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Until about 15 years ago, I had been teaching my own blend of Suzuki approach and traditional violin methods. But, I wasn’t satisfied with the results I was getting. Technically, my students did fine, but I lacked a system for teaching real literacy and musicianship, so my students could hear in their heads what they saw on the page.

I was relieved to know I was not alone when I read the following from Lyman Bodman, retired professor of string pedagogy at Michigan State University, in his Essays on Violin Pedagogy:

“No one, but no one, who cannot hear melodic intervals can play a violin in tune…This is another string teacher responsibility, and a way must be found to fill this need…There was once an almost golden age of training when those privileged few in Europe were given, at a very early age, a thorough training in solfege. There was also a time in our own country when in many elementary schools solfege was in the curriculum. We might wish that present day music education in America could learn from that era and do more to establish fundamental musicianship for our children. As it stands at this time, the violin teacher must teach much more than the violin. It may be true that our country is now leading the world in training instrumentalists, yet there is a glaring shortcoming, namely teaching children music fundamentals and sight-singing.” (2002, p. 21)

Zoltan Kodaly


Fortunately, I found a way to teach these musical basics when I encountered the teaching principles and practices of Zoltan Kodály. He and his associates researched and put together a Hungarian national music curriculum which brought about the music literacy of an entire people. It was so good, that music educators around the world took notice and began to apply the principles. His concept of the educated ear as essential for achieving true musicianship was the piece of the puzzle that had been missing from my early music education and my teaching. (See International Kodály Society at http://www.iks.hu and The Organization of American Kodály Educators at www.oake.org)

One basic premise of Kodály ’s philosophy is that the voice is the first instrument, and you cultivate musical sensibilities at first through singing. You find most Kodály programs being conducted in elementary school general music classes and also in choir programs. There are not many string instrument applications, with the notable exception of Colourstrings developed by Geza and Csaba Szilvay, the internationally recognized string educators out of Finland. (See www.colourstrings.fi and Helsinki Strings)

Another principle used by Kodály is that folk songs from the cultural heritage of the student should be the first study material. Therefore, a more authentic and useful program for American students, in contrast to Hungarians, would use songs from North American and English speaking cultures when first presenting musical elements.

For well over a decade, I have been involved in developing a string curriculum which uses materials from our own folk cultures, and which integrates with typical Kodály-based singing musicianship classes that are being taught in American elementary schools. What a joy it is to be using the tools which produce thinking, hearing violin students!

“Bad musicians cannot hear what they are playing; mediocre one could hear it, but they don’t listen; average musicians hear what they just played; only good musicians hear what they are going to play.” -Edgar Willems (1890-1978) Belgian music psychologist and pedagogue

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The best way to describe this comparison is with a table and a few explanations. Each row in the table corresponds to the paragraph of the same number:

Suzuki Traditional Kodály
1. Sound to Sound Sight to Sound Sound to Sight

2. Intuitive Cognitive Intuitive and Cognitive

3. Child Developmental Subject Logic Child Developmental

4. Quick Technique Slow Technique Quick Technique

5. No literacy Visual literacy Aural literacy

1. Suzuki – The student hears the song first from a teacher, a parent, or a recording playing it; hence, sound to sound.
Traditional – The student reads the note and then plays it; thus, sight to sound.
Kodály – The student’s model is his/her own singing voice. The song is taught by rote from the teacher’s singing, often in singing games. The rhythmic and melodic elements of the song are derived and given a name and a symbol, which the student will recognize when placed on the staff; thus, sound to sight.

2. Suzuki – The “mother tongue” approach. Children learn how to speak their own language through hearing it spoken. They perceive it without having to reason or concentrate; it’s just part of their environment. The music is likewise presented through listening and can be perceived at a very young age.
Traditional – The music must be read first, before it can be played. Reading language or music notation takes cognitive skill and concentration. The difference between Suzuki and traditional is like the difference between speaking a language and reading it.
Kodály – Singing is intuitive to all children. The first instrument is the singing voice. Learning to play an instrument is easier and more musical if the songs are sung first and then transferred to the instrument. Next, reading the symbols on a page of music, which were learned first from sound, calls upon the child’s cognitive skills. First intuitive, and then cognitive.

3. Suzuki – The Suzuki “mother tongue” concept of learning is itself child developmental. Rhythms and bowings begin with small note values, much easier than long ones with extended bow strokes. Generally speaking, however, the technical demands progress rapidly from piece to piece. In my opinion, there are some large gaps in the learning sequence which make it not child developmental: too many new things all at once.
Traditional – In past decades, a subject-logic approach was used in traditional violin methods. Rhythmically, it began with the whole note and then proceeded to halves and quarters: certain to kill any enthusiasm for playing the violin. Since those days, several wonderful pedagogues have taken a more child developmental approaches to technique. The work of Paul Rolland was especially significant. However, one needs only to look at the preliminary instructions about music notation and fundamentals given in most method books, to realize that the student must intellectualize certain abstract concepts about music before he can begin to play.

Kodály – The learning sequence begins at the best starting place for children’s voices and experience. Rhythmically, it begins with feeling the basic beat. Melodically, children are able to sing a range of only five or six tones with no half-steps. While the best first tones for singing are pentatonic, the best for starting a string instrument are those which are step-wise starting from the open string. Learning those first music elements one at a time through singing, and then transferring them to the instrument at the appropriate time is the order of things for a smooth, natural, child-developmental learning sequence.

