If you’re asking this question, it’s probably because you have heard that the Suzuki method is geared towards young children. Yes, it’s true that Suzuki created the method with children in mind, but there is no reason why the same principles can’t be applied to adult violin learners. In my opinion, there are 2 concepts that set this method apart from any other violin method on the market.
Concept 1: The heavy emphasis on the development of the musical ear.
The Suzuki method was born when Shinichi Suzuki realized that all Japanese children can speak Japanese! In other words, all children learn to speak their home language by developing their listening skills. It’s true that adults cannot learn a language as fast as children can-but what helps them learn as fast as possible? Immersion. If you were to suddenly move to a foreign country, you would pick up the language pretty fast! This is why listening to the Suzuki pieces is so important- especially for adults. Otherwise, how would you know a good tone from a bad tone? Or when you’re in tune vs. out of tune? Listening is vital for musical success at any age. Active listening is important, but passive listening is important, too. Put the CD on while you’re cooking dinner, paying bills, showering, etc...and it won’t even feel like work.
NOW, it’s important to note that this does not happen overnight. It takes time to be able to identify the minute differences between what’s ideal and what’s not. A baby does not just suddenly begin speaking in full sentences one day! No, they begin just by making sounds. Then incoherent babbles. Then maybe a word or two. Then eventually they will speak in sentences. Be patient and kind with yourself.
Concept 2: The sequential order of pieces.
The Suzuki books are laid out so beautifully- each piece builds upon the next and new concepts are introduced in an optimal order for learning and success. HOWEVER, to the untrained eye, figuring out the teaching points of each piece is nearly impossible. This is why the Suzuki method is most likely not the best choice if you are self teaching. If you are learning through the Suzuki method, you need to be taking lessons from someone who is a Suzuki trained teacher. Many teachers use the Suzuki method but haven’t taken the courses, which ultimately just sets their students up for failure. Kinda like the blind leading the blind.
If you’re even just a little bit curious about the method and if it could work for you, schedule a lesson with me. First one is always free ;)
The Suzuki method is arguably the most well known and highly respected violin pedagogical method in the world today. When parents decide to have their child learning the violin, they will most likely choose a teacher from the Suzuki method because of its name recognition and superior reputation. More often than not, students stemming from this method go on to have fulfilling musical experiences and widely successful careers. In this essay I will discuss the birth of the Suzuki method and its successes and shortcomings.
Dr. Shinichi Suzuki was born on October 17, 1898 in Nagoya, Japan. Suzuki was one of twelve children, and his father, Masakichi Suzuki, owned the first violin factory in Japan, which was incidentally the largest one in the world at the time. Since his father owned this factory, in Suzuki’s early life, he viewed the violin as simply a product made by his father. He never imagined this instrument could produce such a wide range of sound and capture a wide spectrum of emotions. When Suzuki was seventeen, he heard a recording of Mischa Elman playing Schubert’s Ave Maria and was captivated with the sound of the violin. Suzuki proceeded to teach himself how to play the violin, relying on only recordings and common sense. A wealthy Japanese nobleman became Suzuki’s patron and invited him to Tokyo to take lessons with Ko Ando, a former student of the famous violinist Joseph Joachim. A few years later, when Suzuki was 22, he traveled to Berlin, Germany to take lessons with Karl Klinger, another student of Joachim. While in Germany, Suzuki met Albert Einstein and became friends with him. Suzuki also met his wife, Waltraud Prang, in Germany; they wed in 1928 and moved back to Japan where Suzuki formed a string quartet with three of his brothers and proceeded to tour the country giving concerts. In 1930 he became president of the Teikoku Music School and the conductor of the Tokyo String Orchestra.
One day in quartet rehearsal in 1933, Suzuki suddenly proclaimed “All Japanese children speak Japanese!” While this statement might seem painfully obvious to the layman, it is this simple realization that set the foundation for the Suzuki philosophy. Japanese (like all languages) is an incredibly complex set of sounds and symbols that varies even by region. Yet, all Japanese children have no problem learning it, and they start developing this skill right out of the womb. First, children’s brains learn to distinguish sounds from one another, learning which sounds are important to pay attention to (ie. which ones directly pertain to the language) and which ones are extraneous (ie. various noises and sound effects). Then, they learn to disregard slight nuances in language, such as different accents. But how do children do this? Listening. Children are constantly immersed in the language and are practicing way before they speak their first words. They begin speaking by first making sounds, then stringing those sounds together to make incoherent words, then small words (such as mama, uh oh, etc) and then larger words. From this simple realization, Suzuki discovered that a child’s brain, and especially his ear, are far more advanced than adults give them credit for. These children are learning something incredibly complex, and not a single one of them fails to do so. This serves as a major pillar of Suzuki’s philosophy: Every Child Can.
