In the Thirties, a Japanese man called Shinichi Suzuki had a revelation.
He realized every japanese child could speak japanese. Even if this may seem a commonplace, it is not. Japanese is a very though and complex language, still every child born in Japan is capable of learning it in few years, typically less than 3. “How was that possible?” Suzuki asked himself. And he suddenly found a reply to his question : children learnt language through listening, imitating and being immersed in a “linguistic environment”.
Suzuki was a violinist and he was looking for a strategy to teach very young students. In 1931, in fact, a man brought to him his 4 year old child, asking Suzuki to teach him to play the violin. The young Suzuki at first didn’t know how to teach, but then he had that revelation. A child could learn violin just like he had learnt his mother tonguee. Through listening, imitation, repetition and motivation. And the environment had the responsibility to develop his abilities. To nurture his potential and make the best human being out of him. The parents, and in particular the mum, should take part at every lesson and work with the child at home. The child’s mum was a sort of “home coach” in Suzuki’s view.
Just like behavioural psychology approach in those years (Watson, 1930: Skinner, 1931), Suzuki saw the child as a product of his environment. No skill, in his vision, could develop without being taught or nurtured by the environment. He said “What is missing from environment will not develop on its own” : therefore, talent was the result of a child’s development, and not something inborn or extremely rare. Being a behavioural psychologist myself, I wonder if Suzuki knew about Skinner or Watson’s theories. I wonder if he studied them and if he was aware of being, in some ways, a radical behaviourist. Even his educational philosophy and his advice to the parents – first of all, to the mothers- had a behavioural foundation. But I’ll come back to this later, because I’d like to get to the heart of the matter.
If talent wasn’t inborn, then, every child could acquire it. The most important finding of Suzuki’s was, in my opinion, the following : “ Every child can”. Every child can learn to play the violin and become a better human being thanks to it, despite his abilities, disabilities, strengths, weaknesses, inborn pitch and rhythmical sense, and despite his age and cultural background. The only necessary and sufficient condition to learn is to have a musical environment. Or to create it. And parents who are willing to seriously undertake and carry on their musical pathway.
In my work with disabled students, I’ve had proof that really every child can learn. I had students with a lot of different disabilities and with severe impairments : severe autism, Asperger syndrome, deafness, blindness, genetic syndromes, neuromuscular diseases, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, dyslexia and so on. And I never ever met a child who couldn’t learn. With the right type and amount of work, by the child as well as the family, everyone learnt. Everyone improved and met my teaching aims. Everyone enhanced his skills and developed his abilities. Even the most severely disabled student acquired some music ability and learnt the basics of the instrument. So Suzuki was right. In Nurtured by Love he tells us about two children, one blind and the other hemiparetic, who overcame their disability through violin playing and they learnt to play just like the other children. (Suzuki, 1983). In my opinion his great and unique discovery has been underestimated, and it is still today, by too many people.
The most common reason for this is the prominence of traditional method in music schools. Traditional method believes talent is innate and few people have it. It’s doesn’t ask the parents to be involved in their child’s musical experience. It requires the student to be at least 7 or 8 to begin the lessons, and it’s strongly based on music reading and writing before than being allowed to play. With these rules, very young and / or disabled students are not allowed to learn. But also very few traditional teachers think a young or disabled child can learn. The opposite, in Suzuki’s view reading music was not necessary to play, because, like he pointed out “No bird learns to sing by reading”. (Suzuki, 1983). Another difference with the traditional method lies in the aims of teaching violin. Traditional teachers often teach to create professional musicians. Suzuki, at the contrary, had a bigger aim: he wanted to make good citizens, wonderful human beings and great souls. For him, violin was just a tool to achieve greater goals and to change people and the world. He certainly had very big dreams, but, like he said, music and love have indeed this enormous power. They can change lives and people and touch their hearts and souls. I think every teacher should have this goal. Teaching is about carrying out the best from someone and therefore changing lives. A teacher should foster and lead young children to help them achieving a better and happier life and future.
A teacher who had very similar ideas was a forerunner of Suzuki method, Edith Lynwood Winn (1868-1933). An American teacher, pedagogue and writer, she was the first to think about a violin teaching approach respectful of children’s features. She thought talent was acquired and not innate, that every child could learn. She also believed in the importance of having specialized teachers, because she thought teaching to beginners was a very hard matter. “The theory that any teacher is good enough for a beginner is fast becoming null and void” (Lynwood Wynn, 1908). I find her theory very interesting because, as a teacher, I suffer the lack of specialization I see here in Italy about too many people who works with very young children. And Nurtured by Love underlines, as well, the importance of being carefully prepared and also passionate to teach young children. Another similarity between Lynwood Wynn and Suzuki is the “sound” topic. Suzuki wanted his students to make a nice sound and a ringing tone. Learning the notes was, in his opinion, just the first phase. The most important one was to develop a wonderful sound and a deep music sensitivity and ability to say something throughout the instrument. Repetition had the aim to take the playing ability to a greater level. He called this level “superior ability”, which was something any student should aspire to. He used to say “Now you are able to play this piece through, we’re going to start your lessons to play it extremely well!” (Suzuki, 1983) And the sound production was crucial to achieve this level. In the same way, Edith Lynwood Wynn wrote: “Above all, they (the teachers) must be able to produce a beautiful tone, – the first model which a child hears” (Lynwood Wynn, 1908). I find this completely true, because the sound is the “voice” of the violinist and the aspect which characterizes the “language” of music.
Another Suzuki’s concept I find crucial is the idea of “kindness”. He said a parent or a teacher should always be kind and positive to the child, this way the child would have learnt how to be kind to the others. The making of a “noble heart” went through a positive attitude towards life and people. He wanted his students and their parents to act in a generous, gentle, helpful and nice way. The Talent Education School was first of all a school of life, and Suzuki’s children learnt how to be open hearted and how to achieve a good control of themselves and their feelings in a productive and enriching manner. It may seem quite an utopian idea, but I’ve experienced the power of music education too with my students. In my studio, children with “typical” abilities and children with disabilities grow up and play together. They help each other and are the most kind, generous and spontaneous human beings I’ve ever met. And this is the result of their musical education.
Positive communication and positive reinforcement are, by the way, also key concepts in Applied Behaviour Analysis. I mentioned this approach before, talking about behavioural psychology. ABA is a science which comes from the studies Skinner did in Suzuki’s years. Research in ABA shows that positive reinforcement is much more effective in education and in changing behaviours than punishing or other strategies. Suzuki taught the same. But he went further, talking about motivation, which is the basis of ABA science, learning by having fun and modelling. This is a behavioural strategy based on imitation of a model, which is exactly what the Suzuki method is about. He also used physical guidance, prompt and fading, which are really effective to teach goal behaviours to very young or non verbal students. He had a scientific approach, with his well organized and structured repertoire. With his analytic way of teaching and home practicing, step by step. With clear goals and steps. He proposed, finally, to do a sort of “conditioning” towards the violin, creating an association between something the child knew and liked yet (his parents, toys, his environment, his life routines) and the instrument. This way, the violin would have become something positive and likeable and the child would have loved it for the rest of his life.
In conclusion, in Nurtured by Love Suzuki demonstrates through his own life and work how would be possible to change lives thanks to the violin. He had this vision of a better, happier and kinder world, and he worked hard to realize his dream. Years later, we can say he succeeded, because Suzuki method did change the lives of so many children and families, and it is still doing it. I hope more and more teachers and parents will have also in the future the opportunity to meet this great educational philosophy. Because music and violin are, without any doubt, a gift for life.