Since I began writing this post a few days ago, Mark O’Connor has issued an apology for his recent behavior in response to a statement from the owner of Shar Music. Even still, I think there’s a lot to say about this debacle. For well over a year I’ve avoided weighing in, mostly because I have only a minimal investment in either method. I wasn’t a Suzuki kid; I was raised in what the Suzuki method refers to as the “traditional” school of violin playing (which is in itself a false dichotomy, I think, since there are many schools of violin thought outside of Suzuki!). I always dabbled in other styles, including a stint as the first violinist ever to join my high school jazz band, but I didn’t consider it part of my formal music education. As an adult, I continued to play classical music with orchestras and in other settings, but I also started playing gigs in other styles, ranging from traditional Irish to Celtic rock to contra to Eastern European folk music to gypsy jazz. With the exception of a brief period of time studying with Irish fiddler Liz Carroll, no one ever taught me how to play in these styles. Certainly no one ever taught me to improvise a solo, read a chord chart, fill in lines over a vocal melody, or chop. These are all skills I learned on my own, either simply by doing them in the company of other people or studying whatever materials I could find in my own time, and of course from good old-fashioned practice.
Back in June of 2013, I decided to take the teacher training course for the new Mark O’Connor method. I enjoy a lot of his recordings; I’ve heard good things from some friends who attended his fiddle camps in the past; and my interest in teaching other styles simultaneously with classical music was ramping up at that point. But unbeknownst to me, I was walking into a hornet’s nest! I’ve been disappointed from day one with the vitriol, hostility and negativity that I’ve seen from Mark O’Connor. I’ve had thoughts percolating about the subject ever since I took that class last year, but have avoided saying anything publicly for reasons I mentioned above. I’m choosing to speak now because I want to join the chorus of voices decrying the senseless smear campaign against a method of violin teaching that’s brought joy to hundreds of thousands of people. However, I also believe that some of what he’s saying is valid, much as I dislike the delivery. He touches on some problems that I’ve seen with violin education for a long time, and I think it’s important to learn what we can from any situation, no matter how unpleasant.
Let’s start with what I think Mark O’Connor gets right.
Creativity is insufficiently emphasized in today’s string education. I can agree with this point absolutely without hesitation. Classical musicians seem to fall into two camps: those who understand this problem and those who don’t.
The first camp is trying everything they can to revitalize the institution of classical music, acknowledge the head-spinning changes that society has undergone even in the past few decades, and move forward with times in a productive way. Sometimes these efforts succeed, sometimes they fail, and other times they’re simply mediocre. But they stem from an acceptance of the reality of the zeitgeist; the fact that most people simply aren’t interested in putting on formal clothes and paying anywhere from $30 to $150 to sit with their hands folded for two hours and listen to music that was mostly written before Hitler was defeated.
The second camp insists there’s nothing wrong with the establishment, that the problem is everyone else. There’s not much to say about this except to point to orchestras folding across the country, the declining attendance and increasing age of those who are attending, and the overwhelming preference of audiences for pops concerts over what musicians would consider more “substantial” programming (at least in my hometown of Indianapolis, where the orchestra often plays to a half-empty hall during the season, but the pops-oriented “Symphony on the Prairie” is generally a huge success).
Teachers and performers who are working to bring more vitality to classical music are met with applause by many and suspicion by some. For instance, imagine how much more exciting it would be for the audience to hear a new and different cadenza every single time a concerto was performed, rather than the same standard cadenzas over and over. Imagine if each soloist had a unique and inspired improvisational voice in addition to the technical wizardry we’ve all come to expect. I can imagine it fairly easily, since that used to be the expectation in classical music. (Ever wondered why every cadenza ends in a trill? It used to be the standard way for the soloist to signal “hey, I’m done, you can come back now!” to the orchestra, kind of like a folk musician at an Irish session sticking her foot out to tell everybody to go on to the next tune.)
