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My FATHER, My teacher
Olivia Kember talks to Takako Nishizaki

It is often said that people and their pets grow to resemble each other. The closeness created by years of intimacy and familiarity with each other's idiosyncrasies reveals itself in shared mannerisms and even appearance. Takako Nishizaki, who first picked up her instrument at the age of three, and has rarely put it down since, to become one of the most popular recording violinists of all time, provides a musical variation on this. She looks like her violin.

We are sitting in the living room of a house in Howick, where Takako and her husband, Klaus, live when they are visiting New Zealand. Behind Takako the sunlit lawn ends abruptly in a clump of trees and a cliff, and the sparkling water of Mellons Bay. Takako's face, in shadow, has the same curves and angles as her instrument. As she talks, I realise she also shares the same sweetness and strength.

Takako Nishizaki was one of the first children to be taught the Suzuki Method. She was its guinea pig, and its shining success story. She started performing in public when she was five years old, gained admission to Tokyo's Toho Conservatory, and Yale and the Julliard School in the United States. In 1967 she won the second prize at the Leventritt International Competition, which launched her international performing career. She has been an ardent and effective promoter of Chinese music, and has been given awards by Pacific Music and the Chinese Musicians Association for her work in this area. Takako has recorded more than 100 CDs, and played with many renowned musicians. She has been the subject of several television programs made by China Central TV. She is, however, very modest, and we spend most of the time talking about her father.

And Takako's father is worthy of comment. Shinji Nishizaki was another violinist, a regular performer in Japan, a member of a successful string trio; more importantly, he was, as Takako puts it, the 'co-founder' of the Suzuki Method. Takako learned from both of them.

It all started in Nagoya. Shinji, who was thinking of opening a music school, was impressed by Shinichi Suzuki's revolutionary ideas. The two decided to collaborate. When Suzuki moved to Matsumoto, Shinji stayed behind. Takako explains: 'There were only three teachers in Nagoya'. And so what became the Talent Education Method had two bases. The Nagoya school became something of a cultural showcase for the city. Takako and the other children of Nagoya performed for visiting dignitaries and international musicians, among them Isaac Stern and Sir Malcolm Sargent.

'My father loved to teach children', says Takako. This was something he shared with Suzuki. 'Mr Suzuki', as Takako calls him, came to Nagoya every couple of weeks to play with Shinji's students; Takako remembers the lessons were fun. 'We played a lot of games'. But while she played for Suzuki, she worked for Shinji. 'My father was very tough,' she says. By the time she was six years old, Takako's daily practice routine consisted of three two-hour blocks: before school, after school, and after dinner. She remembers repeatedly asking her parents, 'Why do I have to stay home?' when her friends were out playing. She was not allowed to play baseball in case she injured her hands.

But she doesn't regret it for a minute. Takako has a great respect for her father. When she was fourteen, she stopped having lessons from Dr Suzuki. Shinji Nishizaki's and Dr Suzuki's musical paths diverged, and her father started his own, unaffiliated school. As she explains it, for the two teachers, disagreement was professional rather than personal, and centred on the different emphasis they placed on aspects of what seems to be essentially the same musical method. 'Dr Suzuki was very, very talented,' says Takako. 'He had so much energy. He could paint, and write as well as play and teach. 'He envisaged Talent Education as a way of enabling 'masses of children' to love music, and saw love as the way for everyone to learn to play an instrument. 'But,' says Takako, following her father, 'You must apply some pressure.'

If Suzuki focused more on participation and enjoyment, Shinji aimed to create the foundations for greatness. From the very beginning, he believed that a child needed to be taught 'correctly', that it is important that a student is able not just to do something correctly, like bow hold or posture, but that he or she also understands why they are doing it that way. According to Takako, Dr Suzuki didn't dwell on the technical side as much as Shinji would have liked, and Shinji became frustrated, believing that the Suzuki Method needed updating that he could not see occurring.

Takako talks about some of the early Suzuki students who were offered places at a prestigious music school in Tokyo. Dr Suzuki discouraged them from going, saying that they didn't 'need to.' The students' parents came to Shinji, who believed they should go. 'You can always be a Suzuki teacher,' he argued, 'But you can't always go to Tokyo.'

Takako became an accredited Suzuki teacher after completing the course at the age of nine. She points to a framed certificate, the existence of which she only discovered recently. 'My father didn't tell me,' she says, laughing. 'You can't be a teacher at nine years old.' Instead, she went to Tokyo, to the Toho Conservatory, where she was not just the only, but the first, Suzuki student the Toho tutors had come across. She speaks of the continual incredulity among the musical establishment, and the repetitive, astonished query, 'How do you play so well?' Her early training in coping with pressure must have come in useful here, where she needed to prove both herself and her musical upbringing to an ignorant world.

But while she is proud to have been a Suzuki student, she has some concerns about the state of Suzuki today. 'It is too easy to say you are a Suzuki teacher.' She tells us about a concert she went to in Australia, where a woman described herself as a Suzuki teacher after having been to study in Matsumoto 'for only two weeks!' Takako herself may be regarded as something of a heretic by modern Suzuki practitioners. She believes it is an excellent method for beginners, and uses the Suzuki books, props and metaphors, as well as encouraging a great deal of parental involvement. Like her father, she tries to explain the reason behind her instructions. And is she tough, like Shinji? 'Yes, oh, yes! ' At this she laughs and doesn't look tough at all.

But Takako's greatest difference from true Suzuki method is her reluctance to use the recordings. She does not allow her students to listen to the Suzuki tapes or CDs very often. 'Children adapt so fast,' she says, 'so listening becomes mimicking,' and the student simply produces a copy of what they hear. A veteran judge of music competitions, she believes that this is the main problem for the current crop of young musicians. 'They are technically almost perfect, but their musicality is lacking. Individuality, too.' She does concede that listening to a variety of recordings is highly beneficial.

Kind, hospitable, amusing, and uncompromising, Takako Nishizaki is a living testament to the truth of the philosophies of both her teachers.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2002 issue of the New Zealand Suzuki Journal and was republished with permission.


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