Suzuki believed that every child could learn how to play an instrument at a very high level if they started young enough (to where their brains were still in that sponge-like learning period, around ages 3-5) and were absolutely immersed in it. Suzuki also believed that there was no such thing as “talent”; talent was something to be developed in the child. According to Dr. Suzuki, the only difference in the learning ability of children is how much time it will take them to master a skill. There is no question about if they will master or it or not, because all children are born with an innate ability to excel under the right instruction and in the right environment. At the time, this was a revolutionary way of thinking. Children traditionally began learning how to play an instrument around ten or eleven, and talent was a special thing that very few people had. Suzuki believed that children were a product of their environment; just as children immersed in the Japanese language learned to speak it easily, children immersed in music and receiving support from their parent and teacher could be nothing but successful in playing an instrument. This belief was not limited to playing an instrument, but could be transferred to any skill or profession.
In 1946, Suzuki moved to Matsumoto, Japan, and founded a music school eventually named the Talent Education Research Institute. This school, basking in the shadows of the “Japan Alps”, served as Suzuki’s experiment for developing his teaching method. Based on the revelation that all Japanese children speak Japanese, the main principles of the Suzuki philosophy were born. First, the parent must be actively involved in the child’s development. This means actively participating in the lesson, being the at-home teacher for the child (using things they learned in the lesson), and having the patience to listen to the pieces several times a day. It is easy for parents to get frustrated with constant repetition of pieces, but this is not the case with children. Second, the child must start these lessons at an early age (ideally at age three). This is the time in a child’s life when his brain is the most susceptible to learning new things, especially by ear. Third, the teacher is there to teach skills of violin playing, not the notes. When a child first starts the violin, the teacher must do quite a bit of ear training with him in order for the child to learn to recognize what they hear in the recordings. Once the child can do this, the notes of the pieces should be learned at home so the teacher can focus on how to play the instrument instead of the notes. Fourth, the teacher must break down these skills into child-sized pieces. It is quite common for a teacher to move too fast, especially in the beginning when it is imperative for the child to learn how to hold the violin properly. If a parent is uneducated on how difficult this positioning actually is, they could get easily frustrated with their child’s seemingly slow progression and lack of progress in the first one to two years. A great teacher must start with very basic, easily achievable skills for the child, and not move forward until the child has mastered these skills. If the child is still having issues with the fundamentals, it is impossible to expect them to develop more advanced techniques properly. When first starting the violin, patience is absolutely required from parent, teacher, and student. Fifth, the teacher, parent, and student, must have high expectations for their playing. This means focusing on elements that are often neglected in the early years, such as tone and intonation, from the very beginning. There is no junior version of violin technique; there is only advanced violin technique. Children must start developing these skills from the very beginning in pieces that are suitable for them. Sixth, the method focuses on the importance of repetition. The more the child listens to a piece, the better the child knows how it goes, and the better they will be able to play it. Another reason that Suzuki’s method focuses on listening rather than note reading is so that the method is accessible for students who are not even reading their own language yet.
Suzuki’s method received almost immediate success. Some of his first pupils, Toshiya Eto and Koji Toyoda, received international fame for their performances. By the 1960s, teachers had started to travel from all over the world to see Suzuki teach at the Talent Education school and to learn his method. The main reason for this success was the high level of students that were coming out of this school. Suzuki’s students were playing advanced pieces with exquisite tone, accurate intonation, and beautiful phrasing at a very young age. The teachers that had visited and learned from Suzuki at his school went back to their respective countries and began to spread his unique philosophy. This called for a standardization of the method, and the Suzuki books were born. By the 1990s, the Suzuki method had become world renowned and had produced students in the leading orchestras of the world. Today, there are over 8,000 Suzuki trained teachers and a quarter of a million students worldwide.
