Notes from my studies with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki


Suzuki Sensei: Panda and How to Produce Beautiful Tone on the Violin.

In the late 1970’and early 1980’s, Suzuki Sensei’s idea of “Panda? was sweeping across the nation. From Matsumoto, Japan to San Francisco California, this new idea zoomed around like crazy. People were tilting their bows hundreds of different ways and saying “panda, panda, panda?. It was pandemonium!

The name for Suzuki Sensei’s new idea came from the then famous Chinese Panda Bear named Ling-Ling. Because the children in Japan were so enamored by this creature, Suzuki Sensei decided to use the word “Panda? for his new idea.

I once sat with Suzuki Sensei in his studio where there were several stuffed pandas of different sizes. He looked around and said, “These are all presents from people who think I like pandas. I am not a stuffed panda. They don’t understand. This is not Panda.?

My personal obsession with Panda began with something that happened to me in college. Once while practicing I tried a new idea having to do with covering up the “magic dot? or the eye on the bow. I had heard about this idea from a mysterious guest in our Master Class. Suddenly I felt the connection between my thumb and ring finger. I could produce twice the tone with half the effort—a great thing to discover before performing a Senior Recital. Somehow, I felt this was connected to Panda.

Then I attended the 1984 SAA Teacher’s Conference in Chicago and had the opportunity to listen to Suzuki Sensei teach every day. From the moment he began to play I was in such awe. He had a huge sound that was so balanced and beautiful! It seemed that he could do anything with the bow; it was almost as if he were defying laws of physics. When he asked for volunteers to play on stage I somehow dared to stand there and play. He said that my little finger needed to be quite close to the ring finger and never push. He explained that I should use the thumbnail. And he said Panda.

Eventually I found my way to Matsumoto to study. My first formal lesson with Suzuki Sensei happened during group class. Of course I was very nervous and thought I would be expected to play Books One through Ten on cue. Instead, Sensei said, “Play Judas Maccabeus? from Book Two. I played it.

After I played, he told me to grab my bow with a fist at the frog. Not a bow hold, a fist. “Hold it strongly. Touch the tip of the bow with your other finger. Try to move it. It feels strong, nicht?? (Suzuki Sensei often spoke in a mixture of English, Japanese and German.) Yes, the tip felt strong. Next, I was told to hold the bow with my regular bow hold, thumb outside of the frog, and then check the tip to see if it is strong. It was much weaker. Then he said to make a normal bow hold and asked me to touch the tip one more time. “Still strong?? he asked hopefully. It was weaker still. Suzuki Sensei explained that each of them needed to have the same strength. Then he held his own bow with a regular bow hold and asked me to feel the tip of his bow. It was very powerful, yet his bow hold looked completely relaxed. Panda.

Fix my power
firmly at the tip
bow won’t wobble
move on pony hair
as my elbow moves
The amount of contact
depends upon skill;
whether I bow or stop bowing
I’ll keep contact
I won’t let you float
I won’t press you down.
With good contact
Bow along a single path-
there’s the skill

-Reprinted from International Suzuki Journal May 1990 – Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

During my quest for Panda, I began to study Aikido at a dojo not far from the school. I needed physical exercise and was intrigued by the philosophy of the “Way of Ki“. My friend Andrew showed me how to get to the dojo. We always bowed to the Kamiza or shrine before entering the dojo, even if the dojo was empty and even when alone. This was proper behavior. There were many rules about exactly how to bow, how to stand, how to put on your gi and how to tie your obi.

The Sensei was so graceful and fast! I observed for a month and then asked to join the class. I told the Sensei that I thought he was very good and he said thoughtfully, “You must already know a lot about Aikido.? I realized that judgmental statements are neither made nor taken lightly in a dojo.

I had no idea what I was talking about.

(Today, I still do not know anything about Aikido but I would like to discuss specifically how Aikido relates to Panda. Please let me know of any errors I make here in the comments and I will proceed with caution.)

Finally I was able to join the class. We did Nikyo, Kotegaeshi, and many stretches. We did Shikko or walking across the mat on our knees. We did mae ukemi and ushiro ukemi and forward rolls from a standing position. Sensei would laugh at me and say that I looked like a sack of potatoes. I tried to do unbendable arm extending my “Ki energy” through my arm as I did the roll. After class, my body ached. “Ki? was explained to me as, “That which keeps us living?. That might be true, I thought, but it’s killing me.

