Mary Wakefield

The Suzuki method didn’t make me a great violinist. But it did change my life

If you ever wonder whether it’s worth dragging your child to practice, I have the answer

24 May 2014

Do you ever wonder, as your little darling balks at doing her violin or piano practice again, what all the pain is for? All those battles, and then when she escapes your clutches she’ll give it up. In later life the blanket of amnesia will fall over those childhood years and it might be as if she’d never played at all.

I learnt the violin by the Suzuki method from the age of three until about 14. It was a newish fad back then in London, although Shinichi Suzuki, the movement’s founder, was in his eighties and had been teaching in Japan since the war. Suzuki’s idea was simple and had come to him as he watched toddlers learn to speak: start a child young enough and he will learn music the way he does language — naturally and easily. The ‘mother tongue’ philosophy, it was called.

The ideal Suzuki child is immersed in music. He spends his first year without a bow, simply holding a tiny violin under his chin, listening. When he gets his bow, the ideal Suzuki child is so keen to practise he often chooses to do more than his mandatory hour a day. I was not an ideal Suzuki child. My mother still bears the psychic scars of dragging me to practice. Sometimes even now, she murmurs as if traumatised: ‘Open A string, Mary please, open A.’ I remember more than once standing, bow dangling from a finger, thinking darkly that I would never, ever speak to her again.

And was it worth it, for all those years? I don’t play these days but every now and then, hoovering beneath the sofa, I bump into the violin in its case and consider the question. Or I did, until one evening quite recently, when the answer became clear.

I’d gone to a concert put on in honour of my old teacher, a brilliant, vital woman called Helen Brunner who introduced the Suzuki method to this country. The concert kicked off with a performance by those who’d been her star pupils back in the day: the one-time Suzuki ‘gold’ group, now in their thirties and forties. There they stood on stage, lawyers, bankers, teachers, all in rows with perfect Suzuki posture: feet apart, violins up, looking just as they had at six. Then they began to play, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and within a few seconds I was in tears.

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As a child, your life is not your own — you bob along in some adult’s wake and then, anyway, you forget it all. It’s hard to know what’s formed you in the end. Was it your parents? School? The football team? It took the gold group concert for me to realise quite suddenly how formative my Suzuki years had been.

They began in 1979 when my mother rang on Helen Brunner’s doorbell. Beside it was a typed label: ‘If you press this bell your life will change’. Every week after that I pressed the bell and scuttled into the studio. Helen was (is still) exceedingly tall and blazed with energy. I was small and felt exposed under her luminous stare, and I never became one of her stars, I never made the gold group, but it’s true my life did change.

From the age of three I had a thing, something that defined me. This is invaluable for a child. Maybe I was Mary the absent-minded, but I was also Mary who played the violin. If you start young your instrument becomes part of you; its form and feel. A fiddle player is marked out in public by the reddish bruise a chin-rest makes on the underside of the jaw. I’ll always know the way a violin  balances by the scroll on one finger, or tucks under a crooked right arm; the creak of rosin on a bow.

Nothing in my life since has taught me so ruthlessly that it takes hard work to create something worthwhile. For the first few years of playing, the violin sounds like a dying cat, or bike brakes in the rain. There are no short-cuts, no scams. But then (after a decade or so) it’s a joy.

Suzuki is often accused of being a cult and for a brief moment, as I mopped up my tears, I wondered whether I’d been brainwashed. It’s true Dr Suzuki did have an evangelical streak: his stated aim was to create not professional musicians but good citizens. He said, ‘If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.’ Now, this sounds very dubious to your average Brit, but in a way Suzuki was right. Not that we developed beautiful hearts, not those of us in the brown group anyway — but just as the novels you read when young shape your feelings and thoughts, so, as we sawed away each day at Bach and Mozart, they affected us.

Because of the emphasis on practice and repetition, there’s much talk online of the Suzuki method creating ‘automatons’ or ‘stamping out individuality’. To this I say: horseshit. Talk of individuality misses the point, not just of Suzuki, but of music, which isn’t about showing off at all. You have to practise to be worth listening to, and this takes sacrifice, and not just from the pupil. The Suzuki parent is required, with no exceptions, to attend lessons and to learn as their child learns every step of the way. It occurred to me during that concert, as I realised belatedly how much I felt for the violin, that I’ve never thought in 36 years to thank my poor mum. So much for sensitivity.

One thing about Suzuki’s philosophy does seem askew. Suzuki thought that talent isn’t inherited but taught; that every child can learn to play equally well. Here I think he’s wrong. Helen Brunner’s Notting Hill gang knew right from the start which ones of us were best. I could tell you their names even now.

As the concert drew to an end, Helen picked up her own violin and appeared on stage to lead the gang in a round of Pachelbel’s Canon. She stood tall like a mast, seeming somehow to conduct energy from elsewhere into the group. When they all took their bow, I got to my feet and clapped to them over the heads of the sitting audience, feeling like a seal stranded on the beach signalling to his colony out at sea.

Mary Wakefield is deputy editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • andylowings

    Its all well and good to go to immense effort to teach your kids to love music, and play an instrument themselves. But paying audiences have now essentially collapsed.
    CD sales are tailing down to zero, and live music events are squeezed out of existence by a combination of laws; internet competition and apathy.

    Cultural activities won`t survive alone, as so many think…
    “Sorry we`re busy again this Saturday, John and Jane are here..good luck with the concert..”

    When your kids grow up skilled in violin you will have to explain why there is virtually nowhere where they can play, and really, there is no-one who notices they are there at all.

    • Sarah Schmalenberger

      Have you been living under a rock, andylowings? Where is your verification that your beliefs are facts? The Minnesota State Arts Board recently published statistics that may cause you to reconsider you “gloom and doom” scenario (triple”w” then The Metropolitan Opera made millions in ticket sales this past year. These statistics were located quite easily, because I follow arts writers such as Scott Chamberlain whose most recent essay discussed arts and sports (on his blog Mask of the Flower Prince)

      Perhaps you need to find some new friends – like those of us who DO attend concerts of our peers and pals, who purchase new music, who patronize music and other arts. Learn about the fabulous Young Musicians of Minnesota, who have shown us that A LOT OF pre-college students are passionate about classical music.

      Many of those who attend or participate in concerts had early music activities like Suzuki – which is what this article is about. As for your lament about kids growing up and not garnering particular attention, I would point out that no pedagogical method, not even the fabulous Suzuki approach, is designed with the goal of creating celebrities, a performance venue for its graduates, or a future that reimburses precisely the time and effort (and money) spent on lessons and classes. Cultivating a community of listeners and supportive arts patrons takes a great deal more effort than what comes out of lessons or a class recital event. What Suzuki and other such childhood music teachings provide are the launch pad for building a sustainable arts culture.

      I think I’m the only one from my high school class who is making a living in music; but my former classmates attend a good many concerts, and they purchase music of all varieties, and they are happy for me. I do know firsthand the disappointment of seeing small audiences at my own performances and those of my students. These situations pose creative challenges for me to re-think how best to to build a network of people who would be interested in what we do – to participate or to listen or support. It is never something that will be “done” simply because of finishing a course of study, or achieving some goal.

      Longevity in the performing arts – which includes pedagogy – requires constant reflection upon the ongoing changes of community values and needs. I see a community that continues to value “classical” music, an audience that has a hearty population of young people, but also a desire to engage with the repertoire in new ways as well as traditional. So, andylowlings, if you are seeking something more than sharing your personal bitterness, then I encourage you to look for some new community activities. Get involved with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra or the Minnesota Orchestra, or one of the many local orchestras. Sing if you can or want. There is always a place for another musical voice.

      • andylowings

        Hi Sarah, Bless you all there. I love your sunny positivity. It is so typical of all your countrymates.

        I think your reply boils down to “You must try harder” and clearly, Minnesota State Arts Board Metropolitan Opera, you feel, is going from strength to strength. I am most heartened to hear this, especially if Mr Scott Chamberlain says so.

        Kind regards from Cambridgeshire England.

        • Sarah Schmalenberger

          LOL. I guess my ignorance of things above my intelligence and knowledge – that you and your countrymates alone apparently possess – must be the source of my bliss. You are bequeathed the last laugh to cluck “I told you so” if Mister Scott and I are proven wrong at the end of our days.

