Shinichi Suzuki Had a Good Idea, But...
by Pat Goltz
Shinichi Suzuki was a violinist from Japan. He devoted his life to teaching very young children how to play the violin very, very well. For this purpose, he developed a method, known as the Suzuki Method, which is widely used in the United States these days.
Japanese children who become intensely involved in the Suzuki Method sometimes tour the United States. I had the opportunity to hear some of them play some years ago. It was enough to make tears come to my eyes. Here were five and seven year old children playing violin concertos with technical perfection and with what sounded like mature expression. I think that this experience appeals to many American parents who sincerely want their children to have an edge in life, and who deeply love music. With the Suzuki method as originally designed, one can take any child, no matter what his heredity or his parents' background, and teach him to be a musical genius, at least theoretically.
But there are some severe problems with the Suzuki Method. Now, I am not saying that you should not use it. You have the right and the duty to raise your children however you see fit. Certainly the Suzuki Method has its strong points. Some of Suzuki's ideas have been permanently adopted by everyone, and with significantly good results; particularly the use of instruments built the right size for the children who will play them.
The Suzuki Method uses modern technology. It could not have existed two centuries ago except among the most musical families. An important feature is the playing of recordings of fine music for infants. This is another very good idea.
Suzuki calls his method the Mother Tongue Method. The reason for this is because when fine music is played for children from birth, they learn it with seeming ease, in the same way as they learn their mother tongue. The method is supposed to be used with love. That is an essential ingredient in any teaching.
To understand what I am about to say about the Suzuki Method, it would be helpful for me to tell you a little about Japanese culture. The Japanese are imitators. They can take what they see as a fine feature of another culture and transplant it into their own, up to a point. What they tend to transplant is generally the more superficial characteristics of that feature. Several centuries ago, they adopted much of the Chinese language into their own language, lock, stock, and barrel. They took into their language many Chinese characters. They took much Chinese vocabulary. This material is now an integral part of their language. Chinese words are used to make compound words for all sorts of things. Chinese characters are used for nouns and the roots of verbs. They are used for adjectives. Japanese also has two sets of simplified characters used to represent the sounds of their language. They are phonetic. The Chinese characters are not, although there is a very rough correspondence between parts of Chinese characters and certain sounds, sometimes. The phonetic characters each stand for a consonant sound plus a vowel sound, with a few extra ones for just vowels and just consonants thrown in. Because each character represents a consonant plus a vowel, and thus a syllable, these characters are not called an alphabet, but a syllabary. The Japanese also adopted the Chinese method of painting. Many, many paintings produced by Japanese artists very much resembled Chinese paintings in style. When the Western world came] along, the Japanese took the literature of classical music into their culture. It stands alongside traditional Japanese music. As a nation, the Japanese consider Beethoven to be their favorite composer, with J.S. Bach becoming increasingly favored.
To a large extent, the Japanese do not succeed in adopting the soul of what they have taken, into their culture. What they do instead is analyze the soul of it, and transplant the component parts, reassemble them in a mechanical fashion, and present it to the world as an apparent creative element. They are rather like human computers. The computer can be programmed with all of the component parts that make up creativity. A Japanese person can do that, too, and will exercise some judgment on what details to utilize and which to reject, in a given situation. I am not saying that the Japanese are never creative. Far from it. Certainly their paintings are very creative. The best musicians perform very beautifully and with great expression. It is rather uncanny to watch the Tokyo String Quartet perform. If you close your eyes and listen, they have the same beautiful expression as any other famous string quartet. But if you open them and watch, you notice a very significant difference. Western string quartets use a lot of body English in their performances. They move their bodies very expressively, with large motions. They are fun to watch. The Tokyo Quartet is fun to watch for a different reason. Western quartets use their body language to communicate to each other: to keep together, to phrase and interpret the music at the time of the performance. The Japanese move very, very little. All of their movements are very subtle. But they keep together, and they interpret the music. What is impossible to tell from one concert is whether or not the interpretation of the music is unique to that performance, or whether they always interpret the music in the same way. I have strong suspicions that there is a lot more conformity in their interpretation from one concert to the next. One of the creative elements in playing music is the fact that a good musician never plays the same piece in exactly the same way each time. It is always a fresh, new creation. To accomplish this feat, the music must come from the heart. The musician must have a vocabulary of expressive elements that he can combine freely, in the manner of improvisation.
There is another aspect of Japanese culture that plays into the Method. That is the Japanese attitude about perfection. The Japanese are not allowed to make mistakes. If a Japanese makes a mistake, he has lost "face", or honor. In the past, a major mistake was grounds for committing suicide. Today, it would not be unheard of for a corporate president who loses his position because of mismanagement on his part, or even through no fault of his own except to fail to manage well, to commit suicide. The suicide, called "hara-kiri", is done in a ritual fashion with a ritual sword or knife. Along with the idea that it is not permitted to make mistakes, of course, is the fact that there is no concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an idea that grows out of western Christianity. It is a good example of how a religious idea has a major impact on a culture. In Japan, only 3% of the people are Christian. Rather than being able to pass on the concept of forgiveness to the rest of the population, the Christians seem to have adopted a certain amount of the rest of the culture's attitude into itself.
I had an experience that graphically illustrates this. I was auditing a class in beginning Japanese at the local community college. I had already taken three semesters for credit at the university some years before, but it had been many years, and I wanted to get back into it, hence the review. The teacher was a native Japanese woman who was a Christian. I liked her, and she said she liked me. After several weeks, she asked me to help her with the study groups. These were groups of students who got together outside of class to work on Japanese. I agreed to do this, and in typical American fashion, I thought about ways I could be useful. Since I had studied many languages, and taken techniques from many teachers, I decided to write an essay describing effective methods for studying a foreign language and distribute the essay to the members of the study group. You have to realize that language instruction, like so much of Japanese teaching, is strictly by rote. Everything in my paper was quite the opposite. As it turned out, one of the methods I recommended was using a Bible as reading material, because one can put the English alongside the Japanese, and it is much faster than looking up words in a dictionary. Bibles in both languages are easy to obtain, unlike any other book. I also talked about asking God's help in one's studies. I felt that the teacher would not object to these things, and in fact, she did not. Since I was distributing this off campus in a situation outside school hours, I figured that it would not get anyone in trouble with the Supreme Court, which does not permit religion in publicly funded schools. I asked permission before distributing the essay.
Three days later, the teacher approached me at the beginning of class and sadly asked me to leave. I was expelled from the class. Her supervisor had ordered it. It turned out that when I had begun auditing the class, I had asked the administration what I had to do in order to audit. I had sat in on many classes informally in the past without any difficulty, so when I was told that it would not cost anything to audit, I believed them. What I was not told was that it doesn't cost anything additional. I hadn't paid tuition. And in fact, in the past, I hadn't paid tuition either, when I audited. It seemed to be the way things were done, so being told that I didn't have to pay anything to audit made sense to me. In addition, in fact, the policy at the college was that people could register very late, by obtaining additional signatures. The deadline for taking a class with just the permission of the teacher had not passed. The deadline for taking a class with the permission of the dean had not passed. I could still go down and register for the class, and I proceeded to do just that. But when I got to the point of asking for her signature on the registration form, she told me sadly that she could not sign it.
When I investigated, I discovered that her immediate superior, the head of the department, had ordered her to get rid of me. Although I cannot prove this, I believe that what happened is that the teacher had shown my essay to the head of the department, to see if it would be acceptable to distribute it to the class, and department head had seen the religious content. This woman hated Christianity. She decided she had to get rid of me, and discovered that I had never "registered" for the class, so she had the perfect opportunity. The rest of the personnel at the college remained willing to register me, but not willing to oppose the teacher and the supervisor. It was too late to register; I had to leave. A few days later when I dropped by to pick up my son who was taking the same class, and glanced into the window to see if he was ready to go, the teacher saw me and reported it. One of the higher officials then ordered me to stay off campus, and if I did not do so, I would be arrested for trespassing! I even called the teacher and explained that if she signed my registration, I could register, and the whole nightmare would be over.
Here is where it gets interesting, from the standpoint of our discussion of Japanese culture. She asked to be allowed to think about it, and when she got back to me, she told me that she had decided that I could not return, because I was a disruption in the class. She even went so far as to slander me to everyone in sight. As near as I can figure, I had broken the rules by 1. not paying tuition at the beginning, even though it was still within the rules to pay it at that time, 2. dared to suggest there was a better method for learning Japanese than the method she was using, and 3. challenged the administration, that is, everyone who had authority over me. The truth is, I had a whopper of a civil rights case, and a civil rights legal organization actually said they would help me, but for personal reasons I was unable to pursue it, so the outcome of the situation will always hang in the shadows. But I had violated the principle of Japanese culture that there is no such thing as forgiveness, and I was rejected, as a person.
There is no better illustration of this, perhaps, than the fact that a school child who is unpopular is ridiculed heavily by his peers, and taunted, and teased, and subjected to all kinds of cruelty. I have seen this on videotape. The actions against the unpopular student are so severe that many students are driven to suicide. When I was in school, I was unpopular, but even though life was a living hell for me, it had limits and boundaries. The other students went only so far. In Japan, there are no restraints. The attitude of the culture toward the person who is not accepted is punitive in the extreme.
The result is that there are certain aspects of creativity that simply do not happen in that culture. If creativity cannot safely be broken down into its component parts and taught, without error, it does not occur. The Japanese are tearing their hair out over the fact that they are totally incapable of producing sophisticated computer software. They can produce wonderful electronic gadgets. They build radios, televisions, computers, video tape recorders, and all other kinds of equipment. The quality is excellent; the design is excellent. But they cannot program a computer. Why? Because they are not allowed to make mistakes. When a person writes a sophisticated program, the first step after writing is debugging. The program will not work properly. The reasons must be discovered and corrected. A Japanese cannot write a program that does not work the first time it is used. A Japanese cannot be imperfect. A Japanese cannot forgive himself for making a mistake. The Japanese cannot write computer programs. They have no idea why. They suffer agonies over this fact, but the fact remains, and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. They haven't a clue.
This cultural attitude is a fundamental part of the Suzuki Method. The very young student works on a particular piece of music until it is absolutely perfect. He does not go on to more difficult things until that piece is mastered. We are talking about a performance worthy of a highly trained professional musician. Not only must the piece be technically perfect, but the expression must be perfect, too. Well, almost. The Japanese do have the idea that if there is not one tiny flaw, then you are being arrogant. But you dare not have two.
In his book Nurtured by Love, Suzuki explains that the parents should pick a significant violin concerto and play a recording of it daily for the infant, for three years. At the end of that time, the child is handed a tiny violin and allowed to play with it. Soon, the child will learn to play "his" concerto perfectly. This provides the impetus then to put in many hours of hard study to develop his technique and musicianship and build up his repertoire. That is the theory. It is not how it works in practice. In Japan, I am sure that parents play the required recording daily, and I am sure that the child is allowed to teach himself to play it. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt; I really don't know for sure. But once having done this, the child then must take classes. At first, the parent studies the violin, and takes classes, with the child watching. The child who is at the beginning will play through a particular set of books. There are several volumes of these. It is not permitted to take material from any other source. The order in which pieces are presented is carefully arranged so that the technique is taught in a prescribed manner. You do not deviate from this. Recordings are used to teach the pieces, and demonstrations by the teacher. The child does not learn to read music. The child is required to have perfect intonation, and because he is tiny, this can be achieved very quickly. Later on, when he learns upper positions on the violin, he may be unable to achieve the same perfection in intonation he can present flawlessly in first position. He may never read music very well, even once it is taught.
Learning the violin is completely rote. In Japan, that is how everything is taught, so no one thinks anything of it. No one gets an edge by using a more effective method. In spite of this, the competition for any position in a school in Japan is keen. Severely difficult tests are administered. The score on the test determines which college one may attend. The college one attends determines what company hires one upon graduation. Once hired, the employee has a job for life. But the idea of looking for a better way of doing things so that a person will have a better chance of making it into a top college is unheard of. You don't challenge the experts. It is not disturbing to a Japanese child to meet other music students. They are all playing the same material in the same way. No one is any better than anyone else. In fact, the Japanese studiously avoid being better. A Japanese baseball team does not play to win. If one team gets very far ahead of its opponents, the players deliberately pull back and let the other team catch up. Americans who try to play baseball in Japan have to deal with this problem. Yes, some Japanese children do better than others. They can find a small number of violin students who are competent enough to tour the world. They do take the attitude that they could take any violin student, and that student would be able to tour the world. In practice, some do stand out, and some are eligible while others are not. This fact is not admitted by anybody.
In the United States, things are completely different. To begin with, most students do not start at birth by listening to one recording. Most students do not have their first violin at the age of three. The Suzuki Method is used for beginners of any age. This is in spite of the fact that the most effective method for teaching an older child is very different from the most effective way of teaching a toddler. I am not saying that children do not pass repeatedly through the same sensitive periods. (The term "sensitive period" was coined by Maria Montessori to indicate a sensitivity to a particular style of learning. It is also called a "critical period" by others.) I am saying that sensitive periods can be induced. People try to do this, unconsciously. They miss an important component, which is making sure the child is fascinated by what he is doing. But because sensitive periods can be induced, the method can be used for older children, and it will work after a fashion.
I have had so many illustrations of what this does when transplanted into our culture that I cannot possibly describe them all. I will give you a couple of examples to prove my point.
My third child, Allen, decided at the age of fourteen to learn violin. There was with him an intense drive to do so. Suzuki never permits this drive to develop in the child, because the parent makes the decision before the child is old enough to develop this particular character trait. Because of the drive that Allen had, and his opportunity to study under an excellent teacher that teaches Galamian technique, he progressed from being a rank beginner to playing the famous string serenades in only two years. Allen's teacher runs six string orchestras for students. They are graded in order of the difficulty of music they play. The group that plays the most difficult music is called Chamber I. Allen auditioned for, and was accepted into, Chamber I. A friend of ours, a girl who is several years younger, had been pushed by a doting parent into being an excellent Suzuki violin student. She had probably had lessons for ten years. She was playing one of the Mozart violin concertos practically before Allen ever picked up a violin. She also auditioned for Chamber I. She didn't make it. She could not play scales well; she could not read music well. She did not play in upper positions as required. The night that the teacher called Allen to tell him that he had been accepted, while Allen was still talking to him on the phone, another call came in on call waiting. It was the mother of the other violinist. She was incensed about the fact that her child had not made it into the group, and she forced Allen to listen to a tirade about it. It took all of the joy, of having made it into the orchestra, away from Allen. The mother was so angry about it that she proceeded to slander the teacher to everyone in sight for months afterwards. She withdrew her daughter from the orchestra she had been in. The poor girl's mother cut off her daughter's nose to spite her face.
For weeks afterward, the mother would give me an earful. I finally got tired of it. I figured that the mother felt she could "snow" me. The mother had admitted that she knew absolutely nothing about music, and she assumed that I didn't, either. She could tell me anything about her daughter's ability, and I would believe her. One day, Allen and I went over to their house so he and others could rehearse some music, and I sat down on the couch near where they were going to work. The couch was also near the piano. The piano was a beautiful Steinway baby grand. The mother came in and talked about her beautiful piano. I admired it. Then, before the kids began to rehearse, the mother invited me to come out to the kitchen and talk. I declined. I wanted to watch her daughter and see for myself how good she was at that point. I saw that her daughter was so tense and tight that there were many violin techniques that she couldn't do. You must be relaxed to do these techniques. I saw for myself why she had not been selected for Chamber I. After they had finished, I decided that I wanted to put the kibosh forever on all the slander the mother was pouring into my ear. I asked the mother if I could try out her beautiful piano, and she gave me permission. I then sat down and proceeded to pull out everything I had ever learned, and to the best of my ability I put on a real show of pyrotechnics. I did this on purpose. From that day forward, the mother did not say one more word to me about how her daughter had been wronged. It worked!
Unfortunately, the Suzuki Method seems to foster that elistist attitude. Or maybe it requires that attitude to make it possible for a mother to put up with the stultifying task of enduring the same recording for three years, and of enduring the endless hours of playing the same variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star for a year. I don't know. In one sense, it really does not matter. The point is, this is what the Suzuki Method means when applied in the United States.
What is the result? I will tell you my second example. A few years after this incident, my youngest son, Victor, took a guitar workshop. The students were divided into three groups. Victor was in the most advanced group. There was another student also in the group, of approximately the same age, who had studied a year longer than Victor. At the time, Victor was starting to work on concert level repertoire. The other student was playing simple melodies, with no accompaniment, in second position. Nothing really overt happened at the workshop, but I sat and watched for five days while this other child struggled within himself not to feel he was a failure because he couldn't begin to play as well as Victor. It was written all over his face. My heart went out to him. He has no idea that the reason he cannot play such difficult material is not because he is deficient. The reason he cannot play that material is because he is a Suzuki student. No one is going to tell him this. His mother does not believe it. She will not tell him. She believes in the Suzuki Method. His teacher will not tell him. His teacher believes in the Suzuki Method. If he is lucky, when he grows up he will realize it and spare his own children the agony. Most likely, he will turn his back on guitar, and his family will never experience music.
A friend of mine who used to be a concert pianist told me that nearly everyone who studies by the Suzuki Method will permanently lay down his instrument as soon as he is allowed, and never return to it. After the experiences I have had, I believe it.
I am not criticizing the dedication of those who believe in the Suzuki Method. I am not criticizing their diligence. I am not criticizing the Japanese. They are beautiful people. I am not criticizing Japanese musicians. They are wonderful, competent, inspired performers.
The parents and students who utilize the Suzuki Method have been defrauded. Shinichi Suzuki did not intentionally defraud these people. Suzuki's culture, the Japanese culture, defrauded them. People's arrogance defrauded them.
So what is the parent to do? If you want to use the Suzuki Method for your child, go ahead. It is your decision. But you will not be defrauded, because I have told you about the flaws and the pitfalls. If you want superior results, however, there are some much better ways to achieve them.
Take the eclectic approach. There are several features of the Suzuki Method that are very useful. Other methods also have good features. Use them all. The mother should be playing good musical recordings for her child. She should start to do this as soon as she learns she is pregnant. She should put on some fine music and play it a little louder so her unborn baby can hear it. She should immerse her child in music. The music should be played all day long. She should NOT use the same recording. She should play as many different things as she can. The family should own some recordings, and should play the local classical radio station, and borrow recordings from the library. If the music is played so often that it is stultifying to the parents, it is also stultifying to the child. If you can't stand that recording any more, don't use it. If you do, you are killing your child's creativity.
If you play an instrument, play it around the child on a regular basis, starting before birth.
During infancy, take the time occasionally to be with your child while listening to some lively music, and move your child's body in time with the music. I called this "dancing my child".
When the child is old enough, give him a small instrument. Let him experiment with it. If you can find a teacher who teaches such a young child without using the Suzuki Method, by all means, allow the child to take lessons if he wants to. If he doesn't want to, let it rest. When the child has been immersed in music for so many years, and watched other people play, he will want that. When his desire gets to be intense, let him lead the way. Let him choose his own instrument if you can. Let him push for lessons. You can inspire your child into wanting to learn music if you are judicious. You cannot force it beyond a certain point. It is a matter of instinct just where this point lies. It is better if you are in the role of holding him back because it isn't practical to do all the things the child would like to do to develop musically. If you are not fortunate enough to have a child who pushes like this, perhaps because he has a different temperament, perhaps because something else fascinates him more, you can induce that kind of interest if you know how to do it. I will talk about this extensively elsewhere. Even with my instructions, it still takes a certain amount of instinct. Tune in to your child. You know him better than anyone else. Use that knowledge to guide your efforts.
The point is, you can achieve the same results in the long run by completely different methods. No, I take that back. You can achieve better results. What it requires is a different attitude. As long as you are not hung up on making your child a prodigy, and as long as you are more concerned about your child's spiritual development, and less about your own ego, you can do it. Please reread what I have said about this subject. Take it to heart. Tune in to your child.
One of the essential ingredients here is your own competence. If you do not already play an instrument, learn one!!! A child whose parent can help him during the week will progress many times faster than one whose parent cannot. A child who sees that intense interest on the part of his parent will progress many times faster. That level of interest on the part of a parent will inspire him. You may or may not actually help him directly. If the child will accept help; if you can twist his arm a little now and then, then help him. If he will not accept help, dig into the spiritual reasons why he will not accept your leadership, but if he is driving himself and achieving anyway, leave him alone. You have to sense whether or not it would be better to intervene, or not. The older child will probably be better off with less help; you can coerce the younger child a bit more. It is a matter of instinct. Culture your own instinct, and rely upon it.
Attend your child's lessons and pay close attention. You will learn about his instrument, and will pick up things that your child has missed. Encourage your child to record his lessons and go over the recordings to pick up what he missed the first time. The biggest failure on the part of parents today is that they turn their children over to the experts and then abdicate. It doesn't really matter exactly how you do this, but stay involved! I don't mean attend PTA, while he is in bed. I mean, be there with him as he learns. That is the key. Nearly every great composer who lived before the Twentieth Century had some adult in his life who took that kind of interest. You be that person in your child's life. That is the key.