How to Overcome Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety or stage fright, has afflicted musicians throughout history, even famous virtuosos such as cellist Pablo Casals, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, violinist Kennedy and pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein. Frédéric Chopin disliked performing in public for the same reason.


Photo courtesy of Abigail Keenan

For some musicians, it fades away with lots of playing on stage or becomes controllable enough to add a little spark to the music.

In a newsletter two years ago, I told of my first experience of these perplexing sensations of nervousness while playing in public at the age of 6 or so. After years of regular performances as an adult it more or less stopped bothering me, until suddenly appearing again like an old ghost a week or so before my solo graduation concert at the Suzuki Institute in Japan.

I learned a very important lesson and experienced an epiphany which has stayed with me ever since. I’ll tell this more personal story and how we handled stage fright in our violin institute in my next post, but for now I want to look more broadly at the phenomenon.

What does it feel like?

The symptoms range from mild to severe, including perspiration (an aptly named cold sweat), increased heart rate, uncontrollable shaking or weakness in the hands and fingers, difficulty in concentration, memory lapses and feelings of panic and dread – triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. An accompanying reaction is an intense self-consciousness, which seems impossible to avoid or control.


Photo courtesy of Alec Weir

The sensations are highly individual. They may decline gradually, arrive in disconcerting surges or persist throughout the whole performance. Some performers experience a crisis point, marking a lessening of anxiety.


Talking with other musicians, it became clear that in many instances stage fright originated from a single stressful experience during childhood. Typically they remembered a difficult exam, recital or other significant stressful situation where it first became a problem. Many described it in terms of a personal flaw, an affliction that was part of their makeup. Several lost interest in playing in public altogether, preferring to play their music in private or make recordings.

How to Overcome Performance Anxiety: Some Common Strategies

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Double Stops – An Introduction

A great benefit of keyboard and fretted instruments such as the piano and the guitar is their sublime capacity to play both melody and chords equally well. Arguably however, none of these wonderful instruments has the expressive power of the violin and the other stringed instruments, chiefly because of the particular magic of the bow on strings. The trade-off is the ability to play complex chords easily. Not that violinists really mind, of course. We are happy with our lot. Alone, we cannot match the harmonic colours of the piano, but we can fly.


Photo by Naveen Chandra

Despite these limitations, violinists and composers haven’t sat on their harmonic hands and have come up with wonders like J.S. Bach’s Chaconne, which turns apparent disadvantage into strength and beauty. Sustained bowed notes can produce double stops and chords ranging from sweet shimmering concords to dark and strident discords.

The first piece in the Suzuki violin repertoire that has a double stop is Gavotte in D Major by J.S. Bach. Here it’s a simple C# + E, an amiable minor third with the open E string – meaning there’s only one note to tune. Bourrée, the next piece, has a couple of double stops with open strings and is followed up by Volume IV’s three Seitz concertos. The third one, No. 5, 3rd movement, of course, contains a challenging double stop section, and it’s onwards from here.

The 6 Most Common Double Stop Problems

  1. Pressing too hard with the bow, usually when trying to find both strings.
  2. Uneven weight across the two strings.
  3. Pressing too hard with fingers.
  4. Undetermined foundation or base note.
  5. Poor left hand position.
  6. Inadequate vibrato.

Double Stops with an Open String

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5 Best Violin Books

In a newsletter to members earlier this year, I listed the 5 best violin books I use and recommend for teaching and studying Suzuki violin. I’ve read and bought many good books on everything to do with the violin, including violin methods, technique, musicality, the lives of violinists and violin music.


Many people found the newsletter useful, so I’ve decided to cite the books in this post and give some of the reasons why I think they are so valuable. They are the only ones I use regularly.

If you’d like to buy a copy of any of the books, there’s a Book Depository link below each of the covers. (Book Depository has free world-wide delivery.) They are affiliate links, which means Teach Suzuki Violin will earn a small commission to help keep the lights on – without any extra cost to you.

The 5 Best Violin Books

1. Nurtured by Love

The first one, unsurprisingly perhaps, is “Nurtured by Love,” Shinichi Suzuki’s primary work, which recounts his personal history and the story of his life’s work teaching the violin in Talent Education, the world-wide music education movement he founded. The book was translated into English by his wife, Waltraud Suzuki.

