How to Supplement Suzuki Violin School – Book One

Suzuki Violin School: Book One has been a bedrock of violin education since it was introduced in the 1970s. One of the first books to rely on arranging songs in order of increasing difficulty, it is a favorite of violin teachers, Suzuki and non-Suzuki alike.

But this book has certain limitations that can make supplementing its content a good idea. A principal issue is that there are only seventeen songs in the first Suzuki Book, and, by the end of the book, the student is expected to play works by both Bach and Schumann, in edited but still rather difficult arrangements — quite a jump from folk tunes and the five etude-like works written by Shinichi Suzuki.

In addition, many teachers feel there is a rather large gap in difficulty between the 12th and 13th pieces, as well as between the 13th and 14th. After twelve rather easy pieces consisting of simple folk tunes and original and easily played compositions by Suzuki himself, comes the 13th work — Minuet 1 by J.S. Bach. New to the student in this piece are: hooked bowings, necessary use of the fourth finger for hitting the B in first position on the E string, and a change of key signature midway through that forces the student to differentiate between C-sharp (second finger high) and C-natural (second finger low) for the first time.

The gap in difficulty between the 13th piece in the book and the 14th (minuet 2 by J.S. Bach) is even more profound. First, the student must play a work a full page in length — double the amount of staves of any previous work in the book. Next, the student must jump from the E string to the D string at a rapid tempo and follow this skip with a hooked bowing. Even the first measure is difficult, with 4 string crossings in the first 6 notes. Fifths played by the same finger first on a high string and then on a lower string — a notoriously difficult technique for beginners — must be executed at a rapid tempo. Triplet rhythms are also introduced for the first time. And, making its first appearance in the book, is a brief interlude in e minor that requires third finger high on the D and A strings — three firsts for the student that occur almost at once.

In the end, it would seem that Suzuki Book One is, in reality, more like two separate books. The first seems of appropriate difficulty for the beginner. The second, starting around the 12th piece, seems to belong in a separate book — and one very much more advanced than the first.

Another issue with the Book One is the choice of songs — and this concerns even the first eleven. While there are a few songs that most children know (Twinkle, Twinkle being the most obvious), the other folk songs included are less well known — like “O Come Little Children,” “May Song,” and “Song of the Wind.” Following the folk songs are five “songs” by Suzuki, including pieces titled “Perpetual Motion” and “Etude.” These often fail to engage the student, which, to me, does not seem all that surprising.

Thus, while the Suzuki Books were groundbreaking material in the 1970s, it would seem that supplementing them with additional easier material –along with more familiar songs– might be a good idea. After all, it takes time to develop technique and eleven easy songs do not seem enough, in my opinion, to prepare for works by J.S. Bach or Schumann. For this reason, I have written my own book, based on Suzuki and also arranged in order of increasing difficulty, but also including note reading and fingerboard charts. The songs are also divided into sections that introduce new notes in small groups. Thus, the student can learn by studying this book not only finger numbers but also the note names that he or she is playing. This book consists of 80 familiar songs, including many that are only two to three staves in length. Not only do these easy songs prevent students from feeling overwhelmed by long and unfamiliar pieces, they also permit them to master new works in a much shorter time. This slower pace can allow the student to build a more solid technique without rushing them into works that are too hard.

While Suzuki Book One is greatly valuable, it is my opinion that difficult songs are introduced too early and there are not enough familiar and easy songs that students enjoy playing. Thus, supplementing it with additional easy songs can prevent a student from picking up bad habits that can result from playing works that introduce too much difficulty too soon.