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Pamela Wiley

Confessions of a Former Suzuki Teacher by Pamela Wiley - May 2013

May 13, 2013 at 3:12 PM

It took me about four hours and ten minutes to convert from being a forty-year veteran teacher and advocate of the Suzuki Method to a proponent of the O’Connor Method. It happened on January 9, 2009 – the day I spent an uninterrupted afternoon working through the CDs of O’Connor’s Books I and II with my violin. Since I had no print, I experienced the music and the progression of techniques as a student would – figuring out each new tune from the sound alone and discovering what new left hand and bow techniques were needed for each piece. I worked on each tune until I could play it with the CD before moving on to the next one. Each tune was a surprise to me as I had not listened to the recordings before starting to work my way through them. The emotional impact was overwhelming.

That January afternoon stands as a watershed experience in my life. I remember every moment of it – the succession of realizations that there was nothing missing from the progression I had been using as a Suzuki teacher for over forty years and the equally frequent and strong realizations that there was a whole lot else going on here. Brilliant choices of pieces for teaching dotted and syncopated rhythms, brilliant choices for gently facilitating the transition from the A and D Major to G Major, brilliant choices for including up-ups, slurs and even sicilenne bowing, a lovely piece that is largely on the G string, pieces in F# minor and C Major that are easily accessible in Book I, brilliant choices for introducing the 4th finger and the decisions for when to use it, easily accessible double stops and so on into Book II with high 3s, low 1s, more advanced rhythms and more sophisticated styles. The variety of keys, tempos, and moods was incredible. “No student is going to get bored because all the pieces sound alike,” I realized. And all the while, I was listening to and trying to emulate the beautiful phrasing, pure tone and flawless intonation of the artist on the CD – Mark O’Connor. My mind was sold. My heart was won.

When my husband came home from an afternoon of teaching at our shared studio in Charleston, he was immediately aware that something had happened to me. After hearing my summary of the experience, he asked, “What are you going to do? Are you still going to use the Suzuki method? Some of it? Any of it? What would you miss if you switched to the O’Connor method?” My only answer at the time was, “I have no idea what I’m going to do! All I know is that I’m different and something big is going to happen.”

Four years later, I can actually answer these questions. As it turns out, I didn’t have to do much at all. I merely started using the material and the underlying principles of incorporating the harmonic component of the music and the arranging/improvising opportunities that the materials offered - and miracles started to happen. My students are more motivated, more musical and happier to improve technically to support their desire to play better than my students of the past. I’m having way more fun teaching and genuinely look forward to going to the studio and group class. I don’t think I was truly aware of how tired or burnt out I was getting until I experienced this difference. Now, trying to figure out why this is happening and looking back at some of the principles and hallmarks of the Suzuki Method that I took for granted all those years, I have a few confessions to make.

Confession #1. I don’t miss “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The comparative benefits of using “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down” as a first tune are undeniable – no string crosses, starting in the middle of the hand, small intervals, simple structure, strong harmonic movement. The kids love it and find it very easy to learn. Why “Twinkle” then? I think probably the opening interval of the fifth made the tune appear to be an obvious choice for a first tune on the violin – getting the first two notes for free. However, the rest of the piece is problematic on several levels. After forty years of starting students on “Twinkle” and fours years of starting them on “Cabbage” and comparing the difference, I am now convinced that using “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down” with C# as the center of the tune, the center of the hand and the center of the A Major chord lays a more solid musical and technical foundation from the very beginning. The tune moves in half and whole steps from and back to C# establishing the important smaller intervals and the important improvising concept of upper and lower neighbors. And starting on the A string alone helps so much with establishing good bow balancing from the very beginning. The fifth can come later. And it quickly does – beautifully opening up the violin to the E string in “Beautiful Skies,” the very next tune.

