Question regarding the Suzuki Method

said: Mar 22, 2007
 2 posts

I have a 5 year old son that is trying violin lessons. His teacher is starting him through the Suzuki method. I attend lessons with him and work with him at home, but I don’t read music and it is about to get difficult to help him because he is starting to use his fingers and he is supposed to practice with the book. My understanding of this method was that the idea is for children to learn to play basics by ear and finger position, prior to learning to read music. However, the Suzuki Method Violin Volumn 1 book is only illustrated with staffs and notes. I don’t understand why. Any thoughts?

Gabriel Villasurda said: Mar 22, 2007
Gabriel VillasurdaViolin, Viola
81 posts

Most teachers do not expect young children to use the book exclusively.

With my young beginners, I “translate” the notation into finger numbers.
The “code” for Lightly Row would start like this:

E 2 2- 3 1 1-

A 1 2 3 E E E- etc. (each phrase on a new line)

i write this in the parent’s notebook and suggest that the “codes” be written in large letters for the child to read. Most 5 year olds can read letters and numbers. Mount the paper on the fridge for learning over a period of time.

I have the child (and the parent) sing the tune using the letters and numbers while they touch the appropriate left hand finger tip on the left thumb. They get to a point of not having to look at the “codes”. This step starts to make good connections between the sound of the melody and the finger movements.

Meanwhile the child is practicing putting fingers on the E string and A string. Start from a 4 note scale on one string (E 1 2 3 and reverse) and progress to a full octave scale using two strings. Start here with the mother doing the bow while the child does only the fingers (keeping wrist and everything right and hitting the tapes). Begin with the first “Twinkle” rhythm and stop between until the new finger ready. Build up speed.

Meanwhile, the rhythm of Lightly Row is being learned bowing only open E. Later do the E A A- E A A- string crossings.

When the “codes” have been learned away from the violin (fingers tapping on thumb while singing), the next step is for the child to finger the piece with mother doing the bow. Later put both hands together.

I continue this practice until such a point where the child can actually read the numbers out of the book. I think it safe to say that most students age 5 read the numbers rather than the notation. At the early stages we don’t need to read the rhythm since our listening takes care of that. Of course, we will get to a point where the numbers themself are not specific enough and we will need to read the actual location and shape of the notes.

Try these ideas and let me know if this helps.

Gabriel Villasurda

Gabriel Villasurda
Ann Arbor MI
www.stringskills.com

Connie Sunday said: Mar 22, 2007
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
667 posts

Gabriel, I do exactly the same thing you do with respect to writing out the “code.” I put it in big letters and everything. But you know, I’ve been strongly criticized by Suzuki teachers for doing this. I just don’t know what to think at this point.

Connie

Free Handouts for Music Teachers & Students:
http://beststudentviolins.com/library.html#handouts

said: Mar 22, 2007
 19 posts

I would also like to see some discussion on this! I do the same thing too—writing out the “code” with finger numbers, for both violin and piano. It seems to work well while the child is first learning the piece, and once they have learned it, they don’t really need to think “the code” anymore. Maybe some other teachers will respond with their thoughts? Criticisms welcome!

Laurel said: Mar 22, 2007
Laurel MacCullochViolin
Langley, BC
120 posts

At the beginning I don’t write out the code for the child. Maybe for the parent, but the children are learning by ear and by imitation.

For the early songs, we will often sing the songs with the code—”E-2-2, 3-1-1, A-1-2-3-E-E-E” etc. At some point we will also sing the songs with the letter names; it goes a bit slower but I want them to know the note names and where they are on the fingerboard.

During a lesson I might then do the following: play E-C#-C#, sing “E-2-2″ and the child repeats it. If they need help, I might tap their 2nd finger to show them which one. Some kids can figure it out by watching my fingers.

Later on they can do this “copycat” method without being told finger numbers or note names.

The purpose of this is to not make them dependent upon reading. If you start with the child reading even a written code, you run the risk of ending up with a musician who can’t function without a book in front of their face.

I do like the code; it’s a quick way to make notes once they’ve learned to use their fingers. I simply prefer, at the early stages, to train their ears first. I do introduce sight reading relatively early, however—I don’t like the stereotype of “Suzuki students don’t read”—but the ear work is a much more direct way to make the music—it’s something we hear, after all.

