Angela walks confidentially to center stage, wearing her best concert clothes, carrying her prized guitar with her right hand low on the neck and close to her side.
She responds to the audience’s applause with a smile and a deep bow before sitting on an adjustable stool and propping her left foot on a footrest. Almost without pause, and without a trace of anxiety or self-consciousness, Angela begins to play “A Toye,” an anonymous Renaissance lute piece with an engaging melody and a simple, but effective supporting bass line. The tone she produces is focused and beautiful, she plays with expression and mature phrasing, including a masterful ritardando at the end of the piece. The audience response is immediate and enthusiastic; Angela stands, beaming, and takes another bow before skipping off stage. Angela is seven years old—she has been playing the guitar since age three.
Angela is not so unusual—she is one of a growing number of children throughout the United States who learn to play the guitar through the Suzuki Method, the marvelous early childhood approach to teaching music that focuses on ear-training, developing good instrumental technique and producing a beautiful tone before introducing the complexities of music reading. What if young guitarists grew up with a solid technical framework from the beginning, without excess tension, using nails to produce tone, all with the support of a group of peers, parents and a network of teachers? What if those students and parents attended guitar concerts, played in masterclasses and listened to numerous recordings of guitarists. What if there were guitarists who grew up playing in ensembles, accompanied violins, flutes, cellos, and felt at ease and confident on stage? This is the idea behind the Suzuki Guitar Experience.
History of the Suzuki Method
The Suzuki Method was originally developed by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki in the second half of the 20th century, first applying the concepts to the violin, and later to other instruments: viola, cello, bass, piano, flute and guitar. Today, the Suzuki method is a world-wide approach based on principles that Suzuki put into practice; namely that all children have unlimited potential to learn based upon what is in their environment.
The idea seems obvious, but the implications and details are far reaching. After spending eight years in Germany, where he studied violin with Karl Klingler of the Klinger Quartet, Shinichi Suzuki came into contact with notable musicians and thinkers in Berlin at that time, such as Dr. Albert Einstein, and heard many concerts by Busoni, Richard Strauss, Arthur Schnabel and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Furtwangler. Upon returning to Japan and experiencing the devastation that occurred during World War II, he realized that the world needed culture, and that music and the principles it teaches could save the world from such devastation.
He noticed the ease with which German children spoke German, and Japanese children fluently spoke Japanese, including fine details of inflection and accent. He concluded that learning language was a high level skill, a blueprint that could be used as a broad model for all learning-most importantly; that talent is not inborn, but is developed by the environment in which the child is born and raised. This auditory learning happens at a very early age, and even the slightest kinds of dialects can be detected, laying the groundwork for all later learning. This learning model became known as the “Mother Tongue” or “Talent Education” approach.
Suzuki was captivated by children—he wanted to learn from them and become like them. He noted:
- They have no thought of self-deception.
- They trust people and do not doubt at all.
- They know only how to love and know not how to hate.
- They love justice and scrupulously keep the rules.
- They seek joy, live cheerfully, and are full of life.
Elio Galvagno, Suzuki Guitar teacher trainer from Italy, suggests, “Suzuki continually reminds us from his concrete experience that to love and to educate are synonymous. His encounter with every student reinforced that authentic love and educative passion can’t not be separated. To educate means ever more to create an experience worth sharing, to involve self esteem, attitudes of calmness and optimism, feeling good about achievements, and expecting to do well.”
Core Elements of the Suzuki Approach
All children have the potential to learn at a high level, given the right environment. This is achieved by:
Parent Involvement: Parents learn about Suzuki philosophy, practical application of the method to the guitar such as home-teaching strategies, fundamental guitar skills so they can be effective models for their children, and a positive approach to learning. Parent education classes take place before the children’s lessons begin. Children get to know the instructor, watch their parents learn, absorb the sounds, and observe other children playing in group classes, which develops motivation, observation skills, and listening.
Individual Lessons: Beginning lessons introduce relaxation and proper body use, gross and fine motor skills, developing focus, and creating beautiful tone. Parents attend the lessons with their children, to take notes and participate in activities as directed by the teacher. There is a three sided model of cooperation between parent, teacher and child, each working together as a team, known as the “Suzuki Triangle”.