The book begins with Suzuki’s famous epiphany, Japanese children can all speak Japanese! – which became the cornerstone of his education philosophy and the basis of his mother-tongue method of teaching violin. Nurtured by Love was literally the book that changed my life. This slim volume, which I discovered in a modest little country library in the late 1970s, eventually took me and my family to Japan, beginning a journey in music teaching that has never ended.

Like most Suzuki music teachers I expect, I’ve read this book many times and it has always given me practical inspiration just when it was needed.

Here’s just a few of the great topics and stories within:

The origins of Talent Education
Without hurry, without rest
The beauty of earnest repetition
Talent is not inherited
Effect and importance of the environment a child grows up in
What is talent?
Meeting with Casals
The Tolstoy Connection
The meaning of art
Children and kindness
Karl Klinger – Suzuki’s Teacher in Germany
Friendship with Einstein



2. Ability Development From Age Zero

In his other major book, “Ability Development From Age Zero,” Suzuki explains his ideas about talent in more depth, illustrating them with more stories from his life. The accounts of his interactions with parents reveal his matured thinking about children’s upbringing and education. Although raising and teaching children with kindness can be interpreted in many different ways, Suzuki expounds a compelling simplicity in his philosophy that goes beyond ideas to the heart of the child.



3. Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching

Of the many textbooks about the practical side of teaching and playing violin, there are two which I consider essential for every studio. The first is “Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching,” by Ivan Galamian, containing the essence of his many successful years of teaching at Curtis and Julliard. (Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman is among the former students of this famous pedagogue.) Galamian’s clear thinking shows right from the introduction, where he is critical of “…  the contemporary insistence upon compliance with rigid rules for everyone and everything that has to do with violin playing.

The book gives very detailed descriptions of practically every aspect of violin playing and technique, including some examples and excerpts of the music where they are featured. The scope of his ideas and experience make it an extremely valuable and interesting reference for teachers and advanced players. Whether planning a lesson on a particular aspect of playing or practising and refining a technique, it is always helpful to read what Galamian has to say about it.



4. Basics

The second key textbook I recommend is Simon Fischer’sBasics,” an excellent reference for players and teachers of all levels. Fischer, an exemplary teacher and violinist, has put together an incredibly detailed and comprehensive step by step approach to violin technique. And since Basics, he has published several other publications that if anything, are broader in scope and deeper in detail. They are totally exhaustive (and exhausting!)



5. The Suzuki Violinist

The Suzuki Violinist,William Starr’s first-hand account of Suzuki’s teaching methods, also has a lot of very useful material – especially for the studio, teaching group classes and how to set up beginners. Originally published in 1976, it was revised in 1996 and new material added. This is another book that has never strayed from my studio table.



Thanks again for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin. It’s a pleasure to welcome the new members and I appreciate the emails and feedback.



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Music Reading – 7 Teaching Tips

How fortunate we are – and how important it is – to be able to read and write music. Just imagine: if it wasn’t for written music we wouldn’t know the music of Mozart, J.S. Bach, Beethoven and other great musical minds. Inconceivable! 

And so generations of violin teachers are asked three questions: At what age or stage should students learn to read music? Why is it so difficult to read music? And what’s the best way to learn to read music?


First of all, let’s try to clarify what we’re talking about. There are two sides to reading music, which can be described by two closely related skills:

  1. Music literacy – which includes music theory and the ability to understand, analyse, interpret and even learn to play music from the written score;
  2. Sight reading – the ability to play music fluently from a previously unlearned or unseen score.

There’s a kind of balance between the two skills. Many good sight readers are also musically literate; and many musicians and music scholars who are musically literate can sight read well, without necessarily having the ability to sight read at an equal level of comprehension. Music literacy has a high knowledge component, whereas in sight reading the balance is towards performance skills.


Photo: Philadelphia Youth Orchestra

At what age or stage should students learn to read music?

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How to Teach Good Intonation – a journey of discovery

If I had to choose the most important skill in playing the violin, it would have to be good intonation. It’s one quality that just has to be right – all of the time. If it’s not, the audience will hear the sour notes immediately and even the most supportive listeners will experience a little disappointment for the player’s sake.


