Mastery Learning

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Knowledge is not skill; knowledge plus 10,000 times is skill.

You only don’t practice on the days you don’t eat!

If he or she really goes about it in earnest, anyone can cultivate ability in ten years, I believe. Even in one year, shortcomings can be changed into good points if only we set our aims high enough. Continuing for ten years, we can become outstanding indeed…There is no limit to our shortcomings. Until we die, we should spare no time or effort in changing our weaknesses to merits. To do so can be pleasant and interesting. We can become like the horse that starts last and yet outruns the field, reaching the wire first; it is the same fun.

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What?- Twinkle Variations AGAIN! Yes! It seems that in the Suzuki Method we keep playing and performing the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Variations over and over!! And then after the Twinkles there will be other Suzuki songs that are practiced perfected and performed again and again! Do we always have to hear these songs at Suzuki concerts?! 

Well yes: let us consider:

  1. Swimmers learning a stroke
  2. A ballet dancer learning the feet positions
  3. Learning the multiplication table in mathematics class
  4. Grammar in language learning
  5. Writing characters in Mandarin
  6.  Basic positions in a yoga class

To be an expert in any of the above fields, a learner repeats many times the butterfly stroke, position 1 in ballet class, 8×7= 56, past tense examples, and downward facing dogs; each time refining and improving based on feedback given by the teacher.  There is a step wise progression of learning that cannot be ignored or skipped.  Over time the student will master the skill or the learning step at his or her own rate without pressure of a fixed timeline.  Once one skill is mastered then the student moves on to the next.  This type of learning is called Mastery Learning and it dates back to the Greeks and even philosophers such as Aristotle.  A proponent of Mastery Learning was Benjamin Bloom (educators may be familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy). Bloom researched the use of Mastery learning in schools and found that children who learned with this method had greater motivation and sense of satisfaction, a higher success rate and overall enjoyment in the learning process.   Bloom, B. S. (1976). Human characteristics and school learning, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Through deliberate practice and refinement (repetition with intention to improve an aspect of the performance) mastery of the Suzuki repertoire starting with the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Variations provides the foundation for excellence in performing on an instrument. By practicing on a known piece of music that becomes automatic, attention can be given to other areas. For example:

  1. Having trouble with a technical problem like the correct bow hold or hand position? Play Twinkles with just this ONE POINT in mind!
  2. Learn a new skill.  Have you just started Vibrato? Try it on a slow Twinkle Theme. How about a new bowing pattern; either on Twinkles or Perpetual Motion.
  3. Develop musicality by applying phrasing, dynamics, articulations, tone colors and emotions to early pieces.
  4. Social skills: older children support younger children in their learning by playing together with the younger children the common mastered repertoire. Younger children look up to the older children with eager anticipation to the day they will be able to perform so effortlessly more challenging repertoire.
  5. Ensemble playing.  By playing in a group students can learn to listen and synchronize their playing with others. They learn to take turns, listen, watch and show respect.  (Exactly what is needed to play in orchestra!)

These examples show how to put into practice Dr. Suzuki’s Method of Mastery Learning.  Children, parents and teachers who practice daily for mastery will appreciate and enjoy repetition, refinement and review.

Therese Wirakesuma

Mastery learning

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