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.