Cat Got Your Mother-Tongue: Understanding the Suzuki Method

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Music education offers a variety of different teaching methods, from the Berklee method to the O’Connor method. Each offers its own benefits, but one methodology stands above the rest: the Suzuki method.

The Suzuki Method’s Beginnings

The Suzuki method was developed by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese violinist and teacher. While it has since expanded to encompass a wide range of instruments, including the piano, harp, and trumpet, the method originally focused on the violin.

Already an accomplished violinist, Dr. Suzuki developed the idea for his teaching methods during his time in Germany during World War II. It was here he noted how easily German children picked up the German language and how easily Japanese children learned Japanese, and he observed that this effortless ability to learn mother tongues came through imitation, repetition, and listening and could be applied to music education.

The Philosophy

Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy focuses on the idea of “character first, ability second.” In other words, it’s about nurturing a passion in music and addressing a child’s character as a whole, not just mastering a musical instrument. Dr. Suzuki also believed that playing music was a learned ability, not an inborn talent. Anyone can learn to play a musical instrument and play it well.

Put into practice, the Suzuki method follows many of the factors that go into learning speech and has thus been called the mother-tongue approach. These factors include:

  • Listening – Learning to speak and learning to play an instrument both have a heavy focus on listening. The Suzuki method encourages kids to listen to recordings of the Suzuki repertoire and music in general on a daily basis. Listening to music provides kids with a model for their own playing, builds their appreciation for the art, and familiarizes them with pitch, timing, and tone.
  • Parental involvement – Parents play an active role in the Suzuki method, cooperating with the teacher and the child to ensure a comprehensive education. Parents are expected to:
    • Attend lessons
    • Attend workshops, concerts, graduations, and summer schools with their kids
    • Take notes
    • Guide their kids at home as “home teachers”
    • Play recordings at home
    • Create a supportive, affectionate, and understanding environment
  • Starting early – The method emphasizes music listening beginning at birth and formal training starting around age 3 or 4. Starting early is important for developing the proper muscle coordination and mental processes associated with music (like learning a language, it is not impossible to develop these skills after a young age, but it is more challenging).
  • Repetition – Music practice is about constant repetition. You don’t just throw something away as soon as you learn it. You add it to your vocabulary or repertoire and combine it with other things you learn to create more complex, sophisticated works.
  • Repertoire – Every instrument in the Suzuki method has its own repertoire comprising progressive building blocks that teach technique, style, and musicianship.
  • A positive environment – Children’s efforts to learn music should include encouragement, praise, and a generally positive environment created by teachers and parents. This not only makes kids more enthusiastic about learning, but also teaches them to cooperate and recognize one another’s achievements.

The Downside

A downside to the Suzuki method is the delayed note-reading. Kids aren’t taught to read music until they have developed basic playing skills and techniques. This comes from the idea that kids don’t learn to read words until they can speak fluently.

Not having a solid background in music theory can make sight reading difficult as kids get older. It can also make switching instruments difficult.

On the Plus Side

The Suzuki method is by no means the only way to teach kids music, but many of its ideas—listening, repetition, and supportive parents—are easily and naturally incorporated into all methods of music education (and education in general). Most importantly, remember the method’s most basic philosophy: anyone can learn music. That’s something we can all get behind.