All of us form impressions of the world around us based on our own personal experiences, observations, perceptions, and our interpretations of what we know. Of course, such a capacity serves us well in much of what we do. Our ability to make sense of our world is facilitated by our ability to assimilate, synthesize, and interpret what we see around us. As we gain in experience and expertise, as all of us do regarding our professional work as teachers and musicians, we tend to see more deeply into the precise nature of what we do—what it takes to be fluent, skilled, artistic.

Understanding why things are the way they appear is sometimes more difficult, however. It certainly requires that we state more precisely what we usually describe only in terms of generalities, and we describe much about teaching and musicianship in general terms. For example, we understand that one of the linchpins of good teaching is “a positive approach,” a well-accepted idea whose definition is more than a tad vague. This idea may be even more explicitly stated, perhaps by noting that good teachers precede all criticism of a student’s performance by pointing out positive aspects of the student’s playing (“positive first”). But is this really true? Do the teachers that professional consensus deems “excellent” really behave this way in their teaching? Equally important, do people who believe themselves to be excellent teachers actually behave this way? There is certainly an impression that this is the case, but what if we wish to learn more? What if, in an effort to describe accurately what excellence really is, in an effort to evaluate the quality of teaching more effectively, in an effort to provide useful prescription to aspiring novices, we wish to learn about the nature of expertise with greater clarity and precision? Then it seems that something more than impressions is required.

Since its first meeting in 1990, International Suzuki Research Symposium has undertaken two major research efforts involving Suzuki teachers throughout the U.S. The intent of these preliminary investigations has been to provide empirical documentation of the content of lessons taught by excellent Suzuki teachers—analyzing what teachers, students, and parents actually do during lessons taught by expert pedagogues. By measuring the time allocated to various aspects of behavior as teachers and students work together to improve students’ playing in the context of music repertoire, these initial research efforts represent an important first step in understanding, perhaps in a more systematic way, the essential characteristics of effective teaching. This article describes some of the results from the first of these investigations.

Writing for the American Suzuki Journal, Marge Aber described the goals of the International Suzuki Research Symposium in this way: “The information will be used to promote and develop the methodology of Talent Education, … improve teacher effectiveness and to encourage scholars in educational psychology, pre-school and elementary education, family studies and psychiatry to utilize the Suzuki concept….It is our hope that all Suzuki educators will participate in undertaking research, whether in the studio or at the many summer institutes.”2

Of course, excellent teachers have been observed for centuries. Aspiring novices, colleagues, teachers of pedagogy, parents, and students themselves, all have formed judgments concerning the quality and effectiveness of the teachers whose work they have seen. These judgments may be based on any number and combination of perceptual variables, which explains in large measure how different observers may view the very same teacher and come to very different conclusions about the quality and efficacy of the teacher’s work.

A prudent first step in any effort to “improve the quality of teaching” must include some documentation of the current status of the discipline. Although teachers attend formal and informal meetings and engage in collegial discussions about the nature of our work and the substance of what we do, our beliefs about what’s important, what’s in need of change, and even what is are necessarily based on our own perceptions about what is true. And, of course, our perceptions are colored by the experiences, beliefs, and biases we bring to any judgment. For this reason, it seems very useful to look at what we do in more systematic ways, in ways that limit the influence of bias, relying less on impressions about what takes place and more upon specifically structured observations. Of course, systematic observation comes with its own set of limitations; nevertheless, it provides an opportunity to view our discipline through a different lens—one that may provide insight into the nature of the teaching process that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to obtain. Reliance on only recollections and general impressions about teaching may be sufficient to form a reliable judgment of overall quality, but provides little in the way of reliable, specific information concerning the details of the teaching process, information that is essential if meaningful prescriptions for the improvement of teaching are to be made.

A wealth of research is available in early childhood education, educational psychology, and music education that documents fundamental principles of effective teaching, though surprisingly little research has been conducted in the studios of private teachers in music.3 This may be due, in part, to the fact that there are few private teachers who have either the inclination or the expertise to conduct systematic research, and it may be that the long tradition of apprenticeship in music precludes any efforts to treat music teaching “scientifically.” Recognizing the need to promote research in individualized music instruction and the commensurate need both to develop positive attitudes and to impart specific skills regarding the systematic analysis of music instruction at all levels, we set out to develop a set of procedures for observing applied music instruction and educating leading Suzuki teachers in the techniques of systematic observation.

What was done

The investigation set out to document the types of behavior that actually take place in the studios of excellent string teachers whose instruction is predicated on the principles of Talent Education. The specific focus of the investigation was the time allocated to different aspects of teacher, student, and parent behavior as teachers and students work together to improve students’ playing in the context of music repertoire. We also examined the relationships among various student characteristics and the behavior of lesson participants.

Six expert Suzuki string teachers volunteered to participate in the study as data gatherers (i.e., trained observers who obtained videotapes of excellent teachers and analyzed the lessons recorded on the tapes).4 Following the Suzuki Association of Americas Teachers Conference in June of 1994, the six data gatherers (DGs) participated in an intensive, two-day training session during which they learned to evaluate videotaped instruction using systematic observation procedures designed specifically for this project. The procedures required no special equipment and were designed to facilitate their use by experienced teachers who had had little exposure to either research or systematic observation techniques.

Each DG identified two string educators with whose work they were familiar and who also had been recognized as excellent teachers either nationally or in their own regions of the country—a total of 12 string educators. Each of the 12 teachers submitted lists of students in his or her private studio who had agreed and whose parents had agreed to the students’ participation in the study. When submitting the lists of students, teachers also identified each student’s instrument, gender, age, ethnicity, and number of years experience playing the instrument currently being studied. Teachers also estimated “the ease and quickness with which the student learns” (labeled “ease of learning”) and “the appropriateness of the type and extent of parental involvement in the student’s instruction” (labeled “parental involvement”) along 10-point rating scales.

From a total of 273 potential student participants, three were selected randomly from each studio—a total of 36 students. Each student was videotaped across three consecutive lessons—a total of 108 videotaped lessons. Videotapes were recorded according to specific criteria so that both speaking and playing by the student, teacher, and parent (if present) were audible and both student and teacher were in view of the camera.

Since the purpose of this investigation was to document teacher, student, and parent behavior during the process of instruction, each DG selected an 8-12 minute segment of each lesson representing “work on a piece in progress” (i.e., a piece that had been introduced to the student prior to the first videotaped lesson). Lessons were not analyzed in their entirety. The excerpts from all three lessons for each student depicted work on the same piece. For younger and less experienced children, who may not spend as long as 8 minutes on a single piece, DGs selected segments from the three lessons during which the same aspects of technical development were addressed.

Once the 8-12-minute segments had been selected, DGs coded instances of teacher, student, and parent behavior using a time-sampling procedure. Each lesson segment was divided into 5-second intervals, with a line of data on a specially-designed observation form corresponding to each 5-second interval of the lesson. After viewing each 5-second interval, DGs marked the appropriate behavior codes on the corresponding line of the observation form. Thus, the lesson summary data reflect the percentage of observation intervals during which each behavior had been observed.

What was learned

All lesson videotapes were included in the data reported below with the exception of three tapes from a single student, which were unusable due to mechanical flaws in the videotapes. Thus, the analysis includes 12 teachers, 35 students, and 105 videotaped lessons. The results of the analyses of the lesson excerpts are reported in three sections: (1) descriptive statistics concerning the characteristics of the students; (2) descriptive statistics concerning the percentages of time devoted to each observation category across all 105 lesson excerpts; and (3) analyses of the relationships between the observation data and student characteristics.

Student Characteristics

The characteristics of the student participants in this research are given in Table 1. Of the 35 students: 12 were male; 23 were female; 32 were violinists; 3 were cellists. The ethnic distribution included 22 White students, 6 Hispanic students, 5 Asian or Asian-American students, 2 African-American students, and 1 student of another ethnicity. There are no significant relationships among the demographic variables in the student sample (except for an unsurprising positive relationship between Age and Years Experience), indicating that each of the student characteristics described above is distributed evenly across levels of the remaining characteristics.

Table 1

Characteristics of the 35 Students Whose Lessons were Observed

Student Characteristic Average Range
Age 9.9 5-17
Years Experience 4.5 1-13
“Ease of Learning” (1-10 scale) 7.8 3-10
“Parental Involvement” (1-10 scale) 9.3 3-10

NOTE: Ease of Learning is the students’ teachers’ “general estimate of the ease and quickness with which the student learns (1=very slowly, 10=very quickly).” Parental Involvement is the students’ teachers’ “estimate of the appropriateness of the type and extent of parental involvement in the student’s instruction (1=very inappropriate, 10=very appropriate).