Laurel

said: Mar 22, 2007
 2 posts

Thanks to all for your responses. I think they help. Now I am trying to figure out the “code”. So far we have just worked on the first string (E) open and first finger position (F?) and briefly gone over the second string (A) and the first (B?), second (C?), and third finger (D?) positions. I think he was showing me this (moreso that showing my son) so that I could understand the positioning for the notes of Twinkle, Twinkle.

If I am understanding this correctly, “E-2-2, 3-1-1, A-1-2-3-E-E-E” means:
First String (E), playing the second finger position twice, the third finger position once, and the first finger position (F?) twice. Then playing the second string (A) first finger position (B) once, second finger position (C) once, and third finger position (D) once. Then playing the first string (E) open three times.

Can that possibly be correct? And I apologize if this seems elementary, I just don’t know.

said: Mar 22, 2007
 44 posts

Take a videocamera to your lessons. Ask the teacher for a “close-up” of the fingers on the fingerboard as the piece is played. You can refer back to your lesson tape all week. At this point, you probably don’t even know what to ask or what you might have questions on when you get home. A video of the lesson is invaluable. Also, as your child gets older, there are less arguments over what the teacher said to do if you can see it on tape. I have an 11 year old who knows everything and I know nothing. I just ask him to look at the tape and see what his teacher REALLY said.

Connie Sunday said: Mar 22, 2007
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
667 posts

Frankly, I don’t understand “the code,” either, as presented here. This is what I got into trouble for, with other Suzuki teachers.

For Twinkle (for example), I use:

open A
open E
E1
open E
A3
A2
A1
open A

This is the first piece of bread in the “Suzuki sandwich.” The two pages preceeding the “Pepperoni Pizza” Variation 1, I consider to be “Pre-Twinkle” material, which I use to introduce and train the student, as a beginning. The “Up the ladder” and “Down the ladder,” in particular (up and down the A string.)

Is this a bad thing? I got some really snide comments about this, but I’ve been using it for 30 years…

Connie

Free Handouts for Music Teachers & Students:
http://beststudentviolins.com/library.html#handouts

Laura said: Mar 22, 2007
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

Hi itsbroken,

Thanks for raising these questions! I think it’s very common for non music-reading parents to feel as you do. You are definitely not alone, but then again, you certainly aren’t going to remain in a fog.

Sorry this is going to be a long post, but if I’m reading your concerns correctly, I hope you will find all of this helpful.

I believe that the book is there for the parents to refer to, and eventually for the students to recognize as they gradually learn to read music. Even though it may look like a foreign language for parents, your teacher should be able to help you decipher some basic things, so that at least you know where you are in the music. For example, notes that go vertically higher or lower go up and down in pitch, respectively. Or notes with lots of “colouring” (i.e. solid notes with extra stems and bars) have shorter rhythmic value than those that look visually more “simple” or “clean”. Even these simple guidelines should be enough for you recognize how to following along with the Twinkle Variations and at least the first few Book 1 pieces after that.

I’ve found that with all of the parents of students I’ve taught, they all eventually learn enough to follow along. Something just sort of clicks after a while. Make sure you ask questions if you’re not sure what the musical score means. The teacher should be able to explain enough to get you by on any given week.

Your child will be learning slowly enough for you to make enough sense of the musical score, simply by familiarity over time. Don’t worry! And don’t be shy to ask if you’re ever unclear.

Over time, it will get harder and harder for you to take notes on a blank piece of paper. (Imagine writing down “Page 3, Bar 42, more legato on first 3 notes, remember down bow on the first note” each time!) That is why you will just want to write things directly in the music, at the place where it refers to. I remember my mom, who had no music or music reading skills whatsoever, gained enough to write her notes down right in the musical score, all the way to the end of the Suzuki piano books.

