Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Suzuki Method for the beginning adult cellist?

I researched the Suzuki Method and from what I’ve read, the method is based on the following:

1) The Suzuki Mother Tongue Theory

2) Delay in reading notes
3) Enriching environment - Parent support and peer/social group support

While I think it's brilliant for young children to learn via the Suzuki Method, I don’t think it is conducive to a beginning adult learner (around my age – 30 or older).   Here’s why I think this is:

1) Suzuki Mother Tongue Theory -

Suzuki compares music learning for a young child with learning their native language through immersion by “learning by ear." Based on this theory young children pick up minute
nuances easily, which I believe to be true. I believe this stems from a survival mechanism to allow children to communicate with their parents. If a child cannot communicate effectively to request food, shelter, water, etc. than the child will die, which is why I believe this ability became inherent. It obviously improves the fitness of our species by allowing children to survive to adulthood to reproduce (ha – I did learn something from by biology class!).

The theory also hypothesizes that children have a certain “language acquisition device” to detect these small nuances (I would be curious to see how the FOXP2 “Talking Gene” applies to this as well), and also mentions this is why adults learning a foreign language have such a difficult time learning another language. It’s not that they can’t pronounce words (well, sometimes), but it’s because they can’t HEAR the minute nuances like children can. This is why it’s a brilliant idea to learn how to play an instrument at a young age, and why this is BAD for adults. Think about it, how fast can a child learn a language compared to an adult?

While I agree listening to the music that you are learning helps, I believe it shouldn’t be the primary method of learning.

2) Delayed note reading -

The Suzuki Method advocates learning to read notes later, which I think is great for young children, but HORRIBLE for adults. I’ve also read many stories where children taught through the Suzuki Method
who enter high school cannot read notes, quickly fall behind, become more frustrated, which eventually stalls their progression. Therefore, I think reading notes should be introduced sooner than later. Here’s why adults should learn reading notes initially:

a) Neuronal networks strengthen over time –

Why remember numbers: I, II, III, IV and then relearn it later, when adults can easily learn it as A, B, C sharp, D? Introducing this sooner than later will make neuronal connections stronger, so why not
introduce it at the beginning so the synapses have a longer time to grow and strengthen? (i.e. neurons don’t have to grow new dendrites to reconnect to another neuron from relearning, this is what stalls learning). Obviously delaying note reading for children who cannot learn to read and play at the same time is effective, but for adults this is actually counter-productive!  Children have better brain plasticity and can relearn things more easily, while adults have a harder time re-learning.

b) Note reading is harder for children -

Back in our hunter/gatherer days, it was extremely important to communicate
quantity to let your ‘tribe’ know how much food is available to ensure survival. This is why using NUMBERS for fingering is easier to understand than assigning LETTERS. Understanding and communicating SMALL quantities has become inherent due to survival. I emphasize small because once you go over an amount that you cannot physically carry or count on hands and feet than it becomes more abstract. Can someone really understand and visualize a billion apples or even a thousand in a room? Probably not… go on, try it. How would a thousand apples look in a room, how about 100? Unless you’re like my husband, physicist extraordinaire, than it would be hard to visualize – even I have a hard time visualizing 50 apples!

Why are letters harder to understand? What we’ve basically done is assigned VALUES to arbitrary squiggly lines (i.e. characters of our alphabet). Someone had to come up with the squiggly lines, right?

This takes higher cognitive abilities because this is an abstract concept and it is “difficult” to keep track of what each squiggly line means. This is why I think children have a more difficult time associating letters with notes.  You are asking them to associate one abstract concept (notes) with another abstract concept (letters). However, I believe adults will have an easier time learning how to read notes because they obviously have higher cognitive abilities, better concentration, understanding of more complex ideas, ability to form words, etc.

Pretend you’re learning a language (Spanish) and you’ve been learning how to speak it for about 4 years, which you can hear and mimic. Well, imagine in the 5th year, the letters you’ve seen and associated verbally to letters, will now be assigned to Chinese characters!  This is the same thing as changing fingering notation from numbers to letters.  It seems extreme, but it isn’t – this is essentially what's happening. Again, I think due to brain plasticity and how the mind works, children will have an easier time with relearning fingering. However, it will be much harder for adults to relearn.

In general, I think the longer note reading is delayed, the more difficult a time someone will have later and there will be a more pronounced “hesitation” while a person converts numbers to letters, which I'm sure gets lets noticeable over time and practice.

Learning notes may be harder in the beginning for adults, but I believe it will lead to a faster progression later (strengthen those neurons!), and learning won’t stall or come to a complete halt if a person gets frustrated enough to quit when they have to re-learn how to read notes. Let’s face it, no one likes investing their time and energy in learning something only to find that they have to relearn it! For adults, I think it would be better to learn it the “right way” the first time.

3) Enriching environment -

a) Parent involvement - 

Parent participation is extremely important, and all though I see its importance for children - this does not apply to ADULT beginners. I know my mother won’t be telling me when and how to practice!

b) Peer/social support –

The Suzuki method promotes playing in groups which fosters “camaraderie, and provides motivation for students to learn new music while keeping the 'old' pieces they have learned in top form.” Actually this would be interesting to see how fast an adult beginner cellist would progress if they played with other beginner cellists in a group setting… perhaps something to try and experiment with?

This can also serve as motivation for adults, but I’ll make the assumption that most adults are internally motivated; otherwise they wouldn’t have pursued this.

Not to mention, that by attempting to foster a nurturing environment, many teachers, parents and peers will compliment the children with a job well done, even though the song was performed out of tune or out of rhythm. The child will remain unaware that the song was performed incorrectly, especially if playing within a group because their “incorrect playing” will be drowned out by the other children performing. This encouragement will help children progress further. An excellent strategy…for children!

However, the adult’s discerning ear will KNOW when he plays incorrectly and family, friends and spouse will be more truthful in telling them their real abilities, e.g. “that didn’t sound quite right,” or from my husband during the first few days of practicing - “sounds like a bag full of cats!!” :)

In short, adults can understand abstract concepts, pay attention and communicate better than children, but children can mimic and hear music much better. These are completely different learning abilities and attributes, so teaching should be completely different for adults as well! From what I’ve gathered so far, the Suzuki method seems to work AGAINST the adult beginner, but that’s just my humble opinion.


We are adults and in charge of our lives and therefore, our education in cello!

The advantages of being an adult learner far outweighs that of a child, so don't be discouraged with my opinion of the Suzuki Method above. 

1) So what if a child can hear the little nuances? Adults - we - can recognize that a note is out of tune faster than a child due to our many years of listening experience; and thus, we can make the necessary adjustments sooner than later!

2) We know our efforts will reap rewards, so we are more likely to practice longer without prompting. I actually enjoy practicing!

3) We know (or should know) how to practice efficiently. If not, I recommend reading The Musician's Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness and The Advancing Cellist's Handbook. I think knowing how to practice is one of the most essential item that one needs to know before picking up an instrument!

4) We can communicate to our teachers whether or not we would like more method books, technique books, etc. 

5) We can communicate to our teachers more effectively than children regarding what we think is wrong and what we need more help on. 

6) We can buy books, buy better cellos, music, etc. without asking permission first.

7) We can research online cello resources and expand our knowledge as fast, or as slowly, as we want.

8) We can learn complex tasks faster than a child can and we can follow directions / instructions. Even the simple task of putting together a coffee table a child cannot do.

9) We are internally motivated - in most cases, children start because their parents "force" them to play an instrument.

10) We like to be involved in our learning process and are also self-directed learners. We like to learn!

Chinese Proverb
Tell me and I'll forget.
Show me and I may remember.
 Involve me and I'll understand.

11) We're smarter!! ...neener, neener, neener! =p  Well, I would hope so....

The reason I mentioned this was because I was discouraged that the Suzuki Method was so prolific and couldn't understand why there wasn't a single adult beginner teaching method. At least, I haven't come across one yet...

So for now, my suggestion: put together a practice plan and get a good teacher to help implement it to achieve your goal. I will be posting my practice plan shortly. 

If any one has come across an effective adult beginner method - I would be happy to know! And to share any ideas or tips that you've found helpful.


  1. the suzuki school we plan to start this september requires me to learn the instrument at least the first year to be able to help them at home, so there you go : cello lessons for the adult ;-)

  2. I would LOVE to hear how that goes and your progress! :)
    Let me know if you come across any good technique or method books, or good learning tricks.

    I just wish Suzuki would tailor a learning method for the "serious" adult: one program for children and one for the adult. It's a win-win situation! Suzuki gets a new market demographic for profit and we get a learning method customized to our learning style.

    Although I would be interested to know how many adults start playing cello. I’m not sure there are that many - maybe it’s NOT that beneficial to Suzuki after all. I’m going to have to research that…

    Best of luck, and keep in touch! :)

  3. Hi,

    I just found your blog and started at the beginning. I am just starting to learn to play the Cello, and don't yet have a teacher. I found this book very highly recommended by by a few sources:


    1. Hi John - Good luck on your cello journey! :)

      Definitely rewarding if you stick with it!

  4. as a cello teacher, i would also recommend the cello playing music for music lovers by Jiji. i just found this book like couple months ago. i think it will be a great help for adult beginners

    1. Hi Vicky, I'm going to have to revisit that book! :).

      Do you use it as a supplemental book? If so, what is the primary method book you use? Just curious... I'm still looking for that perfect balance of enough info that I don't get bored but not too much that I don't feel overwhelmed. :).

      My teacher uses the Suzuki book, which bored me to tears, hence my search for other books to fill in the gaps. :)

  5. I played the cello all through school and into my early 20`s. My poor cello has been stored away for over 20 years and my husband and his niece just pulled it out to clean "her," up. They ordered new strings, endpin holder, and dug out some of my favorite sheet music. I will be getting this book though...I love the constant practice until the notes just flow!

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