          • andylowings

            I hope I get the chance to meet and talk further to such interesting people, perhaps after my next event here. Soundscape, on Monday.
            Bravo to both of you !

          • LucieCabrol

            and another thing Mr Andy Lowings, ya miserable old pessimist, my daughter plays flute at south hampstead high school and if the astonishing range, enthusiasm, and sheer excellence on show there is anything to go by…we are just fine….seriously, I was astonished at how good they all were.

          • andylowings

            Dear Mrs Cabrol, I don`t think your daughter`s, no doubt fine Hampstead school concert, is real evidence of a vibrant UK arts scene. My proposition was that life is getting much harder for live professional musicians. Of course, there are going to be instances where this is not the case… Covent Garden opera will keep going, Sting will earn a fortune and Andrew Lloyd Webber will draw people in…and your kids will want to learn.

            But an overview of your local village hall, your local arts centre, the theatres, churches, pubs and those venues who make up the mass of ordinary live artistic events will show that there has been a massive decline. To the detriment of us all I sadly contend. Kindest regards

          • Sarah Schmalenberger

            You are most welcome in Minnesota! Would love to chat, and to have you hear the fabulous orchestras here!

        • Scott Chamberlain

          Andylowings, Greetings back from our side of the Atlantic!

          I was somewhat surprised to be called into this discussion, but it seems I should reply.

          Indeed, I would be most concerned to learn that the UK is somehow turning its back on its wondrous cultural heritage—despite Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz’s “Das Land ohne Musik” quip, Britain has built up an incomparable musical infrastructure, nurtured brilliant composers, and done much to ensure that classical music will continue to thrive into the future. Could it be this whole remarkable system is crumbling?

          Mercifully, I think you are mistaken. I concur that classical
          CD sales have fallen, but so have CD sales generally; that model of recording and distributing music has been superseded. And I’m encouraged that while the huge mega-labels such as Decca have had a rough go of it, smaller independent labels such as BIS, Ondine and your
          own Hyperion have continued to thrive in the new digital age. And I’m not sure that I’d say English audiences are necessarily apathetic—the Arts Council of England points out that 17% of adults attended a classical music concert (compared to 15% who go to church at least once a month), and that the number of attendees has actually risen over the past decade. And, the single largest commercial radio station in the UK is ClassicFM.

          Are there challenges? Of course. But I’m not at all ready to write an epitaph for classical music just yet… on either side of the Atlantic.

    • Suzanne Dicker

      My children who had Suzuki violin lessons for a decade and are now young adults find plenty of places to play – hospitals, nursing homes, coffee houses and they have not chosen to be professional musicians. They love music, all kinds. They have skills which bring joy to people and to themselves. I went with my daughter to a cancer infusion ward last week as she quietly played her violin. I can tell you that all the patients and staff noticed and were very grateful.
      Yes, I went through immense effort practicing with my children day in day out year after year. The payoff is a rich life indeed.

      • Terry Field

        Well said. What else needs to be said after that?

    • manonthebus

      What a hopeless comment. If you think that learning to play a musical instrument is merely a matter of later personal prosperity, you have an undeveloped mind.

    • Guest

      There are community orchestras across the entire United States –

  • andylowings

    Its all well and good to go to immense effort to teach your kids to love music, and play an instrument themselves. But paying audiences have now essentially collapsed.
    CD sales are tailing down to zero, and live music events are squeezed out of existence by a combination of laws; internet competition and apathy.

    Cultural activities won`t survive alone, as so many think…
    “Sorry we`re busy again this Saturday, John and Jane are here..good luck with the concert..”

    When your kids grow up skilled in violin you will have to explain why there is virtually nowhere where they can play, and really, there is no-one who notices they are there at all.

  • LucieCabrol

    By the way Mary, any relation to old waver wakefield who used to swish down the wing in for England back in the day?

  • rtj1211

    The real issue concerns whether you have to force children to do something they aren’t interested in, don’t enjoy or really aren’t that good at.

    It’s one thing getting children to try things out, asking them to stick with it for 12 months to give it a fair trial. Quite another forcing them to do it for a decade.

