Dr. Suzuki’s Kenkyusei

Memories of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki:  Son of His Environment is a brief, 2012 memoir by Lois Shepheard, a devoted master teacher of the Suzuki method.  Shepheard spent a good deal of time studying with Suzuki in Japan.  She was kenkyusei – loosely, “Research Student” to Dr. Suzuki, in a school/studio devoted to learning the master’s methods.  But really it’s clear that the type of study and teaching detailed make “disciple” a more apt description.  The students ate, breathed and drank “The Suzuki Method.”  Shepheard details somewhat earlier times for the Method than modern practitioners will be familiar with, but it’s also easy to recognize much of the pedagogy and the curriculum – it’s a delight to read about tiny Japanese students in the 1960s struggling with rhythmic Twinkle Variations and Lightly Row.

The Suzuki of the memoir is affable, passionate, generous, and charismatic.  His question of students, “Who is your teacher?” was meant to elicit names like Fritz Kreisler and Pablo Casals, two of Suzuki’s favorite strings players, versus his own name.  He believed that aural processing – LISTENING – was key to acquiring the language of music.  And the language of music is exactly how he saw it, always stressing analogies he saw to language learning.  “Anyone who can acquire their mother tongue can learn to play music” was constant refrain.  His dedication to teaching and belief in the ability of all children to learn were his hallmarks.  He felt Japanese children were only better at the violin than Americans because they started younger!

The human side of Suzuki also shines through.  He was generous, helping students get instruments and the funding for their lessons.  He was honest, and he was a taskmaster.  He was a chain smoker of unfiltered Camels who lived to the age of 99 (though his wife died earlier of emphysema).

While I was not expecting a polemic, I was somewhat disappointed with the lack of information about the philosophical context of Suzuki’s methods.  Shepheard sticks to her experiences, as a memoir should.  But if there was any part of her kenkyusei experience that taught educational philosophy or theory it does not come out in the book – not a word on behaviorism, or of the psychology of education outside of Suzuki’s own intimations to his students.

Suzuki believed Kreisler was the master of tone production on the violin, and according to Shepheard it was he who coined the term “Kreisler Highway,” as a pun really.  Suzuki was aware of the American Chrysler, and its roots in the American psyche as an automobile manufacturer.  As in English, the two names are pronounced the same (and even written with the same characters) in Japanese.

Overall the book is a charming portrait of a beloved teacher.  I look forward to further reading on Suzuki’s educational background.

Thanks for reading.


One comment

  1. […] a fundamental level, his insistence that “everyone can learn” is countered where it stands by the memoir of one of his devoted students, Lois Shepherd, which contains the case of a young man unable to ever graduate from Suzuki’s […]

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