What the Suzuki Method Really Taught

There was a built-in ambiguity in Suzuki’s approach, which persists to this day. On the one hand, he didn’t think that musical prodigies were a special class of children, with some special innate gift. On the other hand, he believed that kids learned music not by drill and repetition but by exposure and instinct. All you had to do to activate the music instinct was expose them early to the right input. This ambiguity proved fruitful as a public-relations tool—he could point to this or that wunderkind who had been trained by his method as proof that it worked. But he could also insist, in the face of all the kids who would never play at the concert-hall level, that the point was not to make wunderkinder but to make kids wonder, to allow the power of music to expand their emotional repertory. No bad result was possible.

When the war came, the liberals made themselves invisible, and the Suzuki violin factories were turned over to military production, with orders to manufacture seaplane floats instead of fiddles. Yet by then Western music had become so much a part of the Japanese fabric that, for all the cultural chauvinism of the ultranationalists who had taken over the government, Japanese war movies were still accompanied by European-style orchestral scores, written by Japanese composers in a bombastic Wagnerian manner—the equivalent of Richard Rodgers’s “Victory at Sea” compositions, which Richard Nixon delighted in. (Hotta points out that the special effects of at least one of the big Japanese war movies were created by the master who did the special effects for “Godzilla.”)

It was only after the war, however, that Suzuki and his method became part of an extraordinary pas de deux of hostility and servility. In the nineteen-forties, Japan was the recipient of the most horrific bombardment one country had ever received from another. Yet surprisingly little hate endured, on either side. Within ten short years, Japan was a U.S. ally and sometimes a joke—“Made in Japan,” as no one can any longer recall, meant “made shoddily”—and soon after that it became a model of spiritual resources, with California Zendos (and Salinger’s stories) filling with aspirants to Japanese culture. Then, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Japan became a global commercial power. We think of Hollywood moguls embarking on piratelike looting expeditions, persuading the owners of earnest electronics firms to invest in American entertainment swindles, but they also paid homage to a culture, economic and spiritual, that had come to be seen as superior to our own in its mutuality and long-termism. No other relationship between two nations can have had so many different faces, or masks, in so short a period.

After the war, Suzuki grew ever more convinced that children could learn music the way that children learn language, becoming fluent with maximal exposure and minimal overt instruction—an idea that vibrated with American dreams of instant, just-add-water accomplishment. “When adults guide their infant children toward language fluency, they bring to the task not just knowledge but also a spirit of love, patience, and self-reflection,” Hotta writes. “If that same spirit were brought to all education, Suzuki thought, then every child would know the delight of learning throughout their formative years and beyond.”

This dream of the ready-made musical child is to pedagogy what the perpetual-motion machine is to physics: always wished for, endlessly proposed, and never demonstrated. What was new in the Suzuki method was the insistence that musical children could be nurtured en masse, and the belief that doing so was the key to a broader revolution in human understanding. If children all over the globe were sawing away at Vivaldi, they would not make war with each other when they grew up. This belief is not obviously supported by history, murderous rivalry among musicians being rather the rule, but it spoke to an understandable pacifism and wishful universalism that had swept Japan.

The mature phase of the Suzuki method, which has remained largely unchanged in the countless Suzuki studios around the world, was inspired by the “mother tongue” model. Kids start to speak by listening to grownups talking, and, in the same way, they should be exposed to a lot of music at home as, or even before, they begin to play. They learn language, usually, in the presence of siblings or other children, and this family situation should be reproduced in their training, instead of being replaced by schoolroom discipline. They learn language (or so Suzuki thought) through repetition of words and phrases, and so they should be encouraged to repeat the same musical phrases. The kids play the Gossec gavotte over and over and over.

Above all, kids learn language early, and so they should be taught their instruments early—at two or three or four, not later. The program has many other curlicues: the kids are handed substitute cardboard violins before they play the real thing, on the theory that getting the wrist action right and gaining a sense of the attack is more foundational to music-making than producing sounds is. And there is often a far more “Japanese” ethic to it than its Japanese inventor may quite have realized, involving elaborate bowing—the kind you do from the waist, not from the wrist—before and after class.