Proportions of Observed Behavior Across 105 Lesson Excerpts

Table 2 shows the average percentage of intervals in which each category of behavior was observed across the 105 lesson excerpts. Also reported in the table are the ranges (lowest and highest values) for each of the behaviors. For example, the average percentage of Teacher Talking across all 105 lessons was 66%; in the lesson with the least teacher talking, 32% of the observation intervals included verbalizations by the teacher; in the lesson with the most teacher talking, 96% of the observation intervals included teacher talking. Clearly, the most prevalent category of teacher behavior observed was teacher verbalization. A large proportion of observation intervals (28%) also included teacher performance. Over half the time devoted to teacher verbalizations involved explanations (29%) and directive statements (25%). It is notable that 13% of the observation intervals included positive verbal feedback and 3% included negative verbal feedback. The proportions of intervals that included nonverbal feedback (given without corresponding verbal feedback) were negligible (1% or less).

Student performance, although certainly the most prevalent student behavior, appeared in only 53% of the observation intervals. Students were observed talking in 11% of the intervals, and nearly all of the student talk was germane to the music tasks that were being addressed in the lesson at the time. When parents were present, there were almost no intereactions between the parent and either the student or the teacher during the lesson excerpts analyzed (percentage of intervals including some form of overt behavior directed either to the teacher or the student by the parent was less than 1%.)

Table 2

Observed Percentages of Teacher, Student, and Parent Behavior Across 105 Lessons

Observation Code Average % of intervals Range (in %)
Categories of Teacher Behavior
Talking 66 32-96
Physical Prompting 11 0-52
Performance 28 0-69
Approximation of Performance (e.g., sing, clap, conduct) 9 0-51
Nonverbal Communication 2 0-13
Content of Teacher Talking & Nonverbal Communication
Information or Explanation 29 5-61
Directive Instruction 25 1-5
Question 10 0-26
Positive Verbal Feedback 13 2-37
Negative Verbal Feedback 3 0-25
Positive Nonverbal Feedback 1 0-8
Negative Nonverbal Feedback <1 0-6
Off-task Talking <1 0-6
Categories of Student Behavior
Talking 11 0-45
Performance 53 9-91
Approximation of Performance (e.g., sing, clap, conduct) 4 0-40
Nonverbal Communication 2 0-10
Content of Student Talking
On-task talking 11 0-41
Questions 1 0-8
Off-task talking <1 0-9
Categories of Parent Behavior
On-task <1 0-7
Off-task <1 0-1

NOTE: % of intervals expressed the mean percentage of total observation intervals in which a given behavior was observed. Observation intervals were 5 seconds in duration and were recorded consecutively from videotapes of each lesson.

Relationships between Student Characteristics and Other Observation Variables

The relationships among the variables measured in this investigation were analyzed statistically, and the significant relationships (i.e., those that are unlikely to have been a result of chance variations) between the student characteristics and the observation categories are given below. The strengths of the relationships are expressed as correlation coefficients (r), which range from +1.0, indicating a strong positive relationship, through 0.0, indicating no relationship, to -1.0, indicating a strong negative relationship.

Gender. There seems to be a slight relationship between students’ Gender and their verbal interactions with the teacher. Teachers tended to ask more questions of female students (r = 0.19) and tended to give more positive feedback to female students (r = 0.28) than to male students. In addition, male students exhibited more off-task talking than did female students (r = -0.23).

Age. Teachers tended to use physical prompting (e.g., physically repositioning the angle of the instrument) more with younger students than with older students (r = -0.31). Teachers also gave more frequent Directive Instructions to younger students than to older students (r = -0.38). Teachers tended to ask more questions of older students than they did of younger students (r = 0.28) and gave more positive feedback to older students (r = 0.42). Older students tended to exhibit more on-task talking than did younger students (r = 0.29), whereas younger students tended to exhibit more off-task talking (r = -0.56).

Years Experience. Teachers communicated more frequently using nonverbal signals with less-experienced students than with more-experienced students (r = -0.51), and teachers gave more Directive Instructions to more-experienced students than to less-experienced students (r = 0.29). Teachers asked considerably more questions of inexperienced students than they asked of experienced students (r = -0.64), and also gave more positive feedback to less experienced students (r = -0.53). Per*perienced students (r = -0.30). Understandably, there was less observed behavior by the parents of more experienced students (r = -0.42).

Ease of Learning. Students given higher Ease of Learning ratings by their teachers received more Directive Instructions during the lesson than did students who were rated lower (r = 0.24). Teachers tended to ask more questions of students with lower Ease of Learning ratings than they asked of students rated more highly (r = -0.19). The parents of students given higher Ease of Learning ratings tended to participate less in the lesson than did the parents of students with lower ratings (r = -0.40), although it should be remembered that the extent of parental participation observed in these excerpts overall was minuscule.

