The Development of the Suzuki Method

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Subject: Cello
Last updated: 23/07/2010
Tags: cello, subject history

The Seed Blossoms: The Development of the Suzuki Method

Shinichi Suzuki was born the son of a violin factory owner in Nagoya, 1898. It was only at the age of seventeen, however, that he taught himself to play the violin by listening to recordings and copying what he heard. At twenty two, Suzuki travelled to Germany and became a pupil of the eminent violinist, Karl Klinger. Eight years later he returned to Japan, where he began to teach. It was around 1931 when he first taught a very young child. Suzuki was a teacher at the Imperial Conservatory when a father visited him to ask if he would teach the man's four year old son, Toshiya Eto.

Not that long before, Suzuki had been struck by the revelation that all Japanese children spoke Japanese fluently. Not the most profound discovery one might think, but one that was to have far-reaching consequences for him. Suzuki began to ask himself questions such as: did this ability to speak a complex language like Japanese show amazing talent? How were young children capable of performing such a feat? His friends, Suzuki writes, were unimpressed with his 'discovery', thinking of the phenomenon of language as natural and somehow inborn. But this revelation led him to believe that any child had the potential to display superior musical abilities if only they were trained appropriately.

When Suzuki was approached by Toshiya Eto's father, he realised that his thoughts on this subject could prove to be the key to teaching the boy successfully, and he began to develop what he called the 'Talent Approach' to education. This scheme aimed to teach children to play an instrument in the same way that they learnt to speak their native language. Suzuki believed that children should be played classical recordings from birth, to immerse their consciousness in music. Music should be such a part of a child's life that it was as natural and as customary to them as speaking. With the 'Talent Education' method, children began lessons from as young as three years old, with parents heavily involved in attending lessons and reinforcing the teacher's directions during the child's private practice. Dr Suzuki held that all children should be treated with care and respect, so that 'talent' could be allowed to flourish.

After some years of teaching young children, Dr Suzuki had compiled a set of ten books of pieces for violin; mostly by a mixture of different composers, but with some original tunes he wrote himself[1]. These books now form the foundation of the Suzuki Method, providing a set structure for every teacher and child to follow. Each piece is designed to help teach or reinforce a particular style or technique, and there is a logical order to their placing, each building upon what has come before. Distinct stages of learning such as this are a feature of many of the traditional arts in Japan.

From the 1960s, the Suzuki Method began to spread across the world to the United States and Britain. It is now well established in both areas, although Suzuki remains more of a fringe teaching method in the UK than it is in the US. The Suzuki Method's distinctive child-centred approach and significant parental involvement sets it apart from the general method of teaching musical instruments in Britain.

The Embeddedness of the Suzuki Method in Japanese Concepts

Dr Suzuki believed very strongly in the goodness of children, using natural analogies – in the way of the classical Japanese writers – to put his point across:

'A living tree brings forth buds; on each branch blooms lovely flowers. It is the splendid course of nature. Man, I believe, should follow Mother Nature and bring forth fruit'

Suzuki 1986: x

His prose evokes images of calm and contemplation and Suzuki himself used implicit methods to quietly shape students and teachers' characters. He always acted in a gentle and dignified manner and by doing so, encouraged the same behaviour in his pupils. Suzuki's mild manner and positive encouragement was seen by him to be the best way of nurturing better players, rather than a system based on negative attention.

The Suzuki Method is rooted in shitsuke, the traditional concept of training children in appropriate behaviour by means of meticulous copy of the master's art or movement. Dr Suzuki considered listening to the works of great masters of music to be extremely important in helping students to develop and improve their playing (1986:83). Demonstrations by a child's teacher were also highly valued, and over-reliance on verbal explanations was discouraged.

Planting the Seed of Ability: Talent and the Suzuki Method

'Talent,' Dr Shinichi Suzuki writes, 'is no accident of birth' (1986: ix).

Suzuki felt it was man's greatest tragedy that a child can be taught that they have no talent, and subsequently go through life resigned to their 'fate'. Instead of talent, Suzuki thought that every baby was born with a natural ability to learn, but when a child grew up in an environment which 'stunts and damages them' (ibid: ix), they and others later think that they have simply been born that way.

Dr Suzuki firmly argued that environment, rather than anything that existed innately, was responsible for ability and talent, writing, 'what does not exist in the cultural environment will not develop in the child' (1986:14). The only difference between newborn babies, Suzuki believed, was that some babies were more sensitive and adaptable than others. So there is a part of the Suzuki Method which does link to ideas of innate abilities, but all children are thought to be able to achieve something of note. A sensitive baby will just learn to sing out of tune quicker, if that is all it is taught. Suzuki illustrated this by putting it to the reader that if Einstein, Goethe or Beethoven had been born during the Stone Age, then surely they would have had the cultural abilities and education of men of the Stone Age, and as such would have been unable to achieve what they did.

Although the ability to play an instrument was the most obvious result, Dr Suzuki saw character development as the primary goal of his method of teaching. The purpose of Talent Education was to nurture kokoro (heart), which was accomplished through the cultivation of sainō (ability). This spiritual objective has no clearly articulated counterpart in British educational aims.

Sainō is important as a building block in developing kokoro. English speakers divide sainō into the two separate concepts of talent and ability; one of which we consider to be developed whereas the other is generally thought of as something more innate. Here, it seems, lies the fundamental issue in the understanding of both the Suzuki Method and on a wider scale, Japanese notions of the person. Most Japanese believe that things such as intelligence and personality are primarily determined by experience rather than heredity. The idea that one's actions are a reflection of the soul is something that can be found across the spectrum of Japanese arts and activities such as flower-arranging, archery, martial arts and the performing of the tea ceremony.

The three central aspects of the acquisition of self-discipline and learning habits (sainō) in Suzuki are:

1. kurikaeshi – repetition

2. hansei – self reflection

3. ganbaru – perseverance

Children are instructed to repeat techniques, passages in pieces, shifts, posture and bow-hold exercises until they become second nature. This is supposed to be combined with self-reflection in order to improve whatever is being worked on, and a great deal of perseverance is necessary.


Dr Suzuki, whilst drawing heavily on traditional Japanese ideas of the child and learning, was the first to relate these ideas to the teaching of Western musical instruments. The spread of his method across the world has created an international community of teachers and parents that share the common aim of helping each child to reach their full potential.

The Suzuki Method has been successfully established in Britain, but not without modifications. A great deal of the spiritual element of the method has been abandoned in the transplantation to Britain. There is a more utilitarian approach to learning in this country, and the goal of developing a 'good heart' through musical instruction is one too foreign for most to accept easily.



1. Hersh, S. & Peak, L (1998). 'Developing character in music teachers: a Suzuki approach' in Learning in Likely Places Singleton (ed) Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

2. Peak, L. (1996) 'The Suzuki method of musical instruction' in Teaching and Learning in Japan Rohlen, T. P; LeTendre, G. K. (eds) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

3. Suzuki, S. (1986) Nurtured By Love. Miami: Suzuki Method International; 2nd edition

4. Suzuki, S. (1999 [1969]) Ability Development from Age Zero Alfred Publishing Company

[1] The final two books (nine and ten) simply contain one concerto each by Mozart.

Emma c Cello Teacher (Bristol)

About The Author

I teach Suzuki cello to all ages.

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