In this post I try to answer three important questions:

  • How do you teach a student to play with good intonation and how is it learned?
  • Can poor intonation be cured?
  • What is good intonation, anyway?

What is Good Intonation?

Intonation is a controversial and contentious issue, guaranteed to generate intense and sometimes heated discussions among string teachers and violinists everywhere. Just try typing ‘good violin intonation’ into Google!

In 2011 I wrote a practical article on this subject – available for download in Resources – with my perspective about the principles of good intonation and the steps to achieving it. Even though the way I teach it has since changed, I still stand by these principles.

In retrospect, it seems rather incredible to me that having spent three decades researching and teaching good intonation on the violin, the best approach became clear only relatively recently. Not that it was a big problem. In fact, the students in our school generally learned to play with good intonation. Yet there were always a few who took a long time to keep in tune with real certainty.

The Universal Teaching Method 

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How to Prepare and Present a Successful Violin Audition

Auditions are a fact of life for classical musicians wishing to join an orchestra or ensemble, enter a music course or program and let’s face it, for many other less salubrious circumstances. Because their payoffs are so important, such as landing a job or gaining a scholarship, they can produce more tension and last-minute stress than exams.


While auditioning students obviously need to play well, success also depends on 3 additional factors and the teacher’s role in the audition process is critical.

  1. Experience and ease in public performance;
  2. Correct choice of music;
  3. Thorough preparation.

1. Experience in public performance

Students who have lots of regular occasions to play solos before mixed audiences from the beginning of their studies will bypass performance nerves. It is an acquired response to feel overly self-conscious and nervous when playing for others, as shown by its absence in very young players in programs where playing in public is built in as a natural and regular part of learning to be a musician. It should be normal and unremarkable to happily play in front of an audience.

For many of us though, including myself, it is more remarkable not to feel at least some stage nerves. They can be alleviated and even eliminated, perhaps, by lots of public performance.

2. Correct choice of music

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Tempo Rubato and the Mysteries of Time

A well known rock musician once enthusiastically described to me how all the band members slowed down together during a song, while the drummer held a steady beat. It’s the kind of thing classical musicians do all the time, I mused silently to myself, and yet his story highlighted an important point – the relationship between melody, time and the underlying pulse.


How Does Tempo Rubato Work?

Tempo rubato – the freedom to stretch or compress the speed of the melody – requires a clear inner sense of the pulse and beat*. For the quality of rubato to be truly musical, the connection with the beat must never be lost. (Note: Increasing the overall tempo, where the pulse also speeds up, is often called rubato as well.)

While the give and take of the melody may appear intuitive and unplanned, genuine rubato comes from a deep knowledge and familiarity with the music, a result of intensive study and experience. It is strongly associated with the performer’s own musical expression of melodic and phrasal shaping.

Many descriptions of tempo rubato – Italian for ‘stolen time’ – include a reminder of the moral imperative: that it must be paid back, yet arguably this is not always true. There are times when the orchestra or accompanist, for example, waits for the solo melody to arrive before proceeding and the stolen time is never repaid.

Usually it is the melody that is held back, slightly delaying resolution or the sense of forward motion, creating tension by momentarily restraining momentum before catching up with the pulse. Rubato creates a kind of emotional ebb and flow in the music that is both deeply expressive and satisfying, even to first time audiences.

Chopin and Rubato

Polish composer and piano virtuoso Frédéric François Chopin is acknowledged as the unrivalled master of rubato. Watch and listen for yourself, first to Lang Lang and to Grigory Sokolov’s wondrous recording of the Nocturne No. 20.

The Romantic period is the golden era for expressive rubato. I would include music from other times and composers, especially by W.A. Mozart and other Classical period composers. Viewed simplistically, much of the piano music from these periods tends to have a time-flexible right hand melody above a pulse-steadier left hand. On the other hand, so to speak, it is very difficult to exclude rubato from any music at all. The interplay between the melody line and the pulse makes music truly human.

Going Ahead

Holding back in relation to the beat is better known than the opposite – going ahead.

At a concert of the Brahms violin concerto, I remember my surprise, enjoyment and admiration for the charismatic soloist, Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung, when she came in a millisecond or two earlier than the orchestra at the start of the 3rd movement of this momentous concerto, riding on the crest of sound like a fearless surfer on a monstrous wave. The violin’s powerful opening chords struck our ears in a shockwave of sound, taking our breath away.

Getting it Right

It’s not always easy to get it right. The time connections between musicians as they play and the pulse of the music have a profound effect on what the listener experiences. In a small ensemble such as a trio or quartet, if one instrument pushes ahead too far or holds back too much in relation to the others, the music may sound rushed or lethargic, irrespective of the tempo. For a true perspective it’s necessary to know what the audience is experiencing, since we often hear too subjectively while playing.

There are times when the musician must appear to pull the reluctant beat of the music along, providing the melody with brightness and vigour, leading it forward with confidence.

When playing with piano accompaniment, the pianist’s part and role is of equal importance to the soloist. I love playing with experienced accompanists, because their artistry contributes so much to the success of the performance, especially with expressive qualities like rubato. Good accompanists know the music inside out, and empower the soloist with the joy of expressive freedom.

Finally if in doubt, singing the music is one of the best ways to understand where to use rubato.



*Many musicians use the terms beat and pulse interchangeably. Some describe beat as countable accentuation, able to be grouped, and the pulse as the longer ongoing series of of beat patterns, although in this explanation the terms could work just as well in reverse.

Further reading:

The Uses of Rubato in Music, Eighteenth to Twentieth Centuries by Sandra Rosenblum

Stolen Time: The History of Tempo Rubato by Richard Hudson

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How to Use Audio Recordings for Violin Teaching and Study

Until 2013 we lived in Perth, Western Australia, one of the most isolated cities in the world. Despite the great distances, it has a thriving international standard music scene with passionate musicians of all genres. In some ways its very remoteness generates a kind of overachieving ethos and an intense enthusiasm for great music-making.


We enjoyed many concerts and workshops of touring and local world-class violinists while living and working there, and they were an important source of inspiration for our music school. Constant exposure to great playing is a vital part of teaching and studying music, for keeping in touch with the highest standards and practices. Yet I know from personal experience even if you live in one of the great cultural centres of the world it’s not always possible to get to live concerts due to the demands of a busy work life.

To overcome this we acquired many audio and video recordings of great players and performances and they became important teaching and study resources for our music school. For the major pieces in the Suzuki violin repertoire, such as the Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart concertos, I bought contrasting recordings and videos by different artists to show a diversity of interpretation and styles. These recordings were valuable to help with particular points of technique, style, performance presentation or musicality.

Ty, my sound engineer son, helped me set up a good sound system to run through my studio computer and we linked up a large TV screen for the videos.

How to Use Audio Recordings for Violin Teaching and Study

In the post on Corelli’s La Folia, I describe how Italian violin virtuoso Salvatore Accardo’s recording helped me improve my vibrato. That particular recording is harder to find now, but there are so many others that are just as good. I employed Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recording of Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata from her Carmen-Fantasie album in the studio for the same purpose. Her variation of vibrato speed, width and tension makes it particularly inspiring for advanced students.

Anne-Sophie also plays Sarasate’s  Zigeunerweisen on the album – and you can hear her breathe between the phrases. Even very young students are thrilled by Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy melodies. Click here for the iTunes link.


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Five Ways to Foster the Highest Standards of Violin Playing

Listening to a young student playing her latest piece one day in the violin studio, I became aware that I was mentally adjusting and correcting her intonation to make it acceptable. Just to make sure, I recorded her playing and listened back to it later. Sure enough, the parts I thought were off, were indeed so, plus a few more that I’d overlooked! I had been willing her to play in tune – and it appeared to be working. I should have followed it up with her immediately. Whoops!

It was mother-tongue in reverse. If you hear the wrong things all the time, they begin to sound ok – and less wrong. It’s like living next to a busy street: after a while you tune out the noise.


Likewise if you or your students spend a lot of time practising and playing alone, strange things start to happen without you realising it. Little peculiarities creep into the sound of the music – odd note shapes, scratchy tone, misplaced accents, funny little squeaks or a sound quality that is too uniquely personal.

I’ll tell you a little story to illustrate this point.

