Suzuki’s Mother-Tongue Approach

In the 1920’s a Japanese violinist named Shinichi Suzuki began developing a new way of teaching violin that he called the Mother Tongue Approach.  He observed that all children learn to speak their mother tongue very well.  He theorized that the manner in which children learn to speak could be adapted to other areas of education so that everyone could achieve high levels of ability.  He called this “The Mother Tongue Approach.”  

The particular elements of the speech development process that he applied to his violin teaching are:

1) The early nurturing relationship between parent and child.  The hallmark of the Mother Tongue Approach is an attitude that praises enthusiastically, refrains from criticism and honors the child’s desire to do well.  Most parents are excited, accepting and non-judgmental as their child begins to speak.  The Approach builds on the parent’s gentleness and the child’s trust. The parent lovingly encourages the child, attends all lessons, takes notes, learns the fundamentals of the instrument, and becomes the home teacher.  With the teacher’s guidance, the parent helps the child remember what notes to play and how to play the instrument beautifully.  Later the parent helps the student learn to read musical notation.  

2) An environment full of examples of what is to be learned-- recordings, observation, concert attendance. The parent plays every day a recording of the music the student will learn and students observe the lessons of others as often as possible.  As pieces become familiar, students yearn to play them.  During observation, students hear other children play the familiar pieces and they hear instructions that apply to everyone.   They hear that improvement comes as a result of good work.  Families learn about the larger world of music by attending area concerts and listening to non-Suzuki recordings too.

3) A peer group with which to enjoy and share growth. Other children provide the strongest motivation for a child to play.  In addition to the individual lessons, they attend regular group lessons and participate in workshops and summer institutes.  As friendships develop, they learn to encourage each other and recognize each other’s strengths.  Since all students learn the same music, they may play the same familiar tunes with children from all over the world.  

4) Frequent opportunities to practice and perform the new skills. The individual lesson is a performance for the teacher, their parents and any other students who are observing.  At group lessons, students play together and individually.  They also have formal concerts: solo recitals, group concerts in which students play the Suzuki tunes together, and concerts in which they play non-Suzuki music in chamber ensembles and orchestras.  The students have many chances to present each small skill acquired and develop a worldwide community of musical friends.  This fosters the student’s confidence and paves the way for lifelong development of ability.

The Traditional Approach

Before Dr. Suzuki began his work, the typical music student took his or her lesson alone, without any support from a parent.  Students were expected to be able to organize their practice between lessons that met only once a week.  Because there was no one helping the student to remember what notes to play, it was necessary to learn to read music from the outset.  Because of the difficulty of learning to read music and play well at the same time, most teachers required beginners to be at least 8 years old.  In most traditional violin and cello study, little or no memorization was done and performance opportunities were often infrequent.  Usually only children in musical families survived instruction long enough to learn to play a stringed instrument well. 
On the other hand, the parental involvement in Dr. Suzuki’s Mother-Tongue Approach isn’t appropriate for a teen-age or an adult student.  Students over the age of 13 may take lessons without the parent and older beginners will start reading music earlier in their instruction.  In general, Suzuki materials will be used and the Mother-Tongue Approach will be followed as closely as possible.  The student will simply become his own home teacher.  Group activities are all adapted to the needs of the students present at the lesson.