Notes from my studies with Dr. Suzuki

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Art Montzka

Suzuki Sensei and “One Finger” Playing for Better Tone Quality.

Often when Suzuki Sensei demonstrated his clear, bright and big tone, we would lift each finger off of the bow leaving only his index finger and thumb. He would call this “One Finger” playing. Amazingly, there was never a change in the richness of his tone volume as he would lift each finger from the bow! He explained that under any condition: one finger, two fingers, three fingers, four fingers, five fingers, six fingers, seven fingers (people would begin to chuckle because of course there are only five fingers on the hand) eight fingers, nine fingers, 100 fingers, one must always be able to produce this big, beautiful sound. He also remarked once that maybe almost everyone can play with “this sound” (beautiful Kreisler tone) by using only one finger.

When I first observed Suzuki Sensei demonstrating this idea, I was especially confused. It seemed silly and ridiculous! As with all true learning, I had to separate my preconditioned notions about this idea from the present learning context in order to dissolve the barriers to development. I had to accept the fact that Suzuki Sensei was a truly great human being who had studied the finer details of violin playing with much reflection for over sixty-five years! Through realizing that Suzuki Sensei’s depth of understanding far outweighed my own and that his knowledge demanded my absolute respect, I was able to start emerging from my own limited perspective and eventually to abandon this nonsense of flinching at his ideas.

“You have the bow too much in hand! Is this your bow? NO! The bow is the violin’s bow! If there is no bow, then the violin cannot play! Give only service for your bow. If you push, then you should say ‘Oh, I am sorry’ “.

Sometimes, Suzuki Sensei would seriously request an obstinate student to attempt to play the violin without the bow. The result was a confused student. Upon returning to the bow, the student would appreciate the value of the bow and begin to show respect for the purpose of the bow. Then, the student could “let go”of the bow and feel its natural wood and horsehair as it moved. The sound would become less forced and more alive! Suzuki Sensei would smile and explain that “the bow plays the violin, not you!”

Eventually, I began to get the idea that playing with just one finger touching the bow meant not only “letting go” of the bow, but also “letting go”of the idea that my input was so crucial to the sound. Suzuki Sensei would say, “Only put on the bow, then … sound” Only put the bow on the string, and then get out of the way. Instead of using our arrogance when playing, why not simply discover what happens naturally when the bow is allowed a chance to do what it was designed to do? Rather than thinking, “I will play the violin”, try instead “I will follow the bow as it plays the violin”.

Once, later in the day, Suzuki Sensei asked some students to go out to dinner with him. He explained that it was a treat. We all went to Sun Route Hotel and sat together at a big table. Suzuki Sensei ordered steak for everyone. I almost fainted because, as you probably know, steak is very expensive in Japan. I was hungry though, so I didn’t question his judgment. When the steaks arrived, Suzuki Sensei seemed very pleased. He smiled as we all began to slowly savor this delicacy. He tapped his fork on the plate and explained, “This is the plate.” Then he cut a piece of steak and said, “This is the beef steak.” He ate the piece of steak and then said, “Please do not eat the plate!” We all laughed.

The next day in group class, Suzuki Sensei said the same words; only first he tapped the wood of the bow and explained, “This is the plate.” Then he pointed to the horsehair of the bow and said, “This is the beef steak.” He played his open D string with his brilliant, huge tone and then said, “Please do not eat the plate.”We didn’t laugh as much this time.

The wooden stick of the bow is merely a tool designed to span the horsehair. Sometimes we accidentally “eat the plate” by pushing this tool into the horsehair and consequently into the string of the violin. The relationship of the wood to good sound is like the relationship of a plate to good nutrition. The purpose of the plate is to serve the steak, like the wood serves the horsehair. Because of the wood, the horsehair is spanned, springy and elastic. The horsehair is “delicious”, not the wood. Let the horsehair enter the string freely, without the hindrance of the wood!

The horsehair is resilient and springy like a trampoline. It is also like a pool of water. When Suzuki Sensei’s bow would enter the string, whether at the tip or the frog, it was as if he were diving straight down into a beautiful clear, deep lake. There was a feeling that he was entering the space and then yielding within it. The pliant and supple horsehair craves our submission.

While playing with just “One Finger”, I began to understand that the horse hair was producing the sound because of its elasticity. A firm and solid bow hold dampens the elasticity of the horsehair. Conversely, excessive motions of the wrist, forearm and fingers create, in effect, a splashing and swishing on top of the water. I realized that I had been swishing the wood of the bow side to side and not allowing the horsehair to enter the string. With only one finger touching the bow, my upper arm initiates the motion rather than my hand. The horsehair alone is sensitively allowed to enter the string and ring! I had never been able to hear this sound before because I had been obstructing the purpose of the bow with my ego-centered habits. I had been overly concerned with “looking good”.

Actually, the way to develop a beautiful sound begins with humility and honest, non-judgmental listening as we play. Through truthful, objective observation, we can begin to understand what is extra or “too much” and what is balanced and natural for sound. When one can let go of everything which does not produce beautiful sound, then the violin can only sing from one’s heart! And then, it may seem absurd that we were doing so much extra work for nothing. By a process of elimination, we can “take off” all of the extra noises which are a function of trying to do it ourselves, leaving only pure, true sound.

For a beautiful sound, we need to give the bow to the violin and get ourselves out of the way. For those of us who think of ourselves as violinists, THIS IS NOT AN EASY THING TO DO! If we can constantly consider ourselves as entire beings, with everything interconnected, then we can honestly recognize our attributes and faults in whatever we are doing. Consistent character development (including while teaching or playing the violin) is more important than developing oneself only as a violinist.

When the honest desire to improve as a person outweighs the desire to play the violin well, then our playing will have already improved. When we can always treat others with care and respect, then we will have developed a truly “high class”attitude. And then, when we take up the violin to play, we may be lucky enough to play for people who will enjoy listening to the music.

As I began to study “One Finger” tone, I began to notice a change in the way I behaved in relationships with others. Rather than imposing my agenda on others, I began to “let go” and listen to others more intently. This would allow things to flow more naturally. I would let go of my mind’s attachments and just go for the ride freely, no matter what happened. Some very interesting things began to happen in my life. I found that the natural course of events was far more exciting and beneficial than my own preconceived ideas. However, there were times when this trusting behavior brought me to a place where I had very little money and virtually no place to stay. Rather than worry about the situation, I would trust that there were good reasons for this to happen. I never went hungry and there were always friends who delighted in helping. In fact, I began to understand about the lilies of the field and how they grow. By becoming unconcerned with the superficial parts of life, the door opens to experience the awe of living. When reduced to basics, anyone can see and hear clearly (As Dr. Suzuki said, “Maybe almost everyone can play with ‘this sound’ by using only one finger.”)

Then, when living under more affluent conditions (all fingers touching the bow), one can still remember the feeling of “One Finger” and know that under any condition, the essentials of life are always here. When life gets noisy, difficult and tense, I discover that I have been holding the bow “too much in hand”. I begin to let go of the pretense of control and I study “One Finger” tone again. And sometimes, I wonder about Suzuki Sensei’s 100 fingers.



Filed under Aikido, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, Stories about Dr. Suzuki, Suzuki Method, Suzuki Sensei, Teaching

7 responses to “Notes from my studies with Dr. Suzuki

  1. Suzanne, thank you for this wonderful essay. This is one of the best pieces of writing about aikido I’ve seen, even though you didn’t write it about aikido. I’m going to send a link to it to my aikido students – this is stuff that I’m always trying to teach them, but that I never manage to convey quite as coherently as you have here.

  2. Oh Nicky! Thank you! This means a lot coming from you. I’ll be posting more of my notes from Suzuki Sensei in the future. I’m so touched by your response.

  3. Suzanne, thank you a thousand times for reminding me that the river is deeper than the reflection it casts. You are wonderful.

  4. Thank you Andy. So are you!

  5. Ahh, there is a reason he is the sensei, isn’t there. Very wise man, and a wonderful interpretation of his wisdom….

  6. Philip

    Hi Suzanne,

    I’m one of Nick’s students. I took my black-belt test last sunday: I wish I had read this wonderful essay before that!


  7. Hi Philip,
    Thank You so much!
    Congratulations on your black belt test! You will have more tests though, right? It’s a continual process. Thanks for coming to read this and I will be posting more.