Shin’ichi Suzuki’s Story: The Suzuki Method is Born

Anders Ericsson Research Psychologist, Florida State

If you compare the kind of music that Mozart could play at various ages to today's Suzuki-trained children, he is not exceptional. If anything, he's relatively average.

In the 1930s, as Shin'ichi Suzuki was starting his career, he was asked to teach a 4 year old child. Initially, Shini'chi Suzuki hesitated. Then he remembered the years he had spent in Germany and his struggle to learn the language. He also realized that all the German children spoke German very well. After this routine observation, he began applying the principles of language acquisition to music lessons. His music students reached the highest levels of performance as a result of this. The Suzuki Method was born. 

So what was the secret he discovered? What are the elements of language learning that Suzuki brought into music lessons? They were not secrets at all; in fact, they were fairly obvious. But bringing them into music lessons transforms a child's experience.

The Four Foundations of Childhood Learning

Teaching children to play guitar requires the use of these basic principles.




Playing With Others

These fundamental principles are somewhat pedestrian, to say the least. But Suzuki's genius was not "discovering" these rather obvious things. It was recognizing the possibility of recreating this environment to learning music. What is more, he understood that every child has the potential to master language. He believed that every child could also master music.

The Adaptive Teacher

Shin'ichi set about to apply these concepts to music. And it really wasn't that hard. First, he asked parents to be incredibly encouraging. Promoting repetition, both as an initial learning mechanism and as a tool for refinement, was also a straight-forward adaptation. Listening was easily accomplished thanks to the falling price of gramophones and readily-available recordings. And group lessons both fulfilled children's natural desire for play and the need for ensemble training. 

First Walk, Then Run

Your child learned to walk before they ran. They listened to language for 2+ years, then learned to speak. Then to read. Finally, they learned to write.
In the same way, your child will learn to play music first by listening by immitation. Once this skill is well-developed, they will learn to read in small chunks. Finally, they will learn to write.

Of course, more is needed to teach music than just these simple principles. So Suzuki compiled a thorough, graded repertoire in which each song builds on previous accomplishments. Using this carefully planned progression, children always feel that the next skill is a challenge. They never feel overwhelmed.  

The Value of Listening: One Parent's Story

On a family trip to visit her sister and niece in Boston, one of my student's family took along their guitar. They hoped that the two cousins would play a guitar-cello duet (both cousins are Suzuki students). 

Over the course of the weekend, the cousins did sit down to play their instruments. Of course, this was a fun experience for their parents. However, the real treat came from a little sister. She had no music lessons of any sort. First, she just listened along. But then, she went over to the piano and started playing along with the rhythm. 

This was an exciting moment for me as a teacher. It validated all those stories I heard during my Suzuki teacher training. Stories where a younger sibling displays precocious musical abilities. Of course, the younger sibling has spent their infancy listening to all the same recordings as their sibling. Because of their sibling's lessons, they see practice and music as a natural part of childhood. 

Starting a child with music at an age where they are sponges for new skills and information is a key part of the Suzuki method. Because of this, Suzuki teachers often begin instrumental lessons children as young as three years old. (and non-instrumental training can start much earlier!) Much like language, music is easily absorbed at an early age.  In fact, recent studies using fMRI images have shown that music shares many cognitive pathways with spoken language.

Keeping Our Priorities Straight

Famous Shin'ichi Suzuki Quotes

  •  "First character, then ability"
  • "If a Musician wants to become a fine artist, he must first become a finer person."
  • "Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music… and learn to play it… they develop a beautiful heart."

Because of his adaptation of a language-learning model, Suzuki's student's saw great success as musicians. Some even reached the pinnacle of achievement. One was named the concertmaster of the Berlin Radio-Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite the notable achievements of his students, Suzuki always insisted that the most important part of his teaching was developing a strong and virtuous character in each student. His focus was on teaching children with love, patience, and empathy. He hoped that students would extend these qualities to others as a result of his teachings.  With this as his purpose, he believed that music lessons could change the world.

Suzuki Method Lingo

If you dive deep into Suzuki-World, you'll hear a bunch of terms bandied about. Here's what they mean…

Talent Education (also The Mother Tongue Method, The Suzuki Philosophy)

Every Child Can

The Suzuki Triangle

As word of his unique method grew, Suzuki taught his philosophy to other teachers. Soon, Shin'ichi Suzuki started a non-profit organization to help him spread his teaching methods.  Before long, the method made its first appearance in the United States. By 1971 the Suzuki Association of the Americas was founded. Today, the Suzuki method spans the entire globe

The Suzuki Association of the Americas (SAA) coordinates teacher training, repertoire development, and summer camps, institutes, and workshops for North, South, and Central America.  The SAA's website has some great videos about the Suzuki method. There are also numerous local Suzuki Associations. The Greater Philadelphia Suzuki Association holds semi-annual recitals for local students as well as workshops and weekend-long events.

Today, the Suzuki community of teachers, parents, and students spans the entire globe. Join the community and see what it is all about!

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