From Suzuki to Conservatory

by Edward Schenkman

I am a Suzuki kid. I started violin lessons at age 5 and continued with a Suzuki teacher until graduating high school. I don’t claim to be an expert on the Suzuki method and the pros and cons of different styles of teaching, but I would like to share my experience of going directly from a Suzuki program to a major conservatory/school of music.

My Suzuki training wasn’t completely traditional; my teacher had me leave the books early in high school. Among conservatory students, although some started on Suzuki, most people changed while still fairly young. Some believe Suzuki is not the best way to go about musical training, but while there are some minor flaws in its preparation for conservatory I truly loved the Suzuki environment, and I believe it is a perfectly viable option for music education.

Suzuki works on building music appreciation from a very young age and doesn’t just focus on technical prowess. Starting at such a young age is, for the most part, a wonderful thing. The Suzuki method is all about opening up musical education to everyone, not just the select few who will go on to become professional musicians, and so the teachers tend to emphasize the love of music—maybe at the expense of rigorous discipline and technique. This creates a good learning environment, especially for the younger students; I never came out of a lesson in tears.

The Suzuki method focuses a lot of attention on students learning pieces by ear, which is an invaluable skill to any musician. However, many people complain that Suzuki kids lack sight-reading abilities. Many teachers have begun to counteract that by supplementing with extra sight-reading practice. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who gave me weekly sight-reading, and I attended chamber music camps from a young age, which helps enormously in sight-reading.

Suzuki tends to lack almost any competitive edge, which is something that I really loved about it. I don’t think that  would be at a music school if it weren’t for Suzuki. Music, in my opinion, shouldn’t have a competitive aspect. There’s always some kids asking, “What book are you in?” as if Suzuki volume directly correlates to musical skill, but in general it’s a friendly atmosphere. Part of that, I think, is that not everyone—in fact most kids in Suzuki—plans on becoming a professional musician, which is great. But when you go to a conservatory and are surrounded by high-powered, extremely talented musicians, it can be a little intimidating. And because most of them do, indeed, wish to become professional musicians, it’s hard for there not to be a competitive aspect.

One thing that Suzuki definitely did prepare me for was the performance aspect of my music education. Suzuki emphasizes frequent performances to make the students comfortable with performing. Not only did I get a lot of practice performing, but I also had to memorize everything, and memorizing pieces has never been difficult for me. Of course, I still get a healthy amount of nerves before I perform, but it’s something I’ve been doing multiple times a year for thirteen years. It is, however, a slightly intimidating experience going from performing for parents and young children to professors and graduate students; but that’s life.

In short, I think Suzuki does a wonderful job of fostering an appreciation and a philosophy of learning with love. Although, I certainly think supplementing Suzuki with études and technique as well as sight-reading is essential to developing the necessary skills for a potential music career.

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