Early music: Kodaly method or Suzuki training?

November 9, 2015

in Early Learning, Kodaly, Music, Musical prodigies, Piano, Violin

Most experts agree nowadays that early exposure to music can be crucial in a child’s neural development. Children are born with perfect pitch and the ability to distinguish an almost unlimited range of sounds, but over time this ability diminishes as the brain becomes efficient and focuses on those sounds relevant in a child’s environment. This holds true for language acquisition as well as the development of the musical brain.

Long term success in music will depend on two main components: musical ability in the cognitive sense (hearing, pitch, sense of rhythm) and technical ability (finger movement on the strings or the piano, for example). In both cases, it can be beneficial to start early. But there are different approaches here. The Kodaly method (named after its creator, Hungarian musician Zoltan Kodaly) focuses on early development of musicianship first, with a particular focus on singing, and only later introduces instrumental tuition. This could mean a child learns to sing, clap, move with the rhythm and recognise notes before picking up an instrument. When children do start on an instrument with this method (usually aged 5 or 6 following at least two years of musicianship training), they have incorporated pitch and rhythm so well that progress on the instrument is very fast. Since they already know the songs they are first going to play on the instrument so well from years of singing them, they will also be very confident about hitting the right notes at the right rhythm and can correct mistakes swiftly. In the UK, there is a variety of courses that follow this method, notably the Colourstrings courses.

The Suzuki Method also believes all children are ready to learn music from a very young age, but in this case, children can pick up an instrument as early as 3 or 4 years old. The most common instruments children pick are either the violin or the piano. Violin is quite a good one to start with as there are smaller versions of the instrument to fit small children. Piano is a trickier one as the fingers are still short, so there is a limited range children at that young age can cover. Of course, there are many successful examples of children starting the piano very early, but I know many pianists with their own children who tell me they do not see much point in teaching their children before they are at least 5 for physical reasons. The great thing about the Suzuki method is that it is specifically adapted to young kids to start early, and all teachers believe that this is beneficial. With many traditional piano or violin teachers, you can get a funny reaction if you enquire about lessons for a 3 or 4 year old, whereas if you contact a Suzuki teacher, you will not have this problem. The benefit of the Suzuki method is that children can build up technical skills very early, when their fingers are still flexible, so they can seem quite advanced when compared to traditionally trained kids at a younger age.

One downside I see in the Suzuki method is that the parent will likely pick the instrument (usually the violin or the piano), and it is not always clear if this is the optimal instrument for the child. That is why I like the idea of focusing on musicality first and picking an instrument when the child has been exposed to a variety of them and teacher, child and parent can discuss together which instrument might be optimal for the child. I read the excellent book “The Right Instrument for Your Child” by Atarah Ben-Tovim and she made some very good points that supported waiting till a child is 5 or 6 to pick the right instrument, which will ensure not only speedy progress but also long-term commitment.

However, I do believe it does depend on the child. You have some children who may not be mature enough at 3 or 4 to learn an instrument, the kind of child you would need to drag to violin practice and bribe every day to get them to practice. In this case, I think it makes sense to save your money for later and simply introduce an instrument at 5 or 6, if they so wish by that time. I know a mum who wanted to avoid having to drag her child to practice every week, so she let her daughter beg her to take piano lessons for a whole year until she finally agreed to let her learn the piano. After begging for a year, her daughter was indeed highly motivated and grateful, never complained and progressed swiftly. My older daughter may be in this category, so with her we have enrolled her in a musicianship programme following a blend of the Kodaly and the Dalcroze methods in group lessons and she enjoys those very much. We will hold off with instrumental lessons until she is at least 5 and do not know yet which instrument it will be. She is keen on the guitar as well as the flute and the trumpet, but I am sure her interests can change over the next years. I actually think the majority of children fall into this category.

But then you have kids who are very energetic, self-starters, enthusiastic about many activities and always happy to give things a go. They can often be younger siblings who love to do serious activities like the ones their older brother or sister are doing. Our little one is definitely like that. She is enthusiastic about anything and will happily run, climb, swim all day. If her sister says she doesn’t want to go to her swimming class, the little one will immediately say she would love to do that swimming class, so it is very easy to get her out of the house and join the action. She is also physically adept and fit, so I can picture her handling a violin quite early. In her case, I am definitely looking at the Suzuki violin method and she will probably aged 3.5 or 4 on the violin.  As the younger one who usually tags along, I can imagine she will be very proud to have her own class that her mummy takes her to, and I expect she would have the energy to practice a bit on  a daily basis to ensure progress. It will be an interesting experiment to see them both develop over the long term!

When has your child started an instrument? Do you think starting early will give them a head start?

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