About the Suzuki Method
On January 26, 1998, a milestone occurred in world history, and in education, when Dr. Shinichi Suzuki died in Japan at age 99. This shy, fragile, introspective, spiritual, philosophical and chain-smoking Japanese man founded the Suzuki Method of music education in 1946. This method, which Dr. Suzuki called “Talent Education,” became the largest children’s educational movement in the world, in history.
Shinichi Suzuki was a middle-aged man in Japan during the Pacific War (World War II), where his parents owned a violin factory in Nagoya. In 1945, after the Japanese surrender, Suzuki, at age 46, wanted to contribute to uplifting the depressed post war spirit in his country by introducing the children to music. He had always marveled how easily Japanese children mastered Japanese, a difficult language to learn, by imitatingtheirparents. Hebelievedthatmusiccouldbetaughtinthesame way; this was the foundation of his “mother tongue” approach.
Suzuki had studied violin with Karl Klingler in Berlin in the late 1920’s, where he met his wife, Waltrude, a singer, who became his life’s manager. He was also strongly influenced by the great violinist, Fritz Kreisler, whom he idolized, and the humanist and philosopher, the famous cellist, Pablo Casals. After returning from Europe he started the “Suzuki Quartet” with his three younger brothers and also taught music at a music college in Tokyo starting in 1935.
Suzuki, who began to study the violin as an adult, never achieved a high level of professional performance. Nevertheless, he became renowned as a teacher.
In 1946 Suzuki moved to Matsumoto, in the Japanese Alps, an hour’s train ride from Nagano City, the site of the 1998 winter Olympic Games. He adapted serious musical pieces from Mozart, Bach and other great masters for his step-by-step method of teaching. His adaptation and variations of
1. Mozart’s “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” became the familiar “twinkle little star,” the theme melody of his method. Suzuki emphasized successful repetition and stressed that a student should not proceed to a new piece until the piece being worked on was thoroughly mastered musically. He stated: “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill.” Accordingly, students of roughly the same age achieved different level of repertoire mastery.
This concept of different levels of mastery is difficult for many American parents to accept.
The parent, usually the mother, is an integral part of the method and teaching begins when the child is quite young, often two or three years of age. The violin is remarkably suited to this form of teaching since the instrument can be manufactured to a size sufficiently small to fit the height of the student. The smallest violin for a two or three year old, a 1/64 size, has a body seven inches smaller than a full size instrument.
Initially the parent is taught to play the violin while the child watches; they also listen to recordings of the music at home. A Suzuki method purist would have the mother listen to the recordings during pregnancy. Early on, the child learns standing position and how to hold the instrument using a simulated violin fashioned from a ruler glued to a cracker-jack box, using a dowel for a violin bow. Of course, the student learns how to bow at the waist correctly in the Japanese tradition.
In Japan, it is not unusual at a Suzuki children’s concert to see and hear 500 seven year olds performing Vivaldi and Bach concertos from memory, in unison, and in tune. This remarkable achievement, demonstrated first on films and tapes brought to the US in 1958, and during Dr. Suzuki’s children’s tour of the United States in 1964, astounded music educators. The method was brought to this country by Professors Clifford Cook of Oberlin College, John Kendall of Muskingum College and Evelyn Hermann of SMU in the early 1960’s after they observed Dr. Suzuki’s methods in Japan. The method quickly spread throughout the world and was adapted by Dr. Suzuki and his colleagues for the piano, viola, ‘cello, bass, flute, guitar and voice.
The Sixth International Suzuki Method Conference in July 1983 was held for the first time in Japan, in Matsumoto, Suzuki’s home town. Several thousand music educators and students from all over the world attended. I had the privilege of attending this conference as a non-musician observer with my wife, Sarah Bishop Minton. Sarah had introduced the Suzuki Method to Maine in 1966 when it was unknown and when there was only a single publication about the method available for distribution. She subsequently founded and directed the Portland Suzuki Music School from 1973 through 1990. We later met and talked with Dr. Suzuki at the Japanese Suzuki Teacher’s Conference at Lake Biwa, Japan in 1985, where Dr. Suzuki told us: “Please excuse my English, it was made in Japan.” Sarah again studied with Dr. Suzuki daily, at the Talent Education Institute in Matsumoto, for six months between October 1986 and April 1987.
