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Posted by Johannes Lievaart, ESA Violin Teacher Trainer, The Netherlands on 20 September 2018

One of the advantages of being over eighty is that your children are settled enough to be able to offer you a holiday in Japan.  I had been to Japan four times before, but each time only to Matsumoto.  The first time was in summer 1986, just after my last examination at the British Suzuki teacher training.  That year I observed the 67th Matsumoto Summer School, a huge workshop with students from all over Japan and abroad, receiving group lessons from the best Japanese teachers.

Now in the summer of 2018 I had for the first time the chance to see more of amazing Japan but I made sure to be on the spot when the four days summerschool was going to happen for the 67th time. I was curious to know how Suzuki teaching had developed in Japan and what the differences were with 1986. Also I wanted to know what the differences are with how we teach here in the west.

At the registration the chairman of the workshop Akira Nakajima greeted me warmly. My old friend from 1986, Shozo Matsumoto, now one of the Japan’s top teachers, had informed him about my coming. Shozo had even tried to let me repeat the lecture I had given recently for ESTA international in Malta (Suzuki and Sensory Motor Teaching) but fortunately there wasn’t room for it in the four days. I wouldn’t have had the time to adjust the lecture for a different audience.

In 1986 Suzuki was 85 years old. He had trained so many excellent teachers that he didn’t find it necessary to go much into the pedagogy.  Instead he concentrated most of the time on his other great topic, tone production on the violin.  The reason why he, aged seventeen, had started to play the violin was his fascination for the beauty of music and the sound of the great performers of his time, Kreisler, Thibaut, Casals e.a.  In his early years he had spent daily many hours to listen to gramophone records in order to find out how these great men made their instruments sound so well and then tried to copy the sound on his Montagnana.  As a teacher he could be very instructive, but often did not look at the student.  He just turned his back to the student and listened.  Just by listening he knew exactly how to make you adjust a little thing like e.g. the placement of your right thumb in order to get a better sound.  I haven’t met any teacher, even not a Japanese, who could do the same.

In 1986, on my first day in Matsumoto there was a national convention of Suzuki teachers and the first thing I heard was an all Japan teachers orchestra, playing the Tchaikovsky serenade for strings.   Never before or after I heard such a magnificent sound!  On the other hand everyone could come to Suzuki for teacher training, even without an appropriate background.  As a result there were things that could raise eyebrows, especially when it came to left hand technique or music reading.  After Suzuki passed away Koji Toyoda took over the leadership and he transformed the institute into a real conservatory and the results are now clearly audible.  Admittedly the unique sound I experienced in 1986 was less present, but all children played magnificently, and the best seemed to be the very young advanced players: and they all could read well, as I witnessed at the orchestral rehearsals.

At Japanese workshops there are no individual lessons.  The home teacher does the preparation.  There were small groups, called repertoire class (still about 30 students) and group lessons with very big groups.  As the children knew their repertoire well the teachers could give very effective lessons, even to the large groups.  The Japanese take the preparation for a workshop very seriously and the teachers and conductors could go straight into depth and work on musicality.  The children were incredible alert and reacted prompt on the instructions.  There were also master classes, not as we know them, individual lessons with an audience of other students, but again fairly big groups with the most advanced children.  Koji Toyoda worked with his group on Kreisler Preludium and Allegro, a piece that is not so well suited for group lessons.  But now it was played by thirty students so well together and still in such a free tempo that you forgot all objections.

In Japan everything is different to what you expect.  For us the word ensemble means chamber music.  Their ensembles were really big orchestras.  Ensemble A consisted of at least 120 advanced players, from about eight years old.  They played two movements of the Mozart Divertimento K 136 with a stunning perfection, beautiful dynamics and a very high speed.  Ensemble B was a little smaller, about 80 students starting age ten.  They played the first movement of the Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky. Both conductors were first class professionals.

Of course, there were a number of solo concerts. Needless to say, everything was played beautifully.  A few examples: 

  • Cello, Bach Minuet 2 (5 yo)
  • Violin, Corelli La Folia (6 yo)
  • Piano, Bach French Suite (11 yo)
  • Violin, Mozart Concert # 4 (14 yo)
  • Violin, Vitali, Chaconne (13 yo)
  • Violin, Wieniawski, Faust Fantasie (15 yo)

(For one piece in the program, I had been a little responsible. Years ago I found second hand the Variations on Twinkle for four violins by Charles Dancla and had it performed by some advanced children. Together with John Kendall I have been able to have it republished by Schott’s)

The farewell concert was a real happening: 30 flautists, 85 cellists and more then 2000 violinist on stage.  At the last play-together there were special parts for the flutes and the cellos, to join in with the violin repertoire.

Very moving was to see how a young flautist in a wheelchair coped with her playing.  Apparently her muscles were so week that her father had to sit behind her on a stool to help her to keep up the flute in place.  This not only at the concert, but also at every individual lesson, every group lesson and at every daily practice.  The young girl was not at all a beginner!  This is the right Suzuki spirit.  Give every child the chance to blossom and reach a high level of perfection, in spite of occurring difficulties.

67th Summer School Matsumoto

Did I find out what we can learn from the Japanese approach?  Maybe. I think I can summarise it as follows: just do it.  Do what is necessary to bring young children to a high level, don’t indulge in your hobbies, don’t do too many extra fun pieces, and most of all don’t let children play with a faulty technique.  Maybe the Japanese parents are more likely to follow instructions of the teacher, so we have more work to do to convince our western parents.  But just do it and it will work!  It is obvious that when Japanese parents come with their children to Suzuki lessons, they expect the child to learn the instrument well.  Is that always the case with our parents?

I can add that the Japanese can also learn from us.  We are less instructive, talk less during the lesson and make things happen in a more creative way.  Suzuki himself was both instructive and creative in his own inimitable way.  No one can teach like he did, we shall have to admit that.