By David Mehegan
Eri Hotta’s biography of Shinichi Suzuki is about optimism, gentleness, doggedness, belief in children, humanity, and the affirmative properties of art in the face of violence and ignorance.
Suzuki: The Man and his Dream to Teach the Children of the World by Eri Hotta. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. 263 pp. Cloth. Illustrated.
About forty years ago, I drove a carless Boston Globe colleague over to Rayburn Music on Huntington Avenue, around the corner from Symphony Hall, to pick up a tiny violin for his four-year-old son, soon to begin lessons in the Suzuki Method. That preschooler is today a bearded high-school music teacher with kids of his own.
I daresay most people, most parents interested in music for their kids, have heard of the Suzuki approach to teaching very young children how to play the violin — its method books, its presumption that every child has the capacity to learn to play well, its emphasis on early development of physical skills. Since World War II, the Suzuki Method has spread around the world, though it is most popular by far in North America. Still, probably few people know much, or anything, about Shinichi Suzuki himself, the determined, mild Japanese visionary who began the movement that bears his name. There is at least one other book about him and his method, published in the 1990s by one of his American followers , but this well-researched, conceived, and executed book seems to be the first objective account of the man and his life. It is a revelation on many levels.
Shinichi Suzuki’s almost hundred-year life is an inspiring, good-news story in most ways, although it does have a bittersweet undertone of disappointment, sounded not out of failure, nor anything Suzuki himself did or didn’t do, but out of obtuse resistance of the “real” world to his overarching philosophy and the nimbus of his theory.
Shinichi Suzuki came from an old Nagoya samurai family (more a noble than a military line). His father, Masakichi Suzuki, born in 1859, had served in a military band in the Meiji period (1868-1912), and later opened a shop to make shamisen, a traditional three-stringed instrument. But because Japan in that period was intently adopting and absorbing Western culture of all kinds, he began to build violins. The astounding willingness and ability of Japanese society at that time to seize upon Western things and soon equal or exceed their quality was evident here. The Suzuki company found a huge domestic market and at its peak was producing violins by the hundreds of thousands. A contemporary, Torakusu Yamaha, did the same with organs and pianos.
Despite success and wealth, Masakichi and his family (nine sons and two daughters, by a wife and a live-in concubine) were not especially musical and had no domestic access to the great violin repertoire. Shinichi, born in 1898 to Masakichi’s concubine, at age 17 first heard the full power and beauty of the violin in a Victrola recording of Schubert’s Ave Maria by the Russian-born American Mischa Elman. Thrilled by its beauty, he resolved to study violin. But it was clear that he could make but little progress in Japan so, with financial backing from his father and from Yoshichika Tokugawa, a prominent nobleman and politician, in 1921 he went to Germany. In the midst of the tottering Weimar Republic, Suzuki’s generous allowance in yen allowed him to live well. As the German currency plummeted, he stayed in Berlin for seven years. He married Waltraud Prange, a young German woman, and studied violin with Karl Klingler, founder of the renowned Klingler Quartet.
In 1928, Shinichi and Waltraud Suzuki returned to Nagoya. Uninterested in the family business, he established the Suzuki Quartet with three of his brothers and commenced touring the country, playing the great European classics he had mastered. In 1931, he joined the faculty of a private Tokyo conservatory called Teion. There he encountered a 12-year-old violin girl prodigy, Nejiko Suwa, whose training had started in early childhood. Conscious of the limitations of his own training, starting at age 17, Suzuki concluded from Suwa’s brilliance that for true mastery, violin students had to begin, as she had, at a very early age.
But there was more to his developing outlook. Rebelling against the presumption that musical talent was a function of inborn genius, he believed that it was primarily a matter of technique and that all children, with patient and practical instruction, could learn to bow such as to make a beautiful tone, to master ambitious scores, to scale heights beyond what had long been thought possible. He called his theory “talent education.”
It is here where what most people think of as Suzuki theory calved off from the greater glacier of the master’s thinking. He believed that musical training could be a model for education of all kinds, and that proper education should lead to the development of humane character of the whole person and consequently of a whole society. His teaching methods were gentle, patient, innovative, flexible, full of games and good humor — in marked contrast to prevailing methods in Japan, which were rigid and directed at high test scores.
While he knew that children had varying levels of ability, Suzuki believed that their latent talent could always be developed, that continuous improvement is possible, that they need not compete against some external standard, but only work toward improvement. He came to believe, Hotta writes, that “art and culture could aid in a never-ending process of moral and intellectual improvement. Any art could, in Suzuki’s view, serve this purpose. … Nonetheless, Suzuki did think music unique in the way it connects the composer and the performer and the performer and the audience. Music served as a sort of medium … raising all involved to an extraordinary plane of consciousness.” As for his approach to teaching, “Already in the prewar period,” Hotta writes, “Suzuki was … not just thinking about violin, but about a much bigger picture. He could see that his approach to early childhood education might revolutionize teaching and learning more broadly and reorient Japan’s increasingly competitive society.”
