Thursday, March 28, 2013

Suzuki Method for Adult Students

As a Suzuki violin and viola teacher, I often teach children as young as three how to play the violin. In fact, Suzuki method emphasizes early childhood music education, and many teachers believe it's best for children to start learning music no later than age five. However, this is often misunderstood by adults or parents of older children to mean that older people can't learn violin, or that it will be incredibly difficult for them to make progress. That isn't true. In fact, I have many successful adult students, and while ideally people learn music as children, there is no age limit for playing the violin! Music lessons are an excellent way to keep your mind and body active and give yourself powerful creative outlet.

How do I adjust Suzuki method to make lessons more effective for adult students?

I've found that the most important Suzuki techniques, including listening to recordings, just as effective for adults are they are for children, with some minor changes. For example, young children often love and crave repetition. Think about how a child often wants to watch their favorite movie or read their favorite book again and again. Children's love for repetition makes it easy for them to listen to their reference recordings every day without getting bored. Adults, on the other hand, can quickly tire of listening to the same pieces. That's why I often encourage adult students to listen to a wide variety of classical recordings, instead of focusing on just the pieces they're learning. Suzuki took the rhythms from the "Twinkle Variations" from the more advanced violin concertos in book four, so why not encourage adult learners to listen to the book four recordings as well as the ones for book one? They'll get to hear how the simple rhythms they're learning eventually develop into advanced, sophisticated music. Teens and young adult violin students might also enjoy listening to "pop" violinists like Lindsey Stirling. I've had several of my YA violin students tell me that they specifically wanted lessons after they started listening to Lindsey! When teachers encourage adult students to find outside violin recordings they enjoy, students stay more engaged in their lessons while still regularly hearing good tone, intonation, and technique.

Note Reading or Ear Training?

One of the notable facets of Suzuki method is that teachers often don't teach young children to read music right away. At three or four years old, a child usually isn't ready to begin reading music. Learning basic techniques like good posture, holding the violin and the bow, and getting a good sound require so much of a child's attention that note-reading is just too much. But what about adult learners or older children? I've found that while adults can begin note-reading much quicker than younger students without trouble, but I think ear training, including learning to play by ear, is as valuable for adult students as it is for young ones.

For older children or adults, I usually begin teaching them to play the violin by rote, but at the end of each lesson (or possibly the beginning, depending on the student) I have them learn note-reading with a supplemental book. In particular, I like using the Violin Note Speller or the I Can Read Music series. It's important that the bulk of adult lessons is still spent on skills such as good posture, good bow hold, and learning to make a beautiful tone. By keeping note-reading separate from the time we spend learning to actually play the violin, I keep students from getting distracted by the music. Often, when adult students transfer to me from non-Suzuki teachers, they tend to stare avidly at notes, playing them one by one with no sense of the musicality of a piece, and they frequently have poor tone. For those students, I often have them learn to play more by ear, so they can listen to their tone and begin to play the music, not just the notes, of a piece. I've found that the difference between a happy student and a dissatisfied one is tone; students get frustrated when they've been playing for awhile and they don't have a good sound.

Common Difficulties for Adult Students

One of the beautiful things about children is how fearless they are about creativity. They have not yet developed that cruel inner voice that so often plagues adults, so they rarely put pressure on themselves (their parents can be another matter, but that's another post). Instead, they come to music with a wonderful fascination and willingness to take risks. I work hard as a teacher to help them keep this feeling for as long as possible--music is a far more exciting and rewarding experience when it's about discovery and learning, not judgement.

Unfortunately, adult students aren't so lucky. They become very stressed when they don't think they are playing "well enough" or learning "fast enough."Ironically, the enormous pressure they put on themselves often creates tension/inhibitions within their bodies and minds that makes playing beautifully even more difficult. Child beginners might make terrible squeaks and squawks on their violins at first, but once they learn to make a good sound, their hands almost never shake with tension or fear. In contrast, almost every single one of my adult students has this problem at some point--they try too hard and put so much pressure on themselves they can't relax enough to make a beautiful tone!

Thus, I often recommend Barry Green's excellent book The Inner Game of Music for adult students, and I frequently use Green's techniques to use them stay relaxed and focused. In particular, I love using "awareness" techniques--having adults learn to feel the instrument beneath their hands, or listen to themselves intensely. It's important that they learn to keep their minds focused on playing the instrument, instead of getting distracted by the negative voices in their heads.

Adults also want to push themselves very hard in their lessons. They ask me to teach them advanced techniques before they're ready, and they can resist regular review. Children, especially those under six, rarely question their teacher, so it can feel surprising and even off-putting when an adult does this in a lesson. It's important to recognize that adults want more explanation than children do, so I address their questions directly and honestly. In other words, I explain why I'm teaching them this way. For example, I point out how regular review ensures that they don't neglect any of the skills they've previously learned. It also allows them to master a large repertoire of songs, so they are never "between" pieces, with the last piece half forgotten and the next one only halfway learned. If I feel a piece or a technique is too advanced for them to learn right now, I explain why, and then I give them a time frame for when we might start working on it (i.e. I'm happy to teach you Minuet I after you've mastered Etude. It's important to master Etude so that you're comfortable in the key of G before you start the Minuets).

Once adults start getting comfortable with the violin, however, they love playing! It's challenging but engaging and creative. There's evidence that learning an instrument keeps adults' minds active, preventing mental decline and the onset Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Playing a string instrument can keep your hands active as well, which can keep arthritis from progressing. Of course, if you have children in music lessons, learning an instrument yourself means you can often play music together as a family. One of my adult students has a young son in lessons as well, and they have a wonderful time playing duets together. Music can be a beautiful way to bring a family together. So if you've always wanted to learn an instrument, no matter what your age, give it a try!

Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

Persistence--The Most Important Aspect of Talent

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students

Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities 

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances

Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice

Practicing Violin Effectively

Great Apps for Musicians

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession


  1. I am 47 years old and have been taking lessons for a while now. I have been curious about the Suzuki method but figured it was just for kids. Your article encouraged me to buy Suzuki book 1 and give it a go. I don't have a teacher any more so hopefully I can learn through the book and on-line videos. Thank you for the article!