It is very important for students to be able to read music well. Many critics have been concerned that Suzuki students learn so much by ear that they are weak in their sight-reading abilities. However, this does not have to be the case.
The purpose of the Suzuki’s “learning by ear” methodology is to help students really learn the language of music. It is called the “mother-tongue” method because students listen daily to their cd’s, watch their teacher and others play the music, learn to sing the songs, and then begin to imitate what they are seeing and hearing. The idea is to help them learn to play music in the same way that they learn to speak their native language.
Suzuki was never encouraging students to become musically illiterate, but rather, fully literate. If you learn a foreign language merely by reading a book, you will not end up able to speak that language in the same way that a person who is native to that country will. It is the same with music. If you merely learn by reading the notes off of a page, you will have a harder time learning to play musically. Learning a piece by ear rather than by sight helps a student to have a much richer knowledge and concept of a piece.
There are also two other benefits to learning by ear. Eventually, a student who is diligent in practicing and listening will begin to be able to “audiate” – hear the notes in his or hear mind before playing them. This makes for amazing sight-readers! Also, learning the Suzuki literature by ear and by memory allows students to be able to focus on technique rather than having their eyes always glued to the page.
Lastly, after a certain amount of learning by ear, “note finding” becomes automatic. A student will hear a pitch or series of pitches and then autmatically be able to play it back, not having to stop and think about which finger to put down. It is really quite amazing how much students are capable of
I teach students to read music as soon as they are old enough to read in school. I also teach the Suzuki literature by ear and imitation (at least for the beginning stages) rather than only through reading the music. By the time my students are in book 4, their abilities to play and read are at equal levels.
I believe fully in not sacrificing any aspect of music literacy – either in students’ abilities to play musically or in students’ abilities to read music.