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Interview with Christine Nguyen on a Parent's Perspective of the Suzuki Method

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Christine! Why don't you start out by introducing yourself. How long have you been a Suzuki parent, do you have any musical/teaching experience, what made you decide on a Suzuki teacher, etc...

I am a mother of three beautiful children, a science teacher and a Suzuki parent for just over 3 years. As a child, I learned the mandolin until that “stubborn” phase when I refused to practice. My parents were business people so it was up to me to practice on my own. There was no one to help me through the difficult patch I got discouraged and practice became more of a chore than a joy which led to the eventual termination of the mandolin.

When my oldest child was two and a half, I was introduced to the Suzuki method by a friend who lent me Dr. Suzuki’s book, Nurtured By Love.  Two things that left a tremendous impression were that talent can be learned with practice and diligence and that learning to play the violin well is similar to learning the mother language. I was excited that the Suzuki method allows children to begin their musical journey at a much earlier age than traditional methods. When my oldest child was two and a half, the Suzuki teachers I found all recommended to give him a little more time. However, in the mean time, we should begin listening to the Suzuki Book 1 CD.

The search for a Suzuki teacher proved more difficult than I anticipated there just wasn’t that many in my area to begin with and then they already had a full load or they did not seem to be interested in taking on really young students. Fortunately, within the following year, there was a new Suzuki teacher who joined the San Diego Suzuki School of Music and she teaches in my area. She had just graduated with a degree in music therapy, trained in Suzuki methodology, seems to like children, and so our music journey began.

Based on your experiences, is the Suzuki Method something that is completely spelled out in the method books? Or is there more to it than that?

There is a basic structure to the Suzuki Method such as the combination of private and group class, the focus on correct forms over learning new songs each week and the appreciation for “observation is learning”. The similarities between the books and my experiences end there. 

Among my top concerns had to do with the language barrier, cultural differences and each child’s unique personality. My children began violin lessons long before they understand and/or speak much English. A skillful teacher will recognize and appreciate this unique challenge entrusted upon her then develop a program that is suitable to the student. Learning music through the Suzuki Method though simple in theory but is rather a highly unique and complex dance that is choreographed by three people; the teacher, the student and the parent.

At this point it seems like you've seen the Suzuki Method in action long enough to observe how a student starts and then how technique is developed over time. One of the major criticisms of the Suzuki Method is that it basically trains robots. Teaching every child the same pieces and having them all play those same songs together stifles creativity. What is your opinion on this?

As with everything, you have to have some basic background before you can attempt to be creative. Here’s an analogy to cooking. Let’s say you have never cooked before and wanted to make beef bourguignon. You don’t just go into the kitchen and magically whipped it up. Instead, you’ll want to do a bit of research in what the ingredients are, what to do with them, in which order, then execute the dish. 

After you have done this dish a few times, the next time, you happened to miss a few ingredients. Now would be the time for you to use what you have learned and begin to make substitutions. Once you have mastered the art of substitutions, you are now able to transform a beef bourguignon dish into something that is entirely different in culture and profile, like Hayashi rice. However, the fine print here has to do with the skillfulness of the teacher to recognize and allow for some flexibility to deviate from the Suzuki Method. After all, teachers are in the business of teaching, not just training Suzuki students. 

The Suzuki Method is a mean to provide the students with solid tools they will need to become creative musicians. An example of the Suzuki Method teaching creativity is seen through the piece Long Long Ago in Book 1, then a variation of that in Book 2, and now my son is learning a third variation of that song in Jazz form. When my son reached that phase where he understood the four strings and his fingers can manipulate the strings to produce different notes, he just wanted to play around with this new found insight. Instead of redirecting him back to the Suzuki piece he was working on, together, his Suzuki teacher actually guided him to explore improvisation. In teaching, that’s what we called the “teachable moment”. 

The ultimate goal in teaching and learning is to find those teachable moments. So, his musical journey was not linear on the Suzuki highway. However, it has been enriched with side turns and detours. The bottom line, creativity comes from enriched experiences.

If a parent is looking around for a Suzuki teacher, will all trained Suzuki teachers be the same?

Not all trained Suzuki teachers will be the same. Some will adhere strictly to the Suzuki Method. Some will use the Suzuki Method but will pull in other resources to enrich the learning experience for the student. There are pros and cons to both types of teachers. In the case of the strict Suzuki teacher, pro would be you will always know exactly what is being taught and the expected outcome. A con would be your child may get bored with the expectation to perfect a certain task prior to moving on to the next. This is especially difficult for young children to understand. In the case of the deviated Suzuki teacher, you will get the best of both worlds. Your child will benefit from the Suzuki Method yet will be enriched by outside resources. However, the caution here has to do with knowing where the balance is.

To wrap things up, why don't you share how your Suzuki journey has been. Has it been a worthwhile experience? Is it something you would recommend to other parents?

Overall, our Suzuki journey has been amazing, minus the occasional refusal to practice. That proud parental moment when your child overcomes performance anxiety, walks confidently onto the stage, exudes confidence as he plays a piece that you and he had practiced together for hundreds of times; that’s what brings us to our lessons weekly and daily practice. 

There will be bumps on the road. Having had my personal practice refusals and seeing its outcome, I can identify with my child and share in his frustration and anguish when a measure sounded so good at the studio but sounded so horrible at home. For us, this journey has been more than just worthwhile; it grows to being our family tradition. 

Would I recommend to other parents? The strict Suzuki Method is not for everyone. However, with commitment and hard work, the balanced approached to Suzuki Method would be ideal for just about anyone looking to learn a new instrument.


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