Group Classes: Many critical music and social skills are developed in group class, including playing repertoire, performance practice, teamwork, socialization, following, and later, music theory, reading skills and ensembles. Group Classes are an essential part of any Suzuki program, reinforcing previous skills, and becoming flexible musicians.
Children learn best in a cooperative learning environment, just as the title of Dr. Suzuki’s book “Nurtured by Love” states. Parents learn how to be positive in giving correction, using specific praise to give accurate positive feedback when practicing their child. Teachers guide the parent in details of the home environment and every aspect of playing. Many times it is the finer details that will make playing easier, so attention to details becomes a way of working. The child absorbs this in a natural, unhurried way, at the pace determined by the child.
Guitar is the ultimate “ear” instrument, and seems to lend itself quite naturally to the Suzuki approach. Think about some of the peculiarities of our instrument:
Everything about the guitar is counter-intuitive, even backwards. For example, up in pitch is physically down and vice-verse, from the fretboard perspective as well as the player’s view of the strings.
The essential concept of legato in music, the production of beautiful, sustained melodies, is the one thing that guitars seem to be built to ignore; it takes considerable skill and determination to create a well-shaped, singing line on the guitar.
It is not possible to produce a beautiful sound on a guitar string by plucking—the player must learn to push and release the string, contrary to the “popular” idea of guitar playing.
It is much easier to master the technical complexities of the guitar if the student is able to focus on physical comfort, good posture, beautiful tone and musical expression without the distraction of decoding visual symbols. Listeners are impressed by the excellent tone and intonation produced by Suzuki trained violinists, when compared with those students who learn visually—young guitarists can develop the same sensitivity to these critical areas of music production.
Playing in a group setting improves ability to follow a varied pulse, balance melody and accompaniment, watch a conductor or leader, refine musical skills such as timing, phrasing, reading,and responsibility. Violinists begin playing in orchestras in school and community groups before or soon after they begin lessons. They develop the ability to respond to a conductor, get socially involved with other children who are into music. Guitarists deserve the same wonderful experiences.
Developing Music Literacy
There is a misconception that Suzuki students do not learn to read music, but they certainly do—it is, rather, a question of sequencing, based on the model of how children learn to read words. Children learn to speak before they learn to read. As with written language, visual musical symbols are taught on the instrument after mastery of the beginning steps of playing are established. This very natural, logical approach to developing music literacy may be contrasted with a traditional reading method this way:
Reading Music: Non-Suzuki Method
- See symbol representing sound
- Memorize symbol/meaning
- Play it
- Hear final result
Reading Music: Suzuki Method
- Hear role model/recording
- Memorize naturally
- See symbol representing sound
Once the beginning level elements of note reading have been introduced, the following criteria for music reading material should be observed:
- Use symbols representing familiar melodic and rhythmic elements, i.e., those that have been played frequently and mastered
- Gradually introduce other new elements
- Provide repetition of concepts
- Include previous concepts with new ones
- Remain in one key for an extended period to develop comfort and expertise
For Suzuki teachers, literacy development begins with students’ first lessons—not by learning music from a score, but by participating in activities that introduce and focus on visual symbols in an interactive group setting. If Suzuki-trained guitar students begin at age 3-5, then they are certainly proficient readers by their early teens, the age that many other students might begin formal guitar study.
History of Suzuki Guitar Development
North and South America
Frank Longay and William Kossler co-founded Suzuki guitar in the US. In 1985, Frank and Bill—both coincidentally married to Suzuki violin teachers, Lisa Longay and Lauren Kossler—began applying the Suzuki method to classical guitar instruction. Their initial work began separately, on opposite coasts of the country, and they were soon put in touch with one another through the assistance of the Suzuki Association of the Americas.
