Suzuki Maven

Shinichi Suzuki: 1898 – 1998

From Music to Love

During his childhood in Japan, violins were a big part of Shinichi Suzuki’s world—but the sounds of violins were not! His father owned a violin factory, and Suzuki himself worked there helping to set soundposts. Yet it was not until he was 17 that an inspirational recording by the great Mischa Elman showed him how beautiful the instrument could sound. Suzuki began playing after that and, at 22, moved to Germany for advanced study. Marrying there, he returned to Japan and began performing with his brothers in a string quartet—their ensemble introduced Baroque music like Bach, Lully, and Handel to Japan. At the same time, Suzuki’s teaching took on an approach that struck others as strange. People had generally believed that few students had the talent to make music. They also thought that instruction should begin at age 10 or 11, with note-reading taught from the first. Suzuki tried out radically different ideas. Any child can learn to play, he believed, as long as that child had loving, involved teachers and parents and had the chance to hear music regularly. Starting at a younger age wasn’t merely possible, Suzuki found—it was even desirable! He compared this learning to how babies learn words: They easily begin speaking while listening to and imitating their parents. Children just a few years old, he noted, can pick up a foreign language that adults would find difficult. At first, people didn’t accept Suzuki’s ideas. When they heard his students play, they thought he must be teaching young geniuses. Over the years, his insights into the potential of all children have profoundly changed the way music is taught.
During the 1940s, Suzuki lived through destruction, poverty and tragedy brought on by World War II. Yet he was known for all his 99 years as energetic, cheerful and kind. The new ideas he called “talent education” were in part an answer to sad things he had experienced and his yearning for peace. Creating great, young violinists was not the point: Music, Suzuki thought, can open people’s hearts to understanding other’s feelings. When we glimpse the feelings of a song’s composer, he taught, we play with a beautiful tone. And when we notice the feelings of people around us, we live with a beautiful heart.