces had not been learned up to tempo and or not been well learned, but this is not the case.  She receives simply a re-assignment of old pieces that she is already regularly reviewing and playing accurately.

I have music degrees myself, but not in violin.  Perhaps I am missing some sort of “Suzuki magic”, but I am concerned that her teacher’s repertoire limits will cause her to fall behind her peers.  Other students in her youth orchestra at a similar stage of development are playing much less Baroque solo literature and learning techniques not included in the Suzuki sequence.   

I would appreciate any comments from experienced teachers.

Joanne Shannon said: Mar 25, 2019
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Los Angeles, CA
140 posts

The Suzuki materials have been very well thought out. The goal is not how many different pieces can be learned but how to use the review pieces to learn new techniques. It is much easier to learn something new with music when you don’t have to be concerned about the notes, fingerings, etc. Then you can concentrate on the new skill. My students are required to play a daily 10—20 minute concert (depending on their level) consisting of their last polished pieces. Each month they play their concert for me at their lesson. Sometimes I write a short note about each piece, sometimes I sit at the piano and give direct input, sometimes we roll the dice to choose a piece or two. My expectations include whether the piece has improved by use of the new things we have since learned or is the piece worse because they are just “running” through the piece with no thought. One of my students recently received financial aid from a University he had applied to and what do you think he auditioned with — a piece he had been playing in his daily concert for two years! He could play the piece in his sleep, which gave him the utmost confidence when he walked into that audition!

Mengwei Shen said: Mar 25, 2019
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
199 posts

One of my teacher trainers challenged us, a class of teachers, many conservatory-trained players, that we could name any advanced level technique and he could come up with a Suzuki repertoire-based etude for it. I don’t remember the exact examples but it was pretty impressive. This trainer said that in general, he was covering everything through scales and repertoire (and supplementary repertoire) and would only do “traditional” etudes with specific students for specific reasons. Certain techniques could be considered “out of Suzuki sequence” because you wouldn’t be doing them on your early approach to the piece, or they may not be the “typical” way, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be gotten to. Of course, teachers and students have different styles and preferences. If you want to learn something that the teacher hasn’t initiated, I would suggest opening the discussion and finding out the teacher’s plan.

Meditation from Thais has been suggested by the SAA Violin Committee as supplementary for book 7 (although individual teachers will also have their own ideas about timing and pacing): https://suzukiassociation.org/news/suggested-supplementary-repertoire-for-revised/

Wohlfahrt/Mazas—see above about one perspective on etudes. Personally, I have a student whose youth orchestra peers have etudes and I’ve shared with her parents why I haven’t given her etudes (a different reason).

“reviewing and playing accurately”—accuracy (of pitch? rhythm?) is good to have when reviewing but this is not the only purpose for review, as Joanne mentioned.

“fall behind her peers”—what exactly is the fear: number of pieces played through, perceived level/prestige of pieces, chair ranking? How do you feel about a “less advanced” piece played at a higher quality vs. “more advanced” piece at a lesser quality? Should a perceived level or audition result dramatically change your standard of personal responsibility to the group?

Not too long ago, I had an exchange with the parent of a (now former) student about why we are (were) doing what we’re doing. This parent for sure felt like I was limiting the child, even though to me they were limiting themselves by being inconsistent about doing what I asked. They are not the only ones who have resisted my guidance and left, and there have also been those who asked the questions, then stayed and got on board. There is nothing wrong with wanting something different, but I would say you first need to understand what you have, by discussing with the teacher, before deciding that it is or isn’t what you want.

Alan Duncan said: Mar 28, 2019
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
76 posts

This is a very interesting discussion. There are valid opinions and concerns all around.

From a pedagogical perspective, it is undoubtedly true that the Suzuki violin repertoire takes students down a pathway that will give them well-rounded technique and superb skills. But I also think that the question about exposure to a wide variety of periods and styles is a valid one. There are stylistic choices and performance practice decisions that can only be made through exposure to musical styles beyond the Baroque period. Had my daughter not also been exposed to a host of other in addition the Suzuki repertoire, I feel that her playing would be diminished in some way. Maybe not in terms of acquiring technique, but in some less tangible way. But, who knows? That’s just the way we ended up doing it.

I think it’s worth acknowledging that Suzuki had some brilliant insights, most notably the native language approach to thinking about music. And his ability to organize a learning repertoire around progressive skill development has transformed the consistency and quality-control of teaching. At the same time, I’ve watched kids progress under the tutelage of very experienced traditional teachers whose repertoire choices are guided by their own experience and individualized decisions. In terms of repertoire scope and sequencing, a case could be made for looking at the ABRSM or RCM graded repertoire as an equivalent system of ordered progress. Because my daughter has spent roughly half of her violin-life in Suzuki and half in traditional pedagogy, I can see it both ways. There are a lot of ways to do it well, and a quite a few ways to do it poorly, too.