Because there was no possibility of direct Suzuki instruction in guitar, Frank began Suzuki instruction in cello, with Barbara Wampner, and violin with Shannon Murphy, in his home state of California. Bill traveled to Japan with his wife and 2 year old son, Adam, to work with Dr. Suzuki and with Toshio Takahashi, author of the Suzuki Flute Method. Lisa took the first drafts of Book 1 to show Dr. Suzuki during a visit to Japan. Dr. Suzuki was very interested in the establishing the guitar, and thought it could be very helpful in the countries of South America, where piano and violin were less available. It is through this kind of encouraging environment from the Suzuki violin teachers that shaped the early beginnings of Suzuki Guitar throughout the world.
In 1986, at a meeting facilitated by the SAA, Bill and Frank, along with guitar instructor Cesar Benevidas from Peru, formed the first SAA International Guitar Committee, with the full support of Dr. Suzuki, who was attending the SAA Conference where the meeting took place. At the SAA Biennial Conference in 1990, Dr. Suzuki attended a performance of Suzuki Guitar students of Frank Longay, and was pleased with the results. The guitar committee grew to include European guitarists Elio Galvagno of Italy, Philippe Francaise of France and Michael Köppe of Germany, and work on the early drafts of the Suzuki Guitar books began. Frank describes the committee’s early ‘meetings’: “We talked countless hours on the phone, going over the volumes, arrangements and fingerings. One phone call lasted eight hours!”
A US Suzuki Guitar Committee was later formed, consisting of Bill Kossler, Frank Longay, Seth Himmelhoch, Andy LaFreniere, Simon Salz and Erin Johnson. Frank and Bill worked tirelessly, traveling the country to train interested guitar teachers and representing the Americas internationally, while working to develop the student repertoire for guitar according to Dr. Suzuki’s principles.
Suzuki Guitar books Volume 1 and 2 were published in 1991, and the vetting process critical to any thorough and thoughtful instruction method produced the final Suzuki Guitar Volume 9 in 2007. Guitar teachers from all over the world contributed their ideas for the gradual progression of simple folk songs to advanced classical guitar repertoire. From there it was used with hundreds of students, researched for effectiveness, reviewed, re-fingered, re-worked, re-edited, and finally published. There are currently nine volumes in the Suzuki Guitar Method, beginning with variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and ending with the Sor Variations on a Theme of Mozart and Albeniz Austurias, encompassing music throughout 5 centuries in a highly organized progression. There are currently six teacher trainers. The final recordings of Books 8 and 9 have been released, with performance by William Kannengeiser, completing over 20 years of collaboration.
Some guitarists became interested in applying the Suzuki concepts to the guitar when they had young children of their own. In Italy, Elio Galvagno began using Suzuki concepts, teaching his daughter Francesca, and going through many different versions of Book 1. He then began teaching several students in the house of a family, with encouragement from Anthony and Lee Robert Mosca, who had studied violin with Dr. Suzuki in Japan. There was much excitement and later a school was opened in Saluzzo, Italy. In Germany, Michael Koeppe began with his son. Later, Harald Soderberg in Sweden became involved through seeing the violin students of his wife, Ulla Brit. All of these teachers were put in touch with each other by Suzuki Associations in Europe, America and Japan, and shared their ideas to build a community of excellent teaching. There are now four teacher trainers in Europe.
Zeah Riordan, a guitarist in Melbourne, Australia, read “Nurtured by Love,” Dr. Suzuki’s seminal text, as an undergraduate. While she was deeply effected by his vision, she explains that, “Many other music education experiences would influence me”, before Suzuki became a permanent part of her life in music, including the educational approaches of Carl Orff and Zoltan Kodaly.
It was her participation, as a tutor in Orff-Schulwerk Music Enrichment Classes, at a Melbourne Suzuki Summer School that brought the pioneering Suzuki Guitar work of Frank Longay and Bill Kossler to her attention. In 1992, through her efforts, the Melbourne branch of the Suzuki Music Association made plans to launch guitar as a new Suzuki instrument, and in 1993 four Australian guitar teachers participated in Suzuki training with International Teacher Trainer Frank Longay. Zeah Riordan, teacher trainer, writes, “The Melbourne Suzuki Association actively supported the launch of guitar and initially subsidized teacher development. From the outset, guitar was welcomed and accepted as part of the Suzuki family.”