As a cardiologist and non-musician, my background is scientific, factual, and evidence-based, with dollops of the art of medicine added. Nevertheless, I never ceased to be amazed, inspired and, at times emotionally overcome, by the dedication and by the achievements accomplished by the team of teacher, parent and student. “Twinkle,” played by a few dozen or several hundred violin students still gives me gooseflesh and brings tears to my eyes. At the Lake Biwa Conference, The Japanese Teachers’ Convention, Sarah and I heard dozens of Japanese tots play lovely musical pieces well, while still in diapers, and unable to grant press interviews because they had not yet learned to speak their native Japanese.
Dr. Suzuki set the standard with his tireless energy, enthusiasm and inspiration. When he returned to Matsumoto from a trip or tour, he always went directly to his school to teach children and music teachers from all over the world, even on Sundays. For almost half a century Dr. Suzuki continued to develop countless innovations and teaching tricks, to enhance the learning process and proper positions of the violin and bow. He recognized the importance of the parent-child relationship in learning and the parent was expected to take notes, supervise practice and keep records of practice times. With very young students a double lesson time was often shared so the teacher could shift attention from one student to the other when a student’s attention span waned.
Dr. Suzuki’s innovations included restructuring the typical music recital at which Suzuki students follow a standard sequence of repertoire. In contrast to starting with the most inexperienced student and then proceeding tortuously through the repertoire to the most advanced piece, played by the most advanced student, Dr. Suzuki reversed the pyramid. A Suzuki Method recital often begins with the most advanced student, or students, playing the most advanced pieces, such as the Vivaldi Concerto in a minor or the Bach Double Concerto. As the program proceeds through less difficult pieces, all students who have mastered these pieces join the playing group.
The advanced students continue to play these easier pieces at their top level of performance ability. The youngest students are kept at rapt attention and anticipation until their opportunity to play arises. Then they play in a large group, playing “real music,” along with the most advanced students. This is not only an example of Suzuki’s egalitarianism, but a very clever guarantee of an orderly recital, without a lot of very young children running around, seeking an object for their boundless energy and limited attention span.
According to Evelyn Hermann, founder, Suzuki Institute of Dallas, 1971: “First to set the record straight, this is not a ‘teaching method.’ You cannot buy ten volumes of Suzuki books and become a ‘Suzuki Teacher.’ Dr. Suzuki has developed a philosophy which, when understood to the fullest, can be a philosophy for living. He is not trying to create a world of violinists. His major aim is to open a world of beauty to young children everywhere that they might have greater enjoyment in their lives through the God-given sounds of music.”
Dr. Suzuki did not intend to groom musicians to become soloists or orchestral or ensemble performers, although many Suzuki Method students do become professionals. His goal was to develop sensitivity, self worth and appreciation of beauty -soul- in his students so their lives would be enriched. The passing of this remarkable, humble, inspiring man, who dedicated his life to children, “t o educate them from the cradle to have a noble mind, a high sense of values and splendid ability,” is a significant event in world history. His ageless legacy of millions of Suzuki Method students, teachers and families worldwide will perpetuate his teachings and his name.
Paul R Minton Portland, Maine February, 1998.
Every Child Can Learn
More than fifty years ago, Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki realized the implications of the fact that children the world over learn to speak their native language with ease. He began to APPLY the basic principles of language acquisition to the learning of music, and called his method the mother-tongue approach. The ideas of parent responsibility, loving encouragement, constant repetition, etc., are some of the special features of the Suzuki approach.
As when a child learns to talk, parents are involved in the musical learning of their child. They attend lessons with the child and serve as “home teachers” during the week. One parent often learns to play before the child, so that s/he understands what the child is expected to do. Parents work with the teacher to create an enjoyable learning environment.
