What was Dr Shinichi Suzuki’s philosophy on learning to play an instrument?

This method of teaching originated in Japan in the mid-20th century with a self-taught violinist, Dr Shinichi Suzuki.  He was an observant and thoughtful man who applied his reasoning skills to the task of learning an instrument.  He realised that learning an instrument is like learning a language, and reflected on how we as infants gradually learn our mother tongue.  Through patient and joyful repetition, a child learns the language of their parents. Dr Suzuki applied this realisation to the learning of an instrument.

However, Dr Suzuki’s goal was never just to teach children to play instruments, he had a larger goal – to raise children with beautiful hearts. Following from this, there are a number of central principles that are the cornerstones of the Suzuki philosophy.

“In order to create a beautiful world, or at least to make our living environment a beautiful paradise of the heart, we need to shake off our greed. When I use my heart with the utmost sincerity and only for the joy and happiness of others, a beautiful tone, a beautiful heart, and a world of sincerity will surely be created as by the violin bow and I believe others and I will all be able to live pleasantly.” Dr Suzuki

Every child can learn “Don’t rush, don’t rest, don’t give up”

Talent is not the determining factor in successfully learning an instrument.  With hard work and a nurturing environment created by parent and teacher, every child can progress. Almost every child learns to speak their language to a reasonably high level.

Teaching Triangle “All children’s growth depends on how you bring them up”

The role of parent, student and teacher are different, but vital.  The relationship between the three is integral to creating a good environment in which children learn. The active and engaged participation of all three give structure and success.

“In the Suzuki approach, the success of the approach depends on the triangular relationship of the parent, teacher, and student, rooted in a strong environment. Each arm of the triangle is of equal length, indicating equal importance.” 

Kay Collier Slone (1988). They’re Rarely too Young … and Never Too Old to Twinkle!

Begin Early “Life doesn’t have any age, if your heart is young, you are young”

A child learns to speak after many years of listening to language and vocabulary.  It is suggested that even before birth, a child is listening to the sounds of their environment. So it is with music also, the foundations of musical understanding can be laid early and will be like second nature as the child grows.

Learning with Love, encouragement and patience “If parents smile, children smile”

Every new achievement of a baby is met with delight and encouragement by the parent. Acknowledgement of effort by children in learning to play music is also vital.  The saying “Encourage the effort and praise the success” creates a learning environment of trust and experimentation. Learning to play a musical instrument is an exciting exercise in discovery. 

Step-by-step Mastery “Let the child do only what he can do, and create ability from there

The process of learning is more important than the outcome.  The daily practice sessions between parent and child and the weekly sessions with the teacher and in group gradually build skills each day.  Each stage requires new skills, and these skills are broken into small segments that are learnt more easily. Each skill learnt lays the foundation for subsequent skill development. It is therefore very important to achieve mastery at each step of the process.

Repetition “Knowledge is not ability. Repeating 10,000 times, that is ability”

Children love reading stories over and over again. The words we speak as children, we continue to speak over and over agin throughout our lives.  Repeating repertoire until it is learnt, then known by heart and then mastered is an important part of refining our playing and learning more sophisticated skills. Repetition is fundamental to success.  We return to early pieces of repertoire over and over again because they are the foundations of later repertoire.

Listening “Give heart to sound, give life to sound”

Ear before eye.  In the Suzuki approach, listening is prioritised over reading.  When we learn language we speak first and then learn to read.  A daily listening habit brings the child into contact with the music they will later learn by memory.  Children progress quicker when they listen daily to the repertoire and teachers can tell when this is not happening.  In the time they are listening, they are already becoming familiar with the rhythm and the melody of a piece and lesson time can be spent on the ‘how’ of playing rather than the ‘what’.

Cooperation not competition “Where love is deep much will be accomplished”

Group classes are a fun way to experience playing with others and give inspiration to younger students, and foster patience and confidence in older students.  Parents also observe that each child possesses a different set of skills, that are developed at different rates. Younger children gain an understanding of the musical journey ahead of them, and older children can reflect on how far they have come on that journey and realise that they too were beginners once. Taking turns, listening to the teacher, following instructions and learning from others are all skills developed in group lessons.

Character first, Ability Second “Education is teaching and nurturing. Teaching without nurturing is nothing”

Dr Suzuki encourages us to nurture the whole child, not just the musician. It is important for children to feel cherished for their character, not just their abilities and the teacher and parent can demonstrate this by the words and behaviours they use in lessons and during home practice.  When a child feels safe and encouraged, the optimum learning environment is created, and success will follow.

Beautiful tone, Beautiful Heart – “We engage in human education through music so that children will grow with beautiful hearts and high sensitivity, through an unparalleled, uniquely musical approach”

Dr Suzuki was an inspired teacher who observed that children who have a beautiful heart, produce a beautiful tone in their playing.  Why then would we not encourage a beautiful heart that perceives beauty in the world around them through their senses. 

We are no longer able to hear Dr Suzuki speak to us about his vision and philosophy, however we can read what he wrote about education in these books:

Suzuki, S. (1983) Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education (2nd Ed). New York: Exposition Press

Suzuki, S. (1981) Ability Development from Age Zero, USA, Alfred Publishing Co, Inc.

Sheila Warby, With love in my heart and a twinkle in my eye: A Parent’s guide to Suzuki Music Education, Sydney, Southwood Press

Other resources that will assist on the Suzuki journey:

Starr, William and Constance (1983) To Learn with Love, Florida, Alfred Publishing Co, Inc.

Why not get in touch and find out more.


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