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On Being an Adult Suzuki Student

On Being an Adult Suzuki Student

guest post from my student Andrea MacDonald

True musical joy could never have been possible for me without the Suzuki method. After over 15 years of playing recorder in duets and large and small ensembles, I started over agin at the beginning. But maybe I should back up a bit.

I have always been musical. Growing up I sang in choirs, in musical theatre, and in pop bands. I joined a Balinese gamelan where we learned entire concerts by heart. I memorized very quickly and retained very well. My ear was my superpower. I was the first person “off book” in choir and my friends delighted in my ability to name any popular song in the first note or two. But I could not read music.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried. I’d taken piano and sight-singing lessons but these ended in frustration. When my husband, a professional musician, suggested I try a “one line” instrument I took up the recorder and fell in love with it. I was already a huge fan of Baroque music and it seemed like a natural fit.

With only one stave to deal with, things improved somewhat. I joined a quartet and a large ensemble. My good ear served me well but I quickly hit a sight-reading wall. Despite having help “on tap” with my husband and years of faithful practice, things never got easier. I was frustrated and ashamed. It was emotionally difficult to practice and I felt stuck, always learning the notes and never getting a chance to work on the actual music.

Finally, at 52, I got some psycho-educational testing done and was diagnosed with ADHD and something called a “severe visual processing disorder”. My fears were confirmed; sight reading would never get easier for me. I needed a different approach. 

I didn’t think anyone would be willing to teach the Suzuki method to an adult but I found a wonderful teacher, Kathleen Schoen, in Alberta. We started lessons at the beginning of June and I burned through Level One on alto in about two weeks, easily learning two to three songs per day. We added the soprano book to my to-do list and I began working in both voices on Level Two. 

Here I received my first shock:  one of the pieces (Handel Water Music Bourée) was something I had just played with my large consort. How on earth could this be only Level Two? Of course the music got harder in Level Two but unlike before, I was not frustrated. I did not feel defeated.

I’m a teacher myself. I teach seniors how to use technology like iPads and iPhones and I spend quite a bit of time building good foundations before moving on to higher concepts. I was extremely impressed with the layout and progression of the Suzuki method, which had clearly been very carefully designed for a logical and gentle progression through the music. 

Kathleen then suggested I purchase the music for the remaining levels as inspiration and in Level Six I found a movement of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto, a particular favourite, that I had long dreamed of playing (in fact I had memorized the entire thing) but never imagined I would ever be able to play. Now it’s on my long-term to-do list!

The Suzuki method changed everything for me. I no longer had to drag myself to the practice room and endure frustration and tears while trying to stay focussed for a scant 30 minutes. I was now forcing myself to stop after an hour to save my hands and arms from strain. My self-esteem soared! I was no longer dreaming of a future where I might one day be able to work on  music that I loved. I was already doing it! As I no longer had to work at interpreting musical text, I had the brain-space left to instead focus on interpreting the music. 

It’s fall now and I have about four songs to go in each of the soprano and alto books. Music is no longer an impenetrable wall but rather a puzzle to be solved and I know that with time and attention I will “solve” it. I would highly recommend the Suzuki method to any adult interesting in learning music. If I had one wish it would be for a place for adult Suzuki students to chat. Just like the kids, we need peers to accompany us on the journey.

Why I believe the Suzuki method is excellent for adults:

  • Very little time spent working on “kids’ songs” before moving to more engaging music
  • Much faster progression to more advanced pieces than traditional method
  • No written music to “scare” the student who may jump to conclusions with fears like:  it’s too low/high, I don’t know that time/key signature, I can’t do trills, etc.
  • No music books to “forget” so as long as you have your instrument with you, you can practice
  • The ability to practice without your instrument by listening, meaning you can be practicing almost always
  • Without needing to read/interpret musical text, the student can focus on the physicality of playing and the sounds they produce