Starting Young with Suzuki

by Jenny Macmillan

unpublished article, 2000, distributed by the BSI to enquirers

Dr Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998) devised a way of teaching musical instruments to very young children which is known the world over as the Suzuki Approach. The approach combines oriental philosophy with a repertoire of European folk songs and classical pieces, as well as a sprinkling of common sense. The results are nothing if not impressive.

Suzuki himself taught the violin, and was actively doing so at his Institute at Matsumoto in Japan until his mid-nineties. The approach is still closely associated with the violin, although it has now broadened and is used successfully by teachers of the piano, cello, viola, guitar, flute, recorder, singing and harp. He named his method the Mother Tongue approach. Noting how rapidly children learn language - through constant exposure, imitation, repetition and parental praise - he decided the same approach could be used for learning music. He also reasoned that every child has the ability to make music - it is not the preserve of a few precocious individuals.

His best known account of how he devised and refined the approach, and some of the results achieved by his pupils, is to be found in his book Nurtured by Love, first published in 1969. In it he explains his belief that musical talent is not inherited or inborn, but has to be learned and developed. The book also reveals something of his oriental philosophy, which is concerned with educating the whole person through developing their musical ability: A person with a fine and pure heart will find happiness.

To us in the West, the most memorable image associated with Suzuki is probably that of literally several hundred children massed on a stage playing the folk song, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. This tune, and variations on it, is the first that all pupils learn. Such images cause us mixed emotions. We may be filled with admiration for the extraordinary co-ordination between pupils of varying ages and abilities. But at the same time we are suspicious of the regimentation involved and wonder whether it encourages the flight of the individual spirit that music has the power to release.

But despite its apparent contradictions, the Suzuki approach has evolved into an effective system of teaching which, while it has much in common with conventional teaching, also has a number of key differences. These include the young age at which pupils start, the observation of other pupils’ lessons, parental involvement, extensive listening to music, learning from demonstration, step-by-step mastery of each technique, use of a common repertoire, playing from memory, reviewing old pieces, group work, and an emphasis on educating the whole person.

Suzuki showed that it was not only desirable, but also quite practical, to teach pupils from an early age, 3½ or 4. Before receiving tuition, children attend other pupils’ lessons for up to a year and see for themselves how they are conducted. This observing - which in practice means colouring or drawing quietly in the room rather than being expected to watch intently - continues until their teens. Teachers plan lessons so pupils observe children who are one stage more advanced and hear the pieces that lie just ahead of them. The pupil being taught, meanwhile, becomes used to concentrating on playing despite distractions and loses - or rather never develops - that sense of embarrassment or self-consciousness playing in the presence of others.

Suzuki showed how beneficial it is to involve one of the parents, typically the mother. She is expected to learn the basics of playing the instrument. She attends lessons and makes detailed notes about what needs to be practised, and how, so that each step is thoroughly mastered. She is taught to give plenty of encouragement while supervising daily practices. In this way, pupils are well prepared for each lesson, so lessons are spent refining and polishing the performance rather than correcting notes and rhythms. Parents are also expected to help the pupil listen to music in general and to the pieces being learned in particular.

A good relaxed posture for all instruments is emphasized; young piano pupils, for example, use a footstool to improve their balance, rather than just dangling their legs from the piano stool. Music making is treated as a rite - pupils begin and end each lesson by bowing to the teacher, as a mark of respect; this also helps to ensure pupils are giving their full attention when they start their lesson. Individual instrumental lessons are complemented by group lessons for pupils of similar ages and abilities, which are used to teach general musicianship, including early reading skills. As with learning a language, very young pupils learn by listening and from demonstration, not by playing from printed music. When they can play fluently, producing a beautiful sound with a good technique, they learn to read music, in the same way that children learn first to speak and then to read their own language.

For any one instrument, all pupils learn a common repertoire, carefully selected by Suzuki and his associates to develop particular techniques, which takes them to grade 8 and beyond. Starting with the theme and variations based on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, they progress through various folk songs, minuets and sonatinas, to major works by the great classical composers. Most teachers will also introduce supplementary pieces, according to the needs of each student. Long before reaching the end of the repertoire, pupils are no longer learning by demonstration but from the music. However, they continue to play pieces from memory. This helps them to concentrate on the performance of the music, rather than on playing a sequence of printed notes. Children have little difficulty doing this and it means they are able to play music anywhere and at any time. Pupils retain many of their old pieces and build up their own repertoire, continually returning to them to refine and hone them as they themselves mature musically.

For parents observing children who are more advanced than their own, it is inspiring to see how playing quality progresses and how quickly pupils move through the repertoire. Because progress is so easily visible, because preparing pieces for group lessons and termly concerts motivates them to practise, and because the repertoire provides its own milestones, Suzuki pupils are generally not entered for the traditional graded examinations, although many teachers will do so if it seems appropriate.

Suzuki’s approach to instrumental teaching has a circle of adherents who are deeply committed both to the teaching methods he devised and to his underlying philosophy of education. As knowledge and understanding of the approach and of its advantages become more widespread, as more teachers learn and apply the principles, and as musicians who learned through the method begin teaching and performing, there is little doubt that it will move beyond this limited circle and have an even larger impact than it has had to date. Many of Suzuki’s principles deserve to become mainstream. Meanwhile, any parent fortunate enough to have a child learning by his approach is almost certain to be rewarded by seeing the child make extraordinary progress, gain in confidence and self-esteem and, in the words of Suzuki himself, become a person with a fine and pure heart who finds happiness.