Suzuki Sunday: Listen

In preparation for my piano lessons, which begin on Monday evenings, I thought a nice weekly feature might be to talk a little about the Suzuki method -- for any interested parents who are thinking of music lessons, and for and interested people who are thinking of how to approach any sort of learning.  The older I get, the more I am amazed at the way the Suzuki Method encapsulates (or maybe encapsulizes) everything that is important about life.

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki was a Japanese violinist who changed the world.  That's the short version.  The long version is that he lived through World War II and saw the destruction it wreaked on Japan -- not the just physical destruction of its cities and people, but the mental and emotional destruction of a defeated nation who had nothing to live for.  He determined that he wanted to do something about that.  How better to restore beauty than through music, he reasoned -- and how better to restore morale than through the education of children?  In the introduction to his manifesto Nurtured by Love, he wrote: "What is man’s ultimate direction in life?  It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.  That goes for you, for me, for everyone."

He began teaching children to play the violin (though, by his own admission and others, he was far from the best in his field.)  He accepted all students, even after they formed prodigiously long lines in his studio; some lessons lasted five minutes and some for forty-five, depending on the pace set by the child's own ability.  All of his students played with great proficiency and artistic sensibility, but they were also happier and more motivated than students studying under traditional methods.  This made great waves in the music community, as did the name of "Talent Education;" in established musical circles, it was (and still is) widely believed that some "have it" and most don't.  If you're born with talent, you're lucky; if you're not, you should find something else to do.  Suzuki fought against this untruth for most of his adult life.

Many people believe that the Suzuki method is simply a method of learning music without reading.  The truth is more complicated than that.  First, Suzuki begins with very young students -- most at around three to five years of age, and some even under a year old -- who are not reading at all, even in their native language.  Second, in Japan all school-aged children learn music theory and sight-reading quite thoroughly; it was out of the question that a student could graduate from high school not knowing the notes of the scale or marks of expression.  So the answer is that yes, at first children do not learn to read music, but they do learn to read music once they have achieved some proficiency in technical skills and expressiveness.

So, what's the philosophy?  It's simple: all Japanese children speak Japanese.  In other words, every child can learn to speak a perfect imitation of his parent's language by listening and imitating.  So if I play a simple melody for a child, he is able, after enough repetitions, to repeat that melody -- whether by singing it, or by playing it on just about any instrument.  The Suzuki method has streamlined this process by providing recordings and lists of repertoire, so that each student can learn the same carefully selected pieces in the most efficient order.  If they are taught to listen, children can learn a great deal about tone, rhythm and pitch -- making them great musicians.  They can also learn a great deal about patience, discipline and understanding -- making them great human beings.

Listening is a difficult thing to do.  There have always been distractions, but now multi-tasking is the norm, not the exception; it's difficult to concentrate on just one thing, especially if that one thing doesn't involve flashing lights or a catchy jingle.  But listening is so powerful.  How can you solve a disagreement between friends?  How can you fix the most dissonant chord in a vocal ensemble?  How can you do your best in any class you'll ever take?  In all three of these situations, listening is not just one solution -- it is the only solution.  It's the only way to really learn.  And the only way to teach, too.