Helen Higa

Name in Japan: Helen Teiko Higa

Other Places you have lived since Japan: Knoxville, TN; NYC, NY; Honolulu, HI

Instrument studied in Japan: violin

Dates in Japan: January 1971 – June 1973

Years and locations of workshops with Dr. Suzuki that were outside of Japan: SAA Conference in San Francisco and Chicago


Okagesamade, Suzuki Sensei

Mrs. Suzuki once told me that the thing which amazed her the most about her husband was his ability to treat everyone with the same respect, whether they were the princess of Japan or the janitor at his school. When I first arrived in Matsumoto, I was kindly met at the train station by two teacher trainees who took me straight to school. Fresh out of high school, I couldn’t believe that I was going to study with Dr. Suzuki in Japan! I grew up in Hawaii and had never even seen snow before. For the train ride I dressed as warmly as I could, which meant that I looked pretty weird upon my arrival at school. Once there, the kenkyusei wanted to take me upstairs to meet Dr. Suzuki. I didn’t feel ready for this and tried to stall saying that I wasn’t dressed properly and suggested that we wait for just a day. Little did I know that Suzuki really lived by the motto: “Never put off until tomorrow what can be done today.”

About the time they made me coffee and I was seated across from Suzuki being treated like an honored guest, I was sure that some terrible mistake had been made and that I wasn’t who they thought I was. Before matters got out of hand, I decided to tell him the truth – I was an awful violinist who had heard five-year-old students play better than I could, and that I wanted to start at the very beginning again. I thought that he wouldn’t want to waste his time with me and that I’d be perfectly willing to study with whomever he recommended if he was too busy. He just kept smiling, nodding, and smoking, and I thought, “Oh no, he doesn’t understand English.”

To make matters worse, he insisted that I go to his studio and play something for him! With nervous, stiff fingers, I played through the only piece that I could play from memory. Although I tried my best, I was awful. Dr. Suzuki did not say anything for a-g-e-s, and I worried that he was reconsidering his offer to teach me. Instead, after a few puffs of smoke he stood up and said, “Thank you for playing today! You play very nicely…but…you have ‘Hawaii’ Tone.”

I must have looked puzzled, and he explained, “…Hawaii is a very beautiful place, but it is such a tiny island in the middle of this HUGE Ocean… No! You must learn how to play with ‘Matsumoto’ Tone!,” gesturing and smiling broadly towards the snow-capped peaks that surround Matsumoto. My first lesson with Suzuki Sensei was unlike any of my previous lessons with ‘traditional’ violin teachers. Everything about it was different. It wasn’t until later that one major difference struck me. Not a single violin teacher had EVER encouraged me to even think about, much less listen carefully to, my sound before. It was always: get the right notes, play them in tune, play them in rhythm, and then try to play musically.

Just what were some of the “differences” that made Dr. Suzuki’s violin lessons and training course SO unique? The following will describe a few of the vital elements of Dr. Suzuki’s lessons and training program that strike me as essential and are still with me to this day.

“To study is to change…I change myself – this is study.” - Dr. Suzuki

Suzuki strongly believed that one of the most important skills we learn from studying any instrument, is how to correct ourselves. In fact, Suzuki wasn’t so interested in achieving musical prowess or technical wizardry, as he was concerned with developing the student’s character. To help us discover new ways of thinking and playing, Suzuki stressed the importance of self-examination and self-correction to make our changes:

“Action cannot be separated from thought. People with fine judgment are people of ability. Reflective thought is part of judgement. Naturally, the finer the person, the greater his ability to think constructively. In training oneself, the road to improvement is closed if thoughtful self-examination is lacking…Self-examination not accompanied by change is the same as not putting into action what we think of doing. Self-training is extremely difficult. If the ability is not developed, the power of self-examination, which should be a light to our feet, goes out altogether. We must cultivate thought, or rather self-correction. But how is it done?”

We, as both students and teachers, need to look inside ourselves to figure out what needs to change. To change from the inside, however, is challenging. Often, we want to acquire new knowledge and ability as if they were commodities that exist outside of ourselves. But in order to truly integrate new ways of thinking and ‘being,’ we must first be willing to change ourselves – something we are often reluctant to do. In a similar vein, a famous Alexander Technique teacher named Patrick McDonald would say that people came to lessons wanting to change, and yet at the same time, they wish to remain the same.

In Nurtured by Love, Suzuki wrote that self-training is extremely difficult because in order to change for the better, we must first look within and examine ourselves. This self-examination requires us to develop our awareness and powers of observation in order to heighten our intuitive abilities. We must develop these abilities first, before we can take the actions necessary to change and correct ourselves.

“Forget the violin; it really isn’t so important. Don’t forget that we are educating children via the violin.” Could the study of an instrument with this approach lead to self-transformation? And was this self-transformation what Dr. Suzuki was after?