Despite its instant and continued success, the Suzuki method has received some criticism for its shortcomings. First, since there is a high emphasis on learning by ear, some students have trouble reading music later on. As a Suzuki student myself, I can say that this was absolutely the case for me. However, when compared to actually playing the violin, note reading is much easier. There are so many programs, books, and flashcards that one can use and just like learning by ear, once a student is immersed in note reading, they will master it. To defeat this gap in the method teachers must begin supplementing the method with note reading when the child reaches book two. I can say that this deficiency did not do any major harm to my musical development. It might have taken me a little longer to get comfortable with reading, but it was nowhere near as difficult as developing my sound and technique. Second, it is said that some Suzuki students play like robots, largely due to the by-rote method of teaching. This assumption could be true if the teacher fails to incorporate musical ideas into their pedagogy. A teacher should be concerned with teaching music first and foremost, using the violin as a tool to do this. Ultimately, Suzuki students should be enjoyable to listen to, which requires them to incorporate phrasing and musicality in their playing.
A major controversy with the Suzuki method was brought to light by violinist Mark O’Connor in 2014. O’Connor wrote a post in his blog claiming that Dr. Suzuki had lied about studying with Ko Ando and Karl Klinger. Unfortunately this claim spread fast and placed doubt of Dr. Suzuki and the method’s legitimacy in the mind of the public. These allegations were quickly put to rest when the Talent Education Research Institute in Matsumoto, Japan publicized a letter that Karl Klinger had written about pieces Suzuki wanted to study with him and the dates. It cannot be a coincidence that O’Connor had published a set of violin technique books directly in competition with Suzuki’s method.
In developing his method, Suzuki’s main goal was surprisingly not to create fine musicians; he was interested in developing a child’s character through music. Ultimately, the level of a student’s playing was irrelevant to Suzuki. All children can sound good using these techniques while playing a piece that is accessible for their level. However, not all children are trained to be good citizens. Suzuki’s method teaches core principles of a successful citizen, such as discipline, focus, courage, perseverance, respect for others, attention to detail, the value of hard work and consistency, how to interact with others, and gives a child a great sense of pride in accomplishing his goals. In her book Shinichi Suzuki: A Man and His Music, Evelyn Herman writes: “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 the 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.”
Ultimately, the success of the Suzuki method is left to its teachers. This method is only that- a method of pedagogical techniques. In theory, all Suzuki method students should play at a very high level, no matter what stage of learning they are in. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There are several elements of this method that could be challenging for teachers. First, the parents might not be involved enough in the child’s learning. A three to five year old child should not be expected to be motivated to practice on his own or remember everything that happened in the lesson. It is necessary for the parent to find time for and instruct the practice sessions. Second, the child might not be listening enough to cultivate his ear training and the skills necessary to transfer that which he hears to the violin. Ultimately, this is the parents responsibility. The parent must find opportunities to play the CD throughout the day for their child. Third, the teacher might not be breaking the technical elements into small enough pieces for the child to be successful at. It is important for the teacher to focus on one aspect at a time, the thing that is causing the most obvious problems, and take all other variables out of the picture. If the child has a positive experience improving one thing, even something small, he will be more likely to stay motivated to keep fixing things after experiencing that sense of accomplishment. Fourth, the teacher might not be insisting on good violin technique and is just letting the child get away with playing poorly. This comes down to apathy on the part of the teacher. Students are a teacher’s business cards; if a teacher does not turn out good students, why would anyone want to study with him, and how then would he continue to make a living. A teacher should be satisfied with no less than perfect when it comes to the skills he is trying to develop. Fifth, the teacher might not be communicating what exactly he needs the parent to do at home. Most parents starting their child out on violin are not violinists themselves. This means that they need an expert, the teacher, to explain to them exactly what is expected of their child, what their child should look like posture-wise, what skills they are covering in the lesson, and what he wants them to continue doing at home. Lessons only happen once a week, which is not nearly enough practice for a child to make progress; therefore it is imperative to continue effective, purposeful practice at home.