As for the “code” for Lightly Row, it actually means:

E-2-2
[Play open E, then on A string, play finger 2 twice]
3-1-1
[Still on A string, play finger 3 once, then finger 2 twice]
A-1-2-3-E-E-E
[Still on A, play open once, then finger 1 once, then finger 2 once, then finger 3 once, then open E three times]

The code only tells you what finger position to be using. The letter names only refer to any open strings that are played (i.e. with no fingers). Although it’s not specific about what string the fingers are supposed to be on, the ear is supposed to be the guide for that. For example, for the first three notes of Lightly Row, it doesn’t sound right for the 2nd and 3rd notes to be higher-pitched than the first. They are lower, so you must switch down to A string. This is where the “learning by ear” comes in.

Believe it or not, the children pick this up much more intuitively than the adults!

Just one more thing regarding the fingerings for string instruments: it doesn’t necessarily follow that putting down the next finger will give you the next letter name. For example, an A major scale (A-1-2-3 all on A string, followed by E-1-2-3) is actually composed of the notes A, B, C# (”C-sharp”), D, E, F#, G#, A. This is NOT intuitive to the beginner student or non-music reading parent, but it’s best not to worry about it until the student learns enough other finger positions (e.g. high and low variations of the finger positions) to make a distinction. For now, just put the fingers on the tapes, and learn the notes according to the finger numbers, using the ear as the primary guide.

Learning note names on the piano as a beginner on the piano is much easier, because playing on all of the white notes (which is what most beginners stick to until later) gives only simple letter names, with no sharps or flats. On the other hand, pianists must learn what fingers to put on those notes: it’s not always the same. In this case, it makes more sense to learn the note names right away. But in violin, until the player learns to shift positions up the string, one fingering will only give one note—so it makes more sense to learn it by referring to the fingering.

Music reading is eventually taught in Suzuki—and I believe even more successfully (at least in theory), because the student already has a solid understanding of WHAT they are reading by the time they have to learn HOW to read it. I believe this is a huge benefit over learning music reading from the beginning—it is ultimately too challenging to the logical mind in the early stages, and the natural sense of the music gets lost very early.

said: Mar 22, 2007
 44 posts

Mshikibu,
I don’t know what you got in trouble for with other Suzuki teachers. My kids have studied with three different international teacher trainers and they all used some kind of “code.” The code was to be used by the parents as the students were supposed to be learning by ear. I could read music when my oldest child started on the violin, but was REALLY confused about strings, fingers, half and whole steps, etc. I needed the code, too. Two of the teachers I mentioned above very quickly went to note naming, while the other one continued to use finger numbers until late Book 1. We have had other, less experienced teachers through the years as well. I think the difference is that the experienced teachers know that Suzuki is a philospphy, not a method, and that the repertoire is a vehicle for learning to play the instrument, rather than an end in itself. Our less experienced teachers tended to teach songs rather than teach the playing of an instrument. Please do not judge the whole of the Suzuki community by some negative experiences. Every teacher we have had (4 kids, 3 instruments) had their own unique way of teaching.

Connie Sunday said: Mar 22, 2007
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
667 posts

kidadvocate

Please do not judge the whole of the Suzuki community by some negative experiences.

No, I won’t, and I don’t. I have great respect for the people in this movement and an enduring and genuine love for Dr. Suzuki.

The semantics in the “philosophy” versus “method” controversy got me into trouble, too. If you look at the Suzuki literaure, the periodicals and books associated with the Suzuki materials (as I have—I think I own about everything…see:
http://beststudentviolins.com/PedagogyBookstore.html#suzuki), you will see the phase “Suzuki method” used on nearly every page, including text by Dr. Suzuki.

Anyone can look for themselves and see this; any single issue of the periodical will demonstrate this.

Free Handouts for Music Teachers & Students:
http://beststudentviolins.com/library.html#handouts

Jennifer Visick said: Mar 23, 2007
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
997 posts

…..learning “the code” is what I did as a young child.

Now, whenever I play or hear any song in the range of the violin A and E strings, on any instrument, (unless I’m singing words to a song) I hear “the code” in my head. I can overwrite this automatic code with the letter names, or if I concentrate hard enough, with solfege, or with, say, piano fingerings instead of violin fingerings, or fingerings in a different position on the viola or violin. But the first-position fingerings for A and E string on the violin are, I’m afraid, permanently established in my brain.

As an adult musician, I’d much rather have note names permanently ingrained in my head, and finger numbers permanently tied to my actual fingerings, (as a musician becomes more adept, he or she learns to play the same notes with different fingers for different kinds of effects).

