Category Archives: Aikido

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

Notes from my studies with Dr. Suzuki

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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