Dr. Suzuki weeps quietly

Today was the Suzuki Association of Minnesota graduation recital at Orchestra Hall. The guitarists (M was one of 31) shared a program with the harpists (maybe 10), recorderists (3), and flutists (maybe 12).

For M, it was a good experience. She officially graduated from the Twinkle level, but the next level up was Perpetual Motion, and M wanted to play along during the rehearsal, so, after checking with her teacher, I let M play along both during the rehearsal and during the recital.  The accompanist played way too fast, but M did as well as any of the kids officially graduating at that level.

She was very proud of her trophy. And I was pleased with both her behavior and her playing, with a small exception: She was very fidgety while the other kids were playing. In fact, at one point, she was tapping with her nails on her guitar, which was pretty noisy. I managed to catch her eye and, in sign language, say “no” and then “thank you” when she stopped. She needs to work on sitting stiller in rest position.

What I found most notable, though, was how truly terrible some of the graduating Twinkle-level guitarists were. Of course, this is not the kids’ fault — it’s the fault of their teachers (mainly) and parents (secondarily).

It’s hard to understand how teachers can go through the Suzuki Association’s qualifying process and yet not only produce students with terrible technique, but also let those students “graduate” from the Twinkles. Just to note some gross technical flaws, I saw students with posture so bad they played their guitar almost like a lap steel; students playing with their right hand actually resting on the guitar top; students plucking the strings with their fingers going straight up, not even partly back and partly up; students playing everything in tosto position, with an awkwardly bent wrist; in short, students with a stunningly flawed technical foundation. And all this is obvious before a note is played. When they started playing, the general lack of note accuracy and rhythmic integrity was shocking.

The hallmark of the Suzuki Method is its emphasis on laying a strong technical foundation — on learning to play beautifully, with solid technique, from the very beginning. At least in the guitar world, it appears that many so-called Suzuki teachers do not in fact put this core feature of the method into practice.

Why? My guess: the barriers for entry, for both teachers and students, are too low. A whole lot of grown-ups can play the guitar, and some of those folks must decide to brand themselves as Suzuki teachers without really understanding the method. The Suzuki Association is then doing a poor job of screening out bad teachers. And many parents must start their students on guitar without really making a serious commitment to it. Because guitars are cheap, and because there are a lot of teachers around, it’s easy to get started — too easy.  If it were harder or more expensive to get started, people would take it more seriously.

When teachers are sloppy and parents aren’t committed, the losers are the children: They’re forced to spend time learning an instrument in vain. These children who are starting out with dismal posture and technique will never get good enough to really enjoy playing. They’ll quit playing before developing any real skill, and they’ll think they’re not musically talented. There’s really very little point in forcing these kids to play an instrument — their time would be better spent doing something that they enjoy and can become good at.

Notably, the Twinkle-level harpists and flutists were much more technically solid than the Twinkle-level guitarists. And I didn’t see the strings, but I have no doubt that those kids are very solid. People talk about how amazing it was, when the Suzuki method was being discovered in America, to hear young violinists playing the Twinkles beautifully in unison. If today’s guitarists were held up as exemplars of the Suzuki method, the reaction would be very different. People would say, “They look and sound like I expect young children would sound — sloppy and out of tune. What’s so exciting about this method, again?”

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