Begining Suzuki with an instrument and switching to another?

Ana said: Mar 23, 2009
 2 posts

We would like to introduce the Suzuki method to our two and a half preschooler boy who has been exposed to a piano at home. (He loves it).

In an interview with a Suzuki piano teacher we were told that because of this early exposure to the instrument outside of the class setting, it would be best if he started with the Violin instead and then later in the program switch to piano. That is (according to the teacher) by now, he sees the piano more as a toy to play with.

Any thoughts on this? We are confused. Comments are greatly appreciated.


Laura said: Mar 24, 2009
358 posts

In general, you can never go wrong with more than one instrument, given sufficient resources (time, money, parental energy) and interest. Musical skills gained from one are well applied towards the other, regardless of whether a second instrument is added, switched into, or learned concurrently.

As a Suzuki piano teacher with a daughter in Suzuki violin, I have heard of a fair number of violinists who began at age 2-3. I’ve hardly heard of any pianists who began that young in any formal way.

The physical demands of the violin are better suited to the motor development stage of a 2-3 year old. They get a teeny instrument just their size, they get to stand and be more physical while playing, using both their arms in a relatively large way. In constrast, beginning pianists are expected to stay perfectly seated, focus almost exclusively on their hands and fingertips, and almost disengage their arms to the point of being dead weight with some bending at the elbow. A fairly tall order for a toddler! Furthermore, most children’s fingers aren’t big or strong enough to be taught proper piano technique until about age 4, although there are many large-handed exceptions out there. Some other piano methods may bypass this focus on technique for beginners, but Suzuki would not—so they have to be physically ready for it.

Really young ones will get so much more out of violin group class, too. Sorry, try as I might, I have yet to find or create a beginner Suzuki piano group experience that is as compelling as those for non-keyboard instruments There is really something very limiting to the fact that one is tied to the keyboard with little opportunity for eye contact, with only 1-2 pianos at most in the room for everyone to share.

If your son has large hands, has a pretty good ability to focus while seated, is one of those extraordinary types who can’t be held back, or you simply waited until 4-5 years old for some or all of this to develop, it would be a different situation altogether and I’d say go for it if you can find a teacher who is willing! But not knowing anything else about your son right now, I tend to agree that in general, violin would be an easier instrument to start with at his age.

Lynn said: Mar 24, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
173 posts

I have heard other piano teacher echo what Purple_tulips said about the physical and technical implications of starting very young children on piano. I also agree that the group experience is absolutely key.

I’m a violin teacher, and one criteria I look for with new beginners especially very young one—and 21/2 is very young— is emotional maturity/readiness ( ready to sustain attention on demand, follow instructions, and work cooperatively with Mom) and independent use of their fingers. Purple_tulips’ comment about the violin being better suited to younger players is only true to a point. Although they can certainly be interested in and responsive to music, students who are still maturing emotionally can seriously challenge many parents, and students who don’t have the fine motor development get to the point where they know what they want to do, but their hands won’t cooperate. A year to 18 mos can make a HUGE difference in how the child participates in lessons and practice, and in how readily he acquires playing skills. I recommend filling the interval with some of the excellent music programs that are specifically geared towards very young children.

Your specific question, though, had to do with whether or why it would be an issue that your son has already had the opportunity to explore the piano before beginning formal lessons.

The tabula rasa approach, I call it. A clean slate where teachers and parents control and define the entire experience from the get go. I’ve worked with teacher trainers who talk about the importance of making sure the student does something exactly right the first time, so that their nervous system doesn’t get a “wrong impression”, etc. Perhaps this teacher is thinking/concerned that your son won’t be as “teachable” because he has already been able to play his own terms? Heavens. There goes the republic. (I was “asked” to re-evaluate my level of flexibility when a frustrated 5yo plunked her violin in my lap, looked me in the eye and said “you do it.”)

If children can’t explore, they don’t become engaged; if they aren’t engaged, they aren’t interested in learning. There is no such thing as a “clean slate”, learning is messy, mistakes are supposed to happen, and if your son is drawn to the piano, but is not interested in being shown/taught how to do things, he’s not ready for lessons. One excellent way to prepare him is to take him to observe lessons for a period of time before beginning. Many teachers require this. Benefits for you are: you have an opportunity to evaluate the teacher and the studio environment and determine if it is a good fit for you and your son; you become familiar with teacher’s methods and expectations; you get to meet other parents, who can be valuable resources; your son becomes comfortable and familiar with the environment and the teacher before having to engage (being 1:1 with an unfamiliar adult can be an intense experience for some kids); the other child(ren) model for him what to do in a lesson, so that when it’s his turn, he more confident because he knows what’s expected….