Still, I loved to study Aikido. It was fascinating. As we did partner work, I once paired up with Shin-kun, a rather small student who was also a kenkyusei at the kaikan (student of Suzuki Sensei). We did Kokyu Dosa and he could always allow me to tip over very easily, yet I must have weighed at least 40 lbs. more than him! And I always found it very difficult to tip him over! His “One Point” and “Ki Energy” were very strong.

What about this word “Strong”? I checked out the translations for the word “strong? in Japanese. There are two words; one is “Chikara” and the other is “Tsuyoi”.

When studying Panda, Suzuki Sensei would always ask for “Tsuyoi”. In fact, he would often say “Chikara jyanai” or “Chikara dame” meaning:

That kind of strength (force) is not right. Force is useless.

“Chikara” is physical strength. It is “katai” meaning hard or brittle. It is easily broken. “Tsuyoi” is “Jyusui” or pure. It is brave, yielding and true strength.

Men are born soft and supple;
dead they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead they are brittle and hard.
Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken,
the soft and supple will prevail.

Lao Tsu No. 76 translated by Steven Mitchell

Suzuki Sensei has said, “Tone has living soul. Without form it breathes”. “Ki” energy is “Tsuyoi”; it is the tender and delicate life giving kind of strength. It is strong like a heart beat is strong. It is open and pliant, like breath. This life force energy is the one thing which determines your tone with living soul. It is translated to the tip of the bow from “One Point” hara through your right thumb. This is the beginning of Panda.

In order to help the thumb, the little finger must remain very soft and nestled closer to the ring finger. According to Suzuki Sensei, if the little finger pushes, it is “minus”. It cancels out your Panda thumb because it brings your tip away from the string. I think of little finger pushing as a sort of emergency brake, like snow plowing when skiing. If we are having trouble, we start to push on our pinkie and this begins a vicious circle of backing off. If we can resist pushing on the little finger and keep it thoroughly relaxed while maintaining a consistent Panda thumb by extending “Ki” from “One Point”, our troubles will simply disappear.

I learned that is it not enough to extend “Ki” from “One Point” to the point where the bow comes in contact with the string. The contact point is an illusion because it is constantly changing. “Ki” energy needs to span the entire bow so that every point of contact will always be ready at any given moment. By extending power even beyond the very tip of the bow, then the entire bow will always be in good condition to make beautiful sound at any time. This is why Suzuki Sensei’s third and forth year students always sounded so beautiful. The farther and more clearly your “Ki” energy can extend, the more life there will be in your sound.

With my new study of tone and quest for Panda, I began to realize that if my tip swished, then my contact point was also mushy. Prior to my study in Japan, it was a common belief in America that a swishy tip signified a free and relaxed bowing style. But a wobbly tip is like a cat’s tail swishing about and knocking things over behind him as he walks. When we forget about the tip, we create disorder as we go. If the tip is out of control, then the entire bowing system is chaotic. When the tip is moving together with the upper arm (elbow) and the hand, then the system is balanced. This is also true in life. When one honestly believes in the progress and development of all of one’s companions and does everything possible to help them, experiencing the harmony of “this moment” becomes easier.

One way to study Panda is to make circles with the elbow (upper arm) frog and tip. In Japan, Suzuki Sensei once told my friend that the tip should be so controlled that she should be able to write her name nicely with the tip of her bow! He asked me to study 100,000 circles. I studied circles in front of a mirror. Try as I might, my tip circles were always out of synch with my arm. I needed to do 100,000 circles and it took so much concentration to do just one! This was because I had not made the connection between my Panda thumb and the tip of the bow. As I studied with my friends in front of the mirror, I began to make that connection, and at the moment that I did Panda while making circles, my friend Miyuki commented that we looked like a flock of bird moving together. I finally understood that Panda thumb makes the connection between the upper arm and the tip of the bow!

Panda thumb is not stiff; it is simply “tsuyoi”. It is strong in the way that a new-born baby is strong because he or she must overcome thousands of obstacles in order to live. You were a baby once and you have this power.

So relax. Enjoy.

Suzuki Sensei would say:

“No need anxious. Take off anxious.”

This moment determines the destiny. We have one moment, one chance. This is the moment.


This moment.




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

9 responses to “Notes from my studies with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

  1. In the general sense, chikara does tend to be used in the sense of applying force, although it sometimes also refers to [positively] using energy. Tsuyoi is more of the state of being strong. Chikara does sound like too much stiffness and energy to be applied to bowing.

