Dr. Suzuki called his teaching method the Mother-Tongue Approach, inspired by the fact that children so effortlessly learn to speak their native tongue. Prompted and encouraged by the parents’ love and the family environment, the child responds and develops this most difficult of skills, that of intelligible speech. When a child learns to speak, the following factors are at work: Listening, Motivation, Repetition, Step-by-step Mastery, Memory, Vocabulary, Parental Involvement and Love. In the Suzuki approach, each of these principles is used in the learning of an instrument. Dr Suzuki closely follows the parallel with language learning and recommends that music should become an important part of the baby’s environment from birth (or even before). When the infant’s environment includes music as well as the sounds of the mother-tongue, it is understandable that the child will develop the ability to speak and to play a musical instrument (with technical guidance) before being required to read in either language. Formal lessons frequently begin as early as 3 1/2 years of age.
Children learn to speak by listening and imitating the spoken language they hear around them. In Suzuki teaching, much emphasis is placed on daily listening to recordings of the Suzuki repertoire, as well as music in general. The more frequently the students listen to the recordings, the more easily they learn to play. Constant listening to music performed with soulfulness and tonal, expressive and dynamic sensitivity, gives children a role model for their own playing. In the lessons, these qualities are stressed from the beginning.
Parents play a crucial role in Suzuki. Learning takes place in a collaborative learning environment, between teacher, parent and child. The parent’s role includes attending each lesson with the student, taking notes and then guiding them through their practice at home – they become the ‘home teacher’. Parents also need to play the recordings daily, help to create an environment of affection, support, encouragement and understanding, and also attend workshops, concerts, group lessons, graduations and summer schools with their child.
A positive, nurturing environment is created in the lesson and is also essential at home. Children learn enthusiastically when they are supported with sincere praise and encouragement. They learn to recognise one another’s achievements, creating an environment of co-operation.
One of Suzuki’s major contributions to music education is the unique sequencing of the student repertoire. Each carefully chosen piece becomes a building block for future learning. Technique, musicianship and style are developed through the study and repetition of these pieces. This provides familiarity and hence excellent motivation to progress. Through the common repertoire within each instrument, children have a bond with other Suzuki students throughout the world. However, the spirit of Suzuki teaching is easily extended to learning all styles and periods of music.
Reading music follows the acquisition of good aural, technical and musical skills, just as reading language begins after a child can speak fluently. The stage at which the child begins to learn reading music varies according to age and general development. However, it will always be after basic playing skills have been mastered to maintain the focus on beautiful tone, solid technique and musical phrasing. Integrating ear training study and reading of musical notation with the Suzuki repertoire is also an important element of the child’s ongoing musical development.
As well as their individual lessons, students participate in group lessons. The common repertoire serves as a starting block for them to play together and later supplementary material gives them valuable ensemble experience and positive reinforcement of concepts learnt in their individual lessons. Students also take part in performances and workshops and observe other children’s lessons. All of these things are wonderful motivational tools – children love to do what they have seen other children doing.