October 2014

Why we need both Suzuki and O'Connor Methods

October 31, 2014 15:10

… I was prepared to not make a comment on this at all, but recent discussions about violin pedagogy and which method books to buy have reached a level of passion and vitriol I usually associate only with religion and politics (and that usually sends me looking for the door.)

So basically, some people in the violin teaching world are currently embroiled in controversy because Mark O’Connor, a musician for whom I have always had a great deal of respect, out of passion for his own method, has written several deeply barbed critiques of the Suzuki method, which is one of the most widely used ways of teaching violin. To the best of my knowledge he has not questioned the method’s founder, Shin’ichi Suzuki’s birth certificate, but, in a manner rather like political discourse in the U.S., things have gotten a little out hand. I will not address all the concerns or critiques of either method or its founders explicitly, but I would like to plead for all of us on every side to take it down a notch.

I’m particularly disturbed by some of O’Connor’s criticisms of Japanese culture, Zen Buddhism, and “the samurai ethic” in Shin’ichi’s Suzuki’s background, as part of the reason we now need an “American violin method.” On forums, some passionate Suzuki enthusiasts have gotten into the mud right with him, making deeply offensive remarks about old-time music and jazz rooted in the worst kind of classical snobbery. This has to stop. If music education does any good for our students at all, it should be to help him or her appreciate the abundant creativity and diversity of ALL members of the human family. The same tools of rhythm and melody have been adapted and transformed by the world’s cultures in many different ways, from gamelan to Indian ragas to West African drumming, and to people like Joshua Bell, Natalie MacMaster, Mark Wood, and Regina Carter. All of them can produce artisans of great skill and creativity, all of them worthy of our respect and attention, and all of them would be great fun to study. Racism, ethnocentrism, classism, sexism, or any other hateful –ism has no place in the way we teach music.

Ok, rant over. I consider myself a fairly new teacher, still in the process of completing all my training and education, so I will not go into too much detail behind all the abstract pedagogical theory or historical details. Rather, I’d like to speak out of my own experience in both learning and teaching violin, and why it has led me to believe the world of violin teaching has room for more then one, or two, or thirty “methods.”

The way I learned violin was, in some ways really great, but I feel also had some shortcomings.

I started on the Suzuki method in the beginning. My parents of course picked my teacher for me, none of us really knowing what “Suzuki” meant, but I do remember being really impressed that the author of my violin book also made motorcycles. One of the revolutionary hallmarks of the Suzuki method is “the mother tongue method.” Suzuki emphasized the importance of immersion, and nearly continuous listening to music, learning and imitating in a way similar to how a young child learns language. One of my teacher’s first instructions was to buy the recording, and listen to these songs as much as I could possibly stand. My mom followed her instructions, and we played the heck out of that tape. While bathing, cooking, playing, or riding in the car, the “Book 1” songs were almost always in the background. In this way, I already “knew” the songs even before I attempted to play them. Issues such as pitch and rhythm were thus easier for my 6-year-old brain to grasp, since I already had a deep appreciation of what things were “supposed” to sound like, and I could do a lot of teaching myself, experimenting with how to make myself sound more like the recording.

I feel that my ear is far stronger then it would have been had I tried to learn violin any other way. As I learned improvisation and fiddle music, I discovered this strong ear was an invaluable asset, and I was able to integrate the two schools of violin playing in a way that felt very natural and holistic. Today, I can pretty much play along with almost any kind of background music, pretty much instantaneously. It’s my party trick. (Before I met the amazing woman who would become my wife, she had already heard about me from people who heard me playing along with Sarah Brightman’s “Time to Say Goodbye,” followed by Tupac Shakur’s “Only God Can Judge Me”) Needless to say, this skill is something that has come quite in handy playing with other people who don’t always have sheet music or chord charts available. I give a lot of credit to my first teacher, and the Suzuki method in general, for building such a strong ear-to-instrument connection within myself.

However, the integration piece was something I developed fairly late in my musical development, and largely independently. Even though we lived in the “capital of country music,” I was told, both by my own instructor and by other teachers I met at Suzuki camps, that while fiddling might be ok just for fun, I should not try to play it until graduating from book 2, because otherwise it might “ruin” my technique. I mostly heeded their advice, not really taking lessons for fiddle and improvisation for several years, and only after several horrible experiences with a teacher who was not a good fit for me. It was assumed that I needed a solid foundation of the “correct” classical style before I could go on to anything else.

My examination of some excellent books that I used to both learn and teach improvisation or non-classical violin styles (Julie Lyonn Liberman’s The Contemporary Violinist, Edgar Gabriel’s String Groove, Mark Wood’s Electrify your Strings, Edward Huws Jones’ collection of books on several different ethnic fiddle styles, and Mel Bay’s Getting into (Fiddling, Blues, Jazz, etc.) Violin series) operate from this assumption, by not really being too helpful unless you can already play your instrument with proficiency. Even the first exercises or songs of these great books would be a huge challenge to the beginner. While of course I do not expect every music book ever written to be accessible to the absolute beginner, I think the assumption that everyone needs a “classical background” before playing any other style is one that needs to be questioned.

Research suggests that young children have a far easier time learning and picking up languages then even older children, and that therefore, raising a child to be bilingual from the beginning makes all language learning easier then trying to “study” another language after one has already been set in stone. Applying Suzuki’s reasoning that music can be learned in a way similar to language, we can and should be pushing beginners to be musically “multilingual” as soon as possible. To the best of my knowledge, O’Connor’s method is one of the first that emphasizes improvisation from the beginning, and for this reason, I think it is worthy of some serious consideration. Classical training need not be in conflict with “alternative” ethnic and popular styles of music, but both can work together to create truly well rounded musicians, with both a “beautiful heart,” and the confidence to express their own individuality in fresh and exciting ways. Even if the method we are most comfortable with seems to be teaching students well, we would do well to pay attention to what we can learn and change from new ideas and methods.

But this need not be at the expense of the good things both Suzuki and other so-called “traditional” methods have to offer. Our goal as teachers should be to recognize that different people learn in different ways, so no one method is going to work for everyone. Neither old nor new methods should be in competition with each other, but we should be open-minded and “improvisational,” looking at different methods and books as potential tools in helping a particular student along what he or she really wants for a lifetime adventure of music making.

8 replies

For beginners especially - how to maintain a love for the violin once the secret is out that it's hard...

October 24, 2014 17:01

I remember getting my first violin, and feeling enchanted from my 6 year-old eyes, the cloth covered, curved box made of wood stained with a dark orange hue. It seemed almost scary in its unapproachable fanciness, as if it possessed magical properties. So I just kind of looked at it with a sense of awe, until I heard some musicians play it, first in a bluegrass band, and then in a symphony, with the promise that lessons and practice would lead me being able to do that. So I tried to pick it up – and practiced my first assignment – an open A string to a steady rhythm that I was taught as “Mississippi Hotdog.” (which I guess would be one with grits in it)

My teacher could play an amazing “Mississippi Hotdog,” with each note ringing out clearly, and keeping the beat perfectly wherever she felt like setting the metronome. About half the time, my “Mississippi Hotdog” sounded like the annoying static-y noise I would hear when I went to the wrong TV channel. It took a few months of doing nothing but @%$*#& “Mississippi Hotdog” on a open string before we even talked about putting the other hand on the string to play actually notes. When we did, I usually ended up with something that sounded a little like a very sad cat. This in turn led to another few months of hard work before I was able to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Violin playing is hard. Specifically, the worst part of learning is often at the front end. Some instruments, like the piano can be learned cumulatively – meaning it’s easy to do at first, and then can get more complicated as your knowledge builds. Violin playing is much more like riding a bike – it’s basically impossible at first, but you have to train your muscles to cooperate, and certain bodily movements have to become basically automatic. That’s why you often have to spend so much time simply learning how to hold the bow, or get a pitch in tune. It can be easy to get discouraged at this point (and I have seen a few students get discouraged and lose interest when progress wasn’t going fast enough) – but here are a few things I find are really helpful in helping to maintain a sense of motivation past the hurdle:

1) Never let the love of music die

When I first started lessons, my mom made the observation that the kids who carried their own violins seemed more likely to stick with it then those who had their instrument carried by parents. I’ve sense discovered what an ingenious discovery this was, that students who really “own” their instruments are the ones who keep going even when it’s too hard to get right away. I think one of the main things a teacher (of any subject really, but music especially) should strive for internal motivation – or that a student needs to really desire to learn music for its own sake, because he or she really wants to. The great painter Pablo Picasso once said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.” So, I consider one of my main jobs as a teacher to maintain a sense of fun playfulness and love of music even when it gets hard. The discipline needed to reach proficiency will come if you really love it. But you can help me out in this goal! Keep listening to music, especially stuff with violins in it. Listen to your body, and know when you’re pushing it too much, and feel free to take a break. Play music-related games so you can “practice” without it feeling like drudgery.

