Intonation Lessons Learned from Suzuki Pedagogy

intonation lessons

Within the Suzuki method of violin pedagogy, there is a huge emphasis on the importance of listening in the acquisition of musicianship skills. A person might describe themselves as tone deaf, yet that same person will have no difficulty recognizing the voice of a friend on the telephone or identifying the melody of a video game soundtrack. In fact, that person is highly skilled in identifying tones. They just haven’t applied their skill to music.

Dr. Suzuki described his method of music instruction as The Mother Tongue Method. Just as children all over the world learn to speak their native language through listening and imitation, students learn to play music through repeated listening and imitation of music they are currently studying as well as pieces they will study in the future. Listening to recordings of pieces to be studied is a daily requirement. Attending and participating in regular recitals and concert enables students to listen to other students performing pieces they themselves have worked on or will study in the future. Having learned a piece themselves, the listener is only too well aware of what is involved to imitate perfect “in-tune-ation”.

Below are a few related ideas which you might try with your students. Please note that while my emphasis is on stringed instruments, many of these examples are applicable to any music students.

Finger Tapes

Finger tapes are often applied to the beginning student’s violin fingerboard. A finger tape for the placement of the first and third finger is most helpful. Over time, after numberless repetitions and imitations, the ear teaches the hand and finger muscles to place the 1st and 3rd finger exactly on the tapes for perfect intonation. The 2nd finger learns independence by sitting immediately next to finger # 1 or finger #3. Finger tapes for the 4th finger are sometimes used although matching the 4th finger with the next open string, or matching the sound of a perfect 5th (e.g., first 2 pitches in Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) also works well and avoids using more tapes than is absolutely necessary. Too many tapes can be as confusing as no tapes at all.

Group Lesson Activities

Suzuki students enjoy regular group lessons in addition to private violin lessons. Some of these group lesson activities can be applied in other school settings and can be used as regular warmups. Naming the activity something like “5 Minute Musical Madness” promotes the attitude of fun and willingness to try without fear of failure.

  • Teach harmony parts to well-known melodies (Examples can include folk songs, “Happy Birthday,” “Hot Cross Buns,” etc.). Easy harmonies begin with tonic note drone or alternate I and V “bass lines.”
  • Sing rounds and cannons or partner songs (“Home on the Range” goes with “My Home’s in Montana”).
  • Divide class in half. Have one side maintain a steady beat while other students tap out the rhythm of a nursery rhyme or any other song the entire class knows.
  • Have your class “Do what I do”. Class taps a steady beat (tap knees or 2 fingers on the palm of other hand) for 4 beats while teacher claps a 4 beat rhythm pattern. As students clap the rhythm pattern back in response, the teacher taps the beat. Class goes back to the beat. Teacher claps out a new 4 beat pattern. It’s a game of tag using beat and rhythm. Begin with easy patterns, progressing to more challenging and longer rhythm patterns. Use patterns from music being studied. Once familiar and comfortable with the activity, ask for a student volunteer to be the leader.
  • Silent singing: Beginning at a slow tempo, sing a major scale up and down using note names or tonic solfege. Repeat, but omit one of the notes. THINK the mi, or sol for example. Over time this can be done at a faster tempo, “think singing” more than one of the notes up the entire scale.
  • Sing a short phrase from the piece you are working on. Sing the first note, THINK the remainder. Sing the first note again. How often to do remember the pitch correctly? Make it challenging but fun.

The important thing to remember in all of this is the philosophy behind the Suzuki Method of Instruction. We are developing good hearts and nothing breeds success like success. We teach our children to speak using lots of smiles, loving encouragement, gentle corrections and high praise for effort.

Suzuki applied those principles to the art of teaching the violin. We can too.


Arlene Patterson immigrated to America from Glasgow, Scotland. With a background in elementary education, she studied music education at The University of Michigan and later earned a master’s in education from Lesley University, concentrating on Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences.  She studied Suzuki violin teacher training with Ellie Albers LeRoux and teaches Suzuki violin in her home studio in Longmont, Colorado.

A retired public school K-5 vocal music specialist, Arlene enjoys teaching students of all ages. Currently her students range from 3 years old to over 70.  Her daughter, now 21, plays violin and Scottish fiddle music with her mom.

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