by Esther Basha (MGBH)
When it comes to ways of teaching piano, there are many. There is the Russian School, the Alexander (MGBH) Technique, the Alfred System… And then, there is the one by Shinichi Suzuki (OBM). When I ask piano teachers what they think of the Suzuki approach, the answers vary. However, the skeptics share one thing in common – only a partial familiarity with the approach based on the commercially available version of it promoted by .
The biggest mistake that today’s music educator makes is reduce the Suzuki’s approach to a method rather than treat it as an approach or a philosophy. This article is designed to provide an expanded overview of the basic principles of the Suzuki approach towards education through analysis of one of his main books – “Nurtured By Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education.”
It is worth noting that the book itself is barely structured as a philosophical teaching, but rather as an autobiography with some educational insights. We recommend this book not only to music teachers, but also to the parents who want to well-rounded and spiritually refined individuals. Before we begin discussing the approach itself, however, we must talk about its originator.
Shinichi Suzuki, one of twelve children, was born on October 17th of 1889 in Nagoya, Japan and lived to be almost a hundred years old passing on January 26th, 1998. He was a son of a violin factory owner. Thus, giving the environment, the violin became his preferred instrument of choice later on in life. During his lifetime, he received several honorary doctorates in music including from the New England Conservatory of Music (1956), and the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. He was proclaimed a Living National Treasure of Japan, and in 1993 was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize.
“The voice of conscience is the voice of God.” This quote by Leo Tolstoy made an indelible impression on Shinichi Suzuki and became one of the main principles that her would apply in his daily life by honing his intuition to be able to hear and follow the voice of his conscience.
Suzuki’s life’s philosophy was heavily influenced by the teachings of his father, as well as by those of Tolstoy (OBM). “The voice of conscience is the voice of God.” This quote by Leo Tolstoy made an indelible impression on Shinichi Suzuki and became one of the main principles that her would apply in his daily life by honing his intuition to be able to hear and follow the voice of his conscience.
In his religious life, he followed the principles of Buddhism. Of all classical composers, Mozart (OBM) was his favorite for his ability to create pieces filled with light and high vibrations. Suzuki believed that a man had to constantly work on improving his character and personal traits. And he would continuously put these principles in practice. He trained himself to wake up at 5 a.m. while was working at his father’s factory to provide a positive example to the rest of the employees and maintained this habit for the rest of his life.
Even though Suzuki himself was not a pianist, his approach called Talent Education is now applied in teaching many instruments, including piano.
The Talent Education movement started in 1945 when Suzuki’s former co-teacher Mrs. Tamiki Mori (OBM) proposed to start a music school in Matsumoto – a city in Japan.
In his letter to her Mr. Suzuki replied, “I am not very interested in doing ‘repair’ work on people who can play already. I did enough of that before in Tokyo. What I want to try is infant education. I have worked out a new method I want to teach to small children – not to turn out geniuses, but through violin playing to extend the child’s ability. I have been doing this research for many years. That is why I want to put all my efforts into this kind of education in the future. <..> (1).” Shortly thereafter, the Talent Education movement started at the Matsumoto Music School.
In the United States, Talent Education was introduced by professor Kendall (OBM) of the Music Department of Muskingum College (Ohio) and Professor Clifford Cook (OBM) of Oberlin. In 1959, Mr. Kendall came to Japan for a month. Upon his return, he published Suzuki’s violin method and started giving lectures all over the United States. Later, Mr. Cook also visited Japan and, after having done research, introduced Talent Education workshops in Oberlin College.
“What Suzuki has done for young children, earns him a place among the benefactors of mankind, along with Schweitzer, Casals, and Tom Dooley,” wrote Professor Cook (3).
Today Suzuki’s Talent Education is widely used in early childhood education and combined with philosophies and approaches of pedagogues such as Orff, Kodály, Montessori, Dalcroze, and Doman.
I want – if I can – to get education changed from mere instruction to education in the real sense of the word – education that inculcates, brings out, develops the human potential, based on the growing life of the child. (Shinichi Suzuki)
Education Vs. Instruction
In his philosophy, Suzuki differentiates between education and instruction. “With emphasis put only on informing and instructing, the actual growing life of the child is ignored. “The word “education” implies two concepts: to induce, which means to “bring out, develop from latent or potential existence” as well as to instruct. But the emphasis in schools is only on the instruction aspect, and the real meaning of education is totally forgotten (3).” “I want – if I can – to get education changed from mere instruction to education in the real sense of the word – education that inculcates, brings out, develops the human potential, based on the growing life of the child. That is why I am devoting all my efforts to furthering Talent Education (4).”
The Mother Tongue Principle
The mother tongue principle is the foundation of Suzuki’s approach: if you start teaching a child to play an instrument early enough through play, he or she will achieve the results readily and easily. Suzuki would start his children at about 3 years of age with the first lessons being for the child’s mother. Because children learn by imitation, a parent would learn a piece first with the child having a natural desire to do the same. “She comes once a week with her youngster, and after three months has normally progressed to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (5).”
Suzuki brings up an example of a 3-year-old girl who played the violin for 3 hrs every day. The way it was achieved was that “Hitomi’s mother brought her a violin instead of a doll and played a record of the piece to be studied over and over again as a kind of background music. Hitomi played with the violin all day, as if it were a toy. Her mother would now and then show her the correct way to play, according to our instructions, letting Hitomi think she was playing a game with her. <…> This is the art of education at its best… First you must educate the mind, then inculcate the skill. This is a correct natural method (6).”
Loving Kindness in Teaching
Never having had children of his own, Shinichi Suzuki projected loved all children he taught and inspired a kind and loving attitude towards them among his followers. He postulated that a teacher was to approach the learning process through loving kindness. This approach would ensure a connection, which, in turn, would achieve the best learning results. The ideal teacher for a child is a person with a high moral character as it is even more important to raise an outstanding human being than to merely teach a skill.
The purpose of Talent Education is to train children not to be professional musicians, but to be fine musicians and to show high ability in any other field they enter
And as the child is growing up, parents are to surround him with “fine people to help develop nobility and beauty of character (7).” “The purpose of Talent Education is to train children not to be professional musicians, but to be fine musicians and to show high ability in any other field they enter (8)”.
Talent Is Not Inborn
One of the main observations and believes of Suzuki was the idea that the talent is not inborn, but is developed as a result of placing a child in the environment that encourages its development. “It is up to the parent to provide the right environment to develop talent as it is not inherited, but cultivated.”
Let’s take Mozart, for example. His father – a musician – trained both Amadeus and his older sister Maria Anna (OBM) since the young age. Both kids had the perfect environment to develop their talent under the loving mentorship of their parent and showed a supreme ability as a result. The fact that Maria Anna did not reach the same heights as her brother can be attributed to a single factor such as the social norms of the time.
When we interview pianists, most of them tell us that either their parents were musicians or they have been exposed to music early in their life. Is it genes, the environment, or both?
We know that many celebrity actors’ or musicians’ children become actors and musicians as well. Is this a co-incidence or a direct result of “familiarity” that becomes their comfort level as they grow up?
Research tells us that a baby can hear and experience the outside environment starting at 20 weeks old. So, it is safe to say that the term “environment” can be used to describe the time starting with pregnancy as well as the time after birth.
“There is no use in judging children’s abilities from the training they received five or six years after birth. Abilities are born and developed by the working of the vital forces of the organism as it strives to live and to adapt to its environment right in the beginning. Therefore, the only superior quality a child can have at birth is the ability to adapt itself with more speed and sensitivity to its environment than others (9).”
And vice versa: what does not exist in the environment cannot be developed (10).
For that reason, Suzuki never tested kids prior to accepting them to his school. He was an advocate of testing through games and believed that a test was a testimony of a teacher’s ability to successfully educate vs. a child’s ability to inhale knowledge.
Emphasis on memory training
Suzuki’s approach emphasizes memory training. All students are to know their music by heart. Once the piece is memorized, “it should be thoroughly mastered by repeating it again and again (11) “… until it becomes natural and easy to play. “The more one practices, the better one becomes. Talent is born this way (12).”
There has been criticism in the music educator community regarding the emphasis on memorization that allegedly leads to poor sight-reading. However, it is worthy of mentioning that the critics neglect the fact that the approach was developed for infants.
There has been criticism in the music educator community regarding the emphasis on memorization that allegedly leads to poor sight-reading. However, it is worthy of mentioning that the critics neglect the fact that the approach was developed for infants. At this age, between 3 and 5, one can hardly expect the young kids to take keen interest in sight-reading. Additionally, European research shows that physiologically and psychologically the best time to start teaching children to read, which sight-reading is part of, is between the ages of 6 and 7 and not before that (13).
It Has To Be Organic
In Suzuki’s Talent Education philosophy natural growth and organic progression in learning is the key. “Don’t hurry. This is a fundamental rule. If you hurry and collapse or tumble down, nothing is achieved. Don’t rest in your efforts; this is another fundamental rule. Without stopping, without haste, carefully taking a step at a time forward will surely get you there (14).”
What about the deadlines and recitals, you will ask? That is exactly the point. It’s not about the result, but the process where at the end a child develops patience, tenacity, and other personal traits that help him or her excel later in life.
So, if you are a teacher at a music studio or school with tight deadlines, this approach might not be for you.
Reliance on Intuition
“Kan” is a central concept of Suzuki’s philosophy. In Japanese kan means “intuition, or sixth sense (15).” By means of kan we receive the power of sensibility to play. And it is the ability of kan that enables us to overcome all difficulties. Kan produces kan through training.
What does it mean in practical terms?
First, a student builds a base through mechanical repetition of a piece. This becomes the carcass, the foundation of the process. Once the carcass is built and the muscle memory is formed, the kan becomes actively engaged in the next stage of nuanced play: “a little crescendo here, a few more rubatos here, slightly slower in the 5th bar.” Sensibility is everything in a superior piano performance, and a nuanced play can only be achieved once all the mechanical details are taken care of through practice and training. That’s when the kan emerges.
The Wish of Shinichi Suzuki
If we were to sum up the philosophy of Suzuki’s approach, the following quote would have been sufficient to encapsulate it. The following thought is a part of the postscript of his book:
“People today are like gardeners who look sadly at ruined saplings and shake their heads, saying the seeds must have been bad to start with, not realizing that the seed was all right, but that their method of cultivation was wrong. They go on in their mistaken way, ruining plant after plant. It is imperative that the human race escape from this vicious circle. The sooner people realize their mistake, the better. The more the situation is changed, the nearer the human race will come to happiness (16).”
Perhaps, if each of us takes this quote seriously and tries to apply it in their everyday philosophy and personal as well as professional practice, we will have a better chance of raising wholesome and happy people who will dare to fearlessly shine brightly throughout their lives just like the “little star” from their first music class their mother brought them to.
All of a sudden, a quote by Marianne Williamson, an American spiritual teacher and author, comes to mind:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I believe that Shinichi Suzuki and Marianne Williamson both tried to relay to us the same message.
Are we ready to let it in?
(1) Shinichi Suzuki. “Nurtured by love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education” Second Edition, year of publication. Exposition Press, Smithtown, New York, 1983. P. 29
(2) Ibid. P. 105
(3) Ibid. P. 86
(4) Ibid. P. 87
(5) Ibid. P. 105
(6) Ibid. P. 96
(7) Ibid. P. 8
(8) Ibid. P. 79
(9) Ibid. P. 13.
(10) Ibid. P. 14
(11) Ibid. P. 37
(12) Ibid. P. 42.
(14) Ibid. P. 46.
(15) Ibid. P. 46.
(16) Ibid. P. 108