The Search for Student Instruments
Unlike violins and cellos, no network of quality guitars in appropriate sizes for young students existed in the 1980s or early 1990s, so teachers were obliged to settle for flawed instruments or, as Zeah Riordan described, to be creative. “In the early years obtaining instruments was the biggest challenge. I used to have baritone ukuleles converted so that I could start the four-year-olds. We also used 48cm guitars from the Czech Republic which were notorious for the bridges detaching and the necks bowing.”
While we still face many challenges in our quest to provide our students with the best possible instruments, in our to efforts educate parents about the importance of investing in better quality guitars and in our appeals to luthiers to build them, things are looking up. It is possible now to find properly sized instruments for children as young as age 3 or 4—not just a “one-size-fits-all” children’s guitar. Guitars made for children are now better quality, with the right depth, body and neck shape needed for good posture. Solid top instruments are available distributed by individuals like Ruben Flores and hand-crafted instruments of the finest quality by Kenny Hill and other excellent luthiers.
Increasing awareness of the need for improved student guitars and recent developments in the availability of these instruments bring the hope that sometime in the future we may see a system of quality guitar rental programs similar to those so common now for bowed string instruments, further raising the bar, while providing accessibility for families of different income levels.
Suzuki Guitar Today
As Suzuki guitar programs in the United States have grown, the visibility of our student performers has increased, spreading from isolated areas of Suzuki activity to the larger classical guitar community. Some of the finest and most active US classical guitar performers have had positive interactions with Suzuki guitar instructors and their students—here is what they have to say:
Although I received my musical training outside the Suzuki tradition, a number of my students and colleagues have been transformed by this powerful method, and I have great respect for its philosophy and effectiveness. Because of this, it was an honor for me to be invited by my friend Frank Longay to perform and teach at the 2008 Suzuki Guitar Teacher’s Conference in San Jose. I really enjoyed this event organized by Frank, and I fondly remember the time I got to spend with him and his dedicated team.
I was very humbled when Frank subsequently asked me to record the Repertoire CD for Books 8 and 9. This fun (yet challenging) project was made all the more enjoyable by being able to work closely with him on many small details of the music and the Suzuki tradition. Frank was always patient, gentle and unassuming in his role as producer, while at the same time clear and forthcoming with his opinions about the integrity of the project. He was never dogmatic or rigid, but encouraged me to explore my own interpretations, including allowing me to add some ornamentation in the Baroque works. I am very pleased with how the project came out, and it will always remind me of precious time spent with a good friend.
I have had the opportunity to work with Suzuki guitar students throughout the country over the past decade, and have been highly impressed with the results of the method. Teaching anything to children involves a particular set of skills, and this is the greatest strength of Suzuki teachers, thanks to the extensive training they receive. Their ability to understand the problems and relate it to the child in an age appropriate manner is simply fantastic.
The curriculum is very well thought out, which is important for anyone learning an instrument, avoiding gaps in knowledge, avoiding moving too fast, etc. The students I have seen all have a firm grasp of the fundamentals. Some simply enjoy the guitar and play competently for their own enjoyment; and others take that strong foundation and become true virtuosos, of which I’ve seen a good number.
There is a stereo-type that Suzuki students aren’t good readers. In my experience, this is not the case. In the students I’ve worked with who have Suzuki backgrounds, their reading levels vary as would any guitar students, they do not fall below the norm. However, there is a greater development of listening skills, and I feel also a greater willingness to repeat phrases, work on details, etc. I sense a greater work ethic that has developed in most of these students, which is impressive.
Benjamin Verdery, Yale School of Music:
In general, I’ve been really impressed with the Suzuki (guitar) students in the following ways: they are always very prepared, they play through the piece very well and with a positive attitude. They seem to have no problem performing which says a lot about their training. I love all the group playing they do and feel this should be encouraged. Like many I’m sure, I have thoughts about what the future of the teaching could include. It should be as forward looking as possible and make the joy of music making a priority.
Parents also enjoy the process:
“One of the amazing aspects of Suzuki training is that it approaches the student as a musician. From the very first day our teacher treated my children with tremendous respect. Because of this, my children can share their music and talk with others about it. The work of Suzuki has also infused my children’s view of themselves as learners. In no other place in their lives have they so consistently seen that if they work at a task methodically and with care, if they pay attention to their performance and learning that they can perfect and polish anything.”
—Simona Goldin, Phd. Post Doctoral Fellow, School of Education, University of Michigan
“My wife and my two children took Suzuki violin from ages 3 to 12. They are now 20 and 22. It was an invaluable experience for the both of them. At the summit of their Suzuki studies they were able to play the first movement of the Bach d minor double violin concerto (brother and sister) together from memory in a concert hall in front of an audience of two hundred plus people. As a parent and musician that alone was an experience I won’t forget.”
Since 1986, the number of SAA registered Guitar Teacher Trainers has grown from two to six; all are active throughout the US, as well as other parts of the world, in offering Suzuki training for those guitarists who sense the promise inherent in all young children and who feel the need to make a difference in how the guitar can be represented in the future.
We have developed a network—growing but never large enough—of individuals who put Dr. Suzuki’s principals of love and support at the forefront of our work. This includes the children we teach, the families we work with and the colleagues we reach out to in order to give, and receive, advice and support—it is an extraordinary community. Sadly, Frank Longay, one of the founders of Suzuki guitar and a leader in its development, passed away on January 19, 2011. Frank’s legacy of tireless work and dedication to the highest ideals of artistic excellence and humanity inspires us all as we continue to build a community of individuals devoted to the principles of the Suzuki method.
Taking Suzuki Teacher Training
Suzuki teacher training, or professional development, is where the many aspects of teaching are explored in the same kind of nurturing environment that students will later benefit from. It is hands on learning with a more experienced teacher, and really helps with ideas on the “how” part of teaching children. The attention is on teaching children lifelong skills through music.
Many teachers who have taken Suzuki training attest that they have found the answers to their questions about how to teach logically, effectively and intuitively.
Many teachers who have taken Suzuki training feel that, by starting students at a young age, they are making a valuable and lasting contribution to the development of the classical guitar by raising the general level of playing and awareness.
Suzuki training provides teachers with a supportive world-wide community of like-minded individuals who are intensively interested in the learning process and who care deeply about the development of all children’s ability.
Suzuki training provides teachers with the opportunity for musical and personal growth through “lifelong learning”—a system of levels logically structured from simple folk songs to standard concert repertoire that can enhance both teaching and playing ability.
Because the Suzuki method is all about the children and their parents, it is possible to build a vibrant network of committed families over time that will enrich and grow a strong studio program.
The first step in Suzuki training, for any instrument, is to take an introductory course called Every Child Can! This course gives participants a background in the Suzuki philosophy and method and may be offered by Suzuki trainers only. It is a six hour class that is often taught in one day, in various locations nationally throughout the year. The Suzuki Association of the Americas (SAA) website, www.suzukiassociation.org , keeps a list of course offerings on their Events menu.
After completing Every Child Can! and passing a video playing audition, Suzuki Guitar Book 1 may be taken and registered through the SAA. It is a graduate level pedagogy course, full of details on how to get started, how to present good technique in small steps, pre-note reading skills, and numerous insights into working with children and parents. Many new Suzuki teachers report that despite their bachelor or masters degrees, they had better results, with students continuing for longer periods of time, becoming life long enthusiasts for the guitar when they began using the Suzuki approach in it’s fullest form.
The Future of Suzuki Guitar
Our principal future need can be summed up in one word—more. More students, more teachers, more commitment, more activity, more real understanding of what the Suzuki Method is all about and how beneficial it can be for children, for the guitar, for music and for people everywhere.We hope to attract skilled players who have a commitment to teaching excellence, a desire to affect the lives of young students in a positive way and a need to make the world we live in a better place.
Reprinted from Soundboard magazine, Volume XXXVII, No. 3, 2011, pg. 42-47, with the kind permission of the Guitar Foundation of America