Confession #2: I don’t miss group classes that focus on unison playing and watching a leader. The myriad possibilities of arrangements inherent in American song structure together with the emphasis on the harmonic component of music in the O’Connor Method have transformed my approach to group classes. I like to think that I was a pretty creative Suzuki teacher. I was constantly creating games and new ways to keep the students motivated to play the Suzuki materials in unison. I’m pretty proud of all the tricks and games I came up with to get 100% of the class to watch my (or a student leader’s) bow. I was being very creative as a teacher. But was I teaching creativity? I don’t think so. With the O’Connor model, I now spend most of my group class time coaching students to form their own arrangements of the repertoire and to figure out how to make music together. Sometimes this effort involves a leader and sometimes not. The children not only have more fun creating their own versions of the music but also learn about give-and-take and consensus. Often, I just start the process and sit back and enjoy their natural creativity, perhaps making a suggestion or two here and there. Sometimes the kids even ask me for my input! The past four years have shown me that students become way more musically sensitive to each other when taught this way and considerations of bow direction (fitting into the groove) and intonation (fitting into the harmony) largely take care of themselves.

Confession #3: I don’t miss insisting on mastering each piece before progressing to the next. It was a welcome gift to me to realize that the concept of mastering a piece or a technique doesn’t even exist in the American music system. It is the nature of the material that the pieces are alive and constantly growing along with the student. One has only to watch the YouTube video of “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down” with Wynton Marsalis at the Marciac Jazz Festival in 2010 or listen to the incredible transformations of this tune in the final movement of his Ninth Violin Concerto to realize that Mr. O’Connor doesn’t feel he is finished with this magic little tune.

When students have learned a tune in the American music system, they constantly return to it making up their own variations as their technique and musical sophistication develop. Techniques grow as the need for them arises. The idea of mastering a heavy martele stroke in a tune like “Twinkle,” “Song of the Wind” or “Allegro” doesn’t exist in the O’Connor philosophy. The tunes that do present articulation choices such as “Climbing the Mountain,” do so with the idea that these choices may vary and develop with time – not that there is anything to master at any particular point.

Confession #4: I don’t miss insisting on constant reviewing of old material. What a relief! So many charts, stickers, contests, threats, bribes and general angst about reviewing all previous material to produce good Suzuki students! Reviewing as I understood it in the Suzuki philosophy, is largely unnecessary in the O’Connor method – the aspect of this new approach that was perhaps the biggest surprise to me. I’m not sure I completely understand it yet, but four years is enough for me to at least trust it. There seems to be something about the way in which the students internalize the material that keeps the tunes fresh and instantly retrievable. The tunes all become part of an actual living repertoire. If a performing opportunity comes up at the last minute, I know that my group will sound good on “Oh! Susanna,” “Dill Pickle Rag,” “Fiddler’s Dream” and “Beautiful Skies” even if we haven’t reviewed these particular tunes in a while. They just seem to be in the violins, in the children and come out easily when called forth.

Thinking back, there were a few tunes in the early Suzuki books that stuck like this – “Allegro,” “Twinkle” and maybe “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” come to mind. The children could always find these pieces without constant review and revert to them in a pinch. Most of the Suzuki repertoire did not internalize in this way, however, and would disappear from a student’s repertoire without review. What I had formerly known as necessary and artificially structured reviewing happens more naturally in the O’Connor method. The fiddle tunes, jazz tunes, ragtime tunes and classical pieces are strong melodies in the American tradition and do not seem to lose their appeal or get old for the students – or the parents. I find students genuinely enjoying playing “Oh! Susanna,” “Amazing Grace,” “Appalachia Waltz,” “Shenandoah,” “Beautiful Skies,” “Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier” – well all of them really - years after they first learned these melodies. The O’Connor method materials are truly musical masterpieces that can last a lifetime.

Confession #5: I don’t miss insisting on parental involvement and I certainly don’t miss the power struggles between parent and child that almost always ensued. In a few cases mostly involving very young children, I still find parental involvement to be productive. However, I have found that letting go of the Suzuki principle of maximizing parental involvement to ensure correct progress has been both musically and psychologically beneficial. Very quickly, I found that most children - even some very young ones - flourish when they are put in charge of their own tasks. They discover more on their own and these discoveries empower them and are more solid than skills learned by merely following instructions.