Apparently I’m not alone in being able to imagine it, because there’s a small but growing movement of teachers who are encouraging students not only to write their own cadenzas, but even improvise them. I attended an excellent workshop on the topic by a respected cello professor at the most recent ASTA conference. While the professor was explaining some strategies for helping kids learn to improvise, someone asked if he would ever send a student to a competition with an improvised cadenza, pointing out that the student would have no hope of winning the competition since a high school student couldn’t possibly improvise a cadenza that would be as satisfactory to a panel as a standard cadenza. It pains me to admit that I think the heckler was right. We’re actually willing to punish kids for creativity in this industry. We would rather reward kids for playing someone else’s music to our pre-existing standards than encourage–indeed, demand–that they also learn to use their instruments as tools of spontaneous expression, which was the entire point of the cadenza to begin with. I was ashamed to call myself a classical musician that day.
As a culture, the classical music world is hostile to innovation and individuality in music. As I said earlier, there are plenty of people in the classical world working to change this attitude, but I have to agree with Mark that it continues to be a serious problem. The immediate response to O’Connor’s anti-Suzuki campaign from many classical musicians, for example, is to attack his musicianship, his bow hold, his tone, etc. Now, let me preface this by saying that it’s impossible to feel sorry for O’Connor given the appalling smear campaign he’s launched and ruthlessly promoted for the past year. He’s earned the backlash that he’s received. But Mark O’Connor is an experienced studio musician, a many-time fiddle champion, and a Grammy winner. It’s very difficult to convincingly make the argument that he’s not a good musician. He simply doesn’t play like a strictly classical musician plays. The response to O’Connor’s points shouldn’t be “who are you to question us?” which does betray a certain elitism in the classical world. Of course, it’s certain that there would be fewer such responses if his points were made with respect, civility and the best interests of music at heart. But still, thinking that the classical way is the only valid way is not productive. That problem remains for us to solve whether someone points it out politely or rudely.
In the past, I’ve also enjoyed reading Mark O’Connor’s blog posts about his Bach interpretations. Now, I’ve neither heard any recordings of them nor seen the bowings and fingerings that he wrote, so I can’t speak to their quality. But I was interested to read the responses from well-established classical musicians who say that while they respect his efforts, they are uninterested in hearing any interpretation other than what Bach originally intended. One has to wonder…why? In addition, I’ve personally heard a young but up-and-coming teacher say that he told a student she should be a composer instead of a violinist because she wanted to add ornaments that weren’t printed in the music into Baroque pieces. This individual is certainly well-educated enough to know that in many cases, ornaments weren’t printed in the music at all; that they were often meant to be an expression of style and individuality improvised on the spot. Now, I didn’t see the music she was working on. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been appropriate to add ornaments, or maybe the ones she added weren’t the best choices. But wanting to add ornaments to music certainly doesn’t mean you should put away your violin and get yourself over to Finale! (As though it has to be one or the other, anyhow!) Musicians are supposed to be a part of the creative process.
I don’t know how we got to this point in classical music. Are we willing to resign ourselves to simply being historical re-enactors, recreating the music of the past as rigidly as possible, with no variations or change for the past several centuries? Many, I suppose, would say yes. But it’s easy to see why that has a limited appeal for an audience.
Now, onto the points from Mr. O’Connor’s writings that I can’t agree with:
Suzuki was a fraud who fabricated his qualifications, as well as relationships with famous people, to give himself credibility. Honestly, I really don’t care about this one. It may be interesting for historians, but at this point, over half a century after the Suzuki method first took the United States by storm, the legacy is much bigger than the founder. It’s sort of like that old legend that Darwin recanted his theory of evolution on his deathbed. It isn’t true, but even if it were, so what? It has no impact on the validity of the theory. Similarly, even if Shinichi Suzuki made up everything he ever told the public about himself, that has little bearing on the efficacy of the method for teaching children the violin.
All of the problems with classical music and classical music education can be traced back to Suzuki. This is just blatantly false. I don’t have all the answers for how we got to the point where we’re wondering why some classical musicians dislike innovation. It could be that classical music just naturally attracts more conservative individuals. It could be that the tradition has been established for centuries and, like in religion or politics or any other long-standing tradition, change comes slowly. It could be that the cost of a classical production, from the quality of the instruments to the education level of the musicians to the upscale venues to the ticket prices, demands a demographic that is older, more rooted and more monied than the upstart young people that often drive forward other musical genres. It could be that it’s been around so long and done so well by so many people that the rest of us have a pretty tough act to follow, and sticking to the script feels a lot safer. But one thing I’m sure of is that it isn’t all because of the Suzuki method. It’s hardly the first, or only, violin method to encourage children to color in the lines, and anyone who thinks so is ignorant of the history of violin education.