The Suzuki method is a product of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki’s deep love and dedication to the violin, but more importantly, to children. Dr. Suzuki recognized the potential resting in every single child and made it his duty to find ways to maximize and develop it. Although the main purpose of this method was to help children become better people, the level of skill at such a young age is what helped this method to become so widespread. This method can be very successful, and has proven that by producing a number of famous violinists such as Ray Chena, Rachel Barton-Pine, Nicola Benedetti, and Brian Lewis.
"Shinichi Suzuki." Suzuki Association of the Americas. Accessed May 19, 2019. https://suzukiassociation.org/about/suzuki-method/shinichi-suzuki/.
Enid Wood. "Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998)." International Suzuki Association. Last modified 2005.Accessed May 19, 2019. http://internationalsuzuki.org/shinichisuzuki.htm.
Suzuki, Shinichi. Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education. New York, NY: Alfred Music, 1983. P. 22-25.
Augustus Brathwaite. "Suzuki Training: Musical Growth or Hindrance?" Music Educators Journal 75,no. 2 (October 1988): p. 42-45. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3398060.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fdefault-2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=search%3A4fc207275a0a56763d098e40c34fac29
Karin S Hendricks."The Philosophy of Shinichi Suzuki: 'Music Education as Love Education.'"Philosophy of Music Education Review 19, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 136-54. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.2979/philmusieducrevi.19.2.136.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fdefault-2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=search%3A4fc207275a0a56763d098e40c34fac29
Malm, Sarah. "Japanese violin teacher whose method has been used by millions LIED about histraining, LIED about learning with Einstein and is the 'Biggest Fraud in Musical History', Say Experts." Daily Mail. Last modified October 26, 2014. Accessed May 20, 2019.https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2808328/
Evelyn Herman. Shinichi Suzuki: A Man and His Music. N.p.: Alfred Music, 1996. P. 37.
Shinichi Suzuki is one of the most well known violin pedagogues of the modern era. He founded the Suzuki method in Japan in the 1940’s, and since then it has become one of the most well respected and widely used methods in the world. What makes the Suzuki method so unique is not only its superior developmental and teaching methods, but also Suzuki’s own life philosophy that heavily influenced his teaching. Shinichi Suzuki’s core philosophy can be best divided into two parts: 1. Man is the product of his environment and 2. “The purpose of music education is to develop noble human beings.”
Throughout Nurtured by Love, Suzuki reiterates that every child has the capacity to learn any skill and that the idea of “talent” does not exist. Skills are not passed down genetically; they are learned, practiced, and perfected only with time and discipline. Suzuki outlines this in his prologue, Children Throughout Japan Speak Japanese! In this story, Suzuki describes that all children in Japan learn how to speak Japanese, just as children in America learn to speak English. Language is one of the most complex things to learn, yet all children seem to do it with ease. Suzuki then poses the question: How can any child be considered “dull” if they learned an entire language from nothing? This proves that every child has a much greater capacity for knowledge and learning than we realize.
Although every child has the ability to learn anything they so desire, they are not born with any predispositions to certain skills; instead, children adapt to their environment. Suzuki argues “our life forces endeavor to cause us to adapt to our environment, thereby enabling us to acquire ability...” Suzuki uses a story of two girls cared for by wolves to illustrate his point. The wolves were the only “teachers” the children had, and after several years of living with them, the girls had adapted to living like wolves; they were only active at night, growled, and howled to communicate with other nearby wolves. This proves that children will adapt to their environment, and thus, if taught properly from a young age, can learn to cultivate any skill to an extremely high level.
According to Suzuki, the only thing that a child can be genetically predispositioned for is the “sensitivity and speed in which humans adapt to their environments.” This is to say that some children might learn faster than others. If some children or parents are concerned they are not learning as fast as they should, Suzuki would argue “what one person can do after 500 repetitions may require 5,000 repetitions for someone else to accomplish to a similar degree.” Suzuki was very adamant that every child learns and develops at their own pace. It is important not to push children too fast or that will take the joy out of playing. Suzuki thought it was better to work on pieces for longer periods of time and really perfect them, rather than going quickly and playing each piece mediocrely. There is no question if a child can learn a certain skill, the question is simply how long will it take.
Suzuki argues, “When discussing human talent, they merely observe the results of a person’s development, link those results to the issue of heredity, then retroactively judge the outcome to reflect innate strengths and weaknesses.” Children start developing the moment they are born. Their brains are like sponges; they are constantly observing, learning, and adapting to this new world. By the time a child is three, they have already developed the “core of their abilities”, ie certain likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits. It would be impractical to start violin lessons when the child is a baby, but things like pitch and rhythm can be began to be cultivated by exposing the child to great music or perhaps even early music classes. If a baby is put into an environment where they are primarily exposed to off key music, or maybe they aren’t exposed to music at all, this could be seen as musical ineptitude later on in life.
Since Suzuki believes that talent is irrelevant, the most vital influence on a child is his environment, which is largely decided upon by the parent. Suzuki believes that the most successful students are those with the most dedicated parents. Suzuki tells a story of a girl with polio whose bow would fly out of her hands every time she played. For six months, her mother would retrieve the bow every time she threw it. If her mother had not been so dedicated, she probably would have given up much sooner. A driving, supportive force in a child’s life can be very powerful and ultimately be a major key in their success. Suzuki adhered to this principle in his own life by taking care of his former student, Koji. Koji was successful largely due to Suzuki; not only for taking him in and treating him like family, but also for instilling humility, gratitude, and love in his heart.
In terms of musical success, having proper instruction from the beginning is vital to becoming a great musician. Suzuki stresses the importance of instructing children properly from when they are very young, because if they are not instructed correctly, it is almost impossible to correct. In order to replace a learned behavior, one must repeat the new behavior several more times than the old one. In the case of old habits, it is possible to have done something over 10,000 times, which would be extremely difficult to correct.
The second core principle of Suzuki’s philosophy is “the purpose of music education is to develop noble human beings.” The beginning of this belief was when he stumbled upon Tolstoy at the young age of seventeen. He was particularly drawn to one phrase, “the voice of one’s conscience is the voice of God.” Through the discovery of this saying, Suzuki developed the ideas that it was his duty to be completely truthful with himself and others and to always aspire to follow the teachings of Christ. Suzuki also mentions that the motto of his high school was “Character first, skills second,” which remained a guiding principle in his personal life and in his teaching.
Around this age, Suzuki also adopted the belief that young children are the joy of life, therefore they must be treated with the highest respect. He argues that this belief is the center of his Talent Education movement. Talent Education was the name of the music school that Suzuki founded in Matsumoto, Japan, but it also became the name for Suzuki’s entire teaching philosophy and social movement. Through this school, Suzuki was not interested in producing virtuosic musicians. On his main goals for Talent Education, Suzuki said, “Everyone gathering together and performing for each other, regardless of their skill levels- if only I could nurture children to become people who are able to experience this kind of pleasure in their daily lives, and who possess this kind of intellect and sensibility.” Above all, Suzuki wanted his program to positively influence children, uplift their character, help them have fun and be creative, and give them a safe and supportive space in which they could grow. He was never interested in creating soloists, and he did not want this to be the children’s goal either. Suzuki believed any child that cultivated the discipline, courage, and all the other skills one needs to acquire to play the violin could be successful in any field of their choosing.
A core way of nurturing children was simply by showing them love. He said “Regarding my own life, I wish always to live in love and joy. No one starts out life seeking hatred and sorrow. And, I have found it is none other than children who embody the very form of life that strives to live purely in love and joy.” Suzuki says that this principle in his life was awakened by the music of Mozart. He argues that all of Mozart’s music has sadness in it, but it is also filled with love and the notion without sadness we would not know love.
Suzuki accepted any child into his program because he truly believed every child, regardless of background or age, could develop skills in music or any other area with persistence. His primary goal was not to output great violinists, but rather great, kind, noble humans with good values and an appreciation for music. I think Suzuki sums it up best, “Even if I had no talent, I would have to cultivate myself step by step, however slow my pace, in order to construct an interior life suited to a human being. I could not possibly abandon that effort. It was in this way that heartfelt desire for the pursuit of art saved me from extreme despair.”
Hendricks, Karin S. "The Philosophy of Shinichi Suzuki: “Music Education as Love Education”. Philosophy of Music Education Review 19, no. 2 (2011): 136-54. doi:10.2979/philmusieducrevi.19.2.136
Suzuki, Shinichi. Nurtured by Love, Revised ed. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music Publishing Company, 2012.