Suzuki vs. O'Connor-What's the deal?

June 2, 2017, 9:42 AM · I had the beautiful experience of collaborating with Mark O'Connor at a 2013 concert in Newtown, CT, site of the tragic Sandy Hook school shootings. I was conducting members of the Norwalk Youth Symphony and New Haven Symphony and Mark was a featured guest. Julie Lyonn Lieberman had done an incredible job of organizing an event featuring great string players to benefit an organization called “Healing Newtown,” and it was an honor to be a part of it.

In our rehearsal and performance I found Mark to be a consummate musician, a violinist of considerable, (downright awesome!) skill and a warm, personable and humble human being who effectively interacted with our young musicians and cooperated to the fullest in our limited preparation time.

So I was troubled when I heard from some of my colleagues of their disdain for Mark. They were all proponents of the Suzuki Method and were quite upset at what they viewed as attacks on their mentor by Mark and his new school of “American String Playing.” And so I was inspired to investigate.

I must first say that I am skeptical of any single method for instruction. I always try to size up my student and refer to anything that I think will be effective in both motivating and educating them. While I am personally deeply rooted in European violin training, I will incorporate anything that I deem appropriate to help an individual understand and excel on the violin.

Mr. Suzuki (the “Dr.” was awarded by devotees who acknowledged his various honorary degrees), to my understanding, never intended his method to be a preparation to a string performing career. Rather he thought of it as a way of teaching general music so as to develop an aesthetic that would help build better human beings. He wrote, “I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”

So the Suzuki Method was conceived in the mid-20th century by a Japanese violinist who desired to bring beauty to the lives of children in his country after the devastation of World War II. Suzuki believed that every child, if properly taught, was capable of a high level of musical achievement. He also made it clear that the goal of such musical education was to raise generations of children with "noble hearts" (as opposed to creating famous musical prodigies, which is often what is paraded out in support of this method).

Suzuki's choice of repertoire comes under scrutiny in Mark O'Connor's view. Largely based on European repertoire, beginning with the inevitable “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and rhythmic variations, it is a reflection of the time period that Suzuki inhabited. Mark offers the traditional American fiddle tune “Boil 'Em Cabbage Down” as an alternative. The intent here is not in question. Only the specifics of the tune choice, separated by several decades, are.

Mark has spent considerable time discrediting Suzuki's credentials. From Suzuki's alledged interactions with Einstein, his studies with Karl Klingler, and his praise from Pablo Casals, all have come under fire. But I question whether any of that ultimately matters. Did Suzuki invent or embellish things to promote his method? Perhaps. But as a teacher, I have to ask, so what? If it gets results, so be it! I really don't care about a teacher's experience as long as the results are effective.

I praise Mark O'Connor for his fresh new look at a string education method. I'm proud of the American musical heritage he displays in his books. His arrangements are great and his repertoire selections are fantastic.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mark O'Connor is a far superior violinist and musician than Shinichi Suzuki could have ever hoped to be. But there is also no doubt in my mind that both of these people desired to make the world a better place by making the musical experience a priority for our young and developing citizens.

So there should be no great divide. A great teacher will take from various sources to create an individual approach that will enhance and build on a student's life experience. If one uses a “Suzuki” piece here, or an “O'Connor” piece there, or their own transcription of something for that matter, the ultimate goal is to help a developing young mind comprehend the combination of elements that make music, and life, so balanced and representative. There is room in this existence for more than one approach to any discipline.

So I hope that all of my teaching colleagues out there can free themselves of any teaching bias and recognize that whatever resources you resort to are ultimately for the betterment of your student or students. I've long felt that it's a very uncreative teacher who utilizes only one methodology. The gift of a great teacher is identifying the elements of various methodologies that most invigorates your instruction with a particular student. That is what I continue to aspire to. And I hope you will too!


This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings
Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings

National Symphony Orchestra
National Symphony Orchestra

Violins of Hope
Violins of Hope Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

ARIA International Summer Academy

Borromeo Music Festival

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine