The American Suzuki Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point: The Suzuki Method in Action

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Japanese violinist and educator, Shinichi Suzuki.

Japanese violinist and educator, Shinichi Suzuki, was born on Oct. 17, 1898 in Nagoya, Japan. Though his father owned a violin factory, Suzuki did not appreciate the beautiful tone of a stringed instrument until, as a 17 year old, he heard violinist Mischa Elman’s recording of Schubert’s Ave Maria. After hearing the recording he went to the factory, picked out a violin and bow, and spent days trying to imitate what he had heard. He began formal violin study a few years later, and at 22, had the chance to study in Germany. His own beginning attempts on the violin, and the experience of learning the German language as an adult, influenced Dr. Suzuki’s later ideas about teaching children.

After WWII, Suzuki moved to Matsumoto. There he started a conservatory where pre-school aged children could learn to play the violin. He wanted to test his theory that if music was taught in the same manner as we learn our mother-tongue, every child would be successful and develop their musical skills to a high level. Just as one learns whatever language is spoken in their environment, Suzuki believed that a musical environment has more effect on a child’s ability than his/her genetics–a novel thought in the 1940s. He also believed that if children hear good music and learn to play with sensitivity and beautiful tone, they will become noble citizens who recognize beauty in the world and the people around them, and thereby mature into people of peace not war.

In 1964, the American String Teacher’s Association (ASTA) invited Suzuki to bring a tour group to play at their convention. The teachers attending were amazed at the advanced skills and musicianship demonstrated by Suzuki’s students. To learn more about the Suzuki method, ASTA arranged a tour to Japan for American teachers in 1967. Margery V. Aber was one of those on the tour. The day before she left for Japan, she interviewed for the position of professor of violin at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP). She was notified of her hiring while still in Matsumoto. When Aber returned to UWSP, she began to use the Suzuki method with beginning violinists in the University Lab School. Four years later, in 1971, to provide a more comprehensive musical environment for the fledgling group of Suzuki students, she founded the American Suzuki Institute (ASI) at the UWSP.

In 1976, at Aber’s invitation, Suzuki spent two weeks at the American Suzuki Institute. During this time he gave lectures and demonstrations to teachers and parents, and taught master classes and group classes to students. All of his presentations were recorded. The footage in this collection is important from both a teaching and a historical standpoint. At age 77, Suzuki was still very active. He was at the pinnacle of his career and traveling internationally to promote his philosophy and his particular approach to teaching the complexities of string playing, especially to children as young as 3 or 4 years of age. His playing skills were still at a high level and his English language skills were at their peak. In later years, Suzuki’s teaching focused exclusively on teaching tone and its implications for the bow arm almost to the exclusion of the left hand. These videos show him at an earlier stage in his career when Suzuki’s attention was more balanced between left hand and right hand techniques.

In addition to the original footage, Aber and UWSP graduate students of that era compiled twelve tapes that are edited versions of the original videos. These are organized by topic so that anytime Suzuki spoke or demonstrated a technique for changing strings that clip is on the tape of that title. For example, when he spoke about posture and left hand technique that clip is on the tape of that title. The topics represented in these edited videos are:

  • Philosophy
  • Tonalization
  • Finger Flexibility and Thumb Power
  • Posture and Left Hand Techniques
  • Bowing
  • Vertical Power
  • Changing Strings
  • Tone
  • Musical Tempo

Dr. Suzuki died on January 26, 1998. There is now a whole generation or more of teachers and students who never met or observed Suzuki teaching. Seeing and hearing him speak about his philosophy of education allows viewers to gain insight into the person behind the vision. Those researching the development of string technique, the mother-tongue approach to music education, or early childhood music education now have access to a primary source that shows Suzuki at the peak of his career.

The American Suzuki Institute is held on the UWSP campus each August. It is the oldest and largest of its kind outside of Japan. It is also the prototype for other institutes that have been established in the Americas, Europe, Australia, and other countries. Because of the vision of Margery V. Aber, the American Suzuki Institute developed a reputation for being at the center of the Suzuki movement. It became a gathering place for many of the best nationally and internationally known teachers in the field. When these innovative minds gathered at the Institute with enthusiastic students and dedicated parents, the resulting environment was rich with excellence, collaboration, inspiration, and confidence in the belief that every child can learn. It is only fitting then that this collection of videotape continues to contribute to the Suzuki legacy.