When I read music, I also automatically hear “the code” for those particular notes on the A and E strings.

As a teacher, I know the finger-string code is useful for non-music reading parents, and for teaching fingering to students, but oh how I wish to not instill automatic number names for certain pitches into my students heads.

said: Mar 23, 2007
 Violin, Guitar, Flute, Cello, Viola
120 posts

RaineJen

Now, whenever I play or hear any song in the range of the violin A and E strings, on any instrument, (unless I’m singing words to a song) I hear “the code” in my head. I can overwrite this automatic code with the letter names, or if I concentrate hard enough, with solfege, or with, say, piano fingerings instead of violin fingerings, or fingerings in a different position on the viola or violin. But the first-position fingerings for A and E string on the violin are, I’m afraid, permanently established in my brain.

RaineJen,
I have to second what you wrote! I thought perhaps I was the only one who did this! I, too, hear “the code” in my head, to this day. I can override it, too, but I made a very conscious effort to change my teaching to using letter names with my students, rather than finger numbers for this reason.

Very interesting topic—especially in regard to helping the parents. I have found that just using the letter names they DO get used to where C# goes, for example. THEN, eventually they learn that there are other C#’s on the fingerboard. A “map” of the fingerboard helps this. I’ve given this as homework to parents and students—to help them figure what the notes on the D and G string are. Some parents/students figure this out instinctively. Others need help via the “map”—a fingerbard and strings with circles drawn for notes. They then fill in the blank circle with the appropriate letter name.

Rachel Schott said: Mar 25, 2007
Rachel SchottViolin
Harrogate, TN
127 posts

They get to a point of not having to look at the “codes”. This step starts to make good connections between the sound of the melody and the finger movements.

Why not eliminate the step of “looking at the code” in the first place? Why not just let figure out little sections first through trial and error, and then by remembering what worked and what didn’t?

Jennifer Visick said: Mar 25, 2007
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
997 posts

Rachel, that’s mostly what I’ve started doing, with occasional direction as to which finger or which string to use if a student has a memory lapse. And i’ve been working with letter names too.

Rachel Schott said: Mar 26, 2007
Rachel SchottViolin
Harrogate, TN
127 posts

Yes, your description is exactly what I do with my students too. YES it takes longer at first.

But this not-finger-mapped way sets up an expectation of using the ears, and the SELF to figure out songs. There is a tangible sense of impowerement when they can learn a song with a little aural guidance from the teacher, a violin, and the ears and fingers god gave them.

Debbie said: Mar 26, 2007
Debbie MiViolin
138 posts

It seems to me that some of my students get a bit “handicapped” when I have them read “the code”, and even letter names to figure out the early songs. If they have been doing their listening enough, then they hear it in their heads and when I help them to figure out the notes (me saying letter names which they have previously learned through flash cards, etc.), they are confident finding the notes at home.

However, when I let them look at a sheet for the first few songs, then it is very hard to get them to start learning by ear later without a lot of resistance! Even if they can do it by ear, they sometimes won’t just because they want me to give in and let them look at a sheet.

This is not a one-size-fits-all problem. But in general, if they start out by ear, this resistance problem never even comes up!

Of course, the parents still often want a sheet, and this causes me a lot of problems because the parent thinks that it is unfair not to let the kids look at the sheet, and so the kids end up looking at the sheet when they are at home instead of doing it by ear (which they do with success at their lessons!)

Laura said: Mar 26, 2007
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

I find that parents definitely need something tangible to refer to. If they can’t read the musical score, then you need to provide them with some way to at least navigate it.

For the children, if a “code” is used, it MUST be aural at first, not visual. In other words, we still need to allow them to use their ears and fingers to develop the natural sense of the instrument and music. If we get them dependent on sheets, etc., then that defeats the purpose of learning by ear. But if we sing the piece using the notes, fingers, and/or strings as the words, it can actually help them to build what someone once aptly refered to as “ear-hand coordination”. In other words, if you know what you want to play and how you expect it to sound, the next step is to intrinsicly know what to do with your fingers to make that happen. Trial and error can help, but I also believe that naming things during the process can also help.