4. Suzuki – The principle advantage is that a young child can get to the technique of the instrument very quickly. There are no prerequisites which involve reading. I call it quick technique.
Traditional – Having to decode the page before you can play, tends to slow down the process of acquiring excellent technique. There’s only so much brain available to think of everything. I call that slow technique.

Kodály – There are actually two learning tracks going on simultaneously. The intuitive one, starting from sound, transfers to the instrument very easily, and results in quick technique. The reading track is going on at the same time to create literacy. It’s important for teachers to have their objectives clearly in mind: am I working on technique or am I working on literacy? That determines your approach. The nice thing about this separation of tasks is that it allows a teacher to customize a student’s program according to his/her strengths and needs. Gradually, the students’ ability to play and their ability to read merge until they match.

5. Suzuki – The biggest weakness of staying with the Suzuki approach for very long is the lack of literacy. Most Suzuki teachers now find a way to introduce note-reading of some form or another from traditional sources. The necessity of a prescribed repertoire I find particularly limiting and tiring as a teacher.
Traditional – Learning by these methods, students who persevere until their technique catches up with their ability to read music notation, can become great sight readers and independent learners. Reading notes, however, does not necessarily mean that students will know in their heads what the notes are supposed to sound like. I call this visual literacy.
Kodály – One of the primary objectives is to educate the ear and achieve music literacy based on hearing. (See articles “To Hear or Not to Hear” and “What is Solfege and Why is it Important” in this blog) These students become even better sight readers, because they hear in their head what they are about to play. With careful step-by-step learning, students can achieve a high level of musicianship which this type of literacy makes possible.

Which is the best approach? It depends on the result you are looking for. Many fine players have emerged from each of them.

The only Kodály-based string curriculum I knew of was Colourstrings out of Finland, and so I went to a workshop in Helsinki led by Geza Szilvay, its founder. He and his brother were brought up in Hungary, moved to Finland and have had 40+ years of experience developing their approach. Their Helsinki Strings have become renowned performers. Colourstrings is also strong in Great Britain and Australia. Even though there was an attempt made to introduce it to the American string community, it didn’t really succeed, possibly because it was expensive and people didn’t understand how it worked. Also, their folk songs are not our folk songs. American children need American songs for their study material (a mandatory principle of Kodály’s work).

Violin Book One


I learned much and began developing a curriculum of my own. In collaboration with my colleague Dr. Jerry L. Jaccard (prominent in the international Kodály community) over the past 15 years or so, we have developed a string curriculum that follows singing musicianship curriculum principles common to most North American Kodály-based programs. It is called The Complete Musician (Third Edition). At present there are books in three levels for violin, viola and cello. Book 4, the study of major keys and key signatures, and Book 5, the study of minor keys and key signatures, are under construction.

The first 3 levels are designed for the private studio and homogeneous classes (classes of like instruments). By the time the students have finished the first three levels, they know all the basic finger patterns as they relate to solfege and the moveable do. Rhythmic and melodic elements are taught one at a time through short, singable tunes. Students have learned the names of all the notes on the staff in first position. Shifting activities acquaint the students with the whole fingerboard from the very beginning, preparing them for later shifting studies which require more advanced reading skills. Part work is introduced sequentially through the use of ostinato, canon, and composed duet, providing the instrumental class with material to develop the students’ ensemble skills.

Books 4 and 5 are designed for either same instruments or mixed instruments. Each key signature is introduced with a sound to sight learning segment from which students write a two- octave scale in the key. The notes of the key are then reinforced with song, dance, canons, solos with piano accompaniment, duets and trios. The transition from singable music to instrumental music is smooth, keeping concepts of tonal structure clear. Eighteenth century dance forms are introduced. More complex rhythms, varied bowing styles including spiccato, and more shifting prepare students for intermediate level performing.

I have found this learning sequence to be effective in preparing students to become knowledgeable musicians. They have the foundation necessary to understand discussions of musical structure and style.

The After School Music School  services string students from the Provo School District in Utah.   Each school in the district has a full-time music teacher who teaches a district-wide, Kodaly-based singing curriculum during school hours.   The string program is voluntary and is held after school.   First-year violin and cello students start in the third grade, so the kids have had four years of instrumental instruction by the time they leave elementary school.  The students get three lessons a week: a private instrumental, a group instrumental, and a group singing-musicianship class.  I try to schedule the lessons on two days so the students can fit everything in a more concise schedule.
Private lessons address the needs of each individual student. Parents are requested to come at first and to supervise practice at home.
The group instrumental class (homogeneous class, no mixed instruments for the first three years) provides a social atmosphere and gives the students the ensemble experience they need to be ready for future orchestral work.
The singing-musicianship class is accelerated beyond what the children get at school, because the demands of the instrument require some modifications of the learning sequence and because we need to go faster.

Fun in the singing musicianship class

This year we graduated our first 6th year class, which was composed of 7th and 8th graders.  They played their own concert featuring music from each of the periods in music history. Since they were all violinists, we drew from the repertoire of violin duets and trios. They had studied much more music through the year than what time allowed them to perform on the concert. Among the composers they studied were Praetorius, Morley, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, and Bartok.  I’m very pleased with not only their performing ability, but also the solid understanding of musical structure they have acquired.  They will continue on in their musical endeavors with a depth of  musicianship which will serve them well.

Final Concert of Sixth Year students

After some efforts to learn about blogging, I have just created the Kodaly Strings blog and written the first two pages:  To Hear or Not to Hear, and What is Solfege?  I apologize if they are a little longer than ideal (about 500 words each), but they needed to be said.  Take a look and let me know what you think.

I will be writing consistently from now on so check back from time to time.