Ana said: Mar 24, 2009
 2 posts

Thank you for your comments, I really appreciate that. It appears that at this age, starting with piano seem a bit of a stretch. Finding a piano teacher up for the challenge may be difficult, and that is likely the reason I was discouraged by the Suzuki teacher to start with piano and begin with the violin instead. So, your comments only confirm that. Yet, I am still debating if we should introduce the Violin and then later on switch to piano, or if we should just simply wait a couple of more years. We wonder how it is this process of making the switch from two completely different instruments and how kids deal with it.

Once again, Thanks for your comments and suggestions. Those are very much appreciated.


Lynn said: Mar 25, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
173 posts

I would wait, especially if you already know that what you want is piano, and in the meantime look for an age-appropriate general music program, such as Kindermusik or Music Together.

Learning an instrument involves three broad skill sets: musical awareness (pitch, rhythm), self-discipline (appropriate lesson & practice behavior, perseverance, cooperation, attention, etc.) and technical skills. When a student changes instruments, two of the three skill sets go with him; musical awareness and self-discipline, and they’ll often contribute to faster acquisition of new technical skills. However:

The violin can have a very long start-up phase—up to 18 months—and many teachers start out using a box violin rather than a real instrument to teach posture, how to hold the violin, and a mock bow to develop a bow hold and learn rhythm patterns with the bow arm. I can’t say that violin is any easier than piano; it’s physically challenging, but in a different way. What you’ll gain from starting on violin is progress in self-discipline and musical awareness; at the same time, you and your teacher will also expend a lot of effort developing specific technical skills that won’t apply to the piano. It’s akin to buying a home—don’t know what it’s like anymore these days, but back when we bought, the ideas was that in order to recoup closing costs, you should plan on owning the home a certain number of years. In this case, the “closing cost” is the effort, physical AND emotional, required to develop basic playing technique. Whether or not it makes sense to put time into violin really depends on how long you’re planning to stay with it, and how soon you want to get him started on piano. I would not, for example, recommend returning to a state of minimal ability/maximum effort just as he’s begun to develop some proficiency on the violin.

Laura said: Mar 26, 2009
358 posts

If you know for certain that you want piano and not violin, then I would wait, too. There are lots of other musical programs out there that will help you towards your eventual goal of Suzuki piano in two years or so.

I apologize if I am giving the impression that violin is easier to learn than piano. Not so—they are completely different instruments with different teaching focus and learning challenges. I only meant that specifically for a 2 and a half year old, Suzuki violin is more suitable than Suzuki piano, for the reasons already stated. There is no sufficient Suzuki piano equivalent of the box violin stages and violin group games that is worth paying money for. Meanwhile, you and your son can do many things on your own to prepare for piano lessons later, if he is focused and ready enough. Perhaps your teacher can give you some ideas, or I would also be happy to.

In re-reading your original post, I believe I can see where the teacher is coming from in terms of your son regarding the piano as a toy. I have had a number of students who started piano because they “loved it”. The nature of a keyboard instrument makes it quite appealing to any little kid, including babies. You press something and it makes a sound, and a sound that is similar enough to the way the grown-ups play it, to your untrained ear. You don’t have to hold or move anything in any particular way. You can already play it, in your mind.

However, once those kids start formal lessons, they often end up “lovjng it” much less, at least for a while. We start dealing with things like hand and finger positions, good vs. poor tone, correct fingering, and the like. Suddenly they are being taught and corrected in areas that just seem far too picky compared to having fun banging around. It’s not always pretty, but it’s part of my job to help them get over this and learn to love piano again :) I doubt if this also happens with a string instrument or with flute, for example, because those instruments involve a certain period of intrigue and anticipation, in which a number of steps are required to make that all-special “first sound”. Beginner string and flute students have something to look forward to and work toward, that they can’t do yet but eventually will. (Perhaps that brings its own set of frustrations, but that’s another discussion!) Beginner piano students often go through a deflating period when they realize they can’t randomly bang on the instrument anymore.

I also echo the various comments regarding social & emotional readiness for starting in formal lessons, be they private or group. But that is a given, regardless of what instrument is chosen.

said: May 5, 2009
 4 posts

I believe so strongly that if your son loves the piano, then you should pursue it—whether now, on your own since a teacher may not want to teach a 2 1/2 yr old, or in a few years with a Suzuki teacher. Shouldn’t we, as parents, be watching our child for the CUES of what they are passionate about? My older children all started with piano, and I assumed my youngest child would also learn piano. She was exposed to a violin for a few days and, for the next 6 months, begged to take violin lessons. I thought, “Wow, she is really turned on to violin. Let’s find a Suzuki violin teacher.” She has now been taking lessons for almost 2 years and LOVES it and is so happy when she is playing. She rarely argues about practicing. This David Brooks op-ed piece about growing genius is worth the read (from May 1, 2009):

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