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Creating the Environment: the Core of the Suzuki Method

One of the core tenets behind the Suzuki Method is that every child can learn. We know this to be true because every child learns to speak their mother tongue at a very high level. Consider the power of this statement. Every child, not a select few, not only those who display a desire to learn a musical instrument, or show signs of a “natural talent”, but every single child. Children (and up to adults as well) demonstrate their capacity to develop the skills and abilities required to speak a language at a very young age, so we know that children can learn an exceptionally difficult skill, very well, at a young age. As a Suzuki teacher, this idea that "every child can learn" is a core belief of mine which frames each and every lesson I teach. However, with this statement, there is a large caveat: While it is undoubtedly true that every child can learn, and can become exceptionally skilled, the large part of the work for us as teachers and Suzuki parents is to create a positive, nurturing, and loving learning environment for the child, in which their abilities can then be fostered.

When we think back to the language learning analogy that led to the Suzuki Method, we think often of the practicalities of how we learn a language. It’s easy to understand how babies learn to speak: we have all done it ourselves, and witnessed it within our own families with our own children. Babies are immersed in a world rich in language, starting from their development in the womb. When they enter our world, they spend much of their time observing and absorbing the language of others around them, which creates a desire to want to do what the others around them are doing. They see family members talking to each other and having fun, so they develop a want and need to communicate, and want to join in on the “fun” too. The baby begins to imitate the sounds around them and the family that surrounds the baby showers the child with love and praise each and every time they make any new effort to say a new sound, new word, or repeat an older word. One of my most favorite 15 seconds committed to film is of my (then) baby nephew marveling at his newly acquired word, BANANA. He says it over, over, and over again, and each time, he is laughing, and smiling wider with each repetition. A look of complete joy and elation lights up his face. Meanwhile, all the grown-ups in the room are just as pleased and excited as he is over this new, impressive, feat. We never stop to say, “Oh, seems you’re not so good at that... Let’s try something else! Or “Wow, it’s taking you so long to learn how to make the mama sound, let’s skip it.” -- that would be ridiculous! We trust the baby will learn to speak at his or her own pace, and we do not hold the baby to a timeline. We see how small words are building blocks for bigger words and that once the child learns a word, that word becomes part of their vocabulary. It is repeated constantly and is never discarded. Babies make efforts to speak many, many, times throughout the day, each and every day. We also trust that the baby will speak for a few years before they begin to learn to read. Eventually we learn to accept that the child will become even more fluent and will continue to expand their vocabulary in lessons at school, where the parent is not present.

There are so many concrete parallels that apply directly to music from the mother tongue / language learning analogy. We create the musical environment by playing the recordings of beautiful cello or violin performing the Suzuki Repertoire, or other pieces that the child will come to learn. We play the recordings often throughout the day, each and every day. If you haven’t read the SAA article on listening from last month’s newsletter, the importance of listening is explained in great detail, and it is absolutely worth a read. We bring our children to group class, where they see others working on the same skills (or more advanced ones) that they are working on, creating a desire for them to want to “play” or join in on the fun. We are also so fortunate to be at a school where we can witness on a regular basis, children at all different levels of learning, from Book 1 class, to Allegro!!! (do you have your tickets to the show yet?!), to Cellissimo, and Chicago Consort. We even have faculty recitals, and every 5 years a special anniversary concert to showcase how far this method of learning can go! The Suzuki books that we work from are based entirely on the idea that music is made up of small building blocks. The repertoire is designed so that each new piece beyond Twinkle either reinforces previous skills or introduces one or two new skills. Our teachers hear review of earlier pieces at every lesson. We praise each beautiful round pinky, every great violin or cello hold; each and every small step in the beginning. Though it is at times difficult for new families to understand, we also let go of the idea of a timeline, just as we do when a child learns a language. We have faith that the child will become musical if we provide them with the right environment, and we know practices or lessons should not be valued on how much we get done or how fast we move. We also accept that there will be a time when our child does not need us in the same way they did when they were younger. They will become more independent as they progress to learn more advanced skills and techniques on their instruments. You will eventually be, as Ed Sprunger says, “standing by to admire.”

These concrete parallels between music education and language learning are easy to see. What’s easier to forget are our priorities for our children as human beings. Dr. Suzuki points out in Ability Development from Age Zero, that in the Japanese language, the word for education is kyoiku 教育:

教 = kyo, in the broadest sense, means to teach, or a doctrine.

育 = iku, to nurture.

I think it is quite wonderful that the kanji for “to nurture” is a part of this larger word. While it’s true that there is a lot of knowledge and many physical skills that must be acquired to learn a musical instrument, we are fundamentally wrong if we approach lessons with playing of the instrument as the primary goal. That goal of larger musical education cannot be met without nurturing the child before us first. Once the child becomes comfortable with the idea that all of their needs are being met and they feel ready, they will eventually, but just about always, come to learn. Before you concentrated on your child learning to speak, what were your hopes for him or her? What were your priorities to your child in those first few months of life? Survival, (is my baby getting the nourishment they need?), contentment (is she happy or inconsolable?), and overall health (are we gaining enough weight? Are there any major medical concerns?). In Ability Development from Age Zero, Dr. Suzuki advises parents to remember what it was they said to themselves when their babies were born: “I hope that this child is happy and healthy all of his life.” With this in our minds and in our hearts, how do we as Suzuki parents and teachers create the nurturing and loving environment for our child?

The specifics of how to create a positive learning environment at the lesson, at the home lesson, the listening at home, and at group lessons, have all been well documented in various mediums. Mr. Kreitman’s book, Teaching from the Balance Point is a great start, and also other WSSTE/NSS faculty newsletter articles. If you feel you need more ideas in this realm, please ask your teacher for some recommended reading! But, what it boils down to is: your child needs to be nurtured; their physical and emotional needs must be met first and foremost. Did they get a snack, go to the bathroom, wash their hands, receive a hug, before coming to the lesson, or did you rush in the door straight from school? Are they experiencing any residual feelings from a big event earlier in the day which need to be acknowledged? Did they have any opportunity to get physical exercise today? What they need next is your attention, focus, and dedication at private lessons and in group. Are you really taking notes on your phone, or are you checking your emails? Are you interested and engaged in what happens in these lessons? Do you understand fully? At home practice, are you as calm and gentle as your teacher is with your child in the lesson? Or do other frustrations of the day show up in practice? And lastly, Is this important to you?

I have observed over the years as a Suzuki student and a Suzuki teacher that the parent’s attitude towards their musical activities will almost always be evident in the student’s behaviors. Self reflection is a difficult but necessary part of growth for Suzuki parents and teachers. Our students don’t develop in a vacuum; they develop in accordance to the environment we provide for them. Mozart’s father Leopold wrote one of the most important treatises on violin playing that is still relevant to this day! Would Mozart still have been Mozart if his father was a farmer? Luckily, we don’t need to be Leopold Mozart to raise a musical child. If we start from a place of love, and provide a nurturing learning environment, we can be assured that development of ability will come on their instrument. Along the way, they will learn many wonderful life skills which will turn them into a remarkable human being. And how special that we will bear witness to hundreds of families whose lives have been changed in this very way at our concert on May 8th!

"When a flower does not bloom, we change the environment in which it grows, not the flower." Alexander Den Heijer

Thank you to Miyako Ono for helping verify translations!

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