John Holt on the Suzuki Method
Author: John Holt
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 11/14/2007
Category: Book Review
Before I say why I like these books, let me say a few words about how I came to know about Suzuki and what I now feel is good, or not so good, about Suzuki instruction programs as I understand them.
I first read about Dr. Suzuki’s work in Japan from an article in the New York Times years ago. It said that one day it occurred to him that since all Japanese children accomplish the difficult task of learning to speak Japanese, if they had the intelligence and skill to do this, they could, if they wanted to, learn to play the violin (Suzuki’s own instrument) in the same way. Since he believed that children’s lives would be much enriched by music, as his own had been, he set out to devise a way of learning the violin as close as possible to the method children use to learn their own language. He realized that children had to hear a lot of other people’s speech before they could make their own, and that they did a lot of speaking before they did any reading and writing. He also realized that children want very much to do what they see the adults around them do. From these sound insights he developed his method. If a Japanese family wanted their child to study violin by this method, when the child was still a baby they would begin to play at home, every day if possible, and many times each day, recordings played by expert players of some of the simple violin tunes that the child would later learn to play. Soon the child would come to know the tunes and think of them as his or hers. (Later experiments have shown that babies six-months-old or younger can learn tunes well enough to respond happily when they hear them played.)
When the child was about three or four one of the parents, usually the mother, would begin taking violin lessons with a Suzuki teacher, bringing her child with her. At the teacher’s house, the teacher would give the parent a violin, show her how to hold it, etc. and then would play one of the tunes that the child already knew. Then the teacher would show the mother how to play the tune – since it was the first, it would be simple enough so that she could learn to play it quickly. After the lesson the teacher would tell Mother to practice that little tune at home until the next lesson. This would go on for a few lessons, the child always going with the mother to the lesson. Then in perhaps the third or fourth lesson, if the child was still really interested – for Suzuki insisted that he would not force children to play – the teacher would mysteriously produce from somewhere a tiny child-sized violin, asking the child, “Would you like to try it?” Yes, indeed! So the mother and child would go home together with their violins, and would practice at home together the little tune they both knew. After a while the mother, though she was still expected to listen to the child play and required to come with him to the lessons, could if she wished stop playing herself – by this time, the child could go on alone. As time went on, he would learn other tunes, and along with his individual lessons would play in groups with other children, discovering with delight that they, too, knew the same tunes.
In the original method, only after a child gained considerable fluency on the violin, and could play fairly complicated tunes, was he introduced to the written notes for the tunes that he already could play. Not for still some time, I’m not sure how long, would he start learning new tunes from written notes instead of by ear.
So much for the basic method, which seemed to me then as it does now in good accord with all I know about children’s learning. The Times article went on to say that children were encouraged to experiment with their instruments, to make sounds both fast and slow, high and low – I remember it said children were asked to make sounds “like an elephant” or “like a little mouse.” It then said that all over Japan, hundreds of four-, five-, and six-year-old children taught by these methods gathered to play music by Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach.
A few years later, when a group of these children came to the New England Conservatory on a tour of the U.S., I was there to hear them, along with several hundred others, many of them music teachers. The children, perhaps twenty of them, came onstage, healthy, energetic, and happy. At the time I thought the average age of the children might be five to six; I now think they may have been perhaps a year or two older. Dr. Suzuki and a young assistant checked the tuning of the children’s violins. We waited in great suspense. What would they play? Perhaps some of the slower and easier tunes of Vivaldi, Handel, or Bach. Dr. Suzuki gave the downbeat, and away they went – playing not some easy tune but the Bach Double Concerto, in perfect tune, tempo, and rhythm, and with great energy and musicality. It was breathtaking, hair-raising. I could not have been more astonished if the children had floated up to the ceiling. Rarely in my life have I seen and heard anything so far beyond the bounds of what I would have thought possible.
During the question period, Dr. Suzuki told us (through his young interpreter) that the Japanese children we had heard were unusual in only two respects: their families could afford to pay for this trip to the U.S., and their mothers could go with them. But there were apparently many hundreds or even thousands of children in Japan who could play as well. I have to emphasize before saying any more about Suzuki in this country that all I know about Suzuki instruction in Japan came from the Times story and a couple of others, and from what I learned from this short meeting. It is possible that the picture of Suzuki instruction that I made in my mind out of these brief materials was far from accurate. What actually happened then, or happens now, in Suzuki classes in Japan, I don’t know. What I can say with certainty is that from all I have seen, heard, and read of it, Suzuki instruction in the U.S. today is very far from my idea of what it was, the one I have just described to you, and even further from the method by which children learn to speak their own language. Suzuki instruction today is in fact very much like most school instruction. The material to be learned is broken down into many very small pieces; each one is supposed to be done perfectly before the next one is attempted; mistakes are corrected instantly, from the outside, by the teacher or the parent; there is considerable pressure put on children to “practice”; and children are given little room or encouragement, if any at all, to improvise and experiment with the instrument.
