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.
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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/
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