Discovering the Suzuki Method™ - a perspective from Russia
The first time I got to know about Shinichi Suzuki’s method was when I watched a short black and white movie on the TV. A huge number of little violinists were playing some variations with a lot of inspiration. I was 14, and doing my piano studies at the school of music. At that time I do well remember what I felt - so excited! I would have liked so much to be amongst these kids by the side of this teacher.
It was what I was looking for!
What was so special about I saw? What excited my young imagination so much? It was the ambiance and the idea of gathering such a great number of players at the same venue and making all these children feel so enthusiastic and happy while performing. I still remember as a child just before entering on stage to play the exam pieces, my arms and legs always completely froze. Shinichi Suzuki himself was also very relaxed and joyful while playing! Later on, following my pedagogue courses and looking at different methods of teaching, I came across some details of Dr. Suzuki’s system and approach of teaching. So, from that moment, still being a student myself, I had a chance to collect each and every tiny bit about the method. Along with my personal comprehension and approach, my feelings and mind, I started to apply in practice while learning how to teach. Finally, great news, the publication of the book by Haruka Kataoka, the pianist and accompanist of Shinichi Suzuki, who had adopted a piano version out of Suzuki’s Violin Book 1. Fantastic event, but it has been such a long time since then.
So much time has gone, 10 years of teaching have passed at the school of music, and only then was Suzuki’s method officially recognized in Moscow!
I will hold back from expressing my personal admiration about the method, but rather share with you what it was like to have the tremendous opportunity to be taught by Helen Brunner, ESA Violin Teacher Trainer UK and Kristinn Örn Kristinsson, ESA Piano Teacher Trainer Iceland. Both shared their experience, taught, inspired, and were like “transmitters” immersing all of us in such a remarkable Universe of Suzuki’s Method.
In Russia, traditional schools usually screen applicants for their ability upon entrance. Children are accepted by a music teacher with an audition or entrance examination - but I think here we are missing the point.
“I have realised that each and every child has the ability to learn things well, especially in the right environment and with the right method of teaching”, says Suzuki. His method is compared to the way we learn our native language. How does a child learn to speak? He hears it in simple conversations around him, mother’s cooing , or as we say in Russia, "gouleniye" . Baby listens carefully to the intonations of his parents and masters easily the "music" of his native language. Parents are very impatient and expect to hear the first word, but they would never complain: they do not push, do not criticize him (“Come on, when will you say “mummy” at last?”, “Why do you not say it clear enough?”, or “I cannot understand!”) The child begins to speak in a natural way. The most difficult dialects baby learns without even noticing, and the first word of it sounds like the song from the paradise for parents! You do not remember how you learnt to speak yourself? Why would you not take an advantage of it when you study music suggests Shinichi Suzuki. The method is an important part of a child listening to playing, but in an unobtrusive way. The music that the baby will play in the future is around himself, it sounds in the background while he is engaged in his own activities, eating, playing, riding in the car, walks in the garden. It should be as natural as the sounds of the native language environment from birth.
I would like to give you here a thought of Heinrich Neuhaus, a Soviet pianist and pedagogue. ‘Before starting to learn how to play what ever musical instrument, the trainee - whether it is a child, adolescent or adult – should already spiritually possess the music in some way: to keep it in their mind, to carry it in their soul and to listen with their internal hearing. So, the whole and entire secret of talent and genius is that the music has already started living a full life in their mind, before even they would first touch the keyboard, or move a bow across the strings’
To germinate the seed we need time and environment.
The method emphases repetition. Many teachers have already experienced the situation when a child comes over to you and says: ”It seems to me I am not capable, I have just played five times a tough sequence, but with no success”. Suzuki in his book gives the answer to this issue: “Everyone has to make a certain volume of efforts to achieve the goal” and Neuhaus also adds: “To someone it is ‘a stones throw’, but for the others it is ‘a long way to run’".
During my classes, I usually say: “My dear, you can surely do it, but you just have to make the effort and to spend as much time as it is necessary for this job to be well done. Let us try it together and you will see that everything will turn out fine”. One, whose will is weak could never convince the others by his performance. (Vrubel (a Russian artist) painted the Demon's head forty times and it is not because he was untalented , but just because he was a genius).
The next most important aspect of the method is the involvement of parents. Interaction of a parent, a teacher and a child gives a great result. Parents are involved into the learning process together with their children, they are present in the classroom, taking notes about important points, becoming participants in the event. Some of them are venturing into the music universe as well, and themselves begin to play. Parents create a music environment at home, as it feeds/nourishes the child, develops and directs. Activities must take place without coercion, with a positive attitude.
”But could it be possible at all?” would ask some parents. Here below are some thoughts of a mum of our first 3 year old ”student” Olga Grebennikova:
“I was 11 years old when I finished fifth grade in an ordinary music school, I did shut the lid of the hated piano and to my satisfaction it was gone away from my life”.
I did not engage my first son with music and, as a result, he still cannot stand classical music. However, during my second pregnancy, I read a lot, and learnt about the influence of music on brain development, including also Suzuki’s method.
So, my second son then was born with my favorite ”Ave Maria”
Good music has become a part of his life, he used to sing a lot and is constantly singing now. I have to add his singing is pure, not forced, and it is being immediately noticed by everyone. Before he became 3 years old, we have just listened to a lot of music and clapping rhythms. Now since I found the Suzuki school, every day he begins with a question ”Will we be going to the music school?”
Actually, it is very different. It has nothing to do with a classical music school. In the classroom we sing together, crawl, ”building bridges”, ”plant trees”, travel with Baba Yaga ... and the motivation to learn is increasing more and more. Now I'm expecting my third son - and I am sure, in the tummy he already recognises familiar melodies. The question ”Will he learn music too, this third son of mine?" Although in theory - music is not considered to be a ”manly” enough activity, without doubt he will!
The first word a child, his first acquaintance with the music, the first bow, hand on the keyboard - the joy of the first smallest successes. There may be slight disappointments when something goes wrong, not like the baby would wish, but mother and teacher are nearby and they support this little musician by enabling him to make mistakes and correct himself without criticizing, but sharing with him his first steps! The positive attitude during the classes is predominate. To make a bow, to sit down in necessary and good position, to get ready. Before starting to play the instrument, the learner must acquire the ability to concentrate, to develop the balance, to feel confident about himself. After all, the pianist has to be able to control the body not less than a ballerina! The Suzuki Method is not based on speed because every child has its own pace to learn the content, and we (such a happiness!) are not tied to a quarter, or half-year term and planned Academic exams.
Musical evenings and concerts are held often enough at our school so the children have the opportunity to show their successes, their growth, and it rather has a nature of pleasure from the performance, joy and celebration. Again, I should be expecting the skepticism of many of you, but have a look at our children and you will better understand what I would like to say, when for example, a three-years Filaret with a petite violin in his hands cannot “wait in the wings” to move on stage, he is entirely in an anticipation of ... well ... here ... now .... !!!
We can often notice when a smiling pupil so freely enters the class, taking a seat at the piano, turns into a little wooden like man? Why should it be so? When the teacher puts a back-breaking task to the child, and the little one is not ready to move to the next level, there happens, as the result, an inner clamp, frustration, and instead of moving forward - stops.
When we talk about the physical freedom of movement, we must remember about the psychological and musical freedom as well. But for each case, a prudent teacher will be always able to find a convenient way to resolve the issue, with no stress.
In traditional training methods there always will be winners and losers, but those who practice the method of Suzuki are all winners. Having excellent skills, sound of a good quality, developing their abilities and aptitude, pupils from all over the World involved in this system could choose to continue with music or may prefer any other way.
I had experienced teaching a blind student and have to say that this method has helped me in my work with her. After six months of lessons using Braille, we have then plunged into the Suzuki methodology. The girl got engaged, showing an enormous pleasure and enthusiasm! You should have heard what the piano sounded like, and with what delight Julia began to attend courses!
Music is the Art of sound. Anton Rubinstein (Russian pianist, composer and conductor who founded the Saint Petersburg Conservatory) said about the piano: ”Do you think the piano is the one instrument only? This is one hundred instruments!” Cherni also drew attention to the fact that the piano can produce one hundred of the dynamic gradations. These two such opposite personalities as Cherni and Rubinstein arrive at the figure of 100.
We are working a lot on the quality of the sound. It is interesting to observe how carefully and with what kind of a pleasure kids used to listen to the sound extracted by themselves. With what willingness do they respond to proposed games and exercises. The clearer the goal, the clearer it dictates the means to achieve it (assuming a reasonable teacher will not put to the student an impossible task). The word ”technique” comes from the Greek ”techne” means that art. Of course, work on the sound is the most difficult job, as closely related to the auditory and mental qualities of the student. Developing a rumor (and for that there are a lot of ways), we are acting directly on the sound; working on the instrument of sound, constantly seeking to improve it, we affect the hearing and improve it. Our goal is to achieve that the first ”performance” was expressive and brought joy to the little musician.
One of the main requirements for setting the position of a hand is the simplicity and naturalness. Many interesting techniques, exploring on the "little things" were shared with us by colleagues and teachers (sometimes, must not we confess that we have not got enough time for this in a regular school). This part of the course is fascinating children very often and is pushing them to a more thorough study of capacities they are processing themselves. What can I say, they are just curious! "Oh, wow, I can do this ... and I can do that, that's it! "And the following question is:" So, what is next, I would really like to practice more! "
Talking about group lessons at our school, shall I say, are the most exciting moments! Adopting Christin’s experience, we are really happy to follow his principle. What do we get? There is nothing better than those things which Neuhaus said about it in the last century already :
"The work in the classroom we can compare with the work in the laboratory” - here we can notice if a learner is achieving some experience; we could say for sure that his class mates, if carefully watching him and listening to the head of a guidance, considering the knowledge, will get as much benefit as the learner himself. But we all know this is an old, and a well known and practiced method.
Personally to me, I find a lot of exciting techniques and the most valuable aspects for both, novice musician, as well as for teachers. Following method Suzuki we improve performance skills and workmanship skills without resorting to coercion, any kind of pressure, but by creating a natural, laid-back creative atmosphere which helps to reveal the individuality of each learner, whether a child or an adult. This approach does not imply haste, but allows you to see and understand the full value of the musical material with which we get in touch. Each student has their own pace of development. A careful and thorough approach makes it possible to open up when it is time (because you cannot make a flower bloom right now or tomorrow).
With his method Suzuki reveals that all we need is already within us, it is unnecessary to chase after, but better to stop, take time to listen, to open up and make a journey through the music to yourself.
Shinichi Suzuki "Education of a talent."
Heinrich Neuhaus "About the art of piano playing."
Lecture Helen Brunner and Kristinn Örn Kristinsson.