Some of the reasons for this probably have to do with differences between Japanese and American family life and culture. Japanese women are much more likely to be at home with their children and Japanese parents, if told by an expert that they must play recordings of simple violin tunes for several hours a day for years on end, are perhaps more likely to do it. To some extent, Dr. Suzuki surely had to modify his method, whatever it was, to take into account differences in American family life, in American adults’ ideas about how to treat children (we are generally much more severe with them than the Japanese), and in American music teachers’ ideas about how music had to be taught.
It is also important to note that not all Suzuki teachers are alike, any more than are all Montessori teachers or any kind of teachers. Some are more inventive and flexible than others; indeed, as happened with Montessori, some Suzuki teachers have already broken off from the rather rigid American organization and call themselves independent Suzuki teachers, to give themselves the freedom, if they wish, to modify the strict methods handed down from above. If I ever teach string playing to adults and/or children, as someday I hope to, I will certainly use Suzuki materials, but much of the time I will use them in my own way. The only way to find out what Suzuki instruction is like in your town is to see the people doing it. I have seen some astonishingly bad teaching done under the name of Suzuki, and also some very good teaching. See and decide for yourself.
On the whole, though, it is safe to say that Suzuki instruction in this country has become very rigid. And whether because of this or for other reasons, it certainly is not producing the kind of results that we were told it once produced in Japan. Some very fine string players are coming out of Suzuki training, no question about it. But there are very few 6- to 8-year-old American children who can play the Bach Double Concerto. If you hear large numbers of Suzuki children playing in this country, what you are more likely to hear are simple variations of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which (for good enough musical reasons) has become a kind of Suzuki national anthem. The organization and the method are certainly doing some good things, but much less than they apparently once did in Japan, and what is more to the point, much less than they could do here if they really practiced what they preach – that is, helped children to learn music in the same way that they once learned language.
What then is so good about Suzuki materials and methods, and why are we adding them to our list and recommending them to parents?
1) Their musical selections are very good. They are playable – not too hard and not too easy. They are fun to play, and what is just as important for the parents who will have to hear them over and over again, they are fun (or at the very worst, at least tolerable) to hear. The children are very soon playing pieces written by the great masters. Some have objected that what the children play are simplified versions of what these composers wrote, but I see no objection to that. A child I know well has already moved from a simplified version of a Bach piece to one much closer to the real thing. It doesn’t cause her any problems and I don’t see why it should. She just thinks that a piece she already liked has become even more interesting.
2) There are recordings (see the review following this one) available of good performances of the music that the children will be playing. I suspect that most parents don’t play these as much as they might or should; still, with these recordings you can do Suzuki as it was supposed to be done; that is, you can make it possible for your children to really know these tunes before they start trying to play them, so that, as in learning to talk, they can correct their own mistakes rather than have to have parents or teachers do this for them. One of the things American Suzuki teachers do that seems to me a complete mistake is to put little pieces of tape on the violin (or viola or cello) fingerboard so that children (or their parents) can tell by looking at them where the fingers are supposed to go. This is musical nonsense; it is our ears, not our eyes, that are supposed to tell us where to put our fingers.
3) The children become members of a musical community. In a performing art, like music, the uniform curriculum for which the schools so mistakenly strive in other areas actually makes sense. Wherever a Suzuki child goes, she will find that other Suzuki children at about her level of skill know the same pieces she does, so they can play them together, which is fun for the children and beyond that is one of the chief joys of music. Learning a musical instrument, at least until you got good enough to play in a band or orchestra, used to be a rather lonely business for children. Now it doesn’t have to be. Not only do the Suzuki teachers in a community have their pupils play together every week or so, but there are in addition even larger gatherings of children, often hundreds of them, at various Suzuki conferences. These can be enormously exciting to the children. The actual classes and workshops may or may not be interesting, but in between them the children can rush around and play with other children all the music they know. One mother of two very talented children, who has gone to several of these big get-togethers, says that the best things that happen there, as far as the children are concerned, are the things that are not planned – informal, spontaneous music-making with other children. For me this is a very important asset, and one which outweighs any objections I have to the program.
So I think that the Suzuki materials and organization can be a very useful resource – one of many – for children learning music, and their parents (perhaps also learning music). The trick is to make use of those materials, but not restrict yourself to them. Branch out: encourage the children to improvise freely, to make up tunes, to write down tunes, to write compositions for each other to play, to begin as soon as possible to play real chamber music, which so far does not play a very big part in formal Suzuki instruction – though this may be changing, as it should and as I hope it is.
In short, put back into learning music the exploration, the discovery, the adventure, and above all the joy and excitement that is properly a part of it, and that too formal and rigid instruction can only kill. – JH
Bio: John Holt is the author of ten books on education and founder of the magazine Growing Without Schooling, the first homeschooling magazine in the United States. He was a tireless supporter of educational reform and youth rights until his death in 1985. This book review originally appeared in GWS issue 32.