    I hope things have changed since my day when aural tests determined that you played the violin, rather than saying you had musical potential and which instrument might suit you?

    I spent 10 years being ritually humiliated in a variety of ways before having proper teaching, which allowed me to complete a journey and then give up. If I’d had proper teaching, which saw music as an expression of soul, not as a compulsory drudge to expiate adult egos, then maybe I’d have continued all my life.

    It’s the height of irony that as a society we are now hypersensitive about the slightest slight to women’s ‘dignity’, ‘femininity’, ‘rights’ etc etc.

    But force a kid to scrape a violin for a decade, enduring taunting at school, humiliation on Saturdays and at residential courses and terror at concerts, and that’s just fine and dandy.

    It’s a marvellous way to instil self-hatred, destruction of self-worth and a belief that your life is not yours to live.

    All you need to do is say after six months: ‘this isn’t working: let’s try a different instrument’…..

    How hard is that??

    Too hard for a long list of luminaries, who I won’t dignify to name……..

    • LucieCabrol

      I disagree to a certain extent. I think a major criticism of the ‘kids know what they want ‘ centric UK teaching style of the last 20 years or so is the lack of staying power, concentration skills, follow through ability …call it what you will but I’ve noticed kids being given the mountaineering experience, wrapped up in all the safety gear , put on by ‘qualified professionals’, hauled up and down a cliff face in Derbyshire before being trucked home….yeah, we’ve done mountaineering. Same applies to sport, musical instruments, and academic studies….no follow through, focus and concentration…no skill….no use…….There is though a middle course as forcing some poor lumbering oaf to carry on dancing lessons for ten years against his will, or whatever, is clearly not helpful to anyone involved.

    • Peter Daley

      A little late, but just to clarify, are you describing your experiences with the Suzuki Method?

  • Terry Field

    Oh dear, a turgid little article. The purpose of music lessons is to excite the mind to know, appreciate and love the beauty of music.
    The dismal modern requirement to justify everything including breathing in terms of its products defined in terms of utility and functioning excellence is depressing, and all part of the Total Work State that our ‘leaders’ would fill to the brim with desperate and unhappy ‘hard-working-strivers’.
    What a revolting aspect that affords.
    The overpopulated and in large measure now extremely poor and horrendously indebted little hell-hole of an island offers no prospect of material prosperity for the great majority of the suffering and vacuous ‘consumerate’.
    Their only hope is the internal life, the life of thought, of the joys of the mind, and music, for many, but certainly not for all (since many do not have sufficiently connected neurones to even ‘see’ musical sound) is one of THE key pleasures that can carry them through this vale of tars and sorrows.
    For the rest, a national program of mud-wrestling should be instituted.
    The author needs psychiatric counselling, in my view.

    • manonthebus

      It’s a pity that your comment is so full of dark, dismal pessimism. What is the point when you say (quite rightly in my opinion) that learning to love music is a perfect end in itself. Learning a musical instrument at an early age is a gift that repays itself year after year, and especially in later years. If for some, the only wish is for material prosperity then that is their loss.

      • Terry Field

        Thank you for your comment.
        I do not intend to be unduly darkly pessimistic; I consider that I have simply described the reality. I do not like it, but to deny the condition seems foolish.
        Few people have the intellectual construction to be able to appreciate complex music, such as the great classical European tradition. All children, however, should have much greater access to the wonders of the arts, and at their centre should be music, the fine arts, the philosophical traditions, literature, architecture, design and the meaning and value of the physical constructions of man, from beautiful pottery, textiles, to the more obvious graphic arts.
        Few see these things except by accident; they peer, as t were, through a curtain at a reality denied to them.
        They concentrate their time on industrial education subjects, and leave with their heads firmly focussed on the pavement in front of them.
        Some will we happy there, and have little potential for other, but most will, at the minimum, if given the chance, grasp a wondrous reality that they can admire, care for from afar, but not add to.
        For the most talented, the creative world will be what they become.
        In all of this, the world will offer less and less material consumption. Children can be shown how to be happy, joyful even, in such a situation.
        But society needs to be concerned with other things than it currently obsesses over, and care for the world and each other, much more.

