Shin’ichi Suzuki, a musician, educational activist and founder of the Suzuki method changed the face of music education on an international scale. His teachings provide a philosophical and practical base for music teaching throughout the world.
Suzuki, born in Nagoya, Japan at the close of the nineteenth century in 1898 revolutionized the music education world through his work teaching children to play the violin. Although he learned to play the instrument as a young adult, later in his life he dedicated himself to educating young children in music as well as cultivating the child’s ability to develop into adults with beautiful souls. “Music exists” he stated, “for the purpose of growing an admirable heart.” “For the sake of our children, let us educate them from the cradle to have a noble mind, a high sense of values, and splendid ability.” To him, the beauty of the sound created by a musician related directly to the beauty of their heart, “beautiful tone, beautiful heart.”
Throughout his career of over five decades, Suzuki discoursed on the philosophical base underpinning his practical violin instruction at worldwide conferences and through his writings. He believed that one must teach by example by self-examination and personal diligence. He wrote: “To have a superior model, to seek deeply, and to search while practicing every day; . . . to think about what and how to practice in order to enhance ourselves step by step toward superior ability, superior sensitivity; . . . in other words, to aspire toward a Way of life—this is also our path in music. …we ought to consider the road we walk on as we apply ourselves diligently.”
In his book, Nurtured by Love Suzuki emphasized the importance of a child’s environment in their skill level and personal development. He insisted, “When it comes to hereditary human superiority or inferiority, observed differences stem from nothing other than variety in the quality of ability acquisition and formation; in other words, the sensitivity and speed with which humans adapt to their environments. …we must stop taking a developed form for something innate.”
With the recognition of the importance of one’s environment for individual development, Suzuki underlined the importance of creating a positive environment and beginning early. Every child can, given the right tools and situation, succeed at acquiring any number of skills, including playing an instrument. This approach places the responsibility of each child’s early success on the shoulders of their parents, family, and teachers. Suzuki adopted “Every Child Can” as his motto upon realizing that “Children everywhere in Japan are speaking Japanese”. Young children speaking their native language fluently appeared unremarkable to many people, but Suzuki’s observance of this phenomenon led him to develop the mother-tongue education philosophy. “Children freely speak Japanese, I realized, because they are, in effect, given the opportunity to do so. There is the fact of training and education behind their capacity to speak. Therein lay a proper educational method.”
A child learns their native language by hearing it spoken. Initially, it may take thousands of time hearing a word before the child can reproduce it locally. Adding more words to a child’s vocabulary takes fewer and fewer repetitions before a child can speak a new word. Suzuki relates this analogy to how best to instruct a very young student to play the violin. The child learns by hearing and seeing music performed and begins with simple, short pieces, much like the simple words and phrases a young child uses when learning to speak. When surrounded by a spoken language, a child learns to speak, correspondingly, when surrounded by music, and through instruction, a young child develops the ability to play an instrument. A child learns to speak by hearing, written language (reading and writing) comes after the skill of speaking becomes familiar. Suzuki proposed that music works in the same way, a child learns to play an instrument by listening and watching and only after laying the foundation of the basic skills of playing the instrument a child moves to reading music.
Just as the parents contribute on a daily basis to a child’s development of their native language, Suzuki philosophy expects parents to invest in their child’s development on an instrument. The “Suzuki Triangle” uses the image of a triangle with three connected sides and three points to represent the child (student), the parents and the teacher. For a child to succeed, the triangle must have balance. If parents neglect the child’s musical development, or a teacher fails to create a positive learning environment, the child’s growth suffers. As teachers share this ideal with parents, and by reinforcing the triangle through working together a positive and beautiful environment unfolds, allowing the child to reach their potential.