I just finished reading "Nurtured by Love," a book by Shinichi Suzuki that introduces the Suzuki method of Talent Education. The main concept behind Talent Education is the idea that talent is NOT merely an in-born trait. Rather, we all have the ability to learn, and the skills that we develop (i.e. our "talents") are the result of our upbringing and experiences in life. Through talent education, any child can develop a talent for music.
While most people think about the Suzuki method in regard to musical education (specifically violin and piano), Suzuki sees Talent Education as "life education." The same principles that help children to become talented in music, will also help them to become good people for the rest of their lives.
If you've read a few of my blog entries, you probably know that I'm displeased with my musical education. My main gripe is the fact that ear training and developing the ability to play by ear wasn't even remotely discussed until I entered college. Honestly, I had no idea that anyone *could* play something entirely by ear (boy was I clueless). Even though I was one of the best high school trumpeters in the state, I couldn't even play a simple song by ear. Too bad I didn't have my ear training tools back then!
I didn't really appreciate the necessity to play by ear until I began college. That's when I'd finally meet jazz musicians who could play effortlessly by ear. They were phenomenal. By comparison, I was terrible. Even though I would soon begin to take ear-training classes in college, those classes were solely focused on identifying sounds. In two years of college ear training, we never discussed, nor did we practice, playing by ear. Due to this omission, and due to the fact that I still couldn't play by ear, I had resigned myself to the idea that it's a talent you're either born with or not. Since I didn't have it, there was no point trying.
I now believe that we can all ABSOLUTELY develop the ability to play by ear. I also believe it's one of the single most important skills for an improviser, or any master musician for that matter. If this is true, why didn't any of my music teachers try to develop this ability in me, or in any of the other students I knew?
And this brings us back to Suzuki… I first became interested in the Suzuki method several months ago, while researching alternative methods of music education. Among other things, I read that Suzuki believes children should learn to play their instrument before they learn to read music.
Suzuki advocates playing before reading because that is precisely how children learn their native language -- children learn to speak before they learn to read. By the time children do learn to read, they are already able to speak fluently in their language (or in multiple languages!) as they have internalized all of the skills required to speak. Even subtle nuances such as dialects and inflections are already mastered before reading enters the picture. Children learn all of this because they are immersed in speech by their parents from the day they are born. Suzuki applies this same mother-tongue approach to teach music. In essence, children learn to speak music before they learn to read music. Makes sense to me.
Suzuki's Talent Education School started in the 1940's. It was brought to the U.S. in 1959. "Nurtured By Love" was published in 1983 (1983 is when it was translated to English). So, these ideas have been around for a while. They make a lot of sense to me and I think they would have helped fill in the gaps from my own musical education. So why weren't they adopted by more educators? Why is music education today strikingly similar to the way Suzuki describes it to be in the 1940's? Why are we taught to read music before we can "speak" it? No, I'm not really looking for answers to these questions. I'm just looking for a change in music education…
YES, YOU CAN TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS
While Suzuki focuses mostly on child education, that doesn't mean adults have missed their window of opportunity. It just means it will take longer for us to develop similar skills because we have to retrain ourselves. Suzuki gives the example of learning how to sing a scale in tune. If you've sung it out of tune 3,000 times, you will need to repeat it correctly more than 3,000 times in order to retrain yourself. That means you might have many years of retraining ahead of you (as do I), but at least it's attainable.
SuzukiTalented.org - read the History and FAQs sections
SuzukiAssociation.org - Suzuki Association of the Americas. Includes a teacher directory.