Alas, it was not to be, then or later. The increasing militarization of government and society, growing xenophobia, the fanatical fetishization of the Emperor, and the drive to build an eastern empire modeled on the imperialist empires of Europe, soon overwhelmed any such humane ideas. Aside from the climate of the times, Suzuki’s ideas were just too foreign — even after the war — to official thinking about educational policy. He would always be a dreamer, hearing, in Thoreau’s phrase, “a different drummer.”
It does not appear that Shinichi Suzuki suffered repression as Japan’s invasion of China proceeded in the late ’30s and the American war approached. Only months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he published his ideas in a book, Powerful Education, which suffered no censorship. Once total war began, however, the exigencies of survival took over. The Suzuki violin factory in Nagoya was converted to make seaplane floats, until it was pulverized in a U.S. bombing raid, killing Suzuki’s younger brother Fumio — the cellist in the old quartet. In 1944, Suzuki evacuated to a rural town in the west to avoid the relentless bombing of urban areas.
After the war, in the wholesale reconstruction of society, Suzuki’s ideas for violin teaching finally took hold. The Teion School was ruined, but Suzuki decided to open a new school in Matsumoto, a historic city west of Tokyo that had not been bombed. With strong local citizen support, Matsumoto Ongakuin (the Matsumoto Music School), opened in May 1946. It was here that Suzuki’s music education ideas were at last put fully into practice. Alongside his work at the school, he proselytized actively with lectures and articles, and published a series of celebrated method books for children. He not only taught children but taught teachers in his method as well. The success of his training of small children was astonishing, and began to attract attention first in Japan, and eventually Europe and the United States. By the late ’40s, thirty-five studios had opened around Japan using Suzuki’s ideas. In 1949, Suzuki founded an umbrella organization for these studios, Talent Education Research Institute. By the ’50s, violin virtuosi and eminent music educators were making pilgrimages to Matsumoto, and Suzuki method studios were opening around the world.
The founder himself, an indefatigable perpetual motion machine, never stopped working, writing, teaching, and traveling the world. In 1969, he published his autobiography, Nurtured by Love. He died in 1998, age ninety-nine, and was working virtually to his last day.
Besides his methods, Suzuki’s successes owed much to his impossible-to-replicate personality and deep love of children (although he and Waltraud had none of their own). The book is full of photographs of Suzuki surrounded by laughing children. Hotta writes that “throughout his life, observers noted his magnetism in the present of children….It’s easy to see why children gravitated towards Suzuki. He never ran out of playful ideas and never talked down to them. One student remembered how Suzuki made a potentially stressful recital tour an occasion for fun and enrichment beyond music, teaching the kids how to skip a stone on a river, to draw landscapes with droplets of his fountain pen ink, and to race carrying pebbles with chopsticks. He would invent one game after another.”
And yet…in the world beyond, as in Japan, Suzuki’s overarching humanistic ideas fell by the wayside. In the United States, what interested people was teaching music to children, not using the art of music to develop better and more whole human beings. The American and European programs are all about the “Suzuki Method.” The arcane concept of “talent education,” of education reform in general, has been lost.
Eri Hotta is a Japanese-born writer and historian who has taught in Israel, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Her 2013 book, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, chronicles the attack on Pearl Harbor from the Japanese perspective. Her story of Shinichi Suzuki is clearly and well written, a great life story and, though her subject lived almost a century and she seems to have left out nothing important, is no longer than it needed to be. It is about optimism, gentleness, doggedness, belief in children, humanity, and the affirmative properties of art in the face of violence and ignorance.
Notwithstanding her admiration for Suzuki’s character, ideas, and methods, Hotta is clear-eyed about what she sees as an unrealism, perhaps even naivete, in his approach. Her view is informed by her own experience as a child music student in Japan, and as the parent of a small daughter with her tiny Suzuki violin in New York. She faults the master’s insistence on the phrase “talent education,” which she sees as vague and confusing: in her view, one cannot teach talent. What he was talking about, she believes, was development of whatever ability one has, noting that everybody has some. Suzuki was wary of competition, against setting up invidious comparisons among striving young individuals. Indeed, he believed that competition was bad for small children. Hotta argues, however, that competitiveness is inevitable and latent even in the Suzuki environment.
“Suzuki believed,” she writes, “that the true value of education lay in doing and being better today than one did yesterday, but few people actually think and live this way, suffering comparison only to their own latent potential. The kind of humility Suzuki proselytized is as admirable as it is hard to find in real life. Even those who share his high ideals on this score can only do so much to protect their children from competition and assessment. Suzuki never gave up the struggle, however, and took his convictions to his grave.”
David Mehegan is the former Book Editor of the Boston Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evelyn Hermann, Shinichi Suzuki: The Man and His Philosophy, 1999.