Learning by total immersion.

Of all of Shinichi Suzuki’s observations about how children acquire talent, I think the most seminal is the comparison to language learning. Even without empirical studies, the analogy is obvious. Both music and language involve aural and cognitive skills; but in both the aural precedes the cognitive. As children, we don’t learn the complex rules and exceptions first, then begin speaking. Instead, we speak by imitating caring adults. Little by little, their patient, happy feedback shapes our spoken language. Then comes the formal grammar. So it is with talent education.

But I wonder too whether another concept in foreign language acquisition might be helpful. The concept is immersion.

How can Suzuki parents immerse their children in the world of music; and what can it do for their musical development?

Foreign language immersion

The idea of foreign language immersion programs began in Canada in the 1960’s when language educators wondered whether English-speaking children could acquire greater cultural fluency, and hence appreciation of their Qu├ębecois counterparts through French classes conducted entirely in French. Since that time, the concept of foreign language immersion has exploded. Many schools worldwide offer immersion classes; and everyone is familiar with stories of children who move to a new country and rapidly acquire the local language simply by being immersed in it. In all, immersion language learning seems to be an effective way or learning a new spoken language

A Suzuki analogy

So what does immersion look like in Suzuki talent education? After all, given the similarities between language and music, you could reasonably expect similar effects of immersion in music. Here are some ideas for musical immersion from our life:

Ambient listening

Listening, a core Suzuki practice, can be done in all sorts of ways. One of the ways that we listen at home is by putting on the repertoire all the time. We may not be cognitively engaged with the music; but we trust that there’s some subconscious learning going on.

Listening beyond the repertoire

A program of listening isn’t just about learning the repertoire; it’s about developing a broad appreciation of the world of music. Just as language doesn’t exist in a vacuum, neither does the repertoire. Listening beyond the repertoire helps us become familiar with the periods and styles of music. It opens up opportunities to talk about music history, composers and their lives, what else was going on in history when the music was written. Remember the goal of early immersion education? It was about developing better appreciation of French culture by anglophone Canadians. Similarly, one of the goals of listening should be to develop a more holistic appreciation of the art.

Attending concerts

We’ve taken our daughter to concerts from an early age. By beginning early and carefully choosing what venues are the most forgiving to start with, I believe that she learned concert decorum early-on. Many people are afraid to take their young children to concerts; but increasingly local symphonies and other groups are welcoming kids, sometimes at more family-friendly times of the day.

There is so much to learn from watching live performers. How do they handle themselves on stage? What is their posture like? What can you learn from the program notes?


One of the ways that anthropologists study cultures is by looking at the artifacts that they value. Who knows - maybe it works in reverse? Maybe we begin to value things more by the things we surround ourselves with. For us, although we’re fairly minimalist about material goods, we look for books about music, stickers, pictures that relate to music. It’s a subtle way for us to communicate to each other how important music is in our lives.

Take advantage of every opportunity

Even every community there are dozens of musical things to do every week. While all of us need to strike a balance in our lives, try to take advantage of whatever opportunities are in your community. It connects your children with like-minded families and builds a social community around music. The richness of the musical community bolsters the sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself and is part of the immersion in the culture of music.

How about you and your family? What ways have you found to enrich and immerse yourselves in music?

Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.