On Prodigies and Potential: A Review of Suzuki by Eri Hotta

December 6, 2023

Shinichi Suzuki believed that “all children have the ability at birth to become persons of high ability,” and held a “Grand Concert” to convince the world it was true. On a sunny day in 1955, the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium became the venue for the First National Convention of the Talent Education Research Institute. The highlight of the event was Suzuki, the Institute’s founder and leader, conducting 1,200 performers ranging in age from three to 15 years old. As the young students played a range of classical violin pieces, they staggered a crowd of 20,000 listeners that included members of the royal Japanese family and diplomats from many nations. The hallmarks of Suzuki’s mission in learning, “any child can” and “no children left behind,” took center stage, as Eri Hotta relates in her recent book, Suzuki: The Man & His Dream to Teach the Children of the World.

The original goal of the Suzuki Method of music instruction was not to produce little prodigies on the violin, a common misconception today, Instead, Suzuki wanted to spark a revolution in education, based on the idea that talent is not an innate trait, confined to those who are born with it. Practicing and repetition are the keys to mastering any skill, he proposed. So, environment, not genetics, is the key to unlocking all children’s promise, an argument with consequences that go far beyond playing classical music. Every child’s talent could be nurtured, Suzuki maintained, so that “all the children around the world shine like little stars.”

Pursuing this quest took him around the globe, beginning in Nagoya, where his father was one of the first people in Japan to manufacture violins as the twentieth century dawned. His father’s fortune allowed Suzuki to spend most of the 1920s in Berlin, where he studied the violin, picked up progressive social values and became friends with Einstein, an enthusiastic amateur violinist. By the eve of World War II, Suzuki was in Tokyo, where he began teaching young children. Next came the city of Matsumoto, in the north Japan Alps, where he opened a music school after the war. Then he achieved worldwide fame in the 1960s as he toured the world with his students, continuing well into his nineties.

The message Suzuki spread was a challenge to Japan’s traditional methods of schooling based on testing, a rigid curriculum and constant pressure to perform, as Suzuki explained in his treatise, Powerful Education. The aim of his system was to “bring up all children, with not one left behind, as fine Japanese,” a goal that eluded many teachers, he complained. “Most Japanese educators approach their tasks with a sense of resignation, along the lines of, ‘One cannot alter what one is born with.’ For example, imagine a child having a hard time with math. Seeing such a child his teacher would be inclined to conclude: ‘This child is born being not very smart, therefore, he cannot be able’ or ‘A genius or an ordinary person, either way, one is born with what one has got, and one cannot do anything about it.’ As long as we keep thinking in such a passive manner, educators cannot educate.” Yet there exists a way, he insisted, to ensure that not one child will be left behind.

This assertion was based on Suzuki’s “Mother Tongue Approach” to teaching children how to play the violin. Suzuki was convinced that children could learn to play music the same way that they learn language at an early age. The key factors in developing fluent speech were constant exposure and nurturing adults, he explained. If that same approach were brought to all early education, then every child would know the pleasure of learning through their formative years and beyond. So, “let us, with perseverance, search for the best ways to develop ability,” he urged teachers and parents.

In addition, Suzuki had a broader goal because he believed “true education begins with the development of character,” a conviction inspired by his early contacts with young children. When he was 17, he felt especially happy around children and in time came to see the reason he enjoyed their company so much. “Children of five or six,” he would recall, “never lie to themselves.” Yet why, he wondered in later years, did honest, high-spirited children become unhappy, calculating adults? And the question led him to ponder the goal of education. It should be, as he concluded, to preserve what is best in children. “We should strive to deeply instill a beautiful, sensitive heart and splendid ability in children, believing that every child can develop into an adult who has these basic characteristics.”

Music could help, Suzuki contended, by building a sense of community and making learning fun, two hallmarks of his approach. The Suzuki Method is characterized by a pervasive sense of inclusiveness and inventiveness, which brings elements of enjoyment to otherwise tedious drilling of musical skills. For instance, the method requires group lessons in addition to private instruction, with the goal of impressing on children the joy of making music with their peers. And the Suzuki repertoire for young students is full of catchy tunes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which has become an anthem for the movement.

