Assessment and Evaluation in Suzuki Teaching

Mark said: May 4, 2010
Suzuki Association Member
20 posts

Dr. Suzuki has been quoted many times saying that the key to building strong playing skill is repetition—doing things many times over. An accomplished violinist colleague of mine who studied with Suzuki when she was in her early twenties (who was playing Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at the time) was asked to play taka taka ti ti. He sent her away with … “play it 300 more times.

The trick is, though, especially when working with very young children, that as teachers we have to define for our students the repetition of the right skills done the right way, many times. In my teaching, I have observed that there are a number of obstacles to this process taking place in the daily practise of my students.

  1. There is a misunderstanding of the difference between assessment and evaluation.
  2. Evaluation of skill is thought to occur only after I have learned the piece.
  3. I don’t want to do specific things many times because I want to play my piece through.
  4. If I do repeat things I can tolerate doing it a few times instead of hundreds of times.

These four attitudes exist in the minds of both my parents and my students.

In order for the right things to be done the right way, assessment must be an ongoing process that occurs not only in the lesson, but especially during the practise session. One problem is that parents come to me very well versed in the Suzuki Philosophy (because of our thorough orientation program and because parents are drawn to the positive educational Suzuki environment) so there is resistance to evaluating a child’s performance as it is thought to be a negative process.

For me, though, there is a difference between assessment and evaluation. I define assessment as the measurement of a performance trial and evaluation as the comparison of the same performance trial in relation to other learners. To take a non-musical example. Let’s say I’m taking Carnival Game lessons and my teacher has decided that my throwing skills need work. I stand on a line 10 feet away from a one foot diameter circle where I am to throw a hackensack within that circle. So my teacher has defined a skill for me with an appropriate assessment criteria that can be answered with a Yes or No question. Did the sack drop within the circle, Yes or No? I achieve 2 out of 10 shots (assessment) and that sucks (my evaluation (not the teacher’s) since my 6 year old son can do 8 out of 10 times). Now that I know what my goals is, my teacher assures me and instructs me that I need to achieve the goal of making the circle within 3 shots and then maintain 8, 9 or 10 out of 10 shots consistently over 100 repetitions. Then my teacher modifies the difficulty of the performance trial by moving the circle from 10 feet to 7 feet away and increases the diameter of the circle from 12 inches to 18 inches. Now I made the shot on my first try!

This approach can be tailored to any skill on the instrument whether it is working on the bow grip, posture, intonation, or a specific passage within a piece. At each trial sequence of a specific skill, I have the parent record the assessment of the performance of the skill with a check + when the student achieves 8, 9 or 10 successful trials, a check for 5, 6 or 7 out of 10 and a dash for 4 out of 10 or less. For the younger child, this system of assessment checks is between me the teacher and the parent and gives me important feedback about what is happening with the practising at home. For students who are 11 years and older, I give them the job of acknowledging, the assessment rather than the parent , because I find that it gives the student governorship and responsibility for their learning. What ever their age may be, does the student/parent understand the skill criteria? Is the goal appropriate for the student’s level of ability? Is the student building quality repetitions that will develop skill?

Taking time to make assessments at every stage of the learning process, flies in the face of the way we are accustomed to approach assessment and evaluation in our schools and universities. Are we not required to learn the course content and then be subjected to the measurement of whether we learned it or not with one or two tests spread over several months of learning with a major test at the very end of study? It takes a lot of persuasion sometimes to convince my students/parents that daily assessment in practising is critical to building quality skills.

The process of careful practising is further complicated by the fact that some parents and students seem only motivated in their practising at the prospect of the next piece or the next volume without taking stock of the many skills and teaching points contained in the repertoire. “And little Johnny that is in my child’s group class is already on such and such a piece in the next volume. Why is my child only playing this piece?” And finally, if you can get the parent and student to focus on a particular skill they are flabbergasted that your definition of repeating it many times is in the triple digits not in the single digits (age and skill appropriate, of course.)

It all comes back to patiently teaching parents and students that the right things have to be done the right way, many times. My mantra is “NO PRACTICE—NO SKILLS—NO MUSIC”. Unfortunately, some students want to bypass the process of skill development and go straight from what they think is practising to playing the music. It doesn’t work that way. What does work is the careful and appropriate use of skill sequencing with the daily habit of assessing each performance trial.

I invite your responses to this essay. Do you agree with the distinction between assessment and evaluation? What issues do you struggle with over getting your students to practise well? What methods have you used to get them to practise with intelligence and purpose in a way that develops confidence and motivation for playing?

Alie said: Sep 24, 2010
Columbus, OH
21 posts

Cellrocks, I found this very useful. I agree that there is often a misconception between evaluation and assessment. As Suzuki teachers, we are constantly told to insist upon standards, but without assessment this is not possible. Your post explains it quite well. Have you thought about submitting this to the SAA Journal?

I wanted to share with you a hilarious blog post from It was written by the blog author, a pianist named Natalie Wickham. It touches on the more negative connotations of “evaluation”. I got a kick out of it and thought you would too!

“Top Ten Reasons to Participate in Student Evaluation Programs
Last weekend, our local association sponsored our annual Music Progressions evaluations. Students are evaluated in performance, keyboard facility, applied theory, rhythm and pulse, sight-reading, written theory, and listening. We call them student evaluations, but in reality we all know that it’s an evaluation for us as teachers, right? Hence, I was inspired to compile this [facetious] list of the Top Ten Reasons to Participate in Student Evaluation Programs:
1. You don’t have enough stress in your life, so you relish the thought of frantically trying to prepare your students for a whole series of tests in all areas of musicianship.
2. You enjoy seeing the glassy-eyed look of your students when you use strange foreign terminology like “tempo” and “dynamics” that your student has obviously never heard in his life.
3. You want your students to realize that as good as they may feel about themselves and their musical abilities, there is always room for criticism and lower-than-average scores.
4. You feel it’s important for students to be subjected to performance on a wide variety of pianos, including ones that are out of tune, missing keys, lacking pedals, or produce a ringing sound throughout the duration of the performance.
5. You love being scrutinized by your colleagues and forever thereafter wondering if they’ll think of you as the teacher whose student forgot all his scales.
6. You enjoy the mental stimulation of trying to keep track of all of the requirements for each of the ten levels so that you can [theoretically] be preparing your students for their evaluations throughout the year.
7. You delight in the spontaneity that ensues when you realize you have forgotten some of the afore-mentioned requirements and must quickly teach your student all the varieties of 7th chords so that she can properly play them, identify them in questions, and write them on her theory test.
8. You like experiencing the adrenaline surge that comes from standing with your ear to the door of the room in which your student is performing and hearing her take the andante-labeled piece at 200.
9.You appreciate the opportunity to expand your vocabulary while looking for creative ways to convey the scores to each student while simultaneously encouraging them to continue in their music studies.
10. You think it’s healthy to contemplate a career change and submit your resume to different companies on an annual basis – just in case you missed your calling after all.”***

Christine said: Sep 24, 2010
Christine Goodner
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Viola
Hillsboro, OR
68 posts

The top 10 list really made me laugh—thanks for sharing that!

I really enjoyed the essay on assessment! In the past few years I have been working on my own skills of assessment (and goal setting) when working with students. The next step, as you write, is to have that assessment take place by the student in each practice. Teaching students how to practice sometimes feels like my biggest job!

Christine in OR

Christine Goodner

Studio Website: Brookside Suzuki Strings

Blog: The Suzuki Triangle

“When Love is Deep, Much can be Accomplished” ~ Suzuki

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