Bridging the Suzuki Gap
A Perspective on the Future of American String Playing
By Richard Freeman-Toole
The teaching of stringed instruments in this country is very much in a state of transition. The days of public school orchestra classes are, in more and more cities, becoming a thing of the past; indeed, a public school system that can boast a any string program at all, at the primary, middle, or high school level, is a solitary oasis in a desert of ever widening borders. Orchestra-consciousness seems to be dimming in the minds of the public to the point that many young people, otherwise reasonably cultured, have never even heard the word.
This is not to say that string teaching per se is dying out; no, paradoxically enough, Suzuki string programs thrive like mushrooms in the dark, every year introducing thousands of young people ( especially in the four-to-eight-year-old age range ) to string playing in every out-of-the-way grove and hamlet. Everywhere mothers want to give their children the edge in cognitive development offered by the muscular-coordinated challenges involved in such activities as aikido, ballet, gymnastics, and music. I stress the term " activities ", because this is precisely the attitude most parents take toward Suzuki lessons. Where the study of music was once considered a somewhat elitist, " rich kid " thing, a deep and serious discipline undertaken for the edification and advancement of mind and spirit, it is now one of a number of popular, quasi--educational diversions crammed materialistic into an hectic schedule of " activities "; activities designed to fill the two or three after-school-before-dinner hours was something fun to do, and heaven forbid if it isn't “FUN".
Hence the one or two class lessons, plus the one private or semi-private lessons for the week represent, in most cases, the parent and child's total commitment to the string instrument; some modicum of at-home practice is bound to take place right before the recital time, but the pervasive attitude toward the classes is that they are something to do for fun until the child gets tired of them (usually the second or third year), at which point the parent sells the instrument through the newspaper added 10-30% loss, and the kid promptly forgets everything he ever knew about music. Because of this deeply-rooted “learning must be fun" posture adopted by so many educators, parents become alarmed when the music classes get difficult or intense; the weak children invariably complain, and the parents either yank their children out of music altogether, or to seek a less intense teacher. For this reason, music teachers are terrified of losing income by pushing the students, so they slow down the class to the level of the least talented, repeat the same lesson over and over, and try to keep everybody happy by keeping everybody at a uniformly low energy level.
Since the beginners are often very young indeed, and since they usually quit right at the point where the music is beginning to get up into an intermediate level ( where it starts to be more than minimally taxing to keep up), and since the progress through the books ( excellent collections that they are ) is so slow, there's hardly ever question of any but a few of the children will be provided with even the basic mental equipment necessary for ensemble playing.
Obviously a gifted student who stays with the program long enough to get into the upper books will have finally caught on to music-reading without finger numbers and rote memorization ( although most of them, even the advanced ones, are lousy sight-readers), the students represent such a small percentage of the kids who start, the first simply are not enough to put together an orchestra big enough to sound like anything.
The sound isn’t even the most important drawback to small string groups, since the string quartet and the small string orchestra are two the nicest musical ensembles in existence; no, the biggest drawback is the “number " factor. We can't really blame the children for not supporting string programs, when the children themselves don’t support them. Kids like to be a part of something--they like to be with their friends, and they like to hide themselves in a crowd. String players already have enough rare-birds syndromes to deal with (" hey, what's he got in there, a machine gun? “), without taking the risk of sticking out in a dinky four or five-member group. In a certain sense, it can be said that Suzuki provides good preparation for band instruments, because every year thousands of junior high students desert the violin to join one of the much more popular and populous than programs which continue to thrive in the public schools.
The long and short of it is the Suzuki method does not prepare children to play in orchestral ensembles. Orchestras at every level, amateur to professional, are dying out, and without the local Youth Symphony or community orchestra to keep amateur playing alive, and an image, of what live classical music performances are like, in the mind of the public, the Suzuki programs themselves will crumble to nothing because no one really wants to give their child training in something that has absolutely guaranteed no future in it.
This article is aimed at the future. I believe the death of string playing is an unnecessary demise, and I expect that Suzuki-like programs could be the salvation of the American orchestra. I have no objection to the way children are introduced in the violin through the Suzuki method; if one takes a broad view the issue, one way is as good as another, and Suzuki has at least become identified in the minds of parents of primary-school-aged children as something wholesome and beneficial to do. The problem is getting the kids to stick--on this issue I am firmly convinced that the practicing/performing ensemble is the only answer. I'm just as convinced that unless the Suzuki teachers begin to take responsibility for the lack of ensemble training their students get, they will eventually lose their programs altogether by default.
As far as I can see, the responsibility for the musical education of our children is being shrugged off the shoulders of the public school system ( by the political system more more insensitive to the society's need for culture, higher mind ) and onto the shoulders of private, commercial organizations, of which Suzuki programs are a perfect example. The Suzuki teachers would broaden their view of their job’s potential impact on society, and if they are capable of extending the limits of their own musicianship to include ensemble leading/conducting, we might see a revival amateur orchestra playing of very positive statistical dimensions.
My suggestion is not complicated, it, but it does demand a higher level of commitment of private and class teachers—it is merely that we admit that whatever are the joys of learning the violin ( viola, cello, bass ) alone, the joy of contributing to the sound of a group gives that inner consciousness an outward, tangible manifestation, a reality that leaves an impression on the material world and creates meaning and significance out of implication and potential; the social experience, of being part of a group, of being caught up in a positive group energy, is a thrill that transcends your individual accomplishments, and can keep you going and motivate you to continue to accomplish even greater things.
Long after the solitary thrill is gone, the group thrill sings on in your heart. Playing music in parts is the bright fulfillment of a dream of which solo playing is merely the initial glimmer. Furthermore, I've always found playing in a progressing amateur group to be an incentive, more powerful than any other motivating factor, to get students hungry for a higher level of individual excellence; whenever I have started a string group, I have always wound up teaching, privately, a significant number of the players, because they want to get better for the group’s sake.
So, if Suzuki teachers expand their programs to include a rehearsal a week, playing in parts, and emphasizing sight-reading, that will save the American orchestra from extinction? Yes and no; for I believe that preparing children to play and an ensemble to be just one aspect ( the most important aspect, the object) of a unified vision of the future. How this preparation is accomplished is the soul of the solution, for the best of intentions can still fail to follow procedure if not strongly founded on far-sighted principles. The seem to me to be two glaring problems with the Suzuki mindset--one is the standard of excellence which the teachers hold up to the students as the goal they should shoot for, a standard that is well below the level that could make them players for life; the other is the time factor, i.e., getting them up to a high level of accomplishment in a short time, so that the good music becomes accessible to them before they get bored and quit.
A relatively high percentage of my students enter the professional world. I'm not a university professor, and am without any college affiliation; I'm merely a freelance private teacher and conductor, and attract the same class of students that Suzuki teachers do, mostly youngsters, plus a certain number of adult amateurs. Students do not normally come to me expecting to ever make money off the violin, and are surprised when I make the suggestion that they could. Music-making, as a profession, is not something highly recommended for people who have even the slightest affection for money ( indeed, when I say professional, I really mean semi--professional, since the vast majority of paid performers, and all of the handful of major orchestras, play music at night and work at other non-music jobs during the day ), yet, the moment I start a four-year-old or 40-year-old beginner, I always imagine that beginner as a professional player, four or five years down the road. The money is not the point, though these days it is the money that defines the word " professional"; the point is getting the student good enough that someone might actually like listening to him from the music's sake and not because he is a blood relative. I inspire the student to reach for a professional level of accomplishment, and consequently have been able to produce a fair number of professional players, and a large number of excellent, dedicated amateurs.
