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Why we need both Suzuki and O'Connor Methods

Michael Fox

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Published: October 31, 2014 at 10:10 PM [UTC]

… 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.

From Linda Louise Ford
Posted on October 31, 2014 at 11:53 PM
MIchael , Hello.
What you say is validating of all, even-handed and compassionate. How very kind of you Michael. Suzuki would have us model compassion and good heartedness and neither agree or disagree with the person who is negatory. In time, some people like this eventually have an epiphany about their behavior or words and realize that they were unwise . Still others never gain insight about their shaming remarks which is unfortunate for them. In the end, the only thing that matters is kindness. I enjoy your blogs Michael Fox.
Sincerely, Linda Louise Ford
Posted on November 1, 2014 at 11:19 AM
I do not believe any one method is the end all of violin or string a veteran teacher of 40 years I started teaching when the Applebaum and Muller-Rusch methods were the two most used teaching methods. Suzuki had just started visiting the US and my teaching career began with using a method book and a lot of supplemental materials as I was teaching in a public school and needed to start students on 5 different instruments. In my classes I could have as may as 25 in a class. The Muller Rusch method worked well with large classes and the Suzuki literature worked well to have all students play the repertoire a fifth lower than the actual method. As time went on it became easier to find methods that were written based on reasearch on the best ways to teach string instruments. My goal was to get students playing melodies as soon as possible...who wants to just practice long my method became a use of simplified notation of beginning songs, some borrowed from Suzuki and beginning with pizzicato to focus on LH position...then transferring to a method book...there followed a blend of memorized melodies and exposiure to reading traditional notation. There is not one perfect way to teach stringed instrments..adn there is definitely room for all methods depending on your student or program goals.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on November 1, 2014 at 5:44 PM
Thanks for sharing this. I, too, question "the assumption that everyone needs a 'classical background' before playing any other style" besides classical. I haven't played as much in other styles as you have -- although country music is a genre I've always loved and can pretty well fit into. Improv is something else I like doing.

Although I didn't learn via Suzuki or O'Connor, these methods clearly work well for a lot of learners -- you can't argue with success. And the immersion aspect of Suzuki makes good sense to me. As a beginner in violin, I could already read music -- thanks to elementary piano lessons shortly beforehand. But the first tunes I fingered and bowed on a half-sized fiddle, before I even had a teacher, were by ear -- the simple American folk tunes that I already had clearly in my mind's ear.

"... no one method is going to work for everyone."

Agreed. The reason I strongly believe Suzuki wouldn't have worked well for me is its degree of parental involvement. Some kids thrive on this. I don't think I would have. My parents were involved, paying for lessons and being sure that I practiced -- well, in my case, being sure that I didn't overdo it. But at lessons, my teacher and I were alone together. During practice, I was all alone. For me, this approach worked well.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 1, 2014 at 8:06 PM
The most important method for you as a teacher is YOUR method, that is, finding how you will teach your own students in your classroom or in your studio. That method should draw on everything that ever worked for you, the best of all the things you studied in becoming a teacher, and also your own experience with what you try and what "sticks." It's going to vary with the teacher, the students and the community, but certainly a teacher draws on anything that works well. I think that people find inspiration in Suzuki because he was so committed to the education of every child, so willing to try new things, and so good at coming up with things that worked very well. And there are so many other methods to try, certainly explore what works!
Posted on November 2, 2014 at 4:26 PM
I am enjoying this discussion. I trained Suzuki method, and later in life opened up to alternate styles, and my only regret is that I didn't do it sooner. I coach kids in local school orchestras and want to open their eyes to the many ways they can enjoy their stringed instruments. Not every student will achieve what is necessary to perform in an orchestral or chamber music performance setting, and other styles can be more accessible and open doors to huge amounts of fun. I love Mark O'Connor's concepts and think we needed to add his angle to the mix.
Posted on November 2, 2014 at 7:35 PM
Methods are just never mattered to me how the end result was achieved, only that it was working for my students. I have taught privately for over 14 years and played violin since I was 10 years old. I have a performance degree but the problem was that I just never felt like classical music was something I loved. What I loved was alternative styles, especially Bluegrass and Celtic styles. None of my teachers introduced these styles to me. I had to find it on my own, long before there were any alternative method styles. So now that there is literature for teaching these styles I embrace them and use them with all my students, adults and kids. They love using these styles to learn technique and most impotantly it keeps them engaged and playing. This is very important to me. Best of all my students stay with me and they explore and learn the history of many styles. They are able to choose their favorites and even break into small performing groups to share their music with others. Good music is good music and there is no room for snobbery about styles. Stay in your comfort level and teach what you love. I am just so happy that there are different styles to choose from these days!
From John Noble-ray
Posted on November 2, 2014 at 9:38 PM
I like the fact that you pointed out the basic issues facing the future of orchestral strings, classicism and single minded focus on classical music as the core learning tool. Kids now days would rather play "guitar hero" on xbox then pick up an "axe" and "shred" for real, so why would they be excited to play Bach on a violin? Especially if they have to do weeks of boring drones first? I don't see our A.D.D. afflicted youth of America latching on to the thrill of the violin this way. Also, where are the single parents of those kids going to have the time to dedicate to the Suzuki method when looking after 3 kids and working a full time job? Well there not going to have the time and the kids are not likely to stay interested. So we need to stay open and flexible with the teaching methods we use and be willing to adopt new methods as needed.
Posted on November 4, 2014 at 10:28 PM
Kids would rather do a lot of things.


String playing isn't electric guitar. The latter didn't even exist (in present rock form) until the 1950s!

String teaching has a rich history that is NOT Suzuki and NOT Mark O'Connor. The truly great teachers have nothing to do with Suzuki. Consider the Heifetz lineage. And the Galamian lineage. And the Dorothy Delay pedagogy. How about Auer? Oistrakh? I'm randomly tossing names but there are more.

What is behind all of this? A rich history! Find a teenager who is deeply immersed in classical training and you will find a superbe orchestral professional mentoring that child. You will find a child entranced by the beauty and complexity and variety between early Baroque, Bach, late Baroque, Early 19th century, Mid century, Modernist, Post modernist, serialist, etc etc. There is so much to learn!

I agree that violin has a place outside of classical repertoire. And that that space is rather poorly served. But that isn't a fault of instruction. That's a fault of creativity and of cultural prejudice.

Let's look at the prejudice of Junior high and High school "jazz." Maybe one guitar allowed to join. Everyone else is on a horn or a woodwind. And one or two stand up basses. ( Bass players have the right idea--they play *everything*!). NO VIOLINS. Go try it. Go up to your band director and see how far you get. "We'd love to but there isn't anything written." Or etc. Never mind that Duke Ellington had violin in his big band--even in "You ain't got a thing..."

But this isn't necessarily bad. It isn't as if the electric guitar was getting support from the established music industry in 1953--heck, the Les Paul was such a bad seller that they cancelled it! And then in the 60s some young kids invented music with old pawn shop guitars...

Creative people are already creating new music with the fiddle--outside of established classical compositions and culture. This will continue--with or without any help.

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