Joanne Shannon said: Mar 28, 2019
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Los Angeles, CA
140 posts

As my oldest student approached book 6 (piano) I begin to realize that some of the well known pieces in piano literature were missing in his repertoire. So, we just stuck them in where it seemed appropriate. When we got to the token Bach Well Tempered Clavier piece in book 7, we took on the whole clavier book. I think it’s important to expand if you have time, especially when your student has decided to take on music as a career.

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

A discussion with the teacher is critical. On an internet forum, if people say, yes the teacher is limiting growth (which is not right because we are uninformed outsiders), then the implication is that a new teacher is necessary (not true either). On the other hand, people can say, no it’s fine, but the student/family is clearly unhappy.

As I understand, the early Japanese Suzuki kids were (probably) starting around age 2-3, playing Vivaldi at 6, and (my guess is) reaching Mozart concertos while still having half a childhood remaining to get into standard etudes and repertoire. Maybe that still happens, not for me though, not even close, so my pacing decisions, choice and use of supplementary repertoire (quite a bit, actually), and other “enrichment” topics/activities are based on the needs and capabilities I see and other goals I have as a music educator. Maybe the teacher has a plan for “branching out from Suzuki” or maybe not, but no one finds out by not asking; speculation and comparison will only go so far.

Mary Richardson said: Mar 29, 2019
 3 posts

Thank you all for taking the time to respond. I appreciate your input and thoughtfulness.

I did not include all details in my initial post. I did attempt, on several occasions, to discuss my concerns and questions with our teacher. In brief, she is simply unwilling to answer questions or explain her particular approach. Her consistent response was simply “I know just what Dr Suzuki wanted” which I find troubling for many reasons.

Mengwei, you asked several questions that are good for consideration. Having taken multiple professional auditions in my life always with “well-seasoned” repertoire, I well know the value of review. Review with the expectation of playing at a higher level than the initial learning is good, but given that this teacher does not supplement material, I also would have expected the review work to introduce more advanced techniques, perhaps introduction of spiccato bowing, re-fingering to teach higher positions, natural harmonics, etc. No new techniques have been included. I have hired a “coach/teacher” to help my child with spiccato and to finger some of her parts as needed for her orchestra. I most certainly have no concern for her “chair” in orchestra, I simply see that the demands of that literature are well within her ability but her private lessons are not preparing her to play outside of the Suzuki studio.

I have taken my child for an evaluation and trial/audition lesson with another teacher and have a second such meeting scheduled with a second teacher. The potential new teacher said she was well set-up and outlined an approach for the next year, naming the repertoire he would teach and expectations he has for her development which I greatly appreciated.

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

My student (parent) that I referenced could have said something similar (”we attempted several times to bring up concerns about pacing and motivation and our teacher is simply unwilling to advance faster”). I’m strict about skill development in the Suzuki sequence, but for book 2-6 students, half their material is “non Suzuki” and sometimes contains “skills above their Suzuki level”. While I’ve been extremely thoughtful in my planning, some do consider it to be too structured, some might say not structured enough, not rigorous enough, etc.

The bottom line is that there is no longer a trust in the teacher’s expertise, regardless of the details and despite the teacher’s belief in her own system. It sounds like the decision is to move on and it’s just a matter of when/who/how. It’s fortunate if you are in an area of many options of teachers with different styles!

Lydia said: Apr 20, 2019
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
8 posts

It is common for Suzuki teachers to begin to supplement as early as book 2. My childhood Suzuki teachers did this. Many of the Suzuki violin teacher-trainers supplement for their own students, starting starting in book 2, or sometimes book 4. That includes teacher-trainers who personally studied with Suzuki in Matsumoto.

Scales, exercises (Schradieck, Sevcik, and the like), and etudes (Kayser, Wolfhart, Mazas, Kreutzer, etc.) are all fundamental to violin-playing. It can be very useful to isolate technical work from repertoire. Eventually—certainly true by book 6—it can be useful to have the technique mostly mastered before starting repertoire that uses those techniques.

It is also vital for students to be able to play in a broader variety of styles and periods. By book 6, there is a vast range of violin literature that spans from the Baroque period through the present day. This is also the level where you start getting “keepers”—pieces that a violinist will probably play their whole lives. The Meditation from Thais, for instance, is useful for any number of occasions—church services (especially the prelude or offertory), weddings, funerals, “hey you play the violin, can you play something?” etc.

Suzuki listening should also absolutely be supplemented by violin music from a range of periods, along with orchestral and chamber music from a range of periods. That’s how you develop musicality and musical understanding of appropriate style.

It’s common to switch to a more conventional approach to learning in Suzuki book 6. It sounds like a switch in teacher might be well advised here.

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