What I Learned from Dr. Suzuki
This past Wednesday was the birthday of Shinichi Suzuki, born in Nagoya, Japan, on May 17, 1898. If his name doesn’t immediately resonate with you, perhaps thinking of the violin may help, as he developed a method used to teach even the youngest children to play what is typically considered one of the most difficult musical instruments to learn. Indeed, the “Suzuki method” has since been adapted to almost all musical instruments over the last half century and around the world.
I became familiar with Suzuki and his method when our oldest child began learning to play the violin at age five. Since then, I’m not sure anything has affected the way I think about preaching, teaching, and leadership more. A little bit of Suzuki’s story may help you appreciate not only the accomplishments of the man, but also how what he taught and believed can shape your role as a pastor, leader, parent, and more.
Given that Suzuki’s father made violins, you might expect that he would become recognized as an excellent violin teacher. The truth of the matter, however, is that while he worked in his father’s factory each summer as a child, he had no idea what they were for, and only when he heard a recording of Mischa Elman did he experience the beautiful music of a violin for the first time at age 17. He decided on the spot that he wanted to learn this instrument and began teaching himself how to play by listening to bits of music on recordings and experimenting until he could imitate the sound.
In his early twenties Suzuki travelled to Germany to study under accomplished teachers. When he returned to Japan he began playing in quartets and teaching. As with most teachers, Suzuki’s students were typically older children and younger adults. But one day a gentleman approached Suzuki and asked him to teach his son. The request would have been anything but unusual except for one thing: the child was only four years old. At this time, students were only introduced to the violin in their late teens, as it was considered too difficult an instrument to attempt learning any earlier.
But rather than respond with an immediate “no,” Suzuki asked for time to consider the request, and his unusual curiosity and willingness to challenge conventional wisdom – indeed, to challenge his own assumptions – changed the course of musical instruction.
While contemplating whether or not it would be possible to teach such a young child, Suzuki experienced what he would call the breakthrough of his life. What occurred to him was that no child born in Japan failed to learn Japanese. Not impressed? Nor were most of those around him! But Suzuki reasoned that since even the youngest children can master one of the most difficult languages in the world, there should be no reason they couldn’t also learn to play the violin.
From this starting point – that each human is born with great talent and has the ability to learn almost anything in the right environment – Suzuki began to develop what he would call the “mother-tongue method of instruction.” I think of this method as having four basic parts.
Just as children listen to people speak well before they try to do so themselves, so also students should be exposed to examples of excellence performance before they try. For this reason, students learning violin in the Suzuki method listen to the pieces they will be playing for months on end before playing themselves. By listening to good performances, students internalize the norms for what constitutes such performance.
2) Step-by-step instruction from the simple to the complex.
There are countless steps in learning any significant task, whether a language or a musical instrument. We probably don’t realize that we naturally break down language into its constituent parts when working with children. But no one, of course, expects a child to start talking in complete sentences. Rather, children start by making sounds, then move to words, phrases, and eventually sentences. So also, violin students don’t start by playing concertos, they first learn to stand, then to hold the violin, then the bow, then how to put the bow on the strings, and to play one note and then more. Each time you master a skill, you develop confidence in your own competence and are ready to learn more. Over time, you move from mastery of basic and simple tasks to proficiency in more complex ones.
3) An environment of tremendous affirmation and high expectations.
I’m pretty sure that in the history of the world no parent has greeted a child’s first attempt to say “Mama” with, “Actually, that’s ‘mother’.” Similarly, the first thing a Suzuki teacher says after a student has played a piece is, “Very good.” But just as parents continue to give encouragement and praise but also assume that their children will eventually speak well, so also Suzuki teachers both affirm and encourage their students but set high expectations for excellence. So what they really say after students play a piece is, “Very good. Now let’s work on….”
4) A commitment to practice, practice, practice.
Children learn to speak by babbling all day long. They talk and talk and talk and talk and, over time, this practice pays off. So also in violin instruction. One of my favorite sayings of Dr. Suzuki is, “Knowledge is not skill; skill is knowledge practiced one thousand times.” Only by consistent practice do we gain the competence that in turn creates in us the confidence to learn more difficult tasks.
One of the hallmarks of Suzuki education is to resist the temptation to lodge excellence in either the innate brilliance of the student or the extreme competence of the teacher. Rather, Suzuki’s method focuses on a process of learning, whether it is a language, a musical instrument, preaching, a new skill, or whatever. Which is a big part of what I learned from Dr. Suzuki: That anyone can learn. That anyone can be taught. That the key is a commitment to these four steps.
So what it is that you’d like to learn? Or teach? Or accomplish? You can lead people – colleagues, employees, parishioners, children – forward by demonstrating to them examples of what you want, breaking down complex tasks into constituent parts, offering them your unconditional regard as well as setting high expectations, and inviting them to practice the skills they are trying to master countless times.
Suzuki has for this reason not only played a huge part in our children’s lives as they move forward with the violin, but it has also helped me think differently and more deeply about my roles as a teacher, a leader, and a parent, and I hope you find something of value in it as well. Suzuki’s goal, as he said time and time again, was not just to teach children to play music, but to help his students to become more noble human beings. Music was the vehicle, more abundant life the goal.
If you’re interested in learning more about Suzuki and his method, he wrote several books, two of which I’ve most enjoyed and put links to below.
I’ve also put below a video about Suzuki’s life that Suzuki student and then eighth-grader Sara Plummer produced as a National History Day project at her school. And below that is a demonstration of the method at work, as two six-year old students play Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. I can just imagine their teacher saying, “Very good. Now let’s work on….” ☺
Notes: 1) If you received this post by email, you may need to click here to watch the video.
2) My thanks to Pastor Richard Vevia for reminding me of Suzuki’s b-day!