We joined a large group of students to visit Singapore in the 1980’s for some workshops and concerts with Dr Suzuki and a few young Japanese students from the Suzuki tour group. The trip was full of amazing and hilarious incidents. An amusing one happened while I was sitting in the soft light of the hotel foyer one evening waiting for my friends to arrive.

A band was playing tasteful relaxing music led by a clarinet player. Now I’ll be honest, wind instruments aren’t exactly my cup of tea, except perhaps in Mozart’s clarinet music. Anyhow, the music was pleasant easy listening, as you would expect in a hotel foyer.

As the band played through their pieces I became aware of a subtle change in the tone of the clarinet. When I turned around to look at the band I was surprised to see that the leader was no longer actually on the clarinet. He was now on a violin, playing with a sound that was remarkably like his clarinet. I nearly laughed aloud, amazed at his skill in creating a complex windlike tone from the violin.


His first instrument and great love was the clarinet, which he played with fluent enjoyment. Judging from the difficulty he was having keeping it on his shoulder and the collapsed shape of his left hand, the violin came later. As part of his admirable achievement of teaching himself to play it, he’d measured up to the standard he knew best – the golden tones of his clarinet. So in the long lonely hours of the practice room it was perfectly logical and natural for him to imitate the sound that he knew and loved so much.

Musicians steeped in their traditional folk genres do much the same, colouring the sound of their violin with the hues of their cultural heritage. Fiddlers playing Country, Irish, Gypsy, Classical and Blues all have a distinctive recognisable sound.

Classical music has spread out into a world-wide culture, making it impossible to distinguish the country of origin of international level violinists from their sound alone. Despite significant differences in elements such as style, personality and interpretation, the playing standards are more or less universal.

Five Ways to Foster the Highest Standards of Violin Playing

How do you foster and uphold the highest standards of playing for yourself or your students? And what’s the best way to keep in touch with best practice in playing and teaching?

Whether you are a teacher, student or parent, the answer comes from being in constant contact with international playing standards – of the musicians themselves.

  • 1. Go to live concerts. Apart from the rush of energy and inspiration that comes from experiencing a great concert, live performances transport you back to where you belong – into the stratosphere of great music making at the highest level.
  • 2. Listen to high quality audio and video recordings of the great violinists. Over the years I have amassed a large collection of audio and video recordings of the great violinists for listening and showing to students. These great players are happy to tirelessly play the same virtual performance over and over. (To student, “Did you hear how she finished that phrase? If we ask her nicely, she’ll play it for us again.”) Many of these are now available on Youtube and other internet platforms.

Here’s a great example. Arabella Steinbacher plays Fritz Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scerzo-Caprice. Watch for the awesome vibrato at the start!

  • 3. Attend workshops and masterclasses. Get a group of teachers together for a workshop and a masterclass or two and something special always happens.
  • 4. Study, perform and spend time in the company of high level players. Just like the best environment to learn to speak French is in France, the best place to learn great music is in the company of high level musicians.
  • 5. Record your playing. Like me, you’ll be surprised at what you pick up!

Thanks for coming to Teach Suzuki Violin! Next week it’s Back to Bach. We look at the celestial second movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor.





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Music Exams or Suzuki Graduation? A Candid Comparison.

Exams are on next week! How does this make you feel? Many music students associate music exams with emotions ranging from nervousness and anxiety to dread and panic. They say the best feeling comes when they’re over. So why do we do them? Are they really necessary?


Music Exams: + and –

First, let’s look at some of the commonly accepted purposes of music exams:

  • Motivation and goals. Exams give students a definite goal to work for. Why would you practise so hard if you didn’t have an exam to do?
  • Experience in performing under pressure. Exams force you to overcome nerves – if you can.
  • Structure and system. They are based on commonly accepted standards and are easy for teachers to implement.
  • Measurement. Grading measures where you are on the pyramid.
  • Recognition. That certificate is a tangible record of achievement – and looks great on the wall.
  • Breadth. Exams make you learn other important musical skills like ear training, sight reading, scales and theory.
  • Feedback. Skilled examiners provide positive and negative criticism – from an objective perspective.

These are all worthwhile objectives for any music student, but are exams the only way to achieve them? Before I attempt to answer this question, I’d like to relate a few of my experiences.

