Sound Breathes Life:

Championing A Humanitarian Vision Through the Suzuki Method

A work of art is an expression of a person’s whole personality, expression, and ability. If a musician wants to become a fine artist, he must first become a finer person.

—Shin’ichi Suzuki

I started playing the violin in 5th grade. My parents were very patient as I squeaked and scratched my way through the first year. I could not even hold the thing at first. I got the “most improved” award at the end of that year.

I was fortunate enough to have found a special teacher during that first year. Her name was Ann, and she was an instructor in the Suzuki method. She encouraged me. She told me I had a good ear. I didn’t know what she meant or even how she knew that about me. But I remember wanting to learn more from her. She made me believe that I could do it, that I could be a violinist someday.

But shortly after I started, Ann moved away. I switched to another teacher and began learning from other more traditional teachers. I learned a lot, but something very bad started to happen. Over the years, I experienced a slow buildup of tension. This white hot ball of pain in the center of my back developed, and it would not go away despite all the physical therapy I could find. By the end of my college years, that had become such a problem for me that I burned out. I stopped playing. I even went into another career, and I thought I would never go back. I associated music with suffering, and no teacher seemed to be able to figure out what was wrong or how to help me.

Fortunately the Suzuki method would found me again as an adult. I re-discovered it on the encouragement of another teacher. I started over at the beginning, and memorized Book One. I attended some training, and began to reboot my technique. Now, I feel like a whole new person. It has transformed my playing, and I have learned how to play without tension.

I can say first hand that the Suzuki method works. It is very powerful.

But what I want to share with you today is not so much the technical aspects of why it works, but rather its philosophical underpinnings. In its egalitarian vision, its commitment to community, its respect for dignity of life, and the primacy of nurturing loving hearts of people, it parallels many of our beliefs and priorities. Suzuki is a humanitarian philosophy, and because of that, I would submit, it is also a Unitarian Universalist one.

Shin’ichi Suzuki: The Man and His Influence

Shin’ichi Suzuki was born in in Nagoya, Japan in 1898. He worked in his father’s violin shop until he was 18 years old, and then he began teaching himself how to play, by ear, using recordings. At the age of 26 he went to Germany and studied with some of the most prominent violinists of the time.

Suzuki became convinced that every child could play the violin. He took this view back to Japan, advocating what he called the “Mother Tongue” approach. He observed that children automatically learn their mother tongue just by being around it, as a part of their natural course of learning. In the same way, he thought, they will naturally learn the violin, if they are immersed in it, through listening and consistent instruction and practice.

Simple idea. But it ran counter to the prevailing thought at the time that you are either born with talent or not. Before his time, it was rare for children to be formally taught classical instruments from an early age and even more rare for children to be accepted by a music teacher without an audition or entrance examination. 

(People still hold the view that talent is inborn. I get calls from people wanting to know if I will audition their children. I look at that as an opportunity to explain that every child can play.)

In his younger years. Suzuki was very influenced by Tolstoy’s Christian version of the moral conscience. Later, in a memoir called Nurtured By Love, Suzuki wrote:

Fifty years ago, I had encountered Tolstoy’s counsel: “The voice of conscience is the voice of God.” To live with conscience had since been my inviolable creed, but [later] ‘conscience’ was replaced for me by ‘life.’        

Suzuki believed in a concept that is hard to translate into English. It is the word “Kan” in Japanese. It means, roughly, life-force. But it refers to that primal way in which music and harmony function dynamically in the universe. Like Einstein, Suzuki saw music as something both cosmic and uniquely human.

(It is interesting to note that Suzuki also knew Albert Einstein, who was himself a violinist. Both Suzuki and Einstein viewed Mozart as a sort of cosmos-channelling genius, someone who reflected the magnificent workings of God or nature in his violin playing. Einstein used to walk around playing his violin when he was trying to solve a difficult problem, he looked at it as a sort of imagination-boosting tool.)

Shin’ichi Suzuki lived to be 100; he died in 1998. I never met him, but I have studied with his students. His teaching philosophy has made its way to the U.S over the past 50 years. and now there are many Suzuki Institutes around the country and a certification process for becoming a teacher. The Suzuki Association of America coordinates the training and oversees all the various ways that the community functions today.

The Unique Power of Suzuki

The unique power of the Suzuki method is not only in its teaching of music, but in its way of seeing the world.

It does emphasize learning by ear, but more than that, it is a whole-person approach to learning, much like Montessori, or even meditative practices like yoga. I have heard it compared to mindfulness training.

With young children, that whole-person approach comes through dynamic learning with body awareness, listening, games, singing, and other hands-on techniques. When children are taught and encourage to discover beautiful sound, they are naturally and internally more motivated to practice. It’s wonderful thing to see a child take ownership of their own playing, and begin to develop an identity around an instrument.

Imagine if I had you all put on a blindfold. After a few moments you would begin to notice sounds and smells and bodily sensations, that you weren’t aware of a moment before. Taking you into your body and using different sense organs helps you use other parts of your brain. Memorization is an aspect of the whole-person approach, because it helps people focus on what their body is doing, and on listening to their sound. (Memorization is so hard for those of us who are older! It’s not the way I was trained, traditionally, and so it remains very difficult for me to memorize, but I’m working on it.)

