by Mary Pat Champeau
“Children learn to smile from their parents.” ~ Shinichi Suzuki
I learned so much about parenting and about teaching from a little book written by the famed violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki called Nurtured by Love.
It is part personal history, part love letter to the violin, and part instruction on how to nurture a beautiful and awakened heart through music lessons.
I learned that correcting what is wrong is not nearly as powerful as praising what is right.
Suzuki’s approach was to shine the light always on what worked, and let the rest wither in the dark.
He believed that all children could learn to play music and love it, just as they learned to speak — starting when they were young and having music all around them. This would make them eager to play music as eagerly as they learned to communicate with the outside world.
To quote a few lines from his biography: “Shinichi believed that hearing and playing great music helped children become good people with beautiful, peaceful hearts. Dr. Suzuki hoped that these children would help bring peace and understanding to the world.”
There are two stories about him that I love.
In one, he was training master teachers in his Suzuki method of violin teaching and was working with a little boy of five. The boy got up and did everything wrong: the position of his feet, the way he held the violin and bow, his ear-splitting notes, and his inability to remember any of the tune – nothing right!
The many teachers-in-training, knowing how Suzuki focused only on what was good about a child’s playing, were interested to hear what he would have to say to this child.
Suzuki waited until the child had finished playing and taking the customary bow (also incorrect), and then he clapped enthusiastically.
“You played!” he cheered with genuine gratitude. “Thank you for playing!” The little boy smiled proudly.
In another story, Suzuki was working with a child who also did everything wrong — violin is not an easy instrument.
The child played a lengthy piece completely off key, skipping portions, her bow hold kept slipping and the sounds being made were hard to listen to — it was an unmitigated disaster as far as a performance went. When she finished playing she bowed and waited nervously.
Suzuki said, “The position of your left foot was perfect.” The child beamed. “I’m so relieved,” she said. “Because that is exactly what I have been working on!”
These stories have taught me, as a parent and as an educator, that it requires great bravery, sometimes, for a child just to get out there and do something in the world (go to school, go to a lesson, take on a new sport, meet a new friend), and out of our fear that the child will not succeed, we might sometimes overly coach or even criticize, rather than simply appreciate the effort.
From the second story, I learned that we never know what a child is working on internally. We might think we know based on what WE are working on with that child, but in fact, we do not know what they are working on inside, really, not at all.
Shinichi Suzuki revered the great capacity of children — all children — to make beautiful music that pleased, excited, and consoled them, as long as they had loving teachers and parents.
He was famous for saying he needed to prepare himself to work carefully and slowly with his young students each day: he needed to come down to their physical limitations, and he needed to come up to their sense of wonder and awe.
I keep a copy of Nurtured by Love on the same bookshelf where all of my books from our humane education graduate programs reside.
I re-read it from time to time when I need a sweet and profound reminder to honor the efforts of all who play, and to focus the light of my attention on the perfect position of life’s left foot.
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