The Suzuki Method and Adaptive Music Lessons for the Child with Disabilities

The Suzuki Method and Adaptive Music Lessons for the Child with Disabilities


Being a “Suzuki Kid” since the age of 5, I cannot remember life before Suzuki books, tapes, and constant memorization. I’ve lived and breathed the Suzuki way for the past 22 years. As I began my music therapy coursework, I began to see how many of Suzuki’s philosophies and teachings would work well for adaptive lessons with young children who have disabilities or special needs.

But before I get too far, if you haven’t heard of the Suzuki Method, I should answer a few essential questions like…..

What is Suzuki?

The Suzuki method focuses on:

  • initially learning things by ear
  • having a structured environment
  • parent involvement
  • listening
  • group instruction
  • self-esteem
  • and repetition

I believe this method is approachable for those students in the special education classroom because, while it requires a lot of extra support from teachers/mentors/parents, it could prove to be an effective and alternative way to meet their needs.

Shin’ichi Suzuki created a method that caught the attention of both musicians and non-musicians when he began his program in Matsumoto, Japan, in 1945 (Barber, 1991, p. 75). Today, over sixty years later, it continues to spark interest in parents, music educators, and music therapists. Suzuki called his approach Talent Education, yet his philosophy DID NOT focus on the in-born talent of children, but the potential of each child. His goal was to cultivate children into sensitive and caring human beings, not professional musicians. Without the need for aptitude tests and competitions, the child is encouraged to work at his or her own pace, creating their own goals. Instead of medals, music is to be the reward.

The Suzuki adage that “every child can learn” should be taken seriously, as it certainly applies to students with disabilities (Interview, 1992, p. 549).

Suzuki’s philosophy is built upon the idea that with a nurturing environment, every child can learn. He wanted to enhance the lives of young children by offering them a chance to become “sensible, sensitive, and peace-loving human beings,” as a by-product of learning fine music (Barber, 1991, p. 76). Instead of encouraging the students to finish the pieces quickly or to become professional musicians, he said that, “the journey was the destination; the reward of practice was not to play better, but to be a better person” (Fink, 2005, p. 227). With this state-of-mind, the doors were open to anyone, including children with disabilities who may have not been welcomed into other music studios.

“I have no doubt that people are born with hereditary physiological differences, but I believe that a person’s abilities grow and develop depend on stimulation from the outside,” Suzuki said (Wickes, 1982, p. 10).

Again, this statement shows his compassion for all children – those with disabilities, and those without, and his belief that, through hard work and dedication, any child could develop. Cheryl Cornell, a music therapist and a Suzuki teacher who has taught students with disabilities, believes that teaching is about seeing success as a process, rather than a goal (Cornell, 1999, p. 43).

“I just want to make good citizens,” said Suzuki. “If a child hears good music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.” (Nurtured, 1969, p. 118).

In accordance to the rules of Talent Education, the child begins lessons at an early age. This usually means that by the age of two the student is listening to Suzuki recordings on a regular basis. Daily listening becomes part of the child’s normal routine, and by three years of age, they are usually ready to begin lessons (Talent, 1966, p. 11). The parent and child start by observing both the private and group lessons, which consist of having all of the students participate together – young and old, advanced and beginner. These group lessons help foster a sense of cooperation between the students, as well as a chance to applaud each other’s accomplishments (Scott, 1998, p. 108). The teacher then instructs the parent or caregiver on the basics, like how to properly hold the instrument that the child will be learning, such as a bow and violin.

Today, there are many instruments for which the Suzuki method has been adapted. For each of these instruments there are corresponding method books that are to be completed in sequential order. Suzuki hand-picked the pieces found in the violin method books that tout his name and he himself composed many of the pieces in the first book. Other pieces include works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Vivaldi, Schumann, and other well-known composers. With each new piece in the book another technique is introduced, gradually increasing in difficulty each time.


Students first learn these pieces by listening to the recordings until they have each piece memorized. The students do not begin by note-reading; rather, Suzuki utilizes what he labels, “The Mother Tongue Approach.” He equates learning to read music to learning your native tongue, as one learns how to speak before they learn how to read. This is done through repetition, imitation, encouragement, addition, exposure, and refinement (Talent, 1966, p. 7). Students imitate the recorded pieces and internalize them (Barber, 1991, p. 77). Once the teacher thinks the child is ready to read notes, the child learns how to read them by association – relating the notes on the page with the ones they already know by ear. This, too, is like learning to read one’s native language (Talent, 1966, p. 12).

Suzuki asks for, “Two minutes five times a day, with joy” (Wickes, 1982, p. 13).

Teacher certification

In order to become a Suzuki teacher, one must complete the appropriate training and follow the teacher development guidelines. Suzuki teachers within the United States are encouraged to register their study with the SAA, or the Suzuki Association of the Americas. Additionally, some universities offer degrees in Suzuki pedagogy (Barber, 1991, p. 78). One thing that teachers can do to develop their skills, is looking online at ‘staff development for educators‘ to see how over the summer break they can develop better skills to help children with their developmental education and advance their own knowledge and gain credits to help with their career.

Implications for the special education school setting

The Suzuki Method can be used to not only address the “general goals” of Suzuki, such as becoming a sensitive and caring human being, but it can also be used to address “client-specific goals”, like imitation, classroom appropriate behaviors, following directions, expressive and receptive speech, fine and gross motor skills, and many more, depending on the disability.

Lessons can still be given on a one-to-one basis or within the special education setting, but group lessons may be an opportunity to create an inclusive environment. Children with disabilities may learn from their peers and by proxy, these peers may gain exposure and respect for their peers with disabilities. An enhanced sense of understanding takes place on both sides.

Music therapy techniques for Suzuki adaptations

Music therapists are trained in the area of working with those with disabilities. While many music therapists may not be Suzuki-trained, they can still provide consultation services to a Suzuki teacher who has a student with a disability, or an entire classroom of students with disabilities. This can be in an inclusive setting or in an early childhood special education classroom environment. While the core principle of Suzuki’s philosophy may remain the same, the therapist can provide the teacher with ways as to how to adapt the songs and activities to meet the goals of the child in the special education classroom on a consultation basis, as many more Suzuki teachers are beginning to teach children with disabilities or special needs (Cornell, 1999, p. 17).

“What can I teach this child today that will guarantee success?” (Yaw, 1991, p. 27).

This is an important question for any teacher to ask themselves, especially those working a child with a disability, as the child may not be in many environments in which they can thrive or succeed at something. By having a teacher think this way, the child is ensured a sense of accomplishment, which may, therefore, increase their overall quality of life.

Suzuki himself wrote about his experiences working with children with various disabilities. Through much deliberation and brainstorming, Suzuki found ways to teach a boy who was blind, as well as a girl who had infantile paralysis (Nurtured, 1969, p. 28, 57). With persistence, a nurturing home life, and a teacher who was willing to teach music to everyone, these students were able to make progress and succeed. This way of thinking and the idea of modification or adaptation can be transferred to other disabilities as well.

Suzuki Adaptations for Students on the Autism Spectrum

With its highly structured method books and its emphasis on routine, children who are on the autism spectrum may adapt well to taking Suzuki instrumental lessons. There is a usual ritual to a typical Suzuki lesson – starting with tonalization, followed by any review pieces, then moving onto the student’s current piece, and ending with the student and teacher bowing to each other at the end. This predictable structure can be crucial for a child who is on the autism spectrum. The teacher could create a board for the student, making visuals for each aspect of the lesson, therefore, helping the child to see this structure. Giving the child a specific place to sit or stand can enhance a sense of order and security (Cannon, 2008, p. 32).

Because of possible heightened sensory issues, the teacher may need to be aware of the volume at which they are playing, or the pitch of the notes. If the child shows distress with certain notes the teacher may want to play it softer, or on lower strings (Cannon, 2008, p. 33). Taking note of what causes the child distress or what catches their attention can be helpful in strategizing what will work best for the child. Using a child’s favorite song as a reward for compliance may also be a way to decrease unwanted behavior.

In group lessons teachers can integrate motor movement, sensory processing, and language development (Bray, 2003, p. 28). Speaking in rhythm, or speaking while bowing, creates a sense of predictability and the student may be more engaged or willing to speak during these times (Bray, 2003, p. 29). Group lessons are also a time when the teacher can focus on increasing the child’s classroom appropriate behaviors. Many activities, like “follow the leader”, require the student to pay attention to the teacher and imitate the correct movements. Also, playing longer songs or watching other students may help to increase the child’s attention span.

In some cases, Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, therapy is used with children who are on the autism spectrum and Joseph Kaminsky, a well-established Suzuki teacher, noted parallels between Suzuki and ABA when he began teaching violin to his son, who has autism. In ABA therapy, everything is done through small tasks or trials, with plenty of repetition. Kaminsky notes that the same approach is done in The Suzuki Method. The child imitates the adult and there are hundreds of repetitions within Suzuki songs, practice, and lessons (Kaminsky, 2001, p. 51). Through the use of prompting and, eventually, the fading of these prompts as the child learns the new skill, may be useful. One teacher spoke of using graduated guidance, which consisted of humming the Twinkle theme while the student bowed, but if they stopped bowing, then the teacher stopped humming (Eigenheer, 2004, p. 66). This method seemed to help this particular student to complete the task at hand.

In an interview with Dr. Laurie Scott, she also agreed that The Suzuki Method can be another chance to generalize ABA, by learning with imitation and through the teaching of self-help skills (Personal Communication, 2008). She also believes that the concept of review in the Suzuki approach builds-in a chance for those who are learning slower to participate because there are both learning models and accomplished models in the same class (Personal Communication, 2008).

Suzuki adaptations for students with dyslexia

or a child who has trouble reading, the Suzuki emphasis on listening to the music through many repetitions first, instead of reading the music right away, may prove helpful to a child with dyslexia. By perceiving and producing music, the student may also improve their ability to process rapidly changing acoustic cues that are found in speech sounds (Forgeard, 2008, p. 384).

The Suzuki Method also uses a variety of senses to help the students and through aural, visual, and kinesthetic experiences, the child’s frustrations could diminish. They learn their pieces aurally, through the use of their Suzuki tapes or CDs, and the subtraction of the note-reading in the beginning may be a welcome change from traditional teaching (McEvoy, 2001, p. 70). A teacher may also want to incorporate letter and word learning within their pieces, such as creating a word with note letter names, or reading long words while using long bows, or short words with staccato-like bowing. Incorporating words that are related to the student’s interest may increase their motivation. During group lessons, the teacher could say a word or phrase and have the child repeat the syllabic rhythm on their violin, or other instrument. The Suzuki Method is highly structured and based on sequencing, which addresses another possible weakness of a child with dyslexia (Macmillan, 2004, p. 55).

Suzuki adaptations for students with Down’s syndrome

A variety of articles have been written about the use of the Suzuki method and children who have Down’s syndrome, as teachers accredit the method as a good way to practice muscle patterning and repetition, and to improve coordination while increasing muscle strength (McCullough, 1997, p. 64). Because they may have muscle weakness when they are beginning, the teacher may want to make adjustments to the equipment or the overall posture, but only after having the student demonstrate that he or she has difficulty manipulating it correctly (Humpal, 2006, p. 146). For example, the teacher may suggest using a softer, more flexible sponge if the child finds it uncomfortable with a regular shoulder rest. Also, the use of moleskin tapes could be used, as a means of helping the student who may lack in hand and eye coordination. By using a more textured tape for finger placement, the student could find their notes by touch, rather than having to look for the correct fingering tapes (Geenen, 2000, p. 42).

The teacher will want to design activities that emphasize the student’s motor strengths, but also areas that need improvement (Humpal, 2006, p. 147). Assigning wrist and finger-strengthening activities using the bow and violin may help to improve their muscle tone (Alton, 1998, p. 168). Because of their poor auditory short-term memory and short concentration spans, Suzuki teachers must also remember to limit the number of new ideas presented at one time, while keeping the directions simple, and using a variety of methods of instruction (visual aids, games, and modeling) to help get the point across (Humpal, 2006, p. 150). By breaking things down into small steps, many teachers spoke of small, but significant, breakthroughs (Kareoja-Crothers, 1996, p. 37). The violin, or another instrument, could also serve as an alternate means of communication for that child (McCullough, 1997, p. 64), which could decrease stress and frustration levels.

Studies have found that when music and music classroom experiences are structured to help promote socialization, they can create an environment that fosters positive social exchanges amongst those with disabilities and those without (Jellison, 1984, p. 260). The Suzuki teacher should observe the child’s behaviors, frustrations, and successes, whether it occurs in private lessons, or during interactions with peers during group lessons. These observations can then be relayed to the ECSE teacher and or aides in a collaboration effort towards working for that particular child as a team.


For Suzuki teachers who have been apprehensive about teaching those with disabilities, one must keep in mind that Suzuki’s philosophy has set both the teacher and the student up for success by stating that, “every child can learn”. By adjusting to what a given student needs, they can be successful.

However, The Suzuki Method is not a cure-all and may not be the best approach for every family. Parents of these children experience much stress in their lives and may feel as though they cannot fill their schedule with one more the thing. Although this may seem like the case in many households, The Suzuki Method may actually be a way in which to funnel this constant support and time spent with that child in a more structured fashion. Parents are able to spend time with their children, working together with a common goal in mind. Dr. Laurie Scott has seen that a lot of parents of children with disabilities are excited about having Suzuki lessons presented as an opportunity, as a lot of other doors may seem shut to them (Personal Communication, 2008).

The Suzuki Method offers the child a chance to go at their own pace, without the need to constantly be moving forward.

“Don’t underestimate the power of consistency,” says Scott. “Just keep with it and have a very long-term vision you want from that child. A small amount of time over a long period of time is powerful. The parents and the teacher are working together and I think the kid feels that.” (Personal Communication, 2008).

Celebrating the success along the way, through the use of adaptations and support from parents, caregivers, and teacher, helps to allow for the possibility of improving the quality of life in a child in the early childhood special education classroom.


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