Having only recently come into the Suzuki circle of teaching and learning, many of the tenets of the method are still somewhat new to me.

Curious (and sometimes perhaps even a little skeptical) about various aspects of this approach, I thought it would be fun to see what other “experts” were saying about Shinichi Suzuki’s (largely intuitive) ideas concerning teaching and learning. I decided to compare some of his opinions with those in publications outside the immediate Suzuki (Association of the Americas) sphere- and found an interesting congruence of thoughts, especially those concerning innateness (or the lack thereof), small steps, repetition, memorization, and listening or internalization. Here are a few I’d like to share.

Thoughts about Innate Talent

While still in his twenties, studying violin in Berlin, Suzuki fell into a state of depression. In his book Nurtured by Love, he relates that he had been led to believe that talent was something which was inborn, and he was convinced that he had none.1 Sound familiar? Certainly, many of us do have the idea that some fortunate souls are born with “talent” and those who aren’t will never get it, no matter how hard they work. Carl Seashore (1866–1949), the former head of the psychology department at the University of Iowa, who published the first standardized test of music aptitude, had adhered strongly to the doctrine of “inherited musical capabilities,” though he did later admit that success in music was dependant on other factors his test did not measure.2 Edwin Gordon, retired Carl E. Seashore Professor of Research in Music Education who coincidentally earned his PhD from the University of Iowa nine years after Seashore’s death, points out in his book The Psychology of Music Teaching that at the turn of the century, researchers in general believed that music aptitude was indeed inborn.3 The nature over nurture idea seems to have been imbedded in our psyche long ago by one Francis Galton, cousin to none other than the famous Charles Darwin, in Galton’s 1869 work, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences.4

Quite some time after Seashore’s death, Edwin Gordon became the editor of Studies in the Psychology of Music, a series begun by Seashore. Gordon also published his own set of standardized tests, the Music Aptitude Profile, in 1965. Unlike Seashore, Gordon feels that, though music aptitude becomes “impervious” to practice and training past age ten, with training at a very early age an individual can often develop their aptitude or potential (Gordon defines “aptitude” as the potential to achieve5). He argues that there is much support by authorities for the notion that “the influence of preschool training is of great importance” to development of aptitude.6 In his book Intelligent Music Teaching, Robert A. Duke also maintains that an infant’s ability to perceive sound, especially speech and music, changes permanently in the first few years of life.7 Suzuki himself came to realize that “talent is not inborn”—the title of the first chapter of his book, Ability Development from Age Zero. He gives a nod to the importance of early education later in this book, stating that “a small child may only need to train a thousand times while an adult will not be able to achieve such skill after training even one hundred fifty thousand times.”8 If there is any visual of the Suzuki world recognized by the public in general, it is that of little children learning to play instruments.

In this same book Suzuki postulates that if Mozart had been raised differently, he could have been tone deaf.9 Fortunately for us, Mozart was taught by his father, who also happened to be a first rate teacher, and he worked long, hard hours when he was very young.10 There is the story of a young, very skilled musician that Suzuki heard, and when he asked “how long does she practice?” the reply was “three hours daily.”11 Suzuki came to believe that “anyone can cultivate ability in ten years” if they practice about three hours daily (this works out to about 10,000 hours in ten years).12 Today this “ten year rule,” a concept which dates back to 1899, has become widely accepted as the path to expertise.13

Suzuki observes, again in Nurtured by Love, that “there has been no thorough research into how ability is acquired.”14 Fortunately, since he wrote this book in 1966, things have changed in this regard, and much of the research of the past thirty years on top performance would seem to indicate that “specifically targeted innate abilities are fiction” and “clear evidence that non-physical constraints exist has not been found so far.”15 Ericsson, Krampe, Tesch-Romer note that “recent research has shown that important characteristics of experts’ superior performance are acquired through experience (i.e., nurture) and that the effect of practice on performance is larger than earlier believed possible”; “the search for stable heritable characteristics that could predict superior performance of eminent individuals has been surprisingly unsuccessful.”16 They conclude that there is “poor predictability of final performance by ability tests” and Duke seems to concur, asserting that “most standardized tests don’t measure what’s meaningful and important.”17 As he matured, Suzuki rejected the line of thinking embodied by Carl Seashore and his test, calling it “outdated.”18

What about the Suzuki concept of Teaching Points?

In their paper “Giftedness and Evidence for Reproducibly Superior Performance,” Ericsson, Roring, and Nandagopal contend that “through the acquisition of increasingly difficult and complex activities, ranked according to the level of difficulty by teacher and coaches, as children are guided to mastery of the easiest movements first, then more advanced movements, nearly always in their order of complexity and difficulty, great progress is made,” and as Duke points out, “the heart of teaching is the systematic structuring of learning experiences.”19 The acquisition of skill requires that we tackle targeted goals in small, incremental steps: the most consequential and solvable problems should be identified as we assign tasks at appropriate levels to solicit success—and this success will in and of itself provide positive feedback.20 In Every Child Can! it is stated that careful selection and revision of repertoire published in the Suzuki books ensures that each piece challenges the student to take another “small step” forward, building on the foundations that have gone before.21 This is described as “scaffolding” in The Talent Code.22

Ericsson, Roring, Nandagopal came to realize that accomplished performers practice those aspects of their performance that have the most room for improvement.23 In his book Practicing for Artistic Success, Burton Kaplan notes “concentration flourishes in the worlds of the possible and the probable.”24 So, we must have both achievable goals as well as challenges that will stretch beyond current abilities, from the “comfort zone” to the “learning zone” by targeting “specific abilities” that are just out of our reach.25 Coyle continues with this line of thought in describing what he calls “The Sweet Spot”—the point at which one is “purposely operating at the edge” of his ability, positioned in such a way that it is the struggle that enables one to “capture failure and turn it into a skill.”26 In this way, targeted effort can increase learning velocity exponentially.27 Every Child Can! also draws to our attention the fact that skills developed while using the Suzuki method, such as the ability to focus, analyze, and solve problems carry over into the broader aspects of a child’s life as they mature.28

Coyle is also convinced that certain patterns of targeted practice which build skill do so by building up something called “myelin.”29 Myelin, originally discovered by Rudolf Virchow in 1854, forms sheaths around neurons, thus enhancing the functioning of dendrites of our brains and increasing the speed at which thought processes occur. New technologies developed in the year 2000 allowed the mapping of myelin, and much research (not to mention excitement) has followed. It is thought that certain aspects of “targeted practice”—isolating parts to practice, selecting to improve the weakest first, ignoring all but this one problem, and working on only this one thing at a time—most quickly built up myelin.30 A working example of this can be seen in a study of skaters, where it was found that those at the top spent more time on jumps they could not do (i.e., working in the learning zone), while sub-elite skaters spent more time on jumps they already could do (they were still in their comfort zone).31 Suzuki devotees will undoubtedly recognize these patterns of practice. Suzuki suggests in Nurtured by Love that exertion is beneficial as long as it is goal oriented and again in Ability Development that ability is developed in this way, by repeatedly aiming for better things.32 The term “deliberate practice” was coined in 1993.33


Every Child Can! states that children acquire ability while repeating, something Suzuki claims to have first noticed while observing a parakeet, realizing that it was through repetition that he learned to speak.34 He is careful to caution that repetition should occur only after one has learned a thing, and Kaplan concurs—repetition should occur at the moment of success.35 Duke also agrees development of skill involves repetition and strength increases with repetition over time.36 Coyle also describes how myelin is built through struggle and repetition.37 On his cover jacket it is stated that “the good news about myelin is that it isn’t fixed at birth” and later that “we always retain the ability to add more myelin through [deliberate] practice”38—and of course, repetition.

Why Should We Memorize?

In Nurtured by Love, Suzuki says that “I put great store on memory training. My students must know the music by heart,” and later, “Depending on training, your ability to memorize gets better and better, and the time it takes you to memorize gets shorter and shorter”; the ability to remember something after hearing it only once is cultivated.39 He describes how at the Talent Education kindergarten in Matsumoto, youngsters memorized hundreds of haiku poems, and their ability to memorize was always improving.40 Coyle, citing Adriaan de Groot’s Thought and Choice in Chess, concerning the manner in which chess players memorize moves, is also confident that memory is improved with training.41 In Talent Is Overrated, it is suggested that evidence would seem to indicate memory ability is acquired and apparently available to anyone.42

A source of no little excitement concerning memory acquisition stems from a 1980 study by Ericsson, Chase, and Faloon titled “Acquisition of a Memory Skill,” involving a college student referred to only as SF. In this fascinating study, he was able to develop his memory skill over a two-year period to such an extent that he could quickly memorize a series of eighty-four random digits (most of us can remember only about seven—equivalent to a telephone number—at a time) at once by using encoding, or “chunking,” to access long term memory (LTM).43 Research would seem to support Suzuki’s conviction that, clearly, memory ability is not innate, but developed.44

Internalizing the Music through Listening and Imaging

Donald Greene, in his book Performance Success: Working Your Best Under Pressure, describes an astonishing incident involving mental rehearsal: He worked with a young lady named Pam, an injured diver on the Mission Viejo, CA, diving team who wished to compete with the 1984 Olympic team. Because of her injury, for two months before the trials she was forbidden by her doctor from actively practicing her dives. Greene was able to work with Pam every day mentally, though, in the coach’s office, having her going over each of her dives in minute detail in her imagination. When the day of the trials finally arrived, though she had not been able to practice in a real pool on a real diving board for many weeks, the first five of her eight dives were so miraculously successful that she scored at the top of her group! Unfortunately, when on her sixth dive she suffered another injury, her doctor did not allow her to complete the final two dives—she would not go to the Olympics.45

In Nurtured by Love, Suzuki recounts a story in which we can see some parallels to that of Greene. He tells of teaching a little blind boy, describing in detail the way he (and later the student) tried to imagine, without eyes, the movement of the violin bow through space.46 The need to create an internal image can also be inferred in Suzuki’s insistence on extensive listening, especially as one prepares to learn new music. Kaplan advises us that listening needs to be added to practice schedule.47 Coyle shares a story of a young lady named Clarissa, a clarinet student who, in a video taken during one of her practice sessions, was able for a few moments to accelerate her learning rate tenfold. These few moments of this particular practice session are now considered to be a classic case of what “deliberate practice” is all about—intense focus, attention to detail, and persistent correction of any error. She was able to work so intensely in part because she had a “blueprint” in her mind, an “image” to compare to, formed as she “listened to the song a few times” and decided “she likes it.”48 Duke tells us that the student must have an image of concepts (such as “delicate sound,” for instance) before he will be able to execute it.49 Kaplan believes that in order to continue to improve, all of us must continue to form images and the image must anticipate performance, just as it does in everyday speech.50 We must practice in the imagination vividly and beware of errors when working with imaging.51 Donald Greene tells us always correct mistakes, which are normal in mental rehearsal. As soon as one is made, “rewind” (correct it), and then repeat several times.52


It would seem that an extensive body of literature exists concerning the manner in which humans acquire and develop skill; I was certainly fascinated by the small part of it I’ve had the opportunity to survey. I’m also a bit surprised by the degree to which many of these sources would appear to corroborate various aspects of the Suzuki method of learning. My perusal of them has, I think, not only reinforced my confidence in the Suzuki way of teaching, learning, and practicing, but broadened somewhat my understanding of how it all works.


  1. Shinichi Suzuki, Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education (Miami: Summy-Birchard, 1983), 35.
  2. C. E. Seashore, Seashore Measures of Musical Talent (New York: Columbia Phonograph Company, 1919); C. E. Seashore, Psychology of Music (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1938), 129.
  3. Edwin Gordon, The Psychology of Music Teaching (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1971): 4.
  4. Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences (London: Julian Friedman Publishers, 1979); Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (New York: Penguin, 2008), 21; K. A. Ericsson, R. T. Krampe, and C. Tesch-Romer, “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” in Psychological Review 100, no. 3, (1993): 363-406.
  5. Gordon, The Psychology of Music Teaching, 3.
  6. Ibid., 5.
  7. Robert A. Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction (Austin: Learning and Behavior Resources, 2005), 53, 55.
  8. Shinichi Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero (Miami: Summy-Birchard, 1981), 3, 55-56.
  9. Ibid., 8.
  10. A.K. Ericsson, M. J. Prietula, and E. T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert” in Harvard Business Review 85, (2007): 120; Colvin, Talent is Overrated, 25-29.
  11. Suzuki, Nurtured by Love, 96.
  12. Ibid., 40.
  13. Colvin, Talent is Overrated, 152; Ericcson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice,” 366.
  14. Suzuki, Nurtured By Love, 85.
  15. Colvin, Talent is Overrated, 6, 50.
  16. Ericcson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice,” 363, 365.
  17. Ericcson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice,” 392; Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching, 70.
  18. Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero, 94.
  19. A.K. Ericsson, R. W. Roring, K. Nandagopal, “Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance” in High Ability Studies 18, no. 1 (2007): 24; Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching, 84.
  20. Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching, 91, 95, 133.
  21. Every Child Can! An Introduction to Suzuki Education (Boulder, Colorado: Suzuki Association of the Americas, Inc., 2003), A20.
  22. Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009), 4, 79.
  23. Ericsson, Roring, and Nandagopal, “Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance,” 25.
  24. Burton Kaplan, Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician’s Guide to Self-Empowerment (New York: Perception Development Techniques, 2004), 36.
  25. Colvin, Talent is Overrated, 67-68, 94.
  26. Coyle, The Talent Code, 11, 14, 18-19.
  27. Ibid., 30.
  28. Every Child Can!, A25.
  29. Coyle, The Talent Code, 5.
  30. Kaplan, Practicing for Artistic Success, 21, 38, 50.
  31. Colvin, Talent is Overrated, 187; Ericsson, Roring, and Nandagopal, “Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance,” 25.
  32. Suzuki, Nurtured By Love, 36; Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero, 17.
  33. Ericcson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice,” 363.
  34. Every Child Can!, A15; Suzuki, Nurtured By Love, 15.
  35. Suzuki, Nurtured By Love, 15; Kaplan, Practicing for Artistic Success, 40.
  36. Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching, 92-93.
  37. Coyle, The Talent Code, 40.
  38. Ibid., 25.
  39. Suzuki, Nurtured By Love, 31, 91]: Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero, 87-89.
  40. Ibid., 86.
  41. Coyle, The Talent Code, 50, 76; Adriaan de Groot, Thought and Choice in Chess (The Hague: Mouton, 1978).
  42. Colvin, Talent is Overrated, 45, 47.
  43. Colvin, Talent is Overrated, 36; K. A. Ericsson and J. Straszewski, “Skilled memory and expertise: Mechanisms of exceptional performance” in Complex information processing: The impact of Herbert A. Simon, eds. D. Klahr and K. Kotovsky (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1989), 235-267; K. A. Ericsson, W. G. Chase, and S. Faloon, “Acquisition of a Memory Skill” in Science 208 (1980): 1181-1182.
  44. Coyle, The Talent Code, 39.
  45. Donald Greene, Performance Success: Performing Your Best Under Pressure (New York: Routledge, 2002), 52-56.
  46. Suzuki, Nurtured By Love, 45-49.
  47. Kaplan, Practicing for Artistic Success, 12.
  48. Coyle, The Talent Code, 2-4.
  49. Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching, 104.
  50. Kaplan, Practicing for Artistic Success, 25-27.
  51. Ibid., 57-58, 61.
  52. Greene, Performance Success, 57.