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Conversation with Chris Sforza: Suzuki & Online Learning

The Suzuki Method for music education is transcending the traditional classroom setting and proving effective in the virtual environment.

It might seem surprising that a method emphasizing ear-training and performance can translate over the computer. For sure, we all miss our in-person lessons and recitals. But there is so much more to the Suzuki philosophy, which aims to nurture and develop the whole child. We reinforce skills, learn new ones and create lifelong learners. Under this approach, teachers and students are succeeding at a time of social distancing in five important ways.    

Adaptability. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, the Japanese violinist who developed the method 50 years ago, was constantly exploring and discovering new ideas to apply to teaching. His Talent Education pedagogy tells us that children develop musical ability at their own pace. In lessons and practices, we slow down, rework our approaches and experiment to overcome whatever challenges a child is facing.

We apply this same spirit of exploration to virtual lessons, partnering with parents who already are the at-home music teachers to their children. Even for a brand-new Suzuki student, a teacher and family can work together to foster positive early experiences with the instrument. We keep trying until we find what clicks.

Focus on Listening. The Suzuki Method is based on a belief that children can learn music in the same way they learn language: with loving encouragement and hearing repetitions of beautiful sound. Suzuki students spend a lot of time listening to audio recordings of their pieces, so learning proper tone and developing their own musical voice continues even outside of in-person lessons and performances. 

Of course, young musicians and teachers do have to hear each other play. To improve the online experience, I use a high-quality microphone to transmit my playing cleanly, and a Bluetooth speaker to richly amplify my student’s playing. I’ve found that being fixed in front of a screen has brought conscious and thoughtful listening to the forefront. Already skilled listeners, my Suzuki students are becoming better at it. So am I.

Some of my older violinists are tackling vibrato, which is the warm, round sound produced with rapid finger wiggles on the string. It’s kind of like the icing on the cake after mastering posture, technique and tone. This skill usually terrifies me to teach, as I feel like I’m still working on vibrato! I’m learning to be patient and explain things very clearly so that students can replicate it at home by careful watching and listening.

Structure.  The Suzuki lesson has provided a familiar structure and sense of normalcy for myself and the families I teach. Our meetings follow the same format of warmups, games and exercises. Suzuki offers a path, and the established repertoire is our map.

Review has always been a centerpiece of Suzuki studies, as skills from one piece carry into more complex compositions. Being able to revisit pieces and continue to learn from them has been especially useful for young learners these days. For fun, I suggest playing review music in different rooms of the house or even in the front yard.

Character Development.  I miss my students, but I enjoy seeing them take ownership for their music and learning. Those in Book 2 have begun working on tonalization, which is when they listen for the instrument to resonate with an echo when it is perfectly in tune. I cannot hear this through the computer. But most of them have heard my violin make that sound. I say, “You know what you’re looking for.” And they eventually discover it on their own.

The children in my studio are continuing to develop their love of music. Ear training can make it easier for musicians to improvise and be playful. One of my youngest students was able to figure out “Mr. Sandman” on her own after listening to a YouTube video of me playing the piece. In my weekly virtual Open Studio, I’ve enjoyed seeing the kids perform in a totally relaxed environment.

Discoveries. Some of the new ways of doing things will carry forward. I have had three separate book recitals through Zoom which were attended by many people in the student’s circle of friends and family. It was awesome to be the host for a concert for people across the country. I even invited my own mom to one of them. I think that when we return to live concerts again, “Zooming-in” loved ones will be here to stay.

I’ve started using notation software to write a few notes of a simple melody and share it over the screen to have students decode it. It’s simple and fun. Young people are finding new and creative uses for technology, too. One of my students made a duet video of herself playing both the melody and harmony for Twinkle.

As CYM enters a new school year with a hybrid format of in-person and online learning, I look forward to what else we will encounter and learn on our Suzuki journey.

Mr. Chris’ Teacher Page

Christopher Sforza teaches violin at CYM. Learn more about Chris’s Open Studio or check out one of his 65 videos featuring his fun and creative performances!

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