Ask the Experts

Last summer, focus groups at summer Institutes were asked to submit questions for a panel of “Suzuki Experts” to answer. This is the 12th installment.

When and how do we start teaching musicianship and not just performance skills?

This question deserves a book in response or at the very least an article. Here is a short answer.

The reason I teach is to teach children to communicate expressively. Actual playing is part of it.

Start with Verbal Expressiveness

I am aware that I am teaching expressive communication when I say “good morning” to my students, or insist upon them saying, “thank you,” after I tune their violin, and “Thank you for teaching me, Mrs. Cole” at the end of their lesson. First of all, it helps them to recognize someone has done something for them. They learn to respond with the appropriate words and inflection. If their thank you is monotone, I imitate the monotone as if it was funny and then say it with believable inflection. Ultimately they will come to feel gratitude from expressing gratitude.

By the time my students finish learning Twinkles, one of several features added to their weekly lesson and assignment is the recitation of a poem. They recite the poem from memory. I appreciate the opportunity this gives for the following benefits: inflection, enunciation, projection, dynamics, breathing, tempo and memory. If the child comes back reciting in a monotone or breathlessly fast, I ask that the parent teach them the inflection, dynamics, tempo, etc., so I can see how expressively the parent would say the poem. (A little parental pressure!) The results are amazing. The poem asks all of the things we want musically except that the student does not worry about “messing up” by playing a wrong bow or note.

The Teacher’s Values

Suzuki said, “Intonation depends upon how much the teacher can stand.” I hold musical expression the same way. If the teacher can keep in mind the reason for music, then expression will be a very high priority Sometimes, I will demonstrate playing a phrase expressively and then contrast it by playing in a monotone. Students can always select the more expressive rendition. When they play, I hold out for expression, repeating and repeating and repeating the phrase until we get musical phrasing into their expectation and their playing. Musicality becomes an important value for the student whose teacher can keep it a priority in teaching. As Suzuki teachers we are after many things: high character, resonant tone and musical expression top the list.

Where is the music?

Sometimes I ask a student to tell me where the music is. They will usually open to some page of Suzuki Violin School. I reply that all I see there is white paper with lines and dots on it. So, where is the music? All that is on the page are instructions as to which notes to play, how long and how loud. The notes are not the music. There is not music in the notes.

After some discovery struggle they come to the realization that music travels in sound and comes from the heart and mind. Sometimes a student will play an accurate rendition of the written notes. I will acknowledge them for that. But then I say that now you are ready to play more than the notes. Now you are ready to play the music!

Don’t Neglect the Foundation

Having said all of this it is important to realize that the set up of a good technical foundation is the obligation of the teacher. Otherwise there is likely to be advancement toward the demise of the student as a violin player. If students are allowed to play in a way that diminishes their ability to continue to advance, they will eventually drop out thinking it is too hard, or I am just not good enough, or it is not fun anymore.


Even while teaching technique a teacher can create a musical environment. The teacher can speak in a well-modulated voice, include humor, squeal with delight, roar with laughter, and acknowledge the student for his effort. Acknowledgement always gives the student more freedom to take chances and be expressive because they will know they are appreciated for the way they work.

To teach musical expression the teacher must create a musical environment by the way they speak, behave and play in the lesson and absolutely hold out for the student to do the same. Musical behavior can be woven into the experience of learning and teaching technique. The reason we study technique is to make it easy so as not to hinder expressive playing. Specific musical gestures must be demonstrated and imitated in lessons. Don’t wait until the technique is perfect because it can never be perfect. Musical expression needs to be built in every step of the way.


For those who bake: add sugar to the batter before the cake is baked. Pouring sugar on top after baking does not turn out as well!

The question again:

When and how do we start teaching musicianship and not just performance skills?

The really short answer:

It begins with “hello.” Excuse me, I meant, “Hell OOOOOOH!!!”

I think I am now moved to write a full article!

Expert of the Week, Ronda Cole

See more Ask the Experts columns.