I realize this vision in two ways that differ fundamentally from the Suzuki approach:
[Let me interject at this point an important aside. I have, throughout this article been taking a certain liberty with the term " Suzuki "; I have meant the term to generalize a kind of string teaching I've encountered innumerable times, in many, many places. The style of Suzuki teaching I have witnessed, (based roughly, but only roughly, on the teachings of Suzuki), are all similar enough to each other to justify such a generalization. However, so as not to incur the wrath of the innocent, I must hasten to point out that I have the greatest respect for Suzuki himself, his method, and his contribution to world culture. My teacher, Paul Rolland, upon whose work my method is largely based, was extremely indebted to Suzuki, and was, in fact, called by many the “Suzuki of America”. I am therefore more than superficially indebted to Suzuki, his publications, his great idea, and his other magnificent accomplishments. I must also add that there are better and worse Suzuki teachers. Any good violinist will have some chance of being a good teacher, especially if guided by a master whose method has some internal depth. However, most of the Suzuki teachers I've known (some 30 or 40 in different parts of the country) have been attracted to the method because they see it as a chance to jump onto some somebody else's bandwagon and warm themselves financially, over in the glow of someone else's accomplishments. I contend the teaching of any method without some spark of originality can only be dry and lifeless; moreover, the Suzuki method tends to attract teachers who have few or no ideas of their own. Therefore, the popular Suzuki method upon which I'm commenting throughout this article is not the pure Suzuki originated in Japan with such outstanding results, but a gross globalization of that method, that becomes more and more puerile with each succeeding generation.]
The first main difference is the way I teach technique, not the techniques themselves, but more the chronology. Most teachers teach little pieces of music to the kids providing with just the amount of technique to play the pieces. Since the first piece a child learns must be simple, the techniques tend to be simple to--anything to get them playing tunes right away. The difference here with me is that I make it a cardinal rule to prepare the technique well in advance of the demands of the literature. In fact there are a handful of techniques I consider germane to a professional violinist sound, and I teach them all right from the beginning. For instance, I do not wait a year for the student to encounter a piece that require shiftings to third position to teach third position. The very first left hand exercise I teach is a shift up and down the entire length of the fingerboard, so that the student is impressed from the beginning with the idea that there are notes all over the violin, and therefore there is a reason to keep the hand open and loose. I teach vibrato, almost immediately, as a basic not an advanced technique. My students learn in quick succession a variety of bow strokes, articulations on and off the string, so that bow styles become identified with different historical periods, thereby investing in their first playing a level of musicianship much higher than normal.
The purpose of teaching advanced techniques well ahead of the literature is to spare the student the trauma typically involved in his first encounter with a passage that is different from anything he has ever played before. Technique prepared out of context is always a much more powerful problem-solving approach than gripping than grappling in context with one or more readjustments of technique which sometimes involve an entire revamping a position, posture, coordination, etc.
An important side benefit of looking forward to the technical problems in advance literature is that this advanced literature, thereby, becomes accessible to the student much faster. I refer to this as a side benefit because the main purpose of the anticipation of technical problems is to provide the student with a solid foundation that will not have to be redesigned at a later stage; it is not to promote accelerated learning, although accelerated learning is always a bi-product of my method. I cherish this bi-product, because the sooner student moves into the world of real music ( real Bach, real Mozart), the sooner that student develops a life long devotion to the magical mysteries of serious music. The playing of original, unarranged versions of the Masters ( of whom there are plenty of intermediate level pieces) is an important quantum leap for the young musician, because even moderately untalented student can sense the underlying illegitimacy of mediocre, abridged, simplified arrangements of classical music. I remember with vivid clarity my first reading of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik when I was in junior high, when I thought, " Aa ha! This is real music !" the real thing is the real thing and anybody's ears--the tragedy is that so many people abandon music before they get to play the real thing.
You say, “How can all this accelerated musicianship be learned when your lessons and classes must be filled with technical exercises, scales, studies, etc.?” It is true that the first lessons are slow-moving--I'm in no hurry to play music and the students must accept this. I'm a great believer in the Zen slogan, " hurry slowly. " “Less is more, " is a good one, too. I can afford to take my time laying the foundation, because once the foundation is laid the students make very fast progress indeed, sometimes so fast that even I'm astounded after 20 years of teaching the same thing time and time again. This beginning stretch could be very difficult, and patience-trying, but it is like watching the rocket ship lifting off--once it gets going, it really goes, effortlessly, with joyful abandon.
After a successful lift-off, I work in a cycle, first concentrating on some technical area, then learning a piece that uses preponderantly that technique; then I go to a different technique for a different piece, etc. I do this in the private lessons, and with the ensembles, guiding them through the technical challenges of style while accumulating a backlog of technical expertise for the performance of ever more complex and varied music. Always the attempt is made to create, in the player's mind, living associations between a technical move and an integral element of style.
