Cello Lesson

October 26th, 2009

Even if you don’t play an instrument, Shinichi Suzuki is a name you’ve likely heard. He is father of the so-called Suzuki method of learning to play musical instruments. For the last year my daughter and I have been learning cello via the Suzuki method. I recently reread a portion of his book, Ability Development from Age Zero. Though his book is written for parents of young children, his understanding of learning can speak to all of us in numerous professional and personal contexts.

Suzuki’s method evolved from a simple observation: “all children in Japan speak Japanese easily” (Ability Development from Age Zero, p. 4). Most people didn’t initially comprehend the significance of Suzuki’s observation. But Suzuki recognized that his observation carried profound implications for how all humans learn. If kids acquired the Japanese language through immersion in the language, could immersion in music also teach students to hear and play a musical instrument? Then, as with a language, they would internalize and know the music in a personal way. This, Suzuki posited, is meaningful learning. This is why we play the Suzuki music in our house each day. Listening to the music trains our ear to recognize and “speak” the language. When we sit down to play “Lightly Row” on the cello, our ear knows what it should sound like. The cello is a tool by which we speak.

Suzuki’s method applies to settings that have nothing to do with music. Many of us spend at least part of our lives, if not considerable chunks, learning and helping others learn. Note who you will be spending time with this week, and what are you trying to teach. You may be a chef who is trying to teach her staff how to julienne vegetables, or a manager working with one of your staff to help him better organize his time. In each case, Suzuki advises us to create a language into which we can immerse the student. Do those you’re teaching understand the language? With their help create a vernacular that you can agree on.

Suzuki incorporates two additional elements into his method that can enhance every learning process. The first is to connect what you teach with a desire that exists within your students. People you work with will learn what they want to learn. The second element is to make it fun. Find a way to make learning fun. Even if you’re teaching someone how to create a spreadsheet, with a little creativity, it’s possible to make the learning process something you both enjoy.

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