Awareness – Ki Ga Tsuku

In Japan, I would often hear the phrase: ki ga tsuku. This term roughly means, awareness: the ability to observe and be sensitive to our surroundings. In particular, the people around us. I think this commonly used phrase describes another important aspect of what Dr. Suzuki’s teacher training was about. Whenever Suzuki was asked by visiting teachers just how long his teacher training course lasted, he would reply that he could tell if a student was ready to graduate, when they brought him an ashtray before he had to ask for one. Everyone got a laugh out of that one, especially Suzuki.

Suzuki developed his intuition by practicing compassion in his daily life. He encouraged teacher trainees to be sensitive and aware of the people around us and to attend to their needs rather than think only of ourselves. He called this practice of using our intuitive powers to inform our actions and help others, “Active brain, Active heart.” His experience and intuitive abilities enabled him to individualize his instruction to suit each student’s personality, temperament, and particular needs. In effect, during our lessons, he brought us all ashtrays before we even knew to ask for them.

Suzuki could tell a lot about a person just by listening to his tone. Suzuki might even speak of Tone as a reflection of a person’s personality and character. Although his teaching formula was “One point, one lesson,” he seemed to effortlessly know how to work on many levels to develop the whole person. It was both reinforcing and inspiring to see my classmates’ personalities and character transform as we studied. Everyone began their lesson with Tonalization, and we spent hours observing each other’s lessons. Just as we saw our fellow trainees’ personalities blossom, we heard their tone become deeper, more expressive, more resonant and more beautiful.

In addition to master classes and group lessons with Dr. Suzuki, kenkyusei also studied flower arranging and calligraphy every week. With Ikebana, we learned that the space around the flowers is as important as the flowers themselves (‘Ma’). With Oshuji, we learned that the tip of the brush moves together with the elbow and hand (just like the bow tip). One depressing day, Dr. Suzuki got so tired of our heaviness that he sent a trainee to buy a ping pong table to lighten things up. We held a little tournament, and no one could believe how Dr. Suzuki, a 75-year-young man could play! None of us could even touch him and the room soon filled with raucous laughter. Sensei would often say that in the Suzuki Method, “The student must always be better than the teacher.” I hope that doesn’t include ping-pong!

Intuition = Kan

Dr. Suzuki often spoke about Intuition or Kan, describing it as his “sixth sense.” Suzuki wrote that kan is “the reliability slumbering at the base of rational experience [and that] without training, intuition (just like any other ability) cannot grow. It is a popular but deceptive belief that an individual is born with intuition.”

As I read this passage, although I thought I knew what intuition was, I had assumed we were born with it. The definition of intuition is: “the ability to know something immediately, without conscious thought.” After this, I realized that I had been thinking about intuition in a vague way, assuming it was a “gut feeling.” In fact, I had mistakenly assumed that intuition (an ability) was the same as instinct (something we are born with) and had subconsciously adopted this “popular but deceptive” belief.

Once I discovered this error in my thinking, it became clear to me that much of Suzuki training is about developing the intuitive abilities in both the student and the teacher. We HAD to use our intuition since we very rarely asked Dr. Suzuki questions during our lessons. It just wasn’t done. We HAD to use observation and our intuition to figure things out on our own. I then discovered that the ‘games’ we played, were not just ability tests, they were “designed to test [the students] developing powers of intuition…If this real ability and the vital power of intuition are developed so that they become second nature, the child will eventually find that this helps him to acquire greater skill in any sphere of activity.” Dr. Suzuki thought deeply about the value of intuition for everyone and especially for musicians while engaged in their art: “The art of being a musician is to think at speed. It is this quickness that teachers try to nurture in our students. The ability to ‘catch’ – to act on intuition.”

My own students were used to listening to my instructions and obediently trying to “get it right.” And I was busy telling them how to do things, instead of giving them the space to figure things out on their own. Once my thinking about intuition changed, thus changing myself, I noticed that the students changed. When encouraged to use their intuition, they became more engaged, and more skilled at correcting themselves. One student even said he was able to learn from his mistakes. I guess that they had been relying on me to give them answers – instead of awakening their own intuitive abilities.

I will be forever grateful for the incredible gift I had of being able to meet and study with Dr. Suzuki decades ago. I still think of him and Matsumoto every day as I continue my own teaching. His noble dream was to create a happier future for the children of the world. I hope to continue and do my best to help make Dr. Suzuki’s dream come true.

In closing, I would like to share a passage from Zen and the Art of Archery:

“Wherever his way may take him, the pupil, though he may lose sight of his teacher, can never forget him. With a gratitude as great as the uncritical veneration of the beginner, as strong as the saving faith of the artist, he now takes his Master’s place, ready for any sacrifice. Countless examples down to the recent past testify that this gratitude, far exceeds the measure of what is customary among mankind.”