        • LucieCabrol

          Terrance, methinks you have been reading a little too much science fiction….whilst I agree wholeheartedly that a full span of appreciation for the arts is essential in order to ‘live’ life to the fullest; it is also imperative to be capable of focusing on the mundane, and more practically useful jobs to help us all struggle through the realties of day to day living…fostering a sense of superiority, inculcating a feeling of disdain for accountancy and business is a dead end street; they furnish, hand in hand with creativity, the best way to deliver what we need, innovation, success, profits, investment, which can then be reharnessed to where society feels reward is most due and values more highly.

    • IainRMuir

      Oh dear. Have you considered Dignitas?

      • Terry Field

        Oh please, there really is no reason to introduce such light-hearted levity into a serious subject. Get a grip, man.

        • IainRMuir

          “For the rest, a national program of mud-wrestling should be instituted.”

          Your idea of gravitas then?

          • Terry Field

            That is the level of satisfaction that very large numbers can aspire to. Intelligence, sensitivity, aesthetic sophistication is not broadly spread across the population.
            Sorry, not PC but accurate.
            As for Gravitas, it is not in evidence in most comments, including yours, scottieboy.

          • IainRMuir

            Have a very high opinion of yourself, haven’t you?

          • Terry Field

            I do indeed.
            If you think you are a touch mediocre, then you are as clear sighted about your characteristics as I am about mine.

          • IainRMuir

            Mediocre? Maybe, maybe not. My priorities don’t, however, run to clocking up over 5000 comments on Disqus.

            I’m surprised that a person of your obvious intellect and creative way with words cannot find a more deserving outlet than this.

          • Terry Field

            Yes, that number of comments is a bit silly, but I usually do it when I stop for tea coffe or a decent bottle of something.
            5000 is amazing, and a touch excessive. I will reduce my incidence in future, and do something more worthwhile
            Thanks for the life-changing comment .
            I withdrew the ‘mediocre’ jibe; not very nice, and obviously untrue.

  • Keith Alan Burrows

    For years as a child I begged my parents to play the piano. “No” was always the answer, we couldn’t “afford” a piano & besides, my mother HATED taking piano lessons when she was a girl & I was never going to. In 5th grade I became interested in the violin so I asked if I could take lessons in violin. Finally, they said “Yes, but for only one year.” So I began with the rented violin, learning and finally in 6th grade made the orchestra. I loved playing & there was so much more to learn! Then it was time to give the violin back or purchase it. Well, I never played the violin again, but my younger sister, Lynn (seven years younger), used the right word or argument and she took cello lessons, went to college & has the chance to teach cello & violin today to young students! All children if they want it, should be allowed to be exposed to music, take lessons in music, singing, art, in what ever way they wish to express themselves.

  • Pat Doherty

    Mary Wakefield thanks for a beautiful and thoughtful article…. it’s about the journey, not the destination

  • Norman Brand

    I told my daughter that she could give up piano lessons if she wished to, after she had completed Grade IV (Associated Board). She went on to complete Grade VIII. Now music plays a huge part in her life and for years now she has sung in eminent choirs. My decision was based on the fact that I gave up learning the piano after Grade IV and, now, 60 years later, I still stumble on those old exam pieces while I keep my piano tuned – for my daughter and her daughter. Oh, and LucieCabrol, my daughter also attended South Hampstead High School, where she benefited from the great tradition of choral singing there.

  • Cyan Taylor

    Let’s just keep it simple (seeing some heated debate here…). If you like it, you play it. If you don’t, well then the Suzuki Method would obviously not work for you. For anything in life, one must be determined to do it, regardless of talent. If one was talented but did not wish to play, then the person would likely end up doing something else that they enjoy. It’s human nature to do what they like- that is, unless they can’t. For instance, say a student did not really tend to their studying when young and could not get a job s/he wanted and is stuck with doing something they don’t like (well too bad, so sad).

  • Alice

    I wish my parents did this, I had to ask for years until my mum finally bought me a violin when I turned 10.

  • Guest

    It is clear that the Suzuki method has taught and inspired thousands to play music. While his critics like the jealous Mark O’Connor tries to promote his own failed teaching method, the Suzuki method stands alone as the one true standard in the music industry.

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