Obituary: Shinichi Suzuki
Tuesday 27 January 1998
The Budokan, the vast modern martial arts hall in central Tokyo, usually resounds to the shouts and pants of martial arts practitioners, and to the thump of thrown muscular bodies, both male and female. But the most impressive of all the performances that take place there, haunted by the ghost of the Beatles, who made their first hysterically greeted appearance in Japan in this national sporting shrine, is provided by thousands of tiny children, many under three, all dressed alike and sawing away at their miniature violins in a mass recital of "The Merry Peasant" or the popular Japanese folk-song "Sakura".
Supervising this huge array of infantile talent is a horde of feverish teachers, all instructors in the world-famous "Suzuki Method" of playing the violin, till recently smiled on by their master and inventor of the method, a sprightly old man hardly bigger than his youthful proteges, the genial Shinichi Suzuki, whose method became one of the few bright features of Japanese education after the Pacific War.
He was the son of a noted violin maker and taught himself to play the violin after hearing a recording of Misha Elman. At the invitation of the Marquis Tokugawa, he went to Tokyo and studied with the violinist Ko Ando.
In 1921 the Marquis took him to Germany to complete his musical studies in Berlin under Karl Klingler; Albert Einstein was one of his guardians. Suzuki met the soprano Waltraud Prange and they married in 1928 at the Catholic church in Berlin.
On his return to Japan in 1928, with three of his brothers he formed the Suzuki Quartet, and founded the Tokyo String Orchestra, with which he appeared as both conductor and soloist. In 1930 he became president of the Teikoku Music School. He was also appointed to the faculty of the Imperial Music School and the Kunitachi Music School in Tokyo. He began to develop a method of teaching small children to play the violin.
He was an inspired teacher, and produced many instrumental players and singers of high quality. Some of these were themselves to become teachers of the great wave of youthful virtuosi who began to appear in international competitions during the 1950s and 1960s and who have since dominated the musical repertoire.
During the Second World War Suzuki worked for his father making pontoons for aeroplanes. At the end of the war, he was invited to Matsumoto to help start a music school. There he spent the rest of his career, teaching very small children. He started the Talent Education Movement aimed at training infants in violin, but also other instruments like the piano and the flute, under the encouraging slogan, "Anyone's talent can be developed through education." He based his theories on the fact that in language learning, an area in which the Japanese are not strong, children under three can easily assimilate foreign languages, a gift that is lost if not consciously encouraged and developed. He turned round the familiar saying, insisting, "Poets are not born - they are made". This was perhaps taking to extremes the theory I had been teaching my own students in Japan: "Poets are both born and made" - meaning that the writing of poetry demands hard work as well as inspiration.
Suzuki came closer to the reality of talent-nurturing when he declared, "A talent is not something given naturally, but something that is fostered by the teacher or the parent." He also took the view, "Every child can foster his own talent": which is the really creative idea behind his method. He encouraged children to use their natural gifts for imitation and mimesis, for listening to and assimilating sounds and new words and idioms, so that they were not intimidated by the potential difficulties in holding a musical instrument, and allowing them to experience natural posture and movement in performance, ideas partly based on the Alexander Technique. In 1964 Suzuki travelled to the United States with 10 child violinists, and introduced the "Suzuki Method" there. By the 1970s teachers in the UK were using his approach; he visited Britain most recently in 1990, when he attended the European Suzuki Conference in St Andrews.
Shinichi Suzuki opened up new paths in musical education of the very young. The Suzuki Method spread all over Japan and then all over the world. It now has several hundred thousand students.
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