It was this whole-person approach that finally freed me of pain. Through Suzuki I discovered how to move my body in a different way to release tension. But more importantly I learned how to play from my heart.

There is a big difference between playing music to do something correctly, and playing music to do something expressive. When I crossed that chasm, I found joy and freedom in music again. I began to play violin from an emotional and spiritual place, and stopped trying to prove something with it. It was no longer about auditioning, showing off how virtuosic I was, impressing someone.

You might be surprised to know that many professional musicians find no joy in what they do, because it is all about mechanically performing correctly, rather than expressing oneself or exploring the possibilities of connection with others.

In Suzuki we don’t just play notes, we fall in love.

The Method In Action

I want to show you a few examples of this method in action.

First, we are going to see Dr. Suzuki teaching some very young students. They are playing from memory along with a recording. You’re going to see him clapping students in and out, stopping and starting them.

🎥 Video #1 - Suzuki Teaching Demonstration

Early Suzuki recital performance

:30 - 1:32

The point of this exercise is to show that children can learn a piece so well that they can stop and start at any point just by listening.

The next one is from the Suzuki World Convention in 2013. You’ll see a few short excerpts of different pieces played en masse and note how it nearly sounds like one instrument.

🎥 Video #2 - World Convention Concert

World Convention

4:45 to 6:20

And at this same convention, here is an example of a group master class. You’ll see an interesting practice discipline introduced for advanced students.

🎥 Video #3 - World Convention Lesson

Mass Violin Lesson

Beginning to 1:20]

Suzuki and UU: Parallel Visions

Suzuki and UU are parallel visions. I’ve found at least eight things they have in common.

  1. They are both egalitarian. They believe in the equal worth and dignity of every person.
  2. The are both communitarian. They both look at the community as a source of identity, and a locus for growth.
  3. They are both universalist. They see the potential in everyone, regardless of race, age, background, or belief.
  4. They are both creative. They believe in artistic expression, and want to see people and especially children discover themselves as creative agents.
  5. They both emphasize character. Suzuki believed that to become a better artist, you have to become a better person.
  6. They are both integrative. I like to say that playing violin is like trying to put together a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle. There are many things that all must come together in the right way. In the same way, look around the room here, and you’ll see the same jigsaw-puzzle-effect. We tend to want to put together, to synthesize, complex parts,complex ideas, and complex people.
  7. They both affirm life.

I see “Kan” or life-force, everywhere I look, but especially in the faces of my students and in their music. That is why I teach. I think we see it too, and it animates our care for the earth, and our desire to be conscious of all living things.

  1. They both uphold love as the highest goal. Suzuki said that where love is great, much can be accomplished.

What a privilege to be a part of this philosophy, this way of looking at the world, this way of recasting what children are capable of. Perhaps we can posthumously name Shin’ichi Suzuki an honorary Unitarian Universalist.

Or maybe we could think of ourselves as honorary Suzuki-ites.

What if we also began to see talent in a different light? What if we challenged notions of what we and others are really capable of? What if we helped everyone discover themselves as artists? What if we challenged everyone—and I mean everyone, smallest children to oldest adults included—to engage in a quest for beauty, and to do so within a community of other diverse people?

Think of the power that music has, to transcend race, to transcend gender, to transcend ideology, to transcend background, to transcend religion. What kind of boundaries could we bring down, if we brought this simple method into more people’s lives?

What social issues could we begin to address in a different way than we ever have before, if we could bring everyone’s children together in the way you’ve seen here, around a common musical language, and a common pursuit of character? What if music really is the key to solving our world’s most pressing problems?

Suzuki said:

I think that people who love art, those who teach art, and all of you should burn with the obligation to save the world. 

The reason I wanted to share this message with you today, was not so that you sign up for violin lessons, although of course I would celebrate if you did, but because I believe that this method, this philosophy, is capable of transforming people at a very deep level, and even saving the world.

What if we were to take the components of Suzuki and build a brand new UU ministry to underserved populations? It is kind of mind-bending to think how we would do that. But just ask: do we really believe in the transformational power of art? Do we believe it has the capacity to bring peace to our world so full of hate and conflict and political dysfunction that now happening on a global level?

Wouldn’t it be a good thing for us to teach more children how to tune in to other people, to tune in to other points of view, to tune in to their environment, to tune in to their own humanity, through the power of making music?

Again from Suzuki:

Music...tone. What remarkable power it has! Humans do not live through wisdom; they live within the magnificent workings of life. Sound breathes life—without form it lives. 

In closing, we’re going to let the music now speak for itself, letting the sound breathe life without form.

I am going to invite one of my students and fellow member up again, and we are going play a Gavotte, which is a dance.

As you listen, I invite you to reflect on how this life-force has worked in your life, and how it might work in our community as we think about how to go about achieving our most important values. As we tune in to each other, I hope that you can see in miniature the humanitarian vision of Suzuki and all the possibilities that it might bring us for helping our world tune in.