Most linguists and psychologists these days are inclined to think that the direct connection Suzuki saw between learning language and learning music is not much more than an appealing metaphor. We are all Mozarts in our native languages—fluent, endlessly inventive, able to produce new sentences effortlessly and without conscious premeditation—but, Mozart aside, even the most dedicated of music students progress in fits and starts. Kids don’t learn to talk by being assembled in groups, and they certainly don’t learn language by repeating the same phrases over and over. Still, it’s a mainstream view in cognitive psychology that music and language share certain mental processes. Some psychologists even believe that music effectively piggybacks on the same mental capacities that enable us to learn language—musical pitch, for instance, may evolve in parallel with the varying tones we employ when we talk. The argument is not that we learn music in the same way that we learn language; it’s that we can learn music because we can learn language, “exapting” the software for a different purpose. Indeed, a humanist might argue that music is not an epiphenomenon of language but a better phenomenon, not a free rider on our capacity for language but, as Walter Pater maintained, the higher state all words aspire to.

Yet it’s hard to quarrel with Suzuki’s practical idea that small children are surprisingly capable of learning difficult things if they’re motivated by their own curiosity and someone else’s enthusiasm. Kids, unimpeded by too much interference, will learn through constant exposure, getting good at an instrument the way they get good at Minecraft. Not a few parents know the moment when a kid, bored by piano lessons and having to be coaxed into practicing at all, suddenly gets turned on by music—whether by wanting to play a Strokes song or “Für Elise”—and then the hours fly by on the keyboard and the sounds come pouring out, astonishing no one more than the child. Wanting to do something and doing it seem like consecutive bases touched on the same trip home. Suzuki’s real purpose was to make the wanting-to stronger in order to get to the doing-it sooner.

It took some years before Suzuki’s method passed from a Japanese curiosity into the American mainstream. When, in the late nineteen-fifties, Westerners began seeing footage of those massed tiny violinists, it seemed proof both of Japanese self-discipline—a Cold War desideratum—and of potential worldwide harmony through kids and music, an ideal not very different from the one expressed by the Disney “Small World” pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, with its crowd of miniature animatronic singers from around the globe.

Something significant happened to the idea of the musical prodigy, derived in no small part from Suzuki’s example. In 1998, the year of Suzuki’s death, at the age of ninety-nine, a teen-age Hilary Hahn—one of innumerable violinists exposed to the mother-tongue method—was taking the stage at the Kennedy Center, while a recording made by another Suzuki-abetted performer, Joshua Bell, received a Gramophone Award. We no longer treat such performers as freaks of nature but as examples of what kids are capable of, given the right encouragement and environment. That is largely Suzuki’s doing. Even today, Hotta reports, some four hundred thousand students are learning to play in the Suzuki way.

Still, she regrets that the broader transformative ambition of the method got lost in the spectacle of what Charles Dickens termed “the infant phenomenon,” and she regrets especially that “Suzuki’s social mission largely disappeared from American applications of his ideas,” leaving the method reduced to a system of music instruction, and missing its real point, which is about human potential. In this way, the Suzuki method appears to be one of those contrarian systems that litter the history of twentieth-century education, in which a school isn’t always consistent with its founder’s purpose—as with the Steiner method of teaching concepts through movement and shape (I think that’s it; even Steiner students seem unsure) or the Montessori method of teaching through experience. The true lesson, in all these cases, is that the dedication of the teachers matters more than the virtues of the program. (You could say the same about Jesuit education, and many Catholics do.)

Just as Steiner and Montessori schools persist, with the tenets of their theories dialled down in volume until they resemble the secularized prayers in a Unitarian nursery school, so the Suzuki method persists as a system with the utopian values scarcely audible. At the same time, there was always a tension within Suzuki’s method. On the one hand, it celebrated spontaneous effusions of sensibility; on the other, it rigorously enforced discipline. One finds the same tension in the American cult of Zen. There was the wild charm of the koans and tales, which were celebrated for their gaiety and refusal of normal hierarchies, but there was also the lifetime of discipline—including regular beatings from the boss—that gave point to the parables. Many American meditation students, arriving at the Zendo, seemed surprised by how much hard labor it took to get enlightened.

What matters most is not making music but finding meaning in music. A crucial clue to Suzuki’s story here is seeded by his biographer, even if it is easy to miss. Hotta tells us that Suzuki credited his eureka moment, listening to the Elman recording of Schubert, to his having been exposed, not long before, to Tolstoy’s diaries. One form of emotional growth activated another. The range with which we extend our experience of music horizontally may help explain its extraordinary vertical depth. The more connections we make to music, the more significance music has. What we do know is that early exposure to art and music gives kids a longer familiarity with art and music. The sooner you start, the more you sense. It’s a self-evident truth, but self-evident truths can be, for children and countries alike, essential to independence. The parents and nonparents may worry loudly about what the kids sawing away up on the platform are doing and where it will get them, but the kids don’t hear them. They’re making music. ♦

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