We definitely need to have some way to refer to parts of the music that will click with the kids. It’s a simple matter of communication. A typical example is the “bread” and “meat” sections of the Twinkle “sandwich”. Or sometimes I sing words that convey the sense of what’s being played and how, without actually refering to real notes or fingers. (For example, for the first line of “Little Playmates” on piano: “Going up to bounce, bounce!”)

Sometimes, we need to refer to finger numbers and/or notes instead, because 1. it is a precursor to learning to read music later; and 2. I believe it somewhat handicaps them to not have SOMETHING “standard” to refer to. Even kids who don’t read words yet are bombarded with “A is for apple” references in their books and toys. It’s the same thing with music—we shouldn’t shy away from the standard references, even if we’re not actually relying on them.

Just my opinion, though. I don’t even stick to this opinion like stone myself. Each situation is so different.

said: Mar 26, 2007
 32 posts

First off, ideally I have students pick out by ear.

Secondly, things are seldom “ideal…”

Thirdly, this is a big topic and I have limited time right now!

But here is the reason for my post, just to throw in something else :)

I have had more than one student who use their ears, but unfortunately they don’t always use the correct finger; they slide around with whatever is closest, and I think this speaks to the importance of establishing finger numbers.

Rachel Schott said: Mar 27, 2007
Rachel SchottViolin
Harrogate, TN
127 posts

As for parents, mine write down whatever they need to to remember what the student is supposed to practice. How hard can it be to write/remember/notate in a way that is personally significant E C# C# or A B C# D E E E E?

The only ‘whole song’ activity is listening, singing or dancing along, or bowing on an open string—if you are doing tiny little sections at a time, who needs a map?

If a student figures out more of the song at home, CELEBRATE! (With a hopeful minimum of 2 hours a day of listening, it often happens). If not, we move on to a new tiny little section.

Doreen said: Mar 27, 2007
 Violin, Flute
3 posts

I too hear the code for certain songs and sing them when I hear the song. But I didn’t learn the code until my child started Suzuki violin (too) MANY years after I learned to read music the old standard way (learning an instrument at the same time). However you teachers present “the code”, it works. It gives the young student something they can understand to relate to other than “now press that finger there down.” They don’t have to remember a whole bunch of note names, just 4 strings. They have already been introduced to counting their fingers, if not proficient at it. I think it’s wonderful!

said: Mar 27, 2007
 Violin, Guitar, Flute, Cello, Viola
120 posts

Rachel Schott

The only ‘whole song’ activity is listening, singing or dancing along, or bowing on an open string—if you are doing tiny little sections at a time, who needs a map?

Rachel, you make a great point about “whole song” activity vs. little sections. I completely agree that a code or map is unnecessary if you are learning something in small segments. My current day pre-Twinklers (unlike those I started years ago) are doing fine with just learning letter names. We build in other activities, such as singing Twinkle Theme while tapping the appropriate finger on their thumb (a circle forms between the finger in play and the thumb). They then associate the right finger with the right note name.

I introduce a map, if necessary, when they begin to sing and play intervals. My students learn A-B, Major 2nd, and on up through the intervals. When some of the pitches are too high to sing I begin to ask them to sing them in a lower range. Thus, the map comes in handy when they need to learn notes on the D and G strings. Or, for when they learn accidentals they haven’t played in a piece yet (B to C# on the G string, for example).

said: Mar 27, 2007
 32 posts

Well, I have a bit more time now to go on :)

I definitely prefer for students to be able to “pick out” their pieces in the early stages. The idea is to learn how to play a note on the violin (say, a c#), then when they hear a c# they know how to play it.
However….
I think learning the finger numbers is very important. I have had way too many students in my career (transfer) who do not know their finger numbers, as they have either been taught solely to pick things out by ear, or have been taught note names from the very beginning. How frustrating it is to teach someone who is wandering all over the fingerboard with their 2nd finger on the a string, in search of a d!!

Let’s be real: professional violinists use finger numbers! We finger our music; we edit our students’ music with preferred fingerings.

If you do not teach finger numbers at the beginning, how do you explain shifting or alternate fingerings? (Like low 4 vs high 3; some teachers prefer one over the other from as early as Gossec.)

