Suzuki Piano? Isn't that where....?
Updated: Oct 13, 2019
The students only ever learn to play by ear? They can’t read music? They all learn the same music- or worse- all sound the same?
I will admit, the idea to teach Suzuki Piano struck me out of the blue. I had been sorting through stacks of music from my mother and saw a few yellowed copies of the “Suzuki Piano School” volumes tucked neatly between Alfred’s “Creating Music at the Piano” music books. I opened the Suzuki books, took them over to the piano and was surprised to find that my fingers remembered every song- and there was my teachers handwriting instructing my mother to make sure I “have more arm movement” or “big drop, bigger sound”, which was also surprisingly familiar. It all warranted a search on the internet- what exactly was this way of learning to play the piano?
Who was Dr. Suzuki?
Born in Nagoya, Japan in 1898, he was the son of Japan’s first violin manufacturer and worked there as a child. He began violin study in his late teens; then travelled to Germany to further his training and studies with Karl Klingler. While there, he became exposed to Western music, which he brought home to Japan on his return from Germany five years later in 1928. It was when he was asked to teach a four year boy violin lessons that Suzuki began searching for a way to do this. He spent numerous hours with young children, marvelling at their innocence, their sense of wonder. “I played with children so I could learn from them. I wanted to have the meekness of a child. A revolution was taking place within me. This is when the seed was sown of the Talent Education movement that was to be my life’s work”.
His work was interrupted by WW2 , and after this he accepted a position at a school near Masumoto, Japan, on condition that he would be allowed to teach and develop his theory of the Mother Tongue approach. Since the devastation of the war, he wanted to bring joy to the lives of children by expanding their ability on the violin. As this theory developed and flourished, he began to assemble the very sequential and very deliberate order of the Suzuki Violin method repertoire. Haruko Kataoka was an accompanist for his students; she worked with Suzuki’s wife (also a pianist) to carefully compile the Suzuki Piano repertoire. From there, this way of learning an instrument was expanded to include Cello, Viola, Flute, Harp, Guitar, Recorder and Voice.
Teachers began travel to study and work with Suzuki in Japan; soon there was enough international interest to warrant Kataoka travelling to the United States and Canada to present this way of teaching to teachers here in the late 60’s and 70’s, to educate teachers in this way of teaching the young child. My childhood teacher attended one of these conferences and teaching sessions in San Francisco and it changed her whole approach to teaching the piano.
The fundamental and underlying concept of the Suzuki Method is every child can learn an instrument, and learn it well, just as every child is able to learn and speak his own native language. Given enough stimulation, enough hearing of the sounds of the language, every child learns to speak in his own time. Given enough stimulation, every child is able to learn a musical language on his own unique timetable.
The Suzuki Method is often referred to as “The Mother Tongue Method” for this very reason- as in language acquisition, there are no failures. How slowly or quickly a child learns his native tongue or learns his instrument is unique to that child- with enough listening, an encouraging home environment, and parental involvement (just as when a child learned to speak), a child will develop the ability, step by step, with repetition, to master the chosen instrument. As a child builds technical skill upon technical skill, with appropriate encouragement and an environment of learning at home, his motivation is increased to continue to want to advance in his repertoire. This is referred to, by Dr. Suzuki, as “Ability breeds ability”.
Taking this further, then, listening is a very important component of the Suzuki Method, just as it is when learning a language. Each book is carefully crafted in a pedagogical order to build precept upon precept as a child advances; the musical literature is intended to teach fairly advanced concepts at a fairly young age- such as wrist staccato, forearm staccato, a deep legato, balanced hands, Alberti bass and more. To facilitate the sound in a child (and parents) ear, the recordings of the books are played daily, with both passive and active listening as a parent can fit it into their schedules (the original recordings were performed by Haruko). As a concrete example, have you ever heard a new song on the radio? Likely the next day, you cannot recall it. But if every store you walk into, and every time you turned your radio on it was playing, soon you would find yourself humming the tune; then singing the words, then going to the piano to pick out the melody; then perhaps fleshing out the chords and song style. But after a few times of hearing it, you certainly cannot do that. It takes the listening over and over to get a song to such a point that it is fully internalized. This is how we learned our language- we learned to speak, then we followed with reading next, then writing. This is applied to the Suzuki Method of teaching music. This is the revelation that propelled Dr. Suzuki to teach the child and where he saw that every child can learn successfully to play an instrument well.
Typically, children begin Suzuki lessons between 3 and 6 years of age, the time when the brain is developing very quickly in the area of language. They take their private lessons in groups of 2 or 3 children and their parents (each studio is different), learning from the teacher and from observing each other’s lessons as well. This is called “The Suzuki Triangle”- parent, child, and teacher. The parent is responsible, as the teacher is working with the child, to record notes for home practise. It is the teacher’s responsibility to make sure the parent understands what is being asked and knows how to practise at home; the teacher also nurtures, helps and encourages the parent in their practise routine at home and gives ideas for making it fun and productive. The children also have group lessons once or twice a month, learning reading games and performance, listening games and concentration games, singing and movement with the other children at their level. The children constantly review songs already learned (as in language we do not stop saying a word once we know it!) both in lessons, at home and in group, and learn to polish, to a high degree, the songs they know best and longest. Skills are added in sequential order as with all good methods, and are then applied backwards, via review, to every piece learned before the current one. Once technical skills are well-developed (about end of Book One), then music reading takes place.
Here, then, one could think- “Yes, it all sounds like clones in the making!” I would counter with this. How many different recordings have you heard of “Fur Elise”? How many different student performances have you heard of the same? To how many students have you taught “Fur Elise”? Have they all been identical in tempo, or phrasing, or rubato, or dynamic level- cookie-cutter replicas of each other? Or were they true to form, period, notes and composer instructions, but varied in interpretation in each performance from the soul of the performer? I have heard myriad renditions of “Christmas Day Secrets”, Suzuki Book One, but each reflects the little soul of the child playing it. Notes are accurate, phrasing is accurate, dynamics are (generally) accurate, but the life of the piece is clearly in the little personality that plays the piece. There are only unique children and unique presentations of songs, not cookie-cutter performances- that would be impossible, after all.
Here is an anonymous poem that perfectly encapsulates the Suzuki approach to teaching:
I am a child.
I have come into your world
About which I know nothing.
Why I came I know not.
I am curious.
I am interested.
I am a child.
All the world waits for my coming.
All the earth watches with interest
To see what I will become.
The future hangs in the balance,
For what I am
The world of tomorrow will be.
I am a child.
You hold in your hand my destiny.
You determine, largely,
Whether I succeed or fail.
Give me, I pray you,
Those things that make for happiness.
Train me, I beg you,
That I may be a blessing to the world.
I have really only touched the tip of the Suzuki ice-berg. The philosophy and teaching of this method resonates with me as it reflects my own family values and love of music and learning music; it is the only way I will take on new beginners. As a teacher it is completely freeing to be able to concentrate on sound, posture, form and concentration and character at the beginning, rather than tracking, numbers, and letters. Those can come later. Making the music, working with the families who trust their child to my instruction and watching the children grow in character, musicianship, camaraderie and community to me is what teaching is all about. I am very thankful I stumbled on those old books 12 years ago!