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What Are Suzuki Piano Lessons?

A young girl learning to play the piano with her teacher.
A young Suzuki piano student I taught 15 years ago.

Several of my students found me because they were looking for piano lessons in general, but some have come to me because of one of my specialties, which are teaching Suzuki piano and guiding students through the Royal Conservatory curriculum.

These students arrive at their first lesson with some idea of what to expect from either of these two paths, but for those who don't I'd like to offer an explainer for the Suzuki approach and later on I'll follow up with one about the Royal Conservatory.

Who Benefits from the Suzuki Approach?

When I assess a new student, there are a couple of factors I take into account before I recommend Suzuki-style piano lessons for them.

The first is their experience. Suzuki piano is not really a method book so it does not make sense to start halfway through the book series. If a student is not a beginner, Suzuki probably isn't for them.

The second is their age. The musical selections from Suzuki piano book 1 are mostly folksongs, like nursery rhymes, which can have a great appeal for young students (ages 4-7). Only in special cases have I recommended Suzuki for older beginners, such as my student who grew up learning Suzuki violin and so is familiar with several of the tunes already and seems eager to repeat the process of learning the piano in the way she learned the violin. Another example of an older beginner is the parent of a young child who is learning Suzuki piano in order to support her child.

A third factor is whether the young beginner has been exposed to reading music. Suzuki progresses very fast! There are four one-handed variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" followed by two melodies that are played by both hands in unison and then the next song has the hands playing together in harmony. In my experience, this system works best if the student is not reading what they're expected to play but rather picking it up by ear. I introduce music reading once the student has confidently learned a few of these hands-together songs. A student who has already begun reading notes may be frustrated at having to "start all over again" without having a book to read from for a while.

Wait! Suzuki Piano Students Don't Read Music?

Not at first, and here's why.

Imagine the challenge of learning to control the movement of each of your ten fingers to play an instrument. Then imagine the focus of trying to remember where to put your fingers on the piano keyboard: interpreting the "map" of black and white keys. Then imagine paying attention to your teacher and remembering which keys to play, how many times, and in what rhythm (luckily our brains respond quickly to rhythms so this part is not so hard). Then imagine being a fidgety young child and doing all this. It's tough!

THEN imagine ALSO being taught to read music and having to learn about the music staff, clefs, note names and durations, and barlines! In my experience, this last part is unnecessary to the task of beginning to play music and more than that it's unhelpful.

Another benefit to learning to play before learning to read is that it gives the student a greater chance to focus on what really matters in music: sound. Look. There is so much to learn in music lessons. Posture, hand position, keyboard "geography", pitch, rhythm, beat, repertoire, Baroque style, legato, technique, theory, history... and on and on. When do we remember to listen to the sounds we make? Have we considered whether they are beautiful - whether we even like them?

The weeks or months of NOT reading from a music book may be laying the foundation of a musician who loves to truly listen to the music they're making, and that is a real treasure.

Why Is Suzuki Called an "Approach" and Not a "Method"?

Suzuki immediately stands out from among the other systems of learning piano mainly because of the lack of method book. Yes, there is a Suzuki book. But open it and look at the first HALF of the content: It immediately launches in to highbrow instructions and then full-blown musical notation without explanation. It is not kid-friendly or even beginner-friendly at all. The book is designed as a resource for the Suzuki teacher-in-training, and indeed, I have all of the material in Suzuki book 1 memorized (and most of book 2).

Beyond the fact that students are not handed a book at their first Suzuki lesson, the approach differs because of the wider Suzuki philosophy. Sayings like "every child can" and "mother tongue approach" are associated with Suzuki and they point to an immersive experience where the child is bathed in music, including the official Suzuki recordings from the book they will eventually play, in order to help them pick up music innately - in ideal cases, almost effortlessly - through loving support and sheer repetition.

Traditional Suzuki lessons emphasize the "Suzuki triangle" of teacher-parent-student. As a teacher, my job is not only to teach the student but also to equip the parent with the knowledge of what the lesson was trying to accomplish so that the parent can become the "home teacher" for the rest of the week.

Now, a little caveat. I am not a "traditional" Suzuki teacher. I let parents decide how hands-on they want to be during lessons, and I don't tend to emphasize listening to the recordings as much as I should. Rather, I have let the goals of the Suzuki approach inform my teaching style, which I adapt to suit each particular child, parent and family situation. Life in America in 2022 is vastly different from what it was when Dr. Suzuki developed his approach in Japan after World War II, and I believe the way music is taught should be adapted somewhat, too. Furthermore, while I firmly embrace the emphasis on folksongs in Suzuki piano book 1, I am frustrated by the narrowly Classical European music that is contained in the rest of the series. I desire to quickly move students through books 1 and 2 and then shuttle them into an anthology-style book series like the Royal Conservatory where they can pick music they like and are exposed to repertoire that is much more diverse and recent.

TLDR: What Do I Need to Know About Suzuki Piano Lessons?

The Suzuki approach is a wonderful way to introduce young students to playing the piano. It emphasizes listening for beautiful tone right from the beginning, and the folksongs in book 1 are masterfully laid out to help a student quickly progress from simple repetitive rhythms to playing complex two-handed songs with obvious musicality in a short period of time. This is accomplished by emphasizing listening to the sounds the student makes without the need to read sheet music at first, learning musical forms and patterns by ear and by rote, and encouraging parents to be actively involved as "home teachers" during the week. The system can be adapted to benefit the individual situation of every student, and my personal goal as a teacher is to lead them through the first two books of the series and advance them into more traditional music methods.

Please look for my post about why I also use the Royal Conservatory system in my studio.

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