My students who were trained to use their ear exclusively are generally dreadful at shifting. They KNOW where a note is, darn it, and it is always in first position! Heaven help them to play a B with the 3rd finger on the D string, rather than 1 on A!

As far as lamenting having “the code” in your ear for years after having learned it, we all know that putting words (code or otherwise) always sticks with us….Who has heard the “words” for Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and every time you hear that wonderful work, you still hear “This is a symphony, that Schubert wrote but never finished!” Part of life, I would have to say…..

Now I think a more debatable topic might be when do we put “the code” on paper in front of the student? Ideally, never. But we do not live in an ideal world. Sometimes the choice is, do I teach this child to play, or is he going to quit? Better to use a paper than quit. But it is not the first line of defense by any means.
And, yes, it is hard when you give the parents the paper to use for their own reference and they put it in front of the child because it is “easier.” I try to stress to parents that a lot of music learning is like tying shoes. It is way easier to just do it for a kindergartner, but we must learn to be patient and watch them struggle a bit, or they will never learn. The question simply becomes one of how long we watch the struggle.

Ok, enough for now :)

Laura said: Mar 29, 2007
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

I don’t find that teaching some sort of fingering or note naming to associate with a given piece will have long-lasting bad effects on a Suzuki child’s ability to learn by ear, or to read music later.

Of course, several key things have to be in place:

  1. It is done verbally, not visually. Trying to decipher notation of any kind on paper amounts to the same as learning the non-Suzuki way. Give it to the parents, but never to the students.

  2. The student is still doing lots of listening.

  3. There is lots of playing and singing associated with the finger/note names. The key here is whether or not the student learns to associate the sound they want with where to place their fingers. In the beginning, they very well may need something to grasp as a reference point. But after a certain time, you might not have to name the fingers/notes anymore.

Only if you have SOME sort of reference in your mind, can you even begin to learn more complicated things properly. You can maybe get through most of Suzuki Book 1 by telling yourself “it just goes this way”, but you’ll be stuck once you get much further beyond that.

From my own experience [in piano] , I don’t have a “code” stuck in my mind, even though I did learn things initially that way (e.g. memorizing a passage through finger numbers). By the mid-level Suzuki books, as long as the first finger was given, for example, it became intuitive what fingers to put down to play the rest of the phrase. And with enough practice, I didn’t even have to think about what fingers to put down. I eventually just recognized the physical fingering patterns by feel.

Same with music reading. While I started out having to learn “every good boy deserves fudge” etc., like everyone else, I eventually only had to look at a note on the top line in treble, and I would immediately plunk down F without the letter “F” ever crossing through my mind.

There is a danger with ONLY associating certain fingers with certain pitches, so that’s why we can’t rely on naming things exclusively. (One approach I particularly dislike is when students ONLY learn 5-finger patterns on “C position” or “G position”, for example. It makes it virtually impossible to learn more complicated runs that use crossovers or crossunders … or even Twinkle Variation A, which does not use 5-finger positioning.

I know there is a problem if a student can ONLY reproduce what I’m showing them by keenly watching every finger I put down, and then they proceed to perhaps use the right fingers, but on the wrong notes, and can’t tell that anything is wrong. Or if they ALWAYS feel they have to put finger 1 on C.

There has to be a balance. And the “by ear” component definitely has to be very strong in the Suzuki way. First we have to teach them to recognize and find what they want to be playing (and therefore how to notice when it’s not correct). This requires a good ear/listening skills. Then we have to teach them how to reproduce that in a technically consistent and reliable manner. This can involve many things, including naming notes and fingers—whatever works.

But eventually, students will learn to cut out the middleman, so to speak, and play more automatically—be it playing by ear, or reading the score. Let’s face it: how many accomplished musicians really label or name every note they are reading? We just read the score and play.

We can’t go too far in either extreme. But both approaches are eventually necessary, or the student’s understanding will be too rigid and limited.

Jennifer Owens said: Dec 17, 2013
 1 posts

I know that no one has commented on this since ‘07 but in case someone like me stumbles upon this I just wanted to comment that I have not picked up a violin in almost 20 years but I still remember how to play Lightly Row due to “the code”.
I’m quite confident that I could pick up a violin and play it right now.
It’s a fantastic tool to teach children!

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