Many of the principles forming the foundation of Shinichi Suzuki’s Talent Education philosophy and method can be applied to create a string instruction program in the schools that leads to orchestral playing in later grades. In this setting, teachers should combine a curriculum based on the Suzuki repertoire with a reading method book. Intermingling the Suzuki song sequence with the skills presented in a method book best develops the skills students should learn. Our school starts string classes in kindergarten. Students of this age are usually unable to read, so a modified Suzuki program gives these students a chance to play without the additional difficulty of reading music.
Keeping Parents Involved
An important component of the Suzuki Talent Education method is the Suzuki triangle – the relationship between child, teacher and parent. This is the aspect that is most difficult to achieve in school lessons and requires the most modification from the traditional Suzuki method. Although parents are unable to attend pull-out lessons during the school day, there are many ways for string teachers to involve them in the process.
When students start string classes, they get a binder that includes their assignment sheets as well as the songs they will learn. Kindergarten and first-grade beginners also have a section for parents in the back of the binder. The parent section includes photos for parents to use as a reference. Position and posture are difficult for young students to practice without a parent present. Pictures and short descriptions function as a reminder to students and a visual explanation for parents. These can be delivered to parents electronically or printed and sent home with the rest of the teaching materials.
I email parents every week after lessons and might say something like, “Today we worked on our bow hand. If you look in the back of the binder you will see how a good bow hand is supposed to look. The first finger is called the daddy finger, and here is what it looks like. The second and third fingers are called the twins and they do this.” I go through the whole lesson with the parents via email, and then students can explain a lot of it to their parents as well.
In addition to photos illustrating hand positions and posture, I also provide fingerboard diagrams and short video clips to assist parents in practicing with the child at home. For example, in their eighth lesson, kindergarteners go from what we call monster position, which is when the violin is on the shoulder and the left hand is on the upper bout of the instrument with curved fingers and the thumb under the bout, to playing position. In the email I send after this lesson, I attach a video that shows parents how to help their children this practice at home.
Listening is an important component of the Suzuki method. It is relatively easy to create listening files to send to the parents via email or uploaded to a file-sharing program.
Young students often need more time to develop basic playing skills, yet still want to feel as though they are learning new things and making progress. Between the first Suzuki song, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Variations, and the second, Lightly Row, we add a list of additional songs. Some of these pieces are Hot Cross Buns, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Claire de Lune, and French Folk Song (from the Suzuki Cello method). They give students additional opportunities to practice the skills necessary to progress through the curriculum. We continue to add supplemental songs mixed throughout the traditional Suzuki repertoire. For mixed groups of string players, violin pieces can be transposed from the key of A to the key of D.
Students listen to the music and then learn each piece by rote. At the lesson, I show them where it is in their packet, which includes tips to help them practice it at home with their parents. (see box to the right) Most of them memorize it during class and do not need the book, but it helps the parents.
Rote teaching following listening to a song is a fundamental tenet of the Suzuki model. Encourage rote learning at lessons, but also provide tools for home practice to introduce the early basics of music reading. I introduce letter names to assist in home practice instead of teaching the lines and spaces of the staff. This is simpler for young students but teaches the association of letter names and finger-string relationships as well as left-to-right reading skills.
Students start learning to read music at the end of first grade, or at the end of their first year if they begin music lessons later than first grade. At that point we switch out of the letter-name packet for the staff packet. Both contain the same songs, but the latter uses notes in the staff instead of letter names.
The string program at my school runs from kindergarten through sixth grade, and even after students move to playing in orchestra, they have pull-out lessons that continue teaching the Suzuki repertoire and method. We have the added songs, but they are still taught Suzuki style: by rote first, then sections by rote, then showing them where it is in the music, so they can read it and practice at home.
The aim of the program is to get all string students through Suzuki Book 1 by the time they finish sixth grade. Most sixth graders graduate having finished book one, although I have some fourth graders now who are in book two and last year I had a sixth grader who was in book four.
Group games reinforce concepts and are a fun way to get students excited about lessons. Some classics that students enjoy are Name That Tune, Music Term Bingo, Music Symbol Go Fish and magnet board work for learning to read. Another student favorite is Music Lines and Spaces Twister. I made a giant staff out of a shower curtain. We have a pile of cards with instructions like “right hand F” or “left foot A.” Students have to put a hand or foot on the line or space we call out. Another activity is to spell words with a small group. For example, three people in a group pick a six-letter word. The first person is responsible for the first two letters, the second person for the middle two letters, and the last person for the last two letters.
Song phrase mix-up games are great for repetition and sequencing skills. This works with songs that students have already learned or are currently learning. Mary Had a Little Lamb has four phrases, so each phrase is on one card. Teachers put the cards upside down, and a student picks one card and figures out where it goes in the melody. Students stick the phrase in its correct position on a sheet of paper with velcro strips attached to it, and then everyone plays it. Then someone else picks the next phrase and puts it where it belongs. Students then have to play that phrase, unless it connects to a phrase that has already been drawn, in which case they have to play all of the connected phrases. Some tunes I separate by measures. This is a great way to learn review music without always starting at the beginning. Most students can play the beginnings of songs but find starting in the middle much more difficult. Students love this game.
Adding Suzuki to the Program
The best approach to implementing a program based on the Suzuki method is to start with the young beginners. If students begin string lessons in fourth grade, I start them with letter names and rote teaching until they get their positions set, and then I pop them right over to reading because they are fourth graders and can read. Avoid changing methods on students who are already in orchestra, although you could use the literature, which is sequential and progressive, as review material, especially to firm up posture and position.
Ultimately, teachers have to know how to use things the way they fit best in their program. No method is meant for everybody. With a carefully thought out curriculum and the willingness to create parent aids, it is possible to create a successful school string program based on the philosophies of Suzuki’s Talent Education.
Anyone interested in seeing the packet or using the material she uses can contact Carr at email@example.com.
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Home Packet Example
A New Song: Hot Cross Buns or 2-1-none
Adding the Fingers – with Freezes
This song introduces a new skill where the students do not always play each note with one of the bow patterns. Here is the sequence. I have also sent a video clip for you, and your children have a diagram in their binders as well.
Bow on the E string:
2 1 – Put down 2 fingers (1st finger on red and 2nd finger on white).
2 – Play that note ONE time. FREEZE.
1 3 – Pick up 2nd finger leaving down only 1st finger.
4 – Play that note ONE time. FREEZE.
none 5 – Pick up the 1st finger.
6 – Play the E string with no fingers down. FREEZE.
Repeat for a second set of 2-1-none
7 – On the E string play “peanut butter” (4 notes). FREEZE.
8 – Put down 1st finger.
9 – Play “peanut butter” with one finger down. FREEZE.
Repeat steps 1-6 for the last 2-1-none
This sequence is in their binders; we have put a tab on the page to help you find it.
Each time the student plays it they may color in or check off a square on their 100 chart.