Why the Importance of Tone?

“Music is the shorthand of emotion. Emotions which let themselves be described in words with such difficulty, are directly conveyed...in music, and in that is its power and significance.”
–Leo Tolstoy

Let us begin with Dr. Suzuki’s quote “Tone has living soul.” In the Suzuki Method, we advocate to develop the character of the child for it is the character of the child, which will be reflected in the tone they produce. Just as our attention to developing the character of the child begins early on in their lives, so the attention to tone begins early on in their musical training. 

Music is often referred to as a language without words. In music our main vehicle of communication is sound. How we produce a tone on our instrument is essential in the study of music. The study of tone refers to and encompasses the study of expression, the study of intonation, the study of resonance, the study of character, the study of inflection, the study of timbre. Tone played at a changing pace (rhythm and tempo), tone played at different volumes (dynamics), tone played with varying degrees of strength and emphasis, tone played with expression, color, and character are all synonymous with the study of tone. 

Why start the lesson or practice with the study of tone?To paraphrase my colleague Mihoko Hirata, we start with tone because it requires the child to listen and focus on one point. In order to produce a beautiful sound, the child needs to focus. Once the child is focused, listening begins to happen. The child’s level of listening is heightened as the teacher repeatedly asks them to produce an improved tone. Once they are listening more carefully to themselves and to what they are doing on their instrument, they are interacting with their teacher. They are listening more keenly and their auditory level of awareness and sensitivity are heightened. Now they are ready to learn.

Now that they are ready to learn, the study of tone helps the student to be more receptive to taking on the upcoming newer tasks. Consistently beginning with the familiar point of tone helps the student enter into the lesson with a sense of comfort and confidence. With this familiarity and past successes on producing a better tone, they are motivated to learn. Having succeeded in producing a beautiful sound gives them positive feedback and reminds them that they can do something well. This success helps them to be more willing to try a new teaching point. Since the study of tone is an ongoing, technical area of study, the study of tone is a life long pursuit. A strong foundation of tone has to be established by the beginner student. This basic foundation needs to be one of a solid sound from which various types of sound can later be explored and trained. The sound you play with as a beginner should change and reach higher levels of tone production as your technique and repertoire expand. The student’s sound that they played with in Volume 1 should be better in Volume 2. Gradually, the student’s improvement in sound should go beyond the level of repertoire they are learning. 

The study of tone is an intricate part of studying a piece. Thinking about the inflections of a series of notes; choosing the dynamics within a section of the piece and throughout; articulating notes with emphasis or delicacy all affect the sound. In my personal studies on tone with Dr. Suzuki, when focused on tone production, you are free to give your full attention to producing that one beautiful ringing note. Daily focus on that “one point” trains a standard as well as training an evolving quality of sound you will want to hear and expect to hear when you play your instrument. You are constantly developing a more discerning ear. 

During lessons, Dr. Suzuki would take our instruments and play them to show us the sound that the instrument could produce. Maximizing the sound of the student’s instrument big or small was another goal in tone production. In order to maximize the sound of their instrument, the study of tone serves as an opening to discuss other techniques such as good posture, natural balance, intonation, musical phrasing, left and right hand techniques, etc.

One of my first students who is now a college English professor wrote, and I quote, “Music is a form of communication.” The ability to convey our feelings and thoughts requires the technical ability to produce any kind of sound you want. Once one possesses this technical ability, there needs to be a person with character that has something of interest to say. Ultimately, the character of the person makes the musical interpretation unique. Each person brings his or her life experiences into the music.

Remember this consistent study of tone is the basic foundation for how we convey the music. As I have already mentioned, music is mainly communicated through sound. In order to communicate more effectively, the technique of being able to produce a variety of tone colors or shades of sound, widest range of dynamics possible and purposeful inflections need to be developed and mastered. Another wards music with all notes played with the same articulation or music with all notes played at one volume is boring. I remember when Dr. Suzuki said at a lesson, not every note is the same. It’s like having only steak for every meal. One needs variety! Yes?

The study of tone is training the ability to listen for a quality of sound the student may not yet be aware of. By raising their awareness of the quality of sound, one becomes more sensitive to the vibrations of a resonating tone. One becomes increasingly more aware and sensitive to what sounds they are producing on their instrument. One also becomes motivated to explore different types of sound. When the student takes ownership of the sound and has developed the technique to produce the sound they want to hear, their music is enhanced because the expression is coming from within them. The result is a more refined, sincere musician.

"From the heart of the musician to the heart of the listener, tone carries the message of human emotions serving the greater purpose of music." It was probably moments like this Dr. Suzuki was referring to when he said. “Tone has living soul.” We cannot see it, we cannot touch it, but we can feel and sense this special gift that touches our humanity. 

Why tone? As a Suzuki parent when you work on tone with your child, listen carefully to the tone he or she produces. Together you both are learning the language of music. Developing the technical tools for producing any kind of sound your child wants along with developing the character of the child are the dual goals of the Suzuki approach. Always remember that in the Suzuki philosophy we advocate developing the character of the child for it is the character of the child, which will be reflected in their music. As they grow and mature, they will be able to express what they feel in music because of their life long study of tone.

As you both continue to study tone, continue to listen more carefully to the tone your child is producing. As you both learn to listen with heightened awareness, you and your child’s life long journey in the study of tone will be a special avenue of communication with one another through music. Ultimately, the character of the person is reflected in the tone they produce.

I trust that this session on “Why tone?” will serve as a springboard to further thought and discussion about the study of music in the Suzuki philosophy.

-Cathryn Lee