Teaching like Suzuki

Christmas is coming. Well, sort of. To most people, it’s still long enough away to get angry about hearing Jingle Bells at the store. I haven’t even eaten turkey yet, don’t you dare tell me about Rudolph. But according to the principal of the school, today is the day that we need to start memorizing Christmas songs. Word for word. While dancing. In front of parents.

This schools are hardcore. I work at two, an after-school school (called a ‘cram school’ here) in the afternoon where kids pretty much spend all day at their normal school, then that small break of when they are supposed to be children, learning at a second school. And I work at a kindergarten in the mornings. These kids enroll at the age 4 and are immediately fully immersed in Japanese, Chinese and English lessons. They learn math, science, history…

So I start picking apart my kindergarten’s methods and what makes it different from what I think of with American schooling.

  • Complete saturation into the community in which you’re trying to teach (be it English, music class or whatever)
  • Avoidance of any sort of aptitude tests until a certain age, then complete focus on testing
  • Emphasis on starting every subject extremely early
  • Frequent public performance
  • Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Seriously we take a complex phrase or concept and repeat it verbally until I want throw them out the window. Or they want to throw me out the window. Hell, let’s just jump together.

If you were able to recognize these tactics, you get the gold star today. My school uses Suzuki Method. My principal has said she supports this program fully and expects me to start practicing Christmas songs repeatedly for the next month in order to do a presentation for the parents.

I usually do what the person who writes my paycheck says, but I wanted to do some digging about this “method.” If you check the linked Wikipedia page, it will give you a bunch of whimsical crap about how students learn in “natural environments” and through “positive enforcement and character.” This is one of my favorites:

Gripped by the beauty of the music, he immediately picked up a violin from his father’s factory and began to teach himself to play the instrument “by ear”. His father felt that instrumental performance was beneath his son’s social status, and refused to allow him to study the instrument. At age 17, he began to teach himself by ear, since no formal training was allowed to him.

His methods are famous for taking small children and repeating stuff over and over. And over. And then you listen to them play and it sounds okay. But in the process, your kid is going to play JUST Twinkle Twinkle Little Star until his tiny little postnatal fingers fall off. 

So who is this dude who lead a revolution on how to raise children in Asia? A better summary is written by the Telegraph on November, 22, 2010:

“Born in Nagoya, Japan, in 1898, Shinichi Suzuki taught himself to play the violin by imitating the recordings of Mischa Elman. He showed such flair for the instrument that his father, who owned the first violin factory in Japan, agreed to send him to train in Berlin. There he became friends with Albert Einstein, who was his guardian for the eight years he spent in Germany.”

So when you look into this guy this is the paragraph you hear again and again. This is because this is really the selling point: these two big names. Mischa Elman was an absolutely stunning violinist. Anyone who didn’t make first chair violin and is now living vicariously through their children will know this name and will pop their head up like a prairie dog. Get me a embryonic violin and let’s start pumping Go Tell Aunt Rhody into my uterus.

The second one is Albert Einstein. If that sounds out of place, I’m glad you share my skepticism. And this brings us to the whole point of this post. When I looked into Suzuki I found way too many things that made my face do this:

Suzuki has a whole chapter entitled ‘Albert Einstein, My Guardian,’ in which he goes on and on about his teaching styles and how his program is the brain child of himself and that dude whose name has become a euphemism for all things intelligent. In his book he includes as letter and a signed photo as proof that he and Albert pretty much had matching BFF bracelets. Really just the second paragraph is important.

If you’re lazy too and don’t feel like reading that, the important part is this phrase: I experienced the warm friendship of this world-famous scholar and the outstanding people of his circle. Did you now? Let’s look at all of the evidence you present that backs this up…

2 November 1926

Dear Mr. Masakichi Suzuki,

Yesterday, your two sons visited my home and showed me four of your wonderful violins. They even invited me to keep one of my choosing as a gift! I currently have two violins made in Berlin, Germany by fine makers and I am very fond of them. I personally compared the tone and responsive qualities one by one to my own instruments.

We even experimented by listening to each instrument from another room as your sons took turns playing them. We all came to the same conclusion that your fine violins were superior to mine!

I would like to express my deep appreciation for this kind and considerate gift and want you to know that I was most surprised by their incredible tone and expert craftsmanship.

Albert Einstein

And here’s his signed photo from Albert himself:

Wow so convincing. These two documents represent the totality of evidence substantiating any meeting between Albert Einstein and Shinichi Suzuki. The two documents also represent the extent of the Einstein relationship on the Suzuki Museum website in Japan. The only thing I read here is a casual meeting, and yet in his book we hear:

“Often when there was a good concert, Dr. Einstein would telephone me and say, “I have tickets, so let’s go… even though I was a mere stripling, he had invited me as his guest…”

(Just an aside, at the time that he supposedly knew Einstein, he was 28. “Mere stripling” my ass.)

This guy is getting fishier. The main selling points of Suzuki thus far have been his fake relationship with Einstein and the fact that after a month of playing the same song over and over, the kids can play that same song. So where did this story come from? A lot of evidence has suggested that he actually worked with a guy named Alfred Einstein, a German-American musician, and in an effort to get his book published made the occasional typo of changing the ‘fr’ to a ‘b.’

Either way, we’re still going to be singing Silent Night every day to start class for the next month. The parents will sit in amazement as their kids say all the words with perfect intonation and articulation of the words, and they will throw gobs of cash at the school for teaching their kids the same brilliant methods as created by one or other of the Einsteins.

Is it right? Is it wrong? Like I said, I listen to the person who writes my paychecks. So get ready kids, Christmas is coming early.

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