    I had seen a similar explanation in aikido: Maruyama-sensei of Kokikai refers to stiffness in the arms as “sword arm.” “Sword arm” is a tightly held-up arm; “unbendable arm” is not held tightly, yet has energy running through it and is strong.

  2. Thank you Yoko! Yes! ” ‘Unbendable arm’ is not held tightly, yet has energy running through it and is strong.” That’s the perfect description!

    About the terms… Hmm… since I never heard Suzuki Sensei say Chikara in a positive way, I think I will leave them the way they are for now.

    May I ask, when you do forward rolls from a standing position, is it proper to refer to the state of the arm you are rolling on as “unbendable arm”?

    Do you study aikido with Maruyama Sensei?

  3. I can understand why Suzuki-sensei would say chikara is a bad thing in this context. My mom would use the word chikara whenever I would do something in a half-assed manner when I was younger: motto chikara o dashite— “put more energy into it.”

    I think it would be appropriate to refer to the arm that you’re rolling on in a forward roll as unbendable arm, yes.

    I study with an instructor who is one of the senior members of the Kokikai style, who had studied with Maruyama-sensei when he had a dojo in Philadelphia in the early 70s. Maruyama-sensei does return to the area every year to officiate over camps and seminars. He’s a goofy guy, really, but very sincere when it comes to aikido.

  4. Thanks Yoko. Suzuki Sensei was goofy too!

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  8. The illusive PANDA has baffled Suzuki teachers for nearly 30 years. I heard the term for he first time in the early 80’s when I was doing teacher training in England.

    Here’s a way to explain PANDA.

    The problem of producing a good tone stems from the fact that it is easy to bring the weight of the arm into the string at the frog, but increasingly difficult as we move to the tip. We reject the notion of pronating the forearm (turning the ulna and radius bones) or raising the elbow as these cause considerable tension.

    Our bow hold is a simple lever with the thumb at the fulcrum. We can shift weight towards the tip end of the bow by bringing more force to the index finger end of the lever and reducing weight on the pinky end (hence the need to avoid the canceling role of pushing with the pinky).

    A physicist will point out that there is another way to rebalance a lever: RELOCATE THE FULCRUM. The slightest movement of the thumb tip towards the frog accomplishes a huge change in balance. In fact, a tiny thumb shift reduces the need to rebalance with the fingers; the finger muscles can remain relaxed and dedicate themselves to guiding the pathway of the bow on the string.

    Physiologists will tell you that our thumb is by far our best finger. It has very strong muscles. The thumb has vastly more nerve and brain connections as any other finger. The thumb can move is several planes easily. The up/down movement of the thumb doesn’t change much since this maintains the hold of the bow stick; but the thumb flexes left and right to rebalance by displacing the fulcrum.

    We all teach our beginners to have curved thumbs. In reality our thumb takes several shapes (as do the four other fingers). There is not a single shape to the thumb, but rather a range of shapes. Of course, a curved thumb is capable of changing shapes–more curved or less curved; a straight thumb is locked.

    PANDA is about the relocation of the fulcrum

  9. Hi Gabriel,
    Thank You SO MUCH for your comments! They are so wonderful! I also appreciated your comments in the letter that you sent to me through the mail! I apologize for being so slow in my response.

    What a wonderful website you have!! ! Thank You!! I suggest that all Suzuki Teachers visit your wonderful site!

    I just wanted to add two small ideas…

    You said that “Panda” is about relocation of the fulcrum. Yes- absolutely! However, I believe it is actually putting the fulcrum where it has naturally belonged all along (recalling your observations about the thumb). We are the ones who have artificially relocated the fulcrum to the index finger through our greed and selfishness.

    Also, Panda is a spiritual concept about focus and enduring to the very, very end. Dr. Suzuki began this movement “for the happiness of all children” . We seem to be forgetting this! “We count them happy who endureth to the end” ~ (James 5:11)

    As I put in the article in the SAA journal
    “When one honestly believes in the progress and development of all of one’s companions and does everything possible to help them, experiencing the harmony of ‘this moment’ becomes easier.”

    Thank you for your time, efforts, thoughtful observations and sharng! Let’s contnue to study Dr. Suzuki’s ideas – “Perhaps it is music that will save the world” ~Pablo Casals