The early years are crucial for developing mental processes and muscle coordination. Listening to music should begin at birth; formal training may begin at age three or four, but it is never too late to begin.
Children learn words after hearing them spoken hundreds of times by others. Listening to music every day is important, especially listening to pieces in the Suzuki repertoire so the child knows them immediately.
Constant repetition is essential in learning to play an instrument. Children do not learn a word or piece of music and then discard it. They add it to their vocabulary or repertoire, gradually using it in new and more sophisticated ways.
As with language, the child’s effort to learn an instrument should be met with sincere praise and encouragement. Each child learns at his/her own rate, building on small steps so that each one can be mastered. Children are also encouraged to support each other’s efforts, fostering an attitude of generosity and cooperation.
Learning with Other Children
In addition to private lessons, children participate in regular group lessons and performance at which they learn from and are motivated by each other.
Children do not practice exercises to learn to talk, but use language for its natural purpose of communication and self-expression. Pieces in the Suzuki repertoire are designed to present technical problems to be learned in the context of the music rather than through dry technical exercises.
Children learn to read after their ability to talk has been well established. in the same way, children should develop basic technical competence on their instruments before being taught to read music.
Are Suzuki Kids Prodigies?
Are Suzuki students musical geniuses? Are they ‘gifted’ children who have a special talent for music? Are their parents professional musicians?
Fortunately, Suzuki students are normal children whose parents may have little or no musical experience. Their parents have simply chosen to introduce them to music through the Suzuki approach, a unique philosophy of music education developed by Shinichi Suzuki.
The Suzuki Legacy
Shinichi Suzuki was a violinist, educator, philosopher and humanitarian. Born in 1898, he studied violin in Japan for some years before going to Germany in the 1920s for further study. After the end of World War II, Dr. Suzuki devoted his life to the development of the method he calls Talent Education.
Suzuki based his approach on the belief that “Musical ability is not an inborn talent but an ability which can be developed. Any child who is properly trained can develop musical ability, just as all children develop the ability to speak their mother tongue. The potential of every child is unlimited.”
Dr. Suzuki’s goal was not simply to develop professional musicians, but to nurture loving human beings and help develop each child’s character through the study of music.
Parents whose children are involved in a Suzuki Program throughout the country are enthusiastic about the benefits for their children and their whole families.
In Cleveland, Ohio, Jan McNair participates in Suzuki violin study with her four-year-old son Ben. She points out that Ben is discovering “the joy of doing something because you’ve worked to do it. What he’s doing right now will be second nature to him. This is the way to learn.”
In addition to instilling a love of music, the Suzuki approach puts emphasis on the development of the child’s character. Ben begins and ends every lesson by bowing to his teacher and thanking her. His teacher, in turn, thanks him.
Perhaps it is music that will save the world.
Children also have positive comments about their participation in the Suzuki Method. Overall the children considered it fun and challenging. They felt that the benefits of playing the violin via the Suzuki method helped them learn discipline, goal setting and constructive use of time.
Students in many programs comment on the importance of friendships they develop and the chance to share musical experiences with other Suzuki students. They enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from working at something worthwhile and doing it well.
How does Talent Education differ from other methods of teaching music to children?
Thoughtful teachers have often used some of the elements listed here, but Suzuki has formulated them in a cohesive approach. Some basic differences are:
• Suzuki teachers believe that musical ability can be developed in all children.
• Students begin at young ages.
• Parents play an active role in the learning process.
• Children become comfortable with the instrument before learning to read music.
• Technique is taught in the context of pieces rather than through dry technical
• Pieces are REFINED through constant review.
• Students perform frequently, individually and in groups..
The main concern for parents should be to bring up their children as noble human beings. That is sufficient. If this is not their greatest hope, in the end the child may take a road contrary to their expectations. Children can play very well. We must try to make them splendid in mind and heart also.