No great musician has ever come from the Suzuki method; therefore, the method is useless. Also simply not true. There are many soloists whose early training was at least influenced by the method. Anyone who ever came out of IU String Academy, Peabody Prep or University of Wisconsin Milwaukee began with a modified version of the Suzuki method, which includes such nobodies as Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn. But let’s suppose that in fact no one who achieved international musical notoriety had ever been involved with the Suzuki method. That still wouldn’t make it worthless! My goal is a teacher isn’t to crank out professional musicians who can be a credit to my own career; it’s to give my students the tools they need to make the music they want to make for the rest of their lives. If they want to become professionals, I’ll be excited to guide them into doing so. If they don’t, I hardly consider them a waste of time. It’s about them, not me. That’s how it should be for everyone. And it’s a philosophy that Suzuki shared, which is absolutely to his credit, not to his shame.
The Suzuki method is the dominating force in violin education today. I don’t have hard numbers on how many children learn violin via Suzuki versus something other than Suzuki. But I don’t think the Suzuki method is as all-encompassing as Mark O’Connor thinks it is. Yes, there are many Suzuki programs and Suzuki students, but there are also many public and private school programs that have nothing to do with Suzuki whatsoever. (Yours truly began her violin education in the public schools.) In fact, I’d wager a guess that the majority of kids like myself who don’t come from musical families get their first exposure to violin at school, not through Suzuki. And those who do come from musical families will often be taken a private teacher before their school program starts. Suzuki is certainly popular and successful, but it’s far from all that’s out there.
The Suzuki method discourages young players and leads them to quit violin. Let me tell you something: lots of kids quit violin, no matter what method is used to teach them. Know why? Because violin is really, really hard. No matter how good the teacher is, no matter how good the method is, and no matter how hard we as educators work to make it as fun, accessible and easy as we can, the fact is that it isn’t easy. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, it’s often slow going, and satisfaction is not immediate, which gets harder for kids to tolerate with every passing day. Furthermore, not every method is going to suit every personality, and that’s okay. For every family out there disgruntled with Suzuki (and I’ve seen a few), there’s another family that loves it.
The Suzuki method was an insidious way to instill Japanese values into American children. This one is borderline racist and too silly and offensive for a response.
Mark O’Connor is completely correct that we need to expand our scope as string teachers. In my never-ending quest to do exactly that, I ended up in his class. However, he’s not correct that he’s the first to say it, or the only one saying it. The list of violin methods other than Suzuki that are used today, including those that address styles other than classical, is too vast tot include here. Heck, I’d like to write my own some day too! But that brings to me what I think Mark O’Connor got most wrong of all: the idea that the best way to build yourself up is by tearing someone else down. I’ve spent enough time stamping out the fires of that kind of thinking amongst my students; it’s a shame to see it come from an established, accomplished and respected musician such as Mark O’Connor. My violin teacher used to tell me that the only person I’m ever truly in competition with is myself. Perhaps Mr. O’Connor would do well to take that advice to heart.
I enjoyed your contribution. I agree that any form of art is open to interpretation and classical violin music should be no exception. We should all be open to all types of music making, keep what we like and peacefully leave the rest.
Playing the violin isn't a contest of right or wrong. We play because we enjoy the process and hopefully not because it makes us feel superior to other human beings.
Very good and rational post.
Wow. You wrote with such clarity what I'm sure many of us were thinking.
Best post I've read on this forum so far. Thank you for that. The section where you refer to the student's adding of ornamentation in Baroque music hits home. From time to time my ensemble gets to play with a fantastic local virtuoso. When we play Albinoni or Telemann, he is constantly improvising ornamentation, or adding tasteful runs that are not printed, or taking it up an octave when repeating a section, etc.. It's exciting and fun to attempt to echo what he's doing when the same melody comes way, or if I try something, having him echo me. It's like a complex game of musical HORSE (basketball term), and I have to imagine these aspects were originally intended...
Adrian, the first time I heard Hiro Kurosaki's recording of the Handel Sonatas I had to listen twice because there were notes in the first movement of the D Major Sonata that were not printed in my score, one short run and another arpeggio. I loved it. Kurosaki also captures that baroque serenity so beautifully. But then when you hear Aaron Rosand's recording, it's very different, so much more gