What is the Suzuki method? This question is often asked by parents and students who want to know what the Suzuki method means in practical terms and how it differs from the traditional methods of learning music. There is no “box” or package, however, in which the Suzuki method can suitably be placed because the Suzuki method is not a fixed entity. It is a way of teaching music that lives in its philosophy and not in its substance.[i]
The Suzuki method is often referred to as the “Mother tongue” approach because the child learns music in much the same way that he or she learns to speak. Shin’ichi Suzuki, the founder of the Suzuki method, believed that talent could be nurtured in any healthy child in much the same way that he or she acquires language. He first coined the term “Mother-tongue” approach after observing that: "Every healthy child in Japan has the ability to speak excellent Japanese by the age of six or seven [because] it is the very way they were raised. This shows that every child has plenty of developmental possibilities."[ii]
The analogy with language acquisition is explained in the following way: children learn to speak by hearing their native language spoken over and over again. With the right environment, and encouragement from their parents, they imitate the words that they hear. Later, after they are able to speak the language with ease, they learn to read and write it. The same principles can be seen at work in the Suzuki method where a student learns to play the music (by ear) before he or she learns to read it. The order of teaching is, thus, reversed from the traditional approach of “eye before ear, to ear before eye.”[iii]
At the root of the Suzuki philosophy is the belief that ability is not an inborn quality but the product of a good environment and education. While Suzuki acknowledged that to a certain degree children are born with a pre-disposition to “musical talent”, he strongly believed that the primary indicator for ability development was the child’s environment and exposure to musical stimuli from birth. A young child, for example, who has been exposed to good music from birth, will develop an ear and sensitivity to music just as he develops an ear and voice for his native tongue or dialect. Furthermore, “hearing outstanding music and good musical intonation in infancy helps prepare for musical delicacy and sense of intonation in functional and physiological terms.”[iv] The quality of his environment is imperative as a child will absorb and internalize whatever is in his environment. At the same time, he cannot absorb and internalize what is not in his environment.[v]
This is not to say that talent is the product of a positive musical environment alone. Suzuki also noted that cultivating talent requires effort and application. “Ability is one thing we have to produce (or work for) ourselves…Achievement is the product of energy and patience, which have to be trained like all other abilities. And we have to be brought up with this idea.”[vi]
While a child’s musical education ideally begins from birth, he must also be “skillfully reared” if he is to reach a high educational level.[vii] Good parenting and a loving and nurturing home life are crucial if a child is to grow to reach his potential in all aspects in life. As far as his training is concerned, his parents’ love, encouragement and patience, are powerful influences as they enable him to grow in talent, confidence and self-esteem. According to Suzuki, parents play a unique role in their children’s lives. They have the ability to shape their children’s hearts and characters and can teach them the difference between right and wrong. They also have a duty to bring their children up well so that they realize their potential as human beings. This can only be accomplished through love and the patient tendering of their physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs.
At the heart of the Suzuki philosophy is the aim to create “fine human beings [and] happy people of superior ability”. When the emphasis is placed on instruction and training (the information that the child is given and remembers), the “growing life of the child is ignored” and his potential is thwarted.[viii] On the other hand, if the education of a child focuses on character first, he will more fully realize his potential as a human being. Embracing the whole child results not only in a better human being, but a human being of superior talent and ability. In regards to musical talent, it is human nature to “seek and find”, create and express oneself and only a whole human being can truly convey and express the heart and intellect through music.[ix]
The spirit of the Suzuki philosophy is perhaps best captured by Suzuki’s words when he said: “I just want to make good citizens. If a child hears beautiful music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”[x]
[i] John Kendall, “Helping children to develop self-direction in violin study,” The Suzuki Concept (Berkeley: Diablo Press, 1973): 93.
[ii] Shin’ichi Suzuki, Ability development from age zero, trans. Mary Louise Nagata (Suzuki Method International, c1981): 2.
[iii] Suzuki suggested that ear training should commence at birth, practical training at around two or three years of age, and reading at about six or seven. See Shiel Mary Lou, Eye before ear or ear before eye? (Cooggee: Suzuki Talent Education, )
[iv] Suzuki, “Ability is not inborn,” 6.
[v] In practice, Suzuki parents are encouraged to foster a positive musical environment for their children by exposing them to recordings of good music, as well as the repertoire that they will later learn, every day from birth. Listening to CDs of the Suzuki repertoire becomes part of students’ daily routine while parents are encouraged to provide them with various other musical experiences.
[vi] Shin’ichi Suzuki, Nurtured by love: the classic approach to talent education, trans. Waltraud Suzuki (Suzuki Method International, c1983): 44.
[vii] Suzuki, Nurtured by love, 2.
[viii] Suzuki, Nurtured by love, 85-86.
[ix] Suzuki, Nurtured by love, 84.
[x] Suzuki, Nurtured by love, 104.
“I just want to make good citizens. If a child hears beautiful music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”