Children still love to sing it in today’s early childhood classrooms, where music can help build character and advance learning. So, “every child deserves the opportunity to learn and experience the joy of music,” as Suzuki insisted. And the Council shows the many benefits that music can provide in Essentials for Working with Young Children. Children can develop confidence and self-esteem as they learn and perform songs and dance to the beat of music with support from adults and peers. Children practice counting when they clap their hands and stomp their feet to the beat of music. Music is a form of communication and an outlet for expressing feelings. In addition, music promotes language skills, and the close link between learning language and music was a foundation for Suzuki’s Mother Tongue Approach.

Besides making and moving to music is a blast, and Suzuki was keenly aware of how important it was to make his violin instruction engaging for young students. The group lessons were a major way of bringing children together to have fun with each other and with their favorite teacher. When it was cold out, the children at his school would gather around a potbelly stove with Suzuki and chat before the group session. There were tea parties and games to celebrate good lessons, making the school a setting not just for education, but also a place in which to feel safe and loved. “By providing a nurturing and supportive environment, we can unlock a child’s true potential,” Suzuki contended, and this required expanding his approach beyond instruction on the violin.

He had the opportunity in 1947 when the Hongo Elementary School in Asama Onsen became the first public school to apply Suzuki’s approach to subjects besides violin study. This experiment in education became possible because the school’s principal, Shigeru Kamijo, heard Suzuki’s little violinists play in a local recital and became intrigued by Suzuki’s approach, Together, they conceived of a talent education program for Hongo Elementary and put it to the test.

In the first year of the program, they chose 20 girls and 20 boys to join their experiment in early learning. The children had no class schedule and no homework, routine components of education at the time. The traditional curriculum—covering mathematics, science and Japanese language—was also set aside. Instead, days at the school followed a relaxed and playful beat a as the children took part in various projects to train memory, concentration, creativity and motor skills. Suzuki had a close hand in devising these projects: drawing lines, painting water colors, memorizing through storytelling and music, observing nature and feeling music through rhythmic exercises with the hope that the children would gain the foundation needed for other forms of learning.

It was an innovative approach that proved so popular with parents that there wasn’t enough room to accept the many children whose parents applied to put them in the talent education program. Teachers, however, were less enamored with the program because it went against everything they had learned while training for their vocation. Besides, they took personal offense at some of Suzuki’s public statements about the teaching profession in Japan. They knew Suzuki had said teachers were doing a bad job and left too many students behind. So, when Principal Kamijo suddenly died, no one succeeded him as a champion for the program and it ended after just three years.

Before it did, Suzuki had successes with children that he would always cherish. One of his fondest memories was of a girl who couldn’t count to three when she arrived for first grade. In any other school, she would have been labeled as slow or developmentally challenged. But in the talent education program, she was able to pick up effective habits through repetition and playful learning. The little girl’s teacher was able to enhance her focus by embedding skill-based education in fun games, and in time the child would go on to pass a competitive high school exam.

Personal triumphs like this changed lives. Yet they didn’t make the news as Suzuki’s system of violin instruction passed from a Japanese novelty into the mainstream, everywhere from the former Soviet Union to the United States. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Suzuki and his young violin students toured the world, playing to packed houses wherever they went. On one visit to the U.S. in 1978, they played a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. attended by President Jimmy Carter. The president said he wanted to take his daughter, Amy, on an impending visit to Japan so she could study with the master, and many American parents have shared Carter’s passion for Suzuki’s approach to teaching the violin. Forty years later, the U.S. remains home to about 300,000 Suzuki Method students, about three-quarters of the global total.

But knowledge of the broad social mission that Suzuki embraced has largely faded away. Mention of the Suzuki Method tends to evoke scenes of young children sawing away in groups on tricky classical pieces with surprising skill. “Little geniuses!” observers tend to marvel, not realizing that wasn’t what Suzuki had in mind. “Music is the language of the heart without words,” he said, and he saw it as a means to open young hearts and minds. His dream was to use his Mother Tongue Approach to bring out all children’s promise, a goal that evokes the Council’s own dream of equity in early learning. And he made his intentions clear in 1955 after TV footage of his Grand Concert in Tokyo gained attention worldwide. “We are not raising miniature violinists,” he explained. “We are trying to raise worthy citizens while proving that talents are not inborn. Great sensitivities and talents can be nurtured in any human being.”

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