Students who discover the benefits of “doing things right” on their own are more likely to incorporate good habits into their playing than they are with constant nagging. My current teaching will often help a child do something two different ways - a “wrong” way and a “right” way or a “better” way and a “worse” way - to see which one works or sounds better. They are actually given permission to do things the wrong way and quickly learn that they prefer the correct way. This works with considerations of straight bow, intonation, shifting, left hand shaping or finger action. If the students judge for themselves that a straight bow sounds better, they are way more likely to improve this technique than if they are just doing it because they are supposed to or their parents tell them to.

Confession #6: I don’t miss tonalization or “Mississippi-stop-stop.” All those years of trying to be a good Suzuki teacher by trying to create a heavy and heavily articulate tone in my beginners and working on tonalization at the beginning of every lesson are a bit embarrassing to me now. I remember more than one student from my past - actually some of the more musical ones - who were resistant to my constant insistence on huge tone and heavy articulation. Producing a pleasant tone is natural on the violin. Given violinistic material and a good tonal model (Mr. O’Connor’s playing), there’s not much to do about teaching tone other than listening and copying the tunes.

Wanting to make a pleasant sound is obvious to children and a few suggestions about bow placement, grabbing and pulling the string and keeping the bow perpendicular to the string are not difficult to grasp. The need for pressure does not seem to arise. Considerations of weight, fluid use of the bow arm, smooth string crosses and bow changes seem to develop naturally with the demands of the fiddle tunes. Several other teachers have reported noticing that their students “just somehow sound better” playing the O’Connor material. They are wondering why. I’m wondering too. I believe that Suzuki coined the word “tonalization” and that he claimed to have patterned it after the concept of “vocalization.” Much of American music comes from the world of song. Perhaps the natural singing tone that we are seeing in O’Connor students is happening easily because of the nature of the music itself.

Confession #7: I don’t miss the repertoire – especially Book 1. In hindsight, I’m seeing that the choices in this book aren’t really very good music or even good beginning material. “Twinkle” is structurally and harmonically confusing. Kids don’t seem to like “Lightly Row.” The fingered fifth and harmonically awkward downward scale movement in “Song of the Wind” are problematic at this early stage. “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” is confusing at best if you know the American tune and words. “May Song” seems a rather poor choice for introducing dotted rhythm since it doesn’t establish any beat or groove for the dotted rhythm to bounce off of – it starts with a dotted quarter note. “O Come Little Children” is a lovely little folk melody but most of my students found it generally hard to manage and perhaps not worth the trouble. Also, because of the similarity in style, mood and tempo, these beginning songs are easily confused with each other and require unnecessary (and unmusical) mental activity to keep them straight. Suzuki’s own compositions, “Allegretto,” “Andantino,” Perpetual Motion” and “Etude” are not strong melodies and therefore difficult to learn and not very satisfying musically. “Allegro” is admittedly the best of the bunch and I am glad to see it surface with my students who have heard their friends play it. However, here again, I don’t miss the heavy martele trained into this perky little tune by the Suzuki method.

I thought I would surely miss the Bach Minuets. Well, I don’t. They are awkward on the violin, were always a struggle for the students and frankly never sounded very good even in the hands of the better Book 1 students. My current students are having much more success with much less effort given the scales and arpeggios in the American fiddle tunes. The American dance tunes are more violinistic, lay more easily on the violin and just sound better than these admittedly-lovely-but-intended-for-the-piano pieces. And, of course, there will be plenty of time for Bach’s real violin music later – when students have reached a level where they can easily play the great music he actually wrote for the violin. I do not believe that students will not love Bach if they grow up playing fiddle tunes. On the other hand, if they are so discouraged by beginning violin music that doesn’t sound good that they quit before reaching the level where they can access the great violin music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, then what’s the point of playing Bach in Book 1 or Handel in Book 2?

And how about “The Happy Farmer?” I find this tune to actually be a pretty good melody but kids seem to resist it. With the added struggle of the hooked bowing and the fact that it was not really intended for the violin, I think the beauty and excitement of the tune may get lost in the difficulty of learning it. Similarly with the “Gossec Gavotte.” I personally find this a charming piece. But do Book 1 students really like it. The motivation for learning this piece seems to have been more to get through it to graduate from Book 1 and get to Book 2 rather than to actually enjoy playing the piece.

It seems that steadily over the years, the shortcomings of the Suzuki method have been addressed by adding more and more “supplemental” material to what was initially published as the method. Various materials addressing music reading, scale and etude work and other-than-Baroque repertoire are abundant in most Suzuki studios and programs. It almost seems that one could ask “with all this supplemental material, what’s left of the Suzuki method?”

The O’Connor method doesn’t seem to need any additional material for a steady development of a student’s technique, musicality, breadth of musical exposure, reading or to keep their interest. However, the concept of following an individual student’s taste and adding repertoire from the American music system, the European system - or indeed, any source - is certainly welcomed with open arms. And none of this music is considered supplemental or alternative. It’s just more music. Personally, as an American wishing to be proud of my country, it is a real blessing to no longer be regarding and presenting my own music as “supplemental” or “alternative” in my life’s work.

And as for music reading, whatever the circumstances that led to the persistent and damaging stigma that Suzuki students are weak note-readers, it’s nice to have a clean slate. I certainly don’t miss having to state and prove over and over that I value note reading even though I’m a Suzuki teacher!

Confession #8: I don’t miss the Suzuki recordings. In the front of every book, Suzuki is quoted as saying something to the effect (it varies with editions) that “development of musical sensitivity depends upon daily listening to the reference recordings.” I no longer believe this and wonder that I did not question this tenet long ago. I do not think these recordings are great examples of musical sensitivity and I believe that daily listening to them can actually foster rigidity rather than musical sensitivity.

The O’Connor CDs, on the other hand present a wide variety of moods, tempos, phrasing and character. The orchestrations of the Book I & II tunes bring a whole different level of sophistication and musicality to the already familiar tunes in the solo books. Even given the superiority of the O’Connor recordings, however, I don’t believe it is of paramount importance for students to listen to the same recording over and over every day. The O’Connor method encourages broad-based listening from many different sources and I believe this to be a healthier and more effective path to musical sensitivity.

Confession #9: I do not miss the pecking order. It seems that many times the students (and parents) were more interested in where the song they were studying appeared in the order of pieces in the Suzuki books than in the music itself. Often a student (or parent) would refer to a piece as “the second song in Book 3, “ for instance, instead of by its actual name or by the composer. Students (and parents) would ask each other “What song are you on?” and compare answers by how far along in the books these songs were. This phenomenon does not seem to be happening with the O’Connor material. Students and parents seem to instinctively understand that even the earliest pieces in Book I are professional tunes and can be played and studied with pride no matter where you are in your development.

To be fair, I think many Suzuki teachers tried very hard to instill a non-competitive attitude about music and to try to teach the students that what matters is how you play as opposed to what you play. I know I did. The Suzuki philosophy includes the concept of “ennobling children’s spirits” through music. I’m not sure this ever really played out in my studio. I really can’t honestly say that my students were any nobler than their peers who didn’t play violin. On the other hand, I saw some pretty disturbing competitive behavior exhibited by both parents and students in my own studio, at workshops and at summer Suzuki Institutes. Why was this? Was it because the songs had no intrinsic value to the students and that the only value to them was as a symbol of how advanced they were? Sadly, often it felt like that.

It’s probably the case that any technique-based method is going to be inherently competitive. In contrast, the heavy emphasis on making music with others at the core of the O’Connor method seems to be producing a healthier attitude. A typical response of one of my current students to someone who plays better than they do at our O’Connor Method Camp is, “Wow, I love the way you play that tune. Would you like to be in my band?” Or, “I love your variation of Grey Eagle, would you mind showing me how to play it?”

The group class aspect of the Suzuki Method may have been subtly misleading over the years. My students did enjoy the social aspects of gathering together weekly for group class and I do believe that having group classes of any kind is better than none at all, but I’m not sure I was really teaching students to make music with each other. We were all playing the same melody at the same time in unison, but did I ever teach them to really listen to each other to enhance or compliment each other’s playing? Hard to do in a unison setting. It seems to me that the value of these group classes from the students’ and parents’ points of view may not have been to learn the skills of making music with others but for each individual to be motivated to be able to play a song well enough to be included in the group at a certain level. Again, the pecking order. I think the Suzuki group class format may have unwittingly contributed to this phenomenon.

Confession #10: I don’t miss having the students take a bow at the beginning and end of every lesson. Again, in my effort to be a good Suzuki teacher, I tried to incorporate this admittedly lovely gesture of respectfulness from a foreign culture into my teaching routine. But, to tell the truth, it always felt a bit artificial.

I also started feeling uncomfortable with what I saw as increasingly excessive reverence for Suzuki himself as an integral part of the Suzuki philosophy. It was always hard for me to justify this adulation to my symphony colleagues. Just what was I revering? Suzuki was neither a great violinist, nor composer nor particularly creative musician. I am not aware that his personal teaching produced many or even any great artists. And just what about his pedagogy or philosophy is new or innovative? Admittedly, he is the figurehead of a large movement that raised the consciousness of the value of violin playing for children around the world. I personally believe that the Suzuki method took hold so strongly in America because we did not have an organized system of our own. Now we do. I can find reason in my heart to appreciate Suzuki for raising awareness and for starting the ball rolling but it seems to me that perhaps the current excessive reverence of him as a person is undermining forward progress of what he intended.

In contrast, the O’Connor Method principal of honoring and crediting one’s own individual sources of musical inspiration and instruction feels much better to me. The O’Connor Method books are full of references to Mr. O’Connor’s personal mentors and heroes. Indeed, O’Connor’s CD entitled “Heroes” is a testament to his commitment to this philosophy. I have heard Mr. O’Connor speak about his music and American music in general many times and he never fails to credit those who inspired him or helped him to become the incredible musician that he is. In following Mr. O’Connor’s example and encouraging my students to find and cherish their own musical heroes, I have found a wonderful vehicle to broaden my own musical horizons and to get to know my students better as individuals. This philosophy of respect is genuine and heartfelt and not at all imposed or artificial.

Confession #11. I don’t miss trying to interpret and implement “nurtured by love.” I have come to believe that “nurtured by fun” may be a healthier and more effective policy. It didn’t take me long in my early Suzuki years to realize that I was going to be dealing with many different interpretations of “parental love.” And just what is love in the context of creating a learning environment for children? Encouragement (coaxing)? False praise (insincerity)? Bribery (love substitutes)? Threats (tough love)? Constructive criticism (oxymoron)? Making kids do what they’ll thank you for thirty years from now (wishful thinking)? There are vast cultural differences - indeed, vast differences within our own culture - in how best to bring up children and many different definitions of a nurturing environment for learning. However, at the heart of the concept in general is the idea that motivation needs to be provided by other-than-musical considerations – a sense of accomplishment, being a good child, pleasing one’s parents, praise, rewards, having a creative teacher who can make up fun things to do with music that’s not very fun in and of itself, etc. It seems to me that “nurtured by love” may put too much emphasis on trying to create motivation from the outside.

“Fun” is easier and more effective. I believe this is because it comes from within. Kids say something is fun if it feels good. If it’s something they want to do. If it’s something they like to do. Being self-motivated to learn how to play a tune because you like it and want to play it is much more powerful than learning to play a tune because your parents will approve if you do or because the teacher will say you had a good lesson or because you will get some sort of reward for learning it. Making enjoyable music is fun in and of itself. Making music with friends is fun. A sense of accomplishment and self-satisfaction can be reported as “fun” by children if it’s something they want to accomplish – if it feels good from within. The O’Connor Method materials speak to the hearts of children. The music is fun. They like it and want to do what is necessary to be able to make it their own.

Confession #12: I never really tried to define the Suzuki method or thought much about what was more fundamental at its core – the philosophy, the materials or the person of Suzuki himself. I spent forty years learning to understand the materials and the “new approach,” embracing both and trying to be the best teacher I could be. Looking back after four years of working steadily with the O’Connor method, I’m starting to understand some of the underlying reasons for the tremendous changes that I have seen in my teaching and my students. I’m also fascinated by the current arguments about whether the Suzuki method is defined by the philosophy, the materials in the Suzuki books or Suzuki himself.

For me, it is incredibly significant that there is no difference between the philosophy and the materials in the O’Connor method. The basic principles of holistic music (melody, harmony & rhythm all trained together), individual expression, joy of music making, natural technical growth and creativity are imbedded in American music itself. Furthermore, Mr. O’Connor himself doesn’t claim to be doing anything new or innovative. He is the first to say that he is a product of the American music system and he is merely trying to show the rest of us the progression and influences that nurtured his own development – to make us aware of what we have here in our own country. Merely? In this regard, Mr. O’Connor is following right in the footsteps of great European masters such as Dvorak and Ravel who loved American music and tried to raise America’s awareness of the musical heritage and fantastic potential for development that exists here. Mr. O’Connor’s method gives us a well-planned, beautifully presented and much-needed distillation and organization of the fantastic resources of the vast musical heritage and culture of the Americas as it relates to string playing. However, in speaking about the method, he never fails to insist that the music largely speaks for itself. One has only to watch and listen to Mark O’Connor’s own violin playing for a few seconds before realizing that he has disappeared into the music.

Looking back, it is more than a little embarrassing to me that I blindly believed in the Suzuki method for such a long time – materials/philosophy/man. I guess I was “hooked” by the sight of all those little Japanese children playing the violin together in the 60s. Hooked and addicted. In my desire to be a “good Suzuki teacher,” I never questioned either the materials, the philosophy or their source. Why? Probably because so many teachers I admired were also hooked. And perhaps because there was nothing better that came into my environment the caught my attention. I did not see a better way, so I made the best of what was there and emulated the teachers I admired most. For fifty years the Suzuki method was the most well organized core method out there. And now it’s not. It’s just that simple.

My friends and colleagues call me a “recovering Suzuki teacher.” Indeed, I feel tremendously sobered by this whole journey. I do still hold to Suzuki’s motto “man is a son of his environment.” However, I now believe that the O’Connor method provides an all around better environment for learning to play the violin and teaching students how to play the violin in the 21st Century. The motto itself prompts me to move on and I thank Mr. O’Connor and his method for giving me the vision and the tools to do so.

From Paula Bird
Posted on May 16, 2013 at 8:37 PM
Your article intrigued me to check out the O'Connor violin method for myself. Unfortunately I did not have the same epiphany that you did. It took me all of 10 seconds of listening to the first song on the CD to realize that if that performer had come to me as a student, I would have immediately begun correcting the student's articulation. While I have absolutely nothing against Folk or Fiddle music (I incorporate elements of both as supplementary materials), there is a difference in the style of playing in terms of articulation and rhythmic integrity. It was very clear to me from the recording that Mr. O'Connor is not playing in the true classical sense of violin playing. He would not have passed the first round in a standard Symphony audition. Mr. O'Connor is a fine player, but let's be very clear there is a distinction between his style of playing and true classical violin playing.

I was sad to read your list of things you would not miss. Some of your listed items are the very things that give my life meaning and purpose as a teacher. I think it is very important to be working to build relationships between parents and children, which I believe is the Suzuki method's most important contribution to the world of music education.

Thank you for taking the time to write your wonderfully written article. It did encourage me to investigate the O'Connor method, and now I have additional supplementary materials for my studio.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 16, 2013 at 11:03 PM
Happy liberation to you!

I enjoyed reading this. : )

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 17, 2013 at 12:40 AM
I really enjoyed this article. People will have different reactions and that's as it should be. My daughter quit Suzuki lessons in tears and frustration several years ago, and your list of things that you will not miss was almost eerie in how close it came to describing our experience. I hadn't heard of the O'Connor method at the time but we were able to find a different teacher. I'm glad this alternative exists now, and I'm grateful to all the teachers out there who are willing to think outside the box and go the extra mile to find what works for their students.
From Pavel Spacek
Posted on May 17, 2013 at 9:38 PM
Well, funny, my daughter is totally wrong enjoying the violin playing going Suzuki path. I should tell her she is wrong and forbid her to play that horrid Perpetual Motion she likes so much ('laugh alert').
My daughter loves Suzuki repertoire, she asks me on her own to start the CDs and happily hums the songs during her own activities. She does not confuse the songs with each other and review is not a chore, she likes to play for me because I love to listen to her beautiful play. What is the point to learn the pieces when you do not play them then? Review is a fantastic idea and I can hear the difference in rendition now and some time ago. She is not restricted to Suzuki repertoire, she can play any piece she would like to so (if it is within her abilities) on her own she added quite a few folk songs. I also looked into the list of O'Connor songs and offered her some, well guess what, she was not interested. She likes to listen to fiddling on youtube sometimes as well but O'Connor obviously is not her thing.

Thanks for your confessions, somebody likes fiddling, somebody likes classical violin. There is enough space under the sun for every violin method. No need to feel sour about one or the other.

Also thanks Paula for your interesting comment. Your blog is extremely helpful resource and my daughter benefits from it a lot (Orange peel tone, Fish bowl staccato just a few examples).

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 18, 2013 at 9:16 PM
I think Pam is being sincere about her feelings for this method, which she helped create and for which she is the teacher-trainer. Time will tell how it works for students; it is still largely unpublished, with just three or four of ten books out. I'd be interested to hear about positive things that are working, rather than all this negativity, which seems an unnecessary way to promote a method, if it's a good method.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 18, 2013 at 9:29 PM
I actually thought this blog was pretty even-handed, at least if taken at face value, as an honest description of what Ms. Wiley has observed in her own studio over the years. And I guess I don't really understand what's wrong with writing about negative feelings and experiences along with positives. It wasn't "all this negativity," it was specific negative feelings and experiences. Experiences in childhood can have long-lasting, life-changing effects, for good or for ill. And some kids do have negative experiences with music lessons that turn them off the violin specifically and classical music generally. Why not have an honest discussion about why that can happen, when and if it does, and what might be done about it?

I thought the comment, above, that O'Connor wouldn't make it past the first round of a symphony audition was interesting. I'm not in a position to say if that's true or not, but regardless of whether it's true, it seems kind of sad to me that symphony audition success would be what's considered important, would be what we're supposed to listen for as the audience, or what we're supposed to teach children to strive for.

Maybe for some people, music is about something entirely different than audition success. Don't we want those people to learn to play and enjoy the violin too?

From Pamela Wiley
Posted on May 20, 2013 at 3:55 PM

I feel some clarification is needed here. I had nothing to do with creating the O’Connor Method and to say that I “helped create” it is inaccurate and very misleading. I first met Mark O’Connor in the fall of 2007. Previous to that time, I had seen Mr. O’Connor at several workshops and performances, owned and studied the Championship Years transcriptions and owned and listened regularly to several of his CDs. I was a fan and had tried to copy some of his tunes, bowings, lyricism and rhythmic drive. I attended the Nashville Fiddle Camp in the summer of 2008 in hopes of improving my own fiddling. From the fall of 2007 to December 2008, Mark approached me several times talking about his idea for a method. It was clear to me that this idea had been forming for a very long time and that he was very serious about it. To tell the truth though, I was totally uninterested. I was very tired of teaching and wanted to spend my 60s developing my own fiddle playing. I felt I had paid my dues as a teacher and I actually tried to avoid talking to Mark because I wanted to shed my teacher persona and be a student for a change.

