The Evolution of the Mother Tongue Approach
While Dr. Suzuki was in Germany studying violin and struggling with the German language, he observed that young German children had a much easier time learning the language than he did. It occurred to him that all normally developing children learn to speak their native language fluently at a very young age. One might even say that all very young children are particularly “talented” at their own language.
Dr. Suzuki examined the educational techniques used instinctively by parents to teach language to their babies. He called this the “Mother Tongue” Approach and theorized that these same techniques could be applied to teaching music.
He believed that all children, given a nurturing environment at home, could learn music in the same way they learned language—that they could all, in effect, be as “talented” at music as they were at language.
The key features of the Mother Tongue Approach include:
An Environment of Sound:
Babies are surrounded by language daily from the minute they are born. In the same way, parents can create a rich musical environment for their children, even if they do not play instruments themselves. Modern recording methods mean that all children can be exposed to fine music played as well as if their parents were professional musicians!
In the same way children hear the words for familiar people and objects over and over again (think “mama” or “baby”) they should hear the same pieces of music over and over again. Children become familiar and comfortable with what they hear regularly and they will begin to develop a “musical memory” of pieces played repeatedly.
The Suzuki approach uses a set repertoire contained in seven volumes. The pieces are carefully chosen and ordered to develop new skills with each piece, while building upon the previous pieces. They begin with folk songs and simple compositions and progress to classical sonatas.
Children learning to talk begin very simply—with sounds, simple words, and short phrases. They use the same words over and over again, many times a day, gradually improving their language skills. Once a word is mastered, it remains part of the child’s daily vocabulary. It isn’t dropped to move onto the next word.
Similarly, a child’s musical education should begin with the simplest music. Each new piece adds new skills, building on what has gone before. Like new words, new pieces should be practiced many times over. Pieces are then retained in the daily repertoire so they can be refined and polished to a high level, building the child’s sensitivity and character.
Music Listening and Reading:
Children learning their native language are never expected to learn to read it simultaneously. The complex process of mastering printed symbols for their language begins only after many years of listening to and using their native tongue.
In the same way, Dr. Suzuki believed that a love of music and some technical ability must be developed before the complex process of reading music is added. Suzuki teachers agree that music reading is an essential skill for all musicians but believe students must develop their musical ear and physical techniques such as basic posture first. These good habits become ingrained, allowing the student then to focus on other things.
Music reading is introduced earliest to Suzuki students learning piano (as opposed to other instruments) as they play multiple voices at once and require it, especially for the left hand.
A Positive Approach:
When babies learn a new word, no parent ever criticizes the indistinct speech or incomplete words and phrases of their first attempts. Instead, every early effort is greeted with praise and encouragement. Any correction is gentle, with parents merely repeating words correctly for children to hear again.
In Suzuki music training, the same positive approach is used. Children’s first attempts are not expected to be correct. Their efforts are always praised first, followed by gentle correction when needed. The process goes on as long as it takes for a child to master a particular skill before moving on. The goal is that learning music should be a joyful process, as filled with delight in the child’s accomplishments as their early mastery of language has been.
Language acquisition clearly demonstrates that children have an enormous potential for learning from the moment they are born. Dr. Suzuki believed parents should take advantage of the potential of the Mother Tongue Approach by beginning their child’s musical education very early.
Formal Suzuki music lessons typically begin at age three, four or five. This makes music lessons and practice a very natural part of a young child’s life, like tooth brushing. And, it takes advantage of the flexibility of a young child’s day, where there are typically few other organized activities or school work.