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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

Suzuki’s Big Idea

I’ve been reading and interesting book of late. It is titled “Nurtured by Love” by Shin’ichi Suzuki and it is his autobiography, of sorts, along with some of his philosophy of teaching and life thrown in. To be candid, I don’t know that I agree with every bit of it. There is some eastern mysticism woven in it that I am not completely comfortable with but in reading it I am left with the impression that Mr. Suzuki was a very humble, loving and generous man with a great heart for children and a huge passion for the power of music to transform lives. These things endear him to me as a truly great man. Along with everything else, he was given a flash of insight into the way children learn that was, to quote my generation, mind blowing. Mr. Suzuki utterly reinvented the way that music is taught, especially to children, on a global scale. He should certainly be ranked as one of the greatest educators of the 20th century. Prior to the widespread adoption of Suzuki’s method and pedagogy the earliest age at which a music teacher would typically consider a student would have been six years old and seven or eight were far more common starting ages. The belief was that a child should be able to read well and have some understanding of fractions before attempting to learn music. It was also believed that very young children would not be able to give the proper concentration and mental focus necessary to learn music. With the advent of the Suzuki method it is not uncommon to see three year olds playing violin and six year olds playing very well. Just as earth-shaking was Suzuki’s firm belief that the musical aptitude and native talent of any specific child are complete non-issues. Think about that. Suzuki believed that far and away too much attention was spent trying to figure out if a child was gifted instead of just assuming that they would be able to be proficient at it and acting accordingly. He believed that the environment in which the child was raised along with the expectations, patience, mentoring, musical background and beliefs of the parents and teachers around them were vastly more important than any idea of native ability. Traditionally, music teachers prior to Suzuki would interview and examine prospective students to see if they met the teachers expectations for native talent and ability as well as attitude and seriousness of mind before agreeing to take them on as a student. Suzuki once took on a very young blind student with some reservations since he absolutely no experience working with special needs children and virtually no idea how he would even proceed. Cut-to-the-chase, Suzuki helped the child, who had no prior musical experience, excel by making much of the training a game.

Early in the book he gives us a glimpse of his insight about children and education. “It flashed into my head: every child throughout Japan speaks Japanese. For me, that realization was the proverbial light on a moonless night. Children freely speak Japanese, I realized, because they are, in effect, given the opportunity to do so….Children who are called dull because they are poor at math, too, speak Japanese with absolute freedom….The reason for their ineptitude at math, then, is not that they are dull. What is at fault is the method by which the are being taught. It is not that these children have not talent, but rather that their talent has not been cultivated.”

Suzuki’s epiphany transformed his viewpoint about the teaching of music. He realized that Japanese was actually a complex and difficult language but that two and three year old Japanese children had no trouble at all learning and speaking it. His big idea is revolutionary when it is applied to other areas, such as teaching music. There is no language in the world that the vast majority of the children native to that language have any trouble learning and excelling in. Fins learn Finish; Germans, Italians, Poles and Chinese children all learn their respective languages and in areas where languages and cultures rub elbows they will learn second and third languages. Today English has become such a cultural juggernaut that a large number of children world-wide also learn that from an early age. Children do not need to learn how the write the language down or read it prior to learning it – that comes later. Children learn how to speak a language primarily by listening and absorbing it from their family and those close to them and then repeating it. Imagine a parent saying, “We are hoping that little Jimmy will learn how to speak English some day but we will just have to see if he has the talent and ability to learn his native language.” Of course, that is an absolutely absurd example but people say the exact same thing about children learning music. I hear it all the time. Contemporary research is confirming that virtually all children have an innate musical aptitude even in infancy. The adaptation of Suzuki’s methods have been very successful in helping many thousands of young people to learn to play a musical instrument.

Mr. Suzuki had many interesting experiences and interactions with famous and extraordinary people in his lifetime but he had another epiphany when he met and became good friends with Albert Einstein and we will look at that next installment.

Keep Practicing,

Craig Birchfield

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