Mark recorded the CDs for Violin Books I & II on December 1, 2008. He sent me unmarked masters of the CDs in mid-December with a nice little note asking me if I wouldn’t mind checking them out if I got a chance. It is a source of some amusement to me that I let this package sit on my desk, unopened, for over three weeks. I really didn’t want to bother. The truth is that I finally decided to listen to them on January 9th largely to have an excuse to avoid doing my taxes. And the rest, as they say, is history. I was so taken by the method that I immediately contacted Mark for permission to copy the CDs and start using the material with my students. Not only did he give me permission but he also started sending me some of the printed material that he had been developing. For those first three months, I reported the excitement and success I was experiencing in my studio and told Mark that I thought his method was so marvelous and revolutionary that I would do anything I could to help him. I did have a sinking feeling of “here-I-go-again-into-the-teacher-world-when-I-would- really-rather-be-a-student” but the potential I saw for this way of teaching strings and the importance to the whole realm of teaching music in America was so overwhelmingly powerful to me that it couldn’t be ignored.

In late March, Mark approached me to help him edit some of the text he was preparing to include in the method books. It became more and more clear to me that he had the entire vision for the whole method – beginner to advanced, repertoire, sequencing, exercises, theory, improv, cultural relevance, etc. – all planned out and that it was just going to be a matter of getting this all into print.
I have a Master’s Degree in English, have written several articles for the American Suzuki Journal, and have published a small children’s book. So I agreed to help. That’s what I did. I helped Mark get his method into print. Because of my long experience in teaching children, I was able to help Mark language his pedagogical ideas into method-type language. I did not initiate any of the ideas – repertoire, sequencing, exercises, theory, layout, histories. I merely edited.

If I have created anything here, it has hopefully been some understanding of and enthusiasm for the method. This is far different from helping to create the method itself. I will take no credit for that. I have been very active to be sure but I would like to be very clear about my role in all of this. I feel very privileged to be called on to help implement the vision of someone I consider to be a genius. And I’m proud of the effect that I have had in this role. I like to think of myself as a field marshal out in the trenches as a leader in the cause for better and happier string education for children in America with the O’Connor Method as my guide. I may have been one of the first folks to jump on this bandwagon but I certainly did not invent the wagon.

As for the method being “largely unpublished”, I believe there is a further misunderstanding here. There are currently 8 books (not including the accompaniment books) in circulation including materials for school orchestras from the elementary through high school levels. In fact, there is a major youth orchestra festival taking place in New York next month that will feature all O’Connor orchestra method materials. Book IV of the solo violin series is in the works and will be premiered at the O’Connor Method Camps in Boston and Charleston this summer. Books V-X will contain mostly repertoire featuring American composers such as Barber and Bernstein in addition to O’Connor.

Surely we can all agree that – for good or bad – the principles and underlying concepts of the O’Connor Method have been well established in the first three books. I believe that most Suzuki teachers would not define the Suzuki method as Books 1-10. The Mozart concertos existed long before they became Suzuki Books 9 & 10. Mark’s Fiddle Concerto, Fiddle Sonata and Six Solo Caprices, just to name a few, are already out there in the American music system. Mark’s forthcoming organization of this vast repertoire will certainly help but one could argue that the method is already out there in its entirety.

Thanks to Laurie and for providing this opportunity to clear up these misconceptions. I definitely agree that time will tell on the success or failure of any method. I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing this all play out over the next twenty years – “God willing and the Creek don’t rise.” PW

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 21, 2013 at 9:16 PM
It's still important to note that the eight books are all various versions of Books 1-3, and he's still picking out the rep for Book 4 at this point. This is not the same thing as having a completed and published a 10-book (10-level) method that has been used for many years.

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