What is the Suzuki Method?
Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998)
Born in Nagoya, Japan in 1898, Shinichi Suzuki found himself surrounded by musical instruments growing up near his father's factory -- which produced 65,000 violins each year. Surprisingly enough, Suzuki did not learn to play the violin until the age of 17 when he was inspired by the famously beautiful tone of violinist Mischa Elman in a recording of "Ave Maria." A few years later in 1921, Suzuki moved to Germany to continue his violin studies with Karl Klinger at the Berlin Conservatory.
It was in Germany that Suzuki "discovered" the hidden gem of children's abilities: All German children speak German...all Japanese children speak Japanese! In short, children everywhere are able to speak their mother tongue fluently and without failure. Any adult who has tried to master a foreign language later in life can attest to the tremendous challenge and complexity of learning a language; yet, without hesitation, we believe every newborn baby will eventually speak her native tongue. How is this possible?
The analogy of language learning to the acquisition of other skills, often referred to as the "mother tongue method," is what sparked Dr. Suzuki's belief that talent is not inborn, but achievable by all children. If all children have the incredible ability to learn a language, surely all children can accomplish many skills if they are given the right environment.
What circumstances surround children to make it possible for them to learn to speak? A few of the key elements include: Early beginning, immersion by constant listening, a positive environment, working in small steps, repetition, and delayed reading. Incorporating these elements into learning how to play the violin is the cornerstone of the Suzuki method. Below you'll find brief explanations of how Suzuki teachers apply the mother tongue method to their teaching and how it differs from traditional music lessons.
The minds of very young children are primed with the motivation to learn. For the 3 and 4 year old, there is no distinction between work and play when exploring the world around them. Introducing music at this early stage of constant discovery allows them to experience music as a natural part of their daily lives before they are overwhelmed with other responsibilities and commitments. Moreover, toddlers thrive on imitation and repetition -- which are essential components of practicing a musical instrument. Most parents can relate to the begging of their child to hear the same bedtime stories, watch the same tv shows, and hear the same songs on repeat. Dr. Suzuki recognized this special time in a child's life as the perfect opportunity for beginning violin lessons. Just as children can seamlessly learn two languages at once if they are equally immersed in their early years, a child can truly internalize the language of music in a unique way if they are surrounded by the sounds of beautiful tone from the beginning.
[However, while it is true that introducing music at this early stage provides a rich opportunity for internalization and learning, the Suzuki method is not confined solely to the very young -- with proper determination and a supportive environment success can be achieved at any age!]
The Suzuki Triangle
Our parents are our first teachers. Parents can hardly resist the urge to encourage their baby to say "mama" and "dada," and naturally, parents beam with delight when their child first utters those beginning syllables. From learning to talk, to tying their shoes, and reading their first words, children look to their parents as their guides. They long to imitate their parents and soak up words and actions like sponges.
For this reason, Suzuki teachers hold the involvement of the parent in the child's music education as essential and invaluable. Just as we wouldn't expect our child to learn how to speak by sending them to a weekly thirty minute English lesson (especially without any at home reinforcement!), we shouldn't expect a young child to learn the extreme complexities of playing a musical instrument without parental guidance.
The Suzuki triangle represents the equal responsibilities of each role. The child is responsible for being "teachable," by respecting the parent and teacher and fully participating in home practice and lesson instruction. The teacher is responsible for providing an excellent model, breaking down teaching points into small steps so that the student is successful, familiarizing themselves with each child's style of learning to provide effective and individualized instruction, relaying clear expectations and making herself available for frequent communication with parents, and for educating the parent on how to be an effective home teacher. The parent is responsible for bringing the child to lessons and group class, making sure the child has all the necessary materials/instrument, for being present and involved in lessons by taking notes and/or video and ensuring understanding of practice expectations, for playing the CD so the child is passively listening daily, and for setting the daily practice routine. While being a Suzuki parent is no easy task, the bond created between parent and child learning together is special and becomes a treasured part of the child's development. As the child grows, more and more responsibility will shift from parent to child, but the parent is always a constant source of support and encouragement.