The second way my method differs from Suzuki is in the activity aspect of it, upon which I've already briefly commented:
I do find an activity as a group event which derives this group energy level by aiming for a lower average; by this I mean taking the energy output of the lower end (the least talented in the group) and bringing down the rest of the group to that level. Human beings are capable of harmonizing their energy with the energy of the established mean, and since group teachers are constantly establishing a group energy level based on what everybody can easily do, the talented kids rarely ever realize that they could give more, they could accomplish more, because they are never asked to try. What is worse ( if anything could be worse) the less talented students never get to feel what is it is like to be stretched. Consequently, everybody is sort of half-asleep, somewhat bored, certainly not excited, enthusiastic. One look at the posture of the students in these classes will tell you where their minds are.
It would be so easy to reverse poles and base the standard of excellence on the potentialities of the most gifted in the class rather than the least gifted, but the teachers firmly believe their income depends on moving slowly and carefully through the material, making few demands on the individuals in the group, and being satisfied with a low and uneven level of perfection. They think this is the way to keep everybody happy. In fact, catering to the most talented in the class would result in the same number of happy and unhappy kids, only instead of boring the talented, they might frustrate the untalented. There's no contest in my mind, because frustration can be dealt with by rising to the occasion, while boredom can only be dealt with by dissociation—this how we lose talented kids. The talented we might hang onto and make musicians out of them, the untalented, we're going to lose anyway sooner or later. To me talented, or untalented, it is the level of commitment that is important, a teacher who is committed himself can raise the level of commitment of his students by offering them a tangible goal and making them see themselves making progress towards that goal.
I have never catered to the lower average potential in any of my groups, yet I feel I've enjoyed a level of financial success at least equal to the less intense activity teachers. My classes are more like weekly workshops, than activities. I always push the students, getting them all to shoot for the higher potential average rather than the lower. I constantly single out individuals using them as examples when they do something well, and I give individual help when a student is having trouble. I ignore what psychologists call developmental stages, asking the same commitment, concentration, and accomplishment from all ages. I do not cater to touch-me-not egocentricity; I try to create an egoless atmosphere where the players face up to their inadequacies and constantly work on overcoming them. The standard not of excellence, but of acceptability is very high.
Most public school teachers will read the preceding paragraph and shudder with disbelief that a teacher could not only break all the rules, but advertise that he is doing so! A major commandment in the divine mandates public education is, “Thou shall not single out individuals!”, and yet, I have found that once students get over the initial shock of being asked to perform individually, they cherish the experience and compete with each other to get to be the first one to try.
An old-fashioned, Piaget-derived teaching concept is that specific age groups have certain preordained abilities and certain fixed limitations. I could write a book refuting this idea, but, in a nutshell, let me just say that musical development is not like other kinds of cognitive development; it is much more like spiritual development which is ageless, epicene, crosses all borders, and knows no normal limits. Students typically prefer my classes the public school or Suzuki classes because they enjoy the feeling of putting out their best (which is rarely ever asked for), and because they can see they are getting somewhere. I can be rough on them, but the majority of them can see the good intentions behind my attic passions, and work hard to satisfy me, which, after all, is the point of it.
I have said that string instrumental instruction is in a state of transition,
the main arena of which is changing from public to private support.
The American orchestra, which gets his backbone from the string section, is in danger of extinction because of this—for the private string instructors do not provide their students with ensemble experience, nor do they prepare them adequately to keep up in even an intermediate ensemble elsewhere. With the death of the orchestra must necessarily follow the death of private string programs as well; so it is in these programs’ best interest to create and nourish amateur musical ensembles of a size big enough to attract and sustain the thousands of kids who start Suzuki classes every year. This can only be done through an extra effort on the part of these teachers to create the ensembles, provide them with substantial music, and prepare the beginners’ technique and musicianship with an eye toward future ensemble involvement. I've done all these things myself and have, in my small way, made a difference. If this article could inspire one person to try what I've done, it will have been worth writing. People must keep playing music together, or else a unique source of social solidarity and spiritual power will be lost.
February 16, 1989