2) Remember you are learning “music,” not just “violin”

Dragging a bow across a string is not just a technique. It is a way to play rhythm. It is not enough merely to know where the fingers of the left hand “should go” on the finger board, you need to listen carefully and know what it means to be in tune. Thus, playing the violin is not an act in itself, and sometimes it may be helpful to take a break from building technique, to instead build up “musical intelligence” more broadly. This can be accomplished by singing, clapping, playing a shaker or other percussion instruments, and dancing, as ways to work on matching a rhythm and pitch to what you hear.

3) Focus on only one thing at a time

One of the main reasons violin playing is such a challenge is that is requires you to do so many different things at the same time. Even “Mississippi Hotdog,” my favorite song of all time, requires an overwhelming level of coordination that can go wrong if any individual muscle is pressing down too much or not moving enough. It’s too much to think about at one time, which is how many people end up practicing things incorrectly and making everything even more difficult. Instead, really try to concentrate on one thing at a time. For example, try playing a song one time focusing on keeping the bow straight and in between the bridge and the edge of the finger board, and then do it again with making sure the fingers on the “note hand” aren’t jumping up after you lift them off the string. With my beginner students, I find it sometimes helps to focus on bowing on open strings, and then working on the note hand by plucking “guitar style.”

4) Daily short practice is better then inconsistent long practice

Violin playing is something that is only going to get easier with consistent practice. Trying to “cram” practice just before a lesson is about as effective as only brushing your teeth before going to the dentist. But I understand that, realistically, we’re not all students at Julliard or the Berklee College of Music. For many of my students, school, work, and friends gets in the way of working on everything every day. My encouragement to them is simply this – practice less more often. Even on days when you feel totally stressed out and overwhelmed, at least get the violin out of its case, and play scales for 5 – 10 minutes or so. Even that small bit of practice, with appropriate levels of concentration, activates the pathways of your brain, that, over a long period of time, will make playing come more automatically, so you can focus on actually making music.

A parable -

Once upon a time, there lived a little pony in a forest far away. One day, the pony found a huge tree that, according to his bird friends, had the juiciest, largest, and sweetest apples in the world. So he went to the tree, and discovered, sadly, that these amazing apples were only on the tree’s highest branches. He stretched out as far as he could go, but couldn’t get anywhere near the apples he wanted. But our pony wouldn’t give up. Every day, he would go up to the tree and stretch his neck, trying to reach as high as he could go. At first, it was really hard, and he couldn’t stretch anywhere near the apples. But, after a very long time of going to the tree and stretching his neck every day, he found it got easier and he was able to stretch higher then he had before. Finally, one day, he discovered that he could reach the apples, but that he had to work harder to reach down to the grass, because his stretching had made his neck longer. And he had become the world’s first giraffe.

And the moral of the story is – Your body, and your mind, are capable of far more than you think. If you just work at pushing yourself just a little bit every day, things that seem impossible will become second nature. Happy practicing!

4 replies

Using the core melody to learn and improvise on fiddle tunes...

October 17, 2014 15:38

There are a lot of great books with sheet music of fiddle tunes out there – and I’ve been drowning in them for pretty much as long as I can remember. However, going to a jam session or fiddle contest, or even just listening to a recording will quickly reveal that, unlike with classical violin playing, what’s written on the page doesn’t often have that much to do with what’s actually being played. No one is going to play a tune the exact same way, and most individual musicians don’t even play a song the same way every time.

To a classical trained violinist, used to following sheet music more directly, this may seem really confusing. However, do not despair! The trick is to figure out a tune’s “core melody” or what I call its “skeleton” – the most basic melodic flow of a song. Once you’ve got that down pat, then it’s time to add fun things, like slides, double stops, trills and grace notes, driving shuffle rhythms, blue notes, whatever strikes your fancy! One of my teachers once told me he had a “tool box,” of licks that he could plug in to any song whenever he thought it would sound good. But whatever you add, keep the tune’s skeleton playing in your head no matter what.

Here’s a quick video in which I play the same song three different ways, demonstrating how I learn, understand, and then add to a song’s core melody. Enjoy! :)

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