Listening & Reading Readiness
Perhaps one of the most significant ways that the Suzuki method differs from traditional music lessons is the emphasis on listening and initially learning to play music by ear. This is another excellent example of the "mother tongue method" at work. No parent would point to a page of letters and urge their newborn baby to read before they've even said their first words; yet, this is often how musical instruction is approached: a child picks up their instrument and simultaneously tries to decipher foreign symbols all while managing an unfamiliar instrument in their hands -- learning to read and "speak" at the same time.
Contrastingly, the Suzuki method prepares the child to play by having them listen to their first song multiple times daily, so that they have a clear goal and understanding of the music from the beginning (just as they hear words repeated multiple times before
speaking them). As they develop a daily routine of listening at home, in the beginning lessons the child will spend several weeks learning how to hold the violin and bow comfortably and with ease. After several repetitions, the child will have the foundational skills necessary to create a beautiful sound and will be able to play the "Twinkles" at a very high level. The child will continue to work through Suzuki Volume One by listening to the CD and imitating the sounds they hear. This will not only develop their ear, but allow them to learn all of these foundational pieces with the sole focus being connecting what they do physically to what they hear. Once these skills are reliable, adding reading into the mix comes naturally for Suzuki students. They are able to focus their mental energy solely on deciphering the symbols on the page because they understand how the instrument works and the physical skills have become easy.
Repetition & Review
Playing the violin demands the ability to multitask several small skills with constant focus on an overarching goal: creating beautiful music. It is impossible to simultaneously focus on each individual skill (good bow hold, violin hold, shape of left hand fingers, posture, intonation, articulation, bow placement and speed, etc.), so each skill much be repeated so many times that the student can rely on it without thinking. In order to develop this level of mastery, Suzuki students are often asked to repeat a skill 100+ times before layering on a new skill. While that number may seem daunting, with daily practice, that number is easily reached within a week's time by doing just 15 repetitions a day (with skills that usually take less than a minute to repeat!).
Most of us are familiar with the old adage, "practice makes perfect." Prudent teachers are keen to note that "perfect practice makes perfect." Defining what qualifies as a "good" repetition is central to effective practice and is the area where children will rely on their parents the most in the early years to make sure they don't waste precious practice time.
In addition to repeating individual skills, Dr. Suzuki strongly believed in the importance of reviewing old skills and pieces. Traditionally, a student will learn a piece of music only to forget it when they move on to the next piece. What a missed opportunity! Once a piece has been learned well, reviewing that piece is a minimal time commitment and continues to solidify all the skills learned in that piece. This continues the language learning analogy: once a child learns a new word or phrase we don't tell them to move on to more interesting words and forget the old ones -- we encourage the child to repeat that word several times, because speaking a language fluently is the art of combining all that we've learned into one seamless event -- so it is with music. Suzuki students are expected to spend a small chunk of practice time each day reviewing old pieces so that by the end of each book they can play not only the final piece, but all the pieces they've previously learned.
Learning from other Children
In traditional violin lessons, children only attend a one-on-one private lesson with the teacher. While private lessons are essential for providing individualized instruction and attention, the Suzuki method recognizes that without the opportunity to play with others in a group, it is impossible to develop the skills to play in an ensemble and realize the truly collaborative nature of music. Suzuki group classes provide great motivation for children to continue moving forward as they build friendships and learn how to play together. They learn how to follow a leader, keep a steady pulse, and have the opportunity to experience being a leader themselves.
Also, because every student learns and memorizes the same pieces, there are endless amounts of activities they can do to work together to bring their playing to the next level. Just as in speaking, children learn new musical vocabulary from each other; so observing students who are one step ahead is a built in learning opportunity. Furthermore, group classes provide a safe setting for children to experience playing for others and being in front of a crowd. For older students, group classes are a great opportunity to explore new styles outside of the Suzuki repertoire and solidify advanced techniques.
Traditional Violin Lessons vs. Suzuki Violin Lessons
As you can see, the Suzuki method has been thoughtfully and carefully cultivated to nurture the entire child, from the beginning toddler, to the well-rounded musician with beautiful tone and character. Dr. Suzuki felt that if all children were exposed to wonderful music and nurturing teachers, our world would be a much better place. As a Suzuki teacher I strive to bring the warmth and joy of music to my students and am committed to seeing them succeed. If you are interested in bringing musical growth to your child in a positive environment and are committed to being involved in their learning, I would be thrilled to speak more with you about starting lessons with me at the Suzuki Music Institute of Dallas.