It's hard to imagine what our collective attitude about the violin would be had it not been for the life and work of violin pedagogue John D. Kendall, who died Jan. 6 in Ann Arbor, Mich., at the age of 93.
John Kendall brought the Suzuki Method to America, in every sense. He took the revolutionary ideas of Shinichi Suzuki – that all children are born with talent, that a nurturing environment fosters excellence, that every child can – and translated them not just into English, but into the American culture.
Kendall first visited Shinichi Suzuki in Japan in 1959 – the first American to do so. While at a conference at Oberlin, he had viewed a film of 750 Suzuki students – tiny children – playing the Bach Double. His own experience with beginners made him skeptical that these children really could be playing at this level. He sought a grant so that he could go to Japan see the phenomenon for himself, first-hand.
Of course, when he did, he saw that Suzuki was the real deal.
He went on to organize the first concert tour by Shinichi Suzuki and his students in 1964, a tour that opened eyes across the U.S. and changed history. Kendall published English-language versions of the first two Suzuki Books, with pieces, teaching points, pictures and recordings. At the time the books were called "Listen and Play." (These have since been replaced by the Summy-Birchard Suzuki Violin School books).
Certainly, other teachers and colleagues also brought Suzuki's ideas to life in the West. But Kendall's willingness to travel, his communication skills and his ability to simplify methodology helped Suzuki's ideas land the rather large jump between two very different cultures.
"If he did not have the soul of a gypsy – flyer miles included – or the persistence of a Jewish grandmother...gasp...someone else would have gone to see Sensei, maybe not even an American," said California violin teacher Cynthia Faisst, who also studied with Suzuki ("Sensei," or "Teacher"). "The world would not have been the same!"
Indeed, Kendall's autobiography, Recollections of a Peripatetic Pedagogue, is aptly named, with the front and back inside covers mapping his extensive U.S. and world travels.
"He's really responsible for bringing the Suzuki method to the United States," said Jim Maurer, speaking over the phone on Thursday, along with his wife, Jackie. Jim is a retired Professor of Violin at the University of Denver, who met John when he came to teach the first Denver Suzuki Institute in 1977.
"I sat there and wrote notes for five straight days," Jackie Maurer said of that first institute in Denver.
"That was our introduction to the Suzuki method," Jim said, then laughed, "We thank, or blame, John Kendall for turning us into Suzuki teachers!"
Jim and Jackie Maurer also traveled to Japan to learn from Suzuki, but they found that the connection between what the Japanese teachers were doing and the amazing results they achieved with their students was not always clear. The cultural setting was very different.
"John had a really good way of translating this sort of mystical Eastern way of teaching into an easily palatable, American, meat-and-potatoes way of teaching," said Jim Maurer. "He used lots of humor, and he loved words. He was a great communicator."
Kendall's son, Stephen Kendall, Professor of Architecture at Ball State University, agrees. "He was gregarious – he gave so much of his passion and interest to music and his students," Stephen said Thursday, speaking over the phone from Indiana. "Once he discovered the Suzuki idea, it really clicked with some of his ideas as a methodologist. His real skill as a teacher lay in his ability to help other teachers know how to teach. That is what drew so many gifted teachers to him. He was able to connect artistry and method."
Kendall had earned his undergraduate degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1939 and his master's degree from Columbia Teachers College. He taught violin at Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, and at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio.
In 1963, Kendall was invited to direct the string development program at the then-new Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University, a position he held until his retirement in 1994. He continued to teach after that – Between his travels and his longtime work at SIU-E, his ideas reached many teachers. (On the Suzuki Association of the Americas website teachers have been posting their remembrances.)
Charleston, South Carolina violin teacher Pamela Wiley remembers John Kendall coming to American University to teach a workshop in 1969 with teacher Neva Greenwood and her students there.
"I just couldn't believe what I was seeing and experiencing," said Pamela. "The kids were having so much fun – and learning so much! I saw then that motivation is really the key to learning, and John was a master motivator. I am forever grateful to Neva's quiet elegance in showing me that I could be a Suzuki teacher and John's purposeful energy in showing me that I wanted to be one."
"His positive energy will always be a huge part of my life and teaching," said Suzuki violin teacher trainer Liz Arbus of Pasadena, Calif., who went to school at SIU-E. While at school there, she wrote a play called "Suzuki White and the Twinkle Dwarfs," and Kendall readily agreed to play the Prince. "When he came galloping into the scene while playing Hunter's Chorus, the crowd roared with applause," Liz said. "The fun he put into everything he did was contagious. His positive energy helped me understand that enjoyable learning sticks with us like super glue."
It was more than positive energy, though, that made Kendall an effective teacher. Students and teachers alike remember his unique ability to break a problem down into easily solvable steps.
"He had a way of taking something very hard, simplifying it into its most basic components, and showing you exactly how to get your hands and fingers – and mind – to do what you wanted of them," said Siroth Charnond, who took private lessons from Kendall for 10 years, from age eight to age 18. "It sounds like a very basic approach, but it is very useful in learning almost anything new, not just playing the violin. He also taught me that once you learn and master seemingly simple techniques and have them in your 'tool kit,' you can do amazingly complex things with them."
Kendall seems to have invented an entire vocabulary for violin pedagogy, which New Mexico Suzuki teacher Susan Kempter quotes in her review of his autobiography: "unit practice," "Altitude is power" (on using motion in the bow arm), "We use the pieces to build our technique," "Create a no-fail environment," "Old finger to the new position," and "Hands lead up, elbow leads down."
"My grandfather has always been an inspiration to me as a sheer communicator," said violinist Nick Kendall, grandson of John Kendall's who went to Curtis and currently plays in the band Time for Three. "He was always making jokes, always referring to very creative metaphors that would give children a complete perspective. And he was super-organized when it came to working on technique." Students also talk of the balance that Kendall brought to their violin studies.
"He was always concerned about life being first and music being second for his students," Nick Kendall said. "His interests went beyond music. He and my grandmother, Kay, were very concerned about the earth."
Former student David Waldman, now a violinist in the Colorado Symphony, remembers being one of many children in Mr. Kendall's house one day when a spider crawled across the floor. "As one of us went to smash it, he rushed in, gently picked it up, and set it down outside," David said. "Until then, it would never have occurred to me to do anything other than just smush the little thing. His care with that little spider made a big impression on me."
Born in 1917, John Kendall was a native of Kearney, Neb., and grew up on a farm during the Dust Bowl and Depression days. He was brought up in the Quaker faith, and during World War II, he was a conscientious objector who served in the Civilian Public Service.
He remained dedicated to nature and to public service, and in 1990, he and his wife helped establish a nature preserve in Edwardsville, Ill., called the Watershed Nature Preserve. It includes a welcome center and more than 40 acres of wetlands, prairies and forest.
Nick has strong memories of his grandparents' garden, pond, chicken coup and woods. He remembers making forts and riding the John Deere tractor. "It was such an amazing, wholesome experience," Nick said. "I was allowed to become a whole person."
Siroth also remembers John Kendall's property, "Toadwood Scrubs," which he would visit on weekends during the summer to help skim the pond, cut weeds, harvest hay, gather eggs, tend the bees, clear the nature trail and shovel muck from the sewage treatment plant.
"We spent more time begging him to drive his tractor than actually shoveling muck," Siroth said. "Looking back with adult eyes, I'm now convinced that this was all part of his grand, nefarious scheme to get us to grow up to be whole people."
Here also is an obituary from the St. Louis Beacon.Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.