The Suzuki Method: History and Philosophy
In 1958, Faculty members at Oberlin College’s Conservatory of Music came across a video of 100 young Japanese students performing Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor in a group concert. The technical ability and musical sensitivity of the Japanese children impressed the American professors, and stunned them when they learned that the children’s teacher, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, did not carefully select musically gifted children as his pupils. Instead, Suzuki believed that he could educate any child to achieve a high level of musical ability. In the post-World War II devastation that the people of Japan experienced in the 1940s and 50s, Suzuki used music as a vehicle to nurture a sense of beauty, compassion, and sensitivity in his students. The byproduct of Suzuki’s tutelage frequently resulted in stunningly gifted musicians, but excellence in music was not the primary motivation—it was excellence in humanity.
Dr. Suzuki observed that all healthy children learned to speak their native language with ease and precision. Without direct instruction children even pick up on the fine nuances of dialect. Suzuki adapted the child’s innate ability to acquire language, and applied the processes that he observed to the study of music, and specifically the violin.
Suzuki’s steps to learning include:
From infancy, children find themselves surrounded by the vocalizations of other human beings. They do not speak themselves for many months, but the exposure to their native language is consistent and substantial.
An early exposure to all types of music ensures a familiarity with phrase, timbre, gesture, form, and genre that will serve as a valuable resource when children are ready to begin formal musical study. Children should listen to the recording of the sequential Suzuki repertoire so that they are familiar with the pieces that they will eventually play, but a general exposure to music from infancy is essential. Once children study formally with a violin teacher, more focused listening of the Suzuki repertoire also takes place.
Children begin to speak by imitating the utterances that their parents make.
Typically parents will begin violin study several months before children. In this way parents gain the necessary technical knowledge of the instrument, and are sufficiently equipped to help their child practice at home. While studying violin themselves, parents also gain an appreciation for the challenges of violin playing. By noticing their parents practicing every day at home, children gradually becomes interested, and begin to imitate their parents just as they imitate other activities such as playing doctor, fireman, or house. Once children have an instrument of their own, they imitate the sounds that they hear in the same way that they imitate the words that they hear.
When children attempt to say a new word, parents praise the effort and encourage children to try again. Parents and children practice new words and phrases together in a playful and joyful manner.
Parents and teachers strive to recognize even the smallest step of progress, and endeavor to make violin study a playful experience, since young children do their most meaningful learning through play.
Once children utter a word correctly for the first time, they naturally delight in repeating that word hundreds of times. Children love repetition—just think of how they delight in hearing the same bedtime story time and time again.
When children successfully accomplish a new skill on the violin, they repeat it until it becomes integrated into the muscle memory. Small children learn all manner of things—from language as discussed earlier, to walking, tying their shoes, writing their names, and using a broom, quite naturally through repetition. While adults would find this type of learning tedious, young children find pleasure in these types of activities. Review/refinement
Once children master a word, they continue to use it in their everyday speech, with increasingly more complicated sentence structures and concepts.
Children continue to utilize skills learned earlier in creating sound on the violin. They also continuously review old pieces, gradually adding more phrasing, variation in dynamics, and variation in tone, color, and articulation. Slowly their personality as an artist will begin to manifest itself in pieces of music that the children have played for years. While new repertoire sounds clumsy at first, the pieces that children have played for years come with ease. These review pieces provide opportunities for children to make music at a high level. This ensures an enjoyment of making and sharing music.
A note on reading
Suzuki delayed reading music until after students had a good command of the instrument. This parallels what children do with language: they learn to speak with sophistication before they learn to read. Many concerns in the United States over the Suzuki Method revolve around students underprepared for reading music in orchestral and chamber settings. This concern has come about due to a misinterpretation in the West of Suzuki’s intention. Most of Suzuki’s pupils in Japan began as young as age 2.5-3, and therefore were not developmentally ready to visually interpret symbols until roughly three years after they began violin study. In Japan (at least at the time) schools typically included music literacy, and Suzuki’s violin pupils learned to read basic musical notation as 6 and 7 year olds in grade school. This knowledge that Japanese students learned in school easily transferred to the violin, and Japanese children excelled at reading music. Most schools in the United States do not include music literacy for first and second graders, making it is necessary for teachers to address reading in private violin lessons once a student is ready.
As soon as a student has developed correct posture, plays in tune, and demonstrates developmental readiness for reading, I devote a portion of our lesson time to reading music with the instrument. (Developmental readiness usually occurs at age 6-7). Before that time, we developing music literacy during lessons without the instrument by exploring concepts of high and low, space notes and line notes, phrase and rhythm.