How Suzuki students learn to read


Laura said: Apr 17, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

I would like to dispel some of the mystery regarding whether or not Suzuki students are taught to read, and how it is done.

Firstly, they can be, and for the most part, are being, taught to read. Enough said there.

How are they taught to read? There is a two-pronged approach.

  1. Suzuki-appropriate reading materials are first introduced and used as a separate area of learning. These are very specific to Suzuki students and their way of thinking/learning. Eventually, other reading materials are used. Theory is taught both informally and formally throughout the process, depending on the students’ age and academic maturity. This all happens in a combination of private and group instruction, depending on the studio’s approach. Regardless, though, the process is gradual, and is done separately from the students’ playing repertoire, until it all catches up.

  2. At some point, the book is used more during lessons and practices. It usually starts around Book 2 or 3, or sometimes mid-Book 1 if the student is older. (Although playing by ear/memory is still expected.) As the student becomes accustomed to staring at what they are playing, he begins to make the logical connections between sound, fignering, and print. He might begin by simply recognizing where on the page he is currently playing. Then he starts to recognize that the second space means open A or equivalent, and so forth with other notes, rhythms. accidentals, etc. This happens with direct input from the teacher, who starts to point out certain things in the music as they come across it. Once they can read what they play, the next stage of development is to read what they haven’t played before—i.e. true sight reading.

So there you have it. By the time the student begins formal theory lessons, he often intuitively understands a lot of it, and only needs some terminology and concepts formally explained.

My own first-grader is just beginning this process within Suzuki and doing very nicely, as did I when I was a little older than her. I’m not worried. (I was reading at my playing level by time I was 9 or 10. I skipped the first-level written theory exam because it was too easy. All of this while a full-fledged Suzuki student.)

By the way, here is the difference between Suzuki-style introductory reading materials and the others. Suzuki-style materials assume that the student can already PLAY. So the goal is just to teach the visual connection between the notes on the staff and the fingerings and sounds that they already know. Lots of repeated drills that vary by only a little bit at a time, starting with familiar patterns and gradually branching beyond. Both pitch and rhythm notation are “absorbed” this way, quite intuitively. Whether or not this is done with note naming (e.g. A, B, C# vs. open A, finger 1, finger 2) is up to the teacher (perhaps depending on the student’s age), but eventually even the note names are learned.

Traditional materials assume that the student is a complete beginner player, introduces reading/theory from the beginning, and only has the student play what they can learn by reading. The notes they are expected to read are often more arbitrary, because they have learned the notation from the start. But there is often no distinction between learning to read and learning to play, as the same material is used for both.

To have a young Suzuki student transfer from one approach to the other can be frustrating. Personally, I don’t recomend switching out of Suzuki (if that is desired) until a student’s reading skills are sufficiently developed that it doesn’t matter exactly how they learned them—at which point the distinction between Suzuki and non-Suzuki starts to fade anyway.

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