Tuesday, July 25, 2006


My piano teacher is a Suzuki piano teacher. The Suzuki Piano Method was developed at Shinichi Suzuki's Talent Education Institute and is an extension of the Suzuki Method for violin. It's basically a pedagogical approach, generally for small children, in which the child learns to play music by ear before he or she ever learns to read a single note.

Now, I would probably have loved Suzuki, if I had found such a teacher at the age of four, when I already had a handful of learned-by-ear tunes in my "repertoire." And now, although I read music quite well, I still depend on my ear a great deal. I like to hear pieces before I ever learn them. I don't have to hear them, but I prefer to. Once it's in my head, it's easier for me to play. Makes sense, doesn't it?

In fact, and this is a little embarrassing, I was horrible at reading time signatures until about two years ago. I was fine if something was in 4/4, but 3/4, 6/8, 5/8, etc., just confused me. I couldn't sight-read very well because I had never really learned to read note values. In the past, whenever I needed to learn a piece, I would have the teacher play it or, when I began more advanced repertoire, find a recording of it. Any confusing problems with reading music ceased to be a problem once I could hear how it should be played. (Is that cheating?)

When I took up piano again, I also started playing some for church. The "praise team" (mostly guitarists who don't read music) handed me some music and said, "We don't know this one. Can you play through it so we can hear what it should sound like?" It was in 6/8 time. All I could do was shrug and say, "I can play the notes, but I can't play the timing."

Embarrassing, indeed. How I managed to make it through sixteen years of piano lessons and two semesters of music theory in college and never truly learn note values is beyond me. I think part of it was that I hated math and anything else that had to do with numbers. Timing, counting, values ... it reeked of mathematics.

After that incident, I found myself a music theory teacher and started at the beginning. Once he was clear that, yes, I sight-read beautifully as long as I didn't worry about note values, we went into the note values themselves.

It turned out that it was all very easy. I couldn't believe it. I had spent my life avoiding the "math" aspect of music, and it was hardly math at all.

All of this leads up to Suzuki. It really does.

When I started taking from my current piano teacher, she assigned a couple of Bach inventions and the Chopin Bb-minor nocturne (Op. 9, No. 1). A few weeks later, she asked if I would be willing to work through the Suzuki method. She wanted to see how it might help my technique, which was certainly rusty from years of not playing or having a teacher.

I gamely said, "Sure," and proceeded to Book One. Book One is actually a CD. I would listen to the simple little tunes and learn them by ear. It took me between 3 and 5 minutes for the RH-only pieces, maybe 10 minutes when both RH and LH were involved. Part of the difficulty is that the pianist on the CD plays the LH very softly, and my hearing isn't the greatest for very high and very soft sounds. (I'm deaf in one ear and part-deaf in the other and have trouble with certain volumes and frequencies.)

Still, I moved through Book One pretty quickly and started Book Two. These pieces are a little more complicated, but still not difficult--Bach minuets, Schumann's "The Happy Farmer," etc. I learn them quickly when I try, but I've dragged through this book because I have zero motivation to work on these pieces. I just find it very boring. Once I have the piece by ear, I'm allowed to use the book and work on dynamics. That part can actually be rather helpful. It's not a bad thing to work on technique using pieces that pose virtually no challenge in the way of difficulty.

Still, I'd rather work on technique using the prelude, the fugue, or the Liszt. Or, if I were to work on a lower-level piece, I'd pick one of the easier Chopin preludes or Bach inventions. Or, if I'm going to practice playing by ear, I'd rather get a jazz fake book, listen to Erroll Garner and Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk recordings, and learn to play what they're playing. I did quite a bit of that when I was in my twenties.

I just hate having to spend the time to learn these things by ear. I probably need sight-reading training more than I need ear-training. When working on Suzuki, I get the RH melody immediately. The LH takes longer because, again, it's so soft that I have trouble hearing it at all. I use my knowledge of theory more than my ear to figure it out. All in all, it takes me about 15 minutes to get the entire piece by ear, then another 15 minutes (the next day) to play through it so that it's smoothly memorized.

I shouldn't complain about it. After all, it's only 30 minutes a week. But still, I'd rather spend those thirty minutes doing something I enjoy more--either playing intermediate-level classical pieces, or imitating, by ear, the great jazz pianists. I've told my piano teacher this, but she believes that Suzuki has helped my technique immeasurably. True, my technique has improved, but I don't think Suzuki is the main reason. I think Bach inventions, scales, arpeggios, and practice have had more to do with it.

I suppose I could refuse to do the Suzuki anymore--after all, I am paying for the lessons and I'm not a child--but then I think, "What if she's right? What if Suzuki really is helping me?"

It's a dilemma.


robert said...

Indeed a floor-pacer, Waterfall. Your next-to-last paragraph, the end, says it all. While I happen to agree with you, is not the main point. You have a perception, founded in evidence, of what works best for you. That's important. Why? Because on occasion I've had to make certain claims about what's working or not working for me. My teacher, bless her, always hears me out and pays good attention. And usually we make a significant change. Since your teacher sounds like a very reasonable sort, why not have a conversation along the lines of "I'm starting to feel that JSB, scales and arps...." ?

Karen said...

Ahh - thanks for the detailed explanation! I don't really see how Suzuki could help with technique either... Musically I think it's a great skill to be able to play by ear, and it's worthwhile to sharpen that skill. But I have to agree with both of you that technique is best honed through scales, arpeggios, pieces like etudes and inventions.

Having no experience with the Suzuki method, however, I'm hesitant to make further judgment. :)

oceanskies79 said...

I don't have much experience with the Suzuki method, but from what I gather from this post, it has its own merits. Of course, it may have its pitfalls.

I suppose it is to find a balance? Would it be alright to try a combination of two or more methods?

Sight-reading is also an important skill to acquire....I think I won't be able to score well for my exams because I am not good at it.