Teaching Character – and Tolerance – Through Music

Character & Tolerance_blog

Dr. Suzuki envisioned a society in which learning an instrument was an important educational tool in character development. Encouraging ideal character traits in my students is a task that separates the Suzuki Method from others and one that excites me to continue to grow and be creative as a teacher.

This particular election process has had me thinking about tolerance and the attributes that accompany it: humility, respect, and empathy. Social media has created a platform in which everyone feels entitled to display their political, religious, and social beliefs – oftentimes to the disagreement of others. Instead of valuing these alternative viewpoints, I have witnessed the “unfriending” of one another and a greater separation of ideologies.

According to Pitiane Magazine, tolerance and the skills that accompany it are learned attributes and ones that I believe can be readily accessed through the act of musical collaboration.[i] By learning to work together as an ensemble, we can discover that we have more in common than not. The following action steps are meant to provide educators with additional activities that they can utilize in group classes to encourage better ensemble skills while providing the greater goal of encouraging tolerant attitudes within their Suzuki students.

The Importance of Functioning as an Ensemble

The most important aspect of any musical ensemble is teamwork. Richard Young, violist of the Vermeer Quartet once stated that the best chamber musician is one that is able to listen to others in the group more than him/herself while still playing his/her best. This statement reveals the balance between personal achievement and contributions to the success of the group. The greatest chamber experiences are filled with moments of humility, empathy, arguments, and collaboration; all aspects which inevitably contribute to a tolerant attitude. Valuing the technical, social, and musical skills needed to function as an ensemble is essential in cultivating tolerance.

Action Step #1: Teamwork Building Activities

Because many of our students spend a great deal of time working privately (with teachers or parents), I view group classes as having the ultimate goal of learning to work well within an ensemble. So much of my teaching is spent instilling the value of teamwork within my students either through explicit ‘team-building’ activities or more abstractly through simply learning to play well together.

Teamwork can be introduced by starting simple with engaging and fun passing games. These not only clarify the importance of teamwork in our group sessions but also allow everyone a chance to feel comfortable with one another:

  • Pass the Cup: The goal is to maintain perfect bow holds while passing a cup between students’ bow tips. Students stand in a circle and attempt to beat their “best time.”[ii]
  • Passing Rhythms: This may be done first with clapping or speaking before using violins. Students sit in a circle and pass Suzuki Variations from one person to the next while maintaining a steady pulse.[iii]
  • Telephone: The goal is that students play the pitch that was performed by the student previous to them. If a student plays an open A, the next student’s goal is to play the same pitch; if a student plays a different pitch, the next student must match what was heard. The goal is to end with the same pitch as was started.

Action Step #2: Learning the Technicalities of Ensemble Skills

Early on in the group-class process, a teacher’s role may be to provide technical strategies that help musicians play together. Working on these skills singularly often leads to greater awareness in students which eventually allows for student-led practices and respectful collaboration among students – an essential skill in understanding tolerance.

Initially, these include emphasis on beginning and ending together, bow direction, bow amount, articulation, and group pulse.

  • Leading Questions: questions are typically used in the beginning to make students aware of ensemble skills; did we end together, where our bows moving in the same direction, etc. help to maintain focus on these aspects of ensemble technique.
  • Hawks: Asking students to find success in their peers helps to focus attention on ensemble skills. Ask one student to be the “hawk” and fly around the room identifying students who demonstrate a specific ensemble skill. This may include looking at others, moving to the pulse, using the same amount of bow as a leader, etc. The hawk may tap them on the shoulder to signify a job well done.[iv]
  • Live and Breathe: Students must follow a leader as best they can; if the leader speeds up, slows down, plays loudly, etc. the students must follow. This may be used to brainstorm technical ensemble skills or solidify previously practiced ones.[v]
  • Silent Sing: This activity reinforces the importance of group pulse. The teacher begins playing a piece and asks the students to silently sing along in their heads. After a few measures the teacher stops playing altogether and asks the students to raise their hands when the song has finished. The goal is to do it at the same time.[vi]
  • Partners: Have students work in more autonomous smaller groups of 2 – 3 in order to allow these skills to develop and social collaboration to thrive.

Action Step #3: Unifying Musical Characters

Being on the same page musically not only creates a stronger group sound, but the process of deciding on musical characters consolidates the collaborative technicalities of ensemble skills with social aspects including empathy and respectfulness.

These engaging activities promote self-expression while valuing each other’s’ varying viewpoints.

Learning about emotionally-charged music: Introduce various pieces throughout the year that have emotional significance. Pieces such as Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The goal is to allow students an opportunity to understand the personal and empathetic potential of music.[vii]

  • Musical/Character Charades: This activity encourages student’s sensitivity to emotion through music. Students must draw a character/emotion word and perform a piece with the goal of getting others to guess their chosen trait.
  • Musical Self-Portraits: Have the students create their own piece that they believe represents them. You may wish to have them explain the piece for greater depth of understanding. This allows the students to value each other’s unique personalities.[viii]
  • Value all Opinions: Ask the students for their musical interpretations and without judgement perform each one as a group. Discuss if necessary.

Group classes serve as an ideal environment for encouraging tolerance. Learning to create a strong ensemble has the potential for creating more empathetic, respectful, and socially aware students. This list is by no means comprehensive but meant merely to encourage educators to start thinking purposefully about how we can continue Dr. Suzuki’s goal of teaching character through music.

Laura Elise EakmanLaura Eakman currently serves as Strings Teaching Artist with El Sistema Colorado in addition to maintaining a private studio in Boulder, Colorado. She has served as a chamber music coach for numerous institutions including the Summer Music Academy at the University of Colorado and Luzerne Music Center.

An avid chamber musician, Laura has collaborated with members of the New York Philharmonic and regularly performs with new music ensembles in Colorado.

Dr. Eakman received both her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from Northern Illinois University. In 2016, Laura earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder.


[i] The Importance of Tolerance as a Social Value (2016). http://www.pitlanemagazine.com/morals-values-and-norms/article-title-the-importance-of-tolerance-as-a-social-value.html.
[ii] Group Class Ideas (SAA Blog). https://suzukiassociation.org/discuss/6100/.
[iii] Kreitman, Edward. http://www.wsste.com/#!kreitman/c1z7l – observed during a private lesson.
[iv] McCall, Carolyn (1993). Group Lessons for Suzuki Violin and Viola, Alfred Publishing.
[v] An idea taken from Erika Eckert, viola professor, University of Colorado, Boulder.
[vi] Maurer, James and Jacqueline (rev. 2003). String Book; Suzuki Teaching Reference: Instructions, Notes, and Guidelines.
[vii] Teaching Tolerance. http://www.tolerance.org/activity/stay-mix-music.
[viii] Wigram, Tony (2004). Improvisation: Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators, and Students, Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

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