Dr. Suzuki’s World: A Contextualization

“A clever baby can become tone-deaf.  It can even become a wolf.  In fact, it can become just about anything, in accord with its specific environment.  I firmly believe that cultural and musical aptitude does not come from within, and is not inherited, but occurs through suitable environmental conditions.” – From “Nurtured by Love:  The Classic Approach to Talent Education,” by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

“I sat on their bed and pretended to read a score.  This was around the time my musician parents recognized that their one and only offspring was not musically gifted.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying; I just could not hear whatever it was they heard in a piece of music.  I enjoyed music, but I could hardly carry a tune.  And though I could read a newspaper when I was four, scores were only pretty black squiggles.” – From “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” by Audrey Niffenegger

I wrote my master’s thesis on a tiny sliver of one of the Great Big Subjects in Linguistics – child language acquisition.  In that field, which I know more about than any other, there exists a big debate between two camps. One, led by the early theories of Noam Chomsky, says that the environment of a child is insufficient to explain the acquisition of language.  They say the human brain is specially adapted to produce language, and that the human language faculty is, to a certain extent, in-born.  The other, which has a variety of manifestations but has its roots in the psychological research of Behaviorism’s progenitor, B.F. Skinner, holds that all children are born tabula rasa – blank slates onto which the environment in which they are raised etches all abilities, including the human language faculty.

After reading Dr. Shinichi Suzuki’s signature work, “Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education,” I’m convinced that Suzuki could not have been unaware of the “nature versus nurture” debate, one that is not unique to Linguistics, but that permeates the study of all human behavior.  He was a brilliant man schooled by some of the greatest minds of the 20th century.  Readers familiar with the debate and where it has gone in the 30 years since Suzuki published his book will, in all likelihood, have arrived at the conclusion that the answer lies in changing the word “versus.”  How about, “nature and nurture?”  Genetics, a field still in its infancy and that was even more so when Suzuki’s work was published in 1983, has become replete with examples of traits that require an environmental trigger to take root and grow.

But Dr. Suzuki was not working on the human genome, nor was he a speech pathologist.  Though he found inspiration for his pedagogy, like a bolt of lightning, when he realized that all children successfully acquire their “mother tongue,” his interest was in cultivating the musical talents and the budding characters of children.  He spent his life pursuing ways to teach children music better, with the belief that by doing so we can concurrently illuminate a path to being better humans.  His educational method, which he dubbed the “Talent Education Method,” in posterity now bears his name, “The Suzuki Method.”

His book is a passionate exposition of his belief in the ability of all children to learn music.  One of the most profound examples Suzuki cites, out of a great many anecdotes ranging from parakeets to world famous violinists, is that of a blind child.  These days we know not to give up on blind children, but in post-WWII Japan, most would have.  Happily, this child’s parents brought him to Suzuki, who took a week to answer the parents as to whether or not he could teach the boy.  After donning a blindfold himself and much soul-searching, Suzuki decided that the answer for a blind child is no different than the answer for any other child.  Practice and practice and practice.

At first, Suzuki’s reliance on the linguistic analogy was a stumbling block to my appreciation of his method.  As a person with a staunchly scientific worldview, it bothered me that he spoke about concepts for which I know counter-evidence to exist.  On 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 school despite truly heroic efforts.  In short, it was difficult for me to come around to Suzuki’s educational paradigm.

But by the end of his book the master won me over.  Consider the alternative:  That all children cannot learn; that we should give up on some.  Consider two educators: One believes all children can learn and works passionately to make it happen.  One believes some children simply don’t have what it takes.  Which educator’s school would you prefer for your child?

For all his brilliance in music education, it is his bold humanism that shines through in his work.  While personal encounters reveal a deep reverence for multiple faith traditions, Suzuki’s psyche is clearly steeped in the Zen Buddhism of the Japan in which he was raised – he even studied with Zen priests.  But, ironically, it is a story from his time in Europe that most reveals those influences, influences of Buddhist ideals about the oneness of the entirety of the universe, and of all the creatures it contains.

As a young man, sometime around 1920, Suzuki was permitted to travel to Germany, where he ended up living for about eight years.  Albert Einstein was his guardian at the time – much of Suzuki’s young life can be explained by luck of station in birth; the son of the owner of a large violin factory, Suzuki’s family connections enabled quite a breadth of experience for the precocious boy.

One night, at a dinner party with Einstein, the father of relativity was chatting with an older society woman who had been enchanted by young Suzuki’s post-dinner performance of a Bruch violin concerto.  The woman was surprised that a young Japanese man could so well embody the “German-ness” of Bruch.  Einstein, channeling the Buddha, countered simply, “People are all the same, Madame.”

Early childhood education remains one of our biggest challenges as a species.  Though all people are indeed the same, the stations into which we are born vary greatly.  Suzuki was a pragmatic man, and he knew that the earlier a child’s developmental course could be altered toward a positive learning environment, the greater the chances of success.  After World War II, as he developed his school in Tokyo, a key principle was that the child’s mother was the first pupil.  She had to learn to play the violin before the young one – it should be her playing that stoked the interest of the child in music.  Suzuki was well aware that it was not the hour or so per week his students spent with him that made the difference, rather it was the home environment that mattered most.

Toward the end of the book, Suzuki slips into a bit of an Orwellian dream, laying out a picture of a society with governmental supports for child-rearing, where all children are assigned a kind of state monitor to see to the best educational interests of the child.  Much has been written about different societies’ tendencies to be more communally minded or more individualistically minded, and I will not elaborate on those tendencies here.  In the end, a dream is just a dream – even to the dreamer.

I’ll end this glimpse into Suzuki’s world as I began, with his own words:

“People who are optimistic, happy, and cheerful, even though they are only so on the surface, being always conscious of the ephemerality of life and how infinitesimal their existence must seem in relation to the universe – when people like that are asked what life really means, they must answer with Mozart:  ‘I live in the love of everyone.  Only this life is worth living.’”

Thanks for reading.

Ryan

6 comments

  1. […] after finishing Suzuki’s book and review the other day, during Wednesday’s lesson I was charmed when Teacher introduced me to my new song – by Dr. […]

  2. […] learned of Bruch’s masterpiece as I read Suzuki’s book Nurtured by Love.  In it he recounts an evening when he played the Bruch Concerto during a high-society dinner […]

  3. […] I have developed an interest in the Suzuki Method, and its namesake. […]

  4. […] Dr. Suzuki was into rote practice – really, really into it.  Of course my karate is a traditional Japanese art, and Suzuki’s method was created in Japan; I mentioned in a write-up on his book that the influences of Japanese culture and of Buddhist philosophy are readily apparent in an informed reading of his classic work Nurtured by Love. […]

  5. […] end this tribute to my first year as I ended my review of Suzuki’s seminal work, “Nurtured by Love,” with Suzuki’s own translated words, “People […]

  6. […] my review of the book I mentioned my swallowing of many of the facts of linguistics, to which I happen to be privy.  I […]

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