Parental Involvement. Teachers tended to use physical positioning more with students with low Parental Involvement ratings than with students who were given high Parental Involvement ratings (r = -0.24). Teachers tended to use nonverbal communication more with students with high Parental Involvement ratings (r = 0.30), and gave fewer Directive Instructions to students with higher Parental Involvement ratings than they gave to students with low Parental Involvement ratings (r = -0.35). As one might expect, the parents of students given higher Parental Involvement ratings participated in the lesson more than did parents with lower ratings (r = 0.31).

(Are these results what you would have predicted? Does this information serve to strengthen your perceptions of what takes place in lessons, or do some of these results seem surprising? Do you think that these descriptions of lessons taught by excellent teachers are similar to what takes place in the lessons that you teach?)

What the Data Gatherers Learned

We asked the teachers who participated as data gatherers to describe the changes in their own views about teaching that had come about as a result of their participation in the project. All of the DGs expressed positive attitudes about the project itself and had specific ideas about changes in their perceptions that came about as a result of their using a systematic observation procedure. DGs indicated that they had become more sensitized to the content of verbalizations between teachers and students, and as a result, intended to make their instructions more clear, to increase the amount of student performance in the lessons they teach, and to increase the extent to which students demonstrate their understanding, rather than “merely listen as a non-participant.” Regarding the recording of lesson events in 5-second intervals, one DG wrote, “An incredible amount can be accomplished in 5 seconds. I personally see several more research projects branching out from this one on the effectiveness of teaching and learning.”

What’s next?

The data presented here not only document some aspects of Suzuki-based instruction as it is currently practiced by a sample of professional educators, but may also provide impetus and direction for improving string instruction in the future. We anticipate that the continuation of the North American String Education Project, which has completed its second phase, will yield the following long-term outcomes:

  1. An extensive data set regarding the practice of Suzuki-based string instruction in the United States. These data will document the skills of effective music teaching in the context of Talent Education. We hope that the results will lead to an informed consensus concerning the most important variables that define excellence in string teaching and provide a basis for improving the quality of string education in general, both within and without the community of string educators identified with the principles of Suzuki.

  2. A library of videotaped examples of quality music instruction that may serve as models for instructional practice and pedagogy in string education.

  3. A useful, “teacher-friendly,” field-tested observation procedure that may be used by any teacher who desires more systematic information about his or her teaching.

  4. The field of string instruction will undoubtedly benefit from the training and experience obtained by the Data Gatherers, who, having completed this process, possess proven skills in the techniques of systematic observation. These skills have not only influenced positively their own teaching but also may stimulate future research efforts (both formal and informal) among these individuals and their colleagues. We hope that the Data Gatherers will constitute a core of members in their professional organizations (e.g. American String Teachers Association, Music Teachers National Association, Suzuki Association of the Americas) who will express positive attitudes about the role of research in education and who will work to continue the research process as a necessary part of the growth of the discipline.

As was discussed at the project’s inception, identifying the aspects of string instruction that are thought to be the most meaningful and important by teachers, parents, and students is a substantial first step in examining the validity of many long-held notions about music teaching. This line of systematic investigation is of considerable consequence, not only as a way of establishing the veracity of ideas that many believe to be true, and not only as a way of discovering new information about children and music study, but also as a way of documenting the most appropriate and effective means of incorporating string education in a child’s life experience. Providing opportunities for music professionals to learn about their students, themselves, and the pedagogy of the field represents a substantial commitment to the improvement of string instruction for all children.


  1. The results reported in this article are reported in: Duke, R. A., D’Ercole, P., Burton, J., Hersh, S., Jackson, N., Partee, L., Scott, L., Zeller, L., & Colprit, E. (1996, April). Broadening the research base in string education: The North American String Education Project. Research presented at the biennial meeting of the Music Educators National Conference, Kansas City, MO.
  2. Aber, M. (1990). Suzuki Research Symposium. American Suzuki Journal, Fall, 10-12.
  3. Bloom, B. (Ed.) (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballentine Books. Buckner, J. L. J. (1997). Assessment of teacher and student behavior in the relation to the accomplishment of performance goals in piano lessons. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin. Kostka, M. J. (1984). An investigation of reinforcements, time use, and student attentiveness in piano lessons. Journal of Research in Music Education, 32, 113-122. Siebenaler, D. J. (1997). Analysis of teacher-student interactions in the piano lessons of adults and children. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45, 6-20.
  4. The six data gatherers were: Jenny Burton, Dallas, Texas; Sarah Hersh, Hamline University; Nancy Jackson, Western Illinois University; Lyda Partee, Memphis State University; Laurie Scott, Southwestern University; and Lisa Zeller, Naples, Florida. Pat D’Ercole, University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, served as Project Director, and Elaine Colprit, doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin, assisted with the data analysis.