Renewable Energy

Over the years I’ve trained a number of our senior students for music exams, usually taken in conjunction with high school studies. They all passed successfully, yet a significant percent of these students subsequently experienced a lean period in their musical lives, and some even gave up violin completely. In contrast, practically all of the senior students who didn’t take exams continued on without interruption – mostly into university music or related areas. They maintained and strengthened their love of music.

Talking to high school students at a prestigious private school during an evening presentation I gave for choosing study electives, I heard how a majority of them were giving up music in the final two years of school. Why? Despite enjoying to play, they didn’t like the exams, considering them too pressured and, in light of the demands of other subjects, too broad to devote sufficient time for a good score – unless you were already a very advanced player. In fact, music was scored (weighted) down in relation to other subjects. You can get 100% in maths, 90% or more in other subjects, almost never in music.

Then there is the familiar tale I heard from a friend of mine recently of how she gave up the piano after a traumatic exam. I managed to survive intact, although some training in public performance would have made a significant difference. I was mystified and confused by the sudden onset of nerves in my exam playing, despite the friendly encouragement of the examiner.

University Music

As Director of our school, I realised early on that you don’t need high school music or grades to enter university music courses and candidates are assessed primarily by audition and interview. So we advised students wishing to study university music to focus on the audition performance. I met with the university music faculty head to discuss suitable repertoire pieces and put together a good list to choose from. This system worked very well and happily, every student who auditioned gained a place.




A Graduation System

In Japan we learned and used Suzuki’s Graduation System: public recitals based on readiness to graduate. The system he developed achieves almost of the benefits of exams and more, with less of the drawbacks. It requires a lot of work to put into practice, yet I believe it is well worth the effort.

I think that the biggest obstacle to establishing a Suzuki type graduation system is the prevailing culture of exams, testing and the currency given to music grades. We are so accustomed to the practice of grading by tests that it is hard to see another way to do it – and achieve the same or better results. The exam system is well established and easy to follow. Consequently there’s a tendency for graduation systems to evolve into surrogate forms of testing and grading.

The principle idea underpinning a good graduation system is to follow the normal practice of professional musicians and their relationship to their audience. Musician present a concert when they are fully prepared. Audiences wouldn’t wish to go to a concert where they suspected that the music, regardless of the level of difficulty or the age of the musician, was to be played with less than 100% accuracy: out of tune, with wrong or missing notes, or at an incorrect tempo.

Elements of a Good Graduation System

  • Culminates in a well rehearsed and presented public concert that celebrates the achievement of levels;
  • Students achieve levels when their music is performed from memory, consistently without mistakes at the correct tempo;
  • Students are motivated and inspired by the positive success of others, and less by competition (or fear of failure);
  • Graduates receive recognised certificates and qualifications;
  • There are opportunities for rapid advancement (several levels at one time);
  • A fixed date each year to allow adequate preparation;
  • The assessment standards are completely explicit and demonstrated publicly at group classes.

Graduation systems work best with the impetus, learning energy and social power of weekly group classes. They provide valuable experience of playing for a discerning and appreciative audience: parents and other students.

Let’s look at that list of purposes again and see how they work with graduation.

  • Motivation and goals. √ √ Definitely. Students and parents look forward to graduation.
  • Experience in performing under pressure. √ √ A good grad system removes pressure.
  • Structure and system. √  Yes – matched to professional practice.
  • Measurement. √ Levels indicate achievement.
  • Recognition. √ See below *
  • Breadth. ? See below †
  • Feedback. √ √  Yes – detailed feedback is given throughout the leadup, in masterclasses and rehearsals.

Even if we accept that exams are problematic, what are the difficulties of implementing a graduation system?

†A potential limitation of graduation systems is that they focus primarily on performance – understandable, perhaps, because music is the sound of someone playing, yet other areas such as reading and theory are important skills for well-rounded musicians to learn. Reading can be strengthened by regularly participating in an orchestra or ensemble; and some theory may be left until later.

*Most music institutions have become familiar with the Suzuki levels and grade equivalents. In our case we took the step of registering our music institute with the national educational authorities, an extensive and onerous 4 year process, authorizing us to award nationally recognised music qualifications.

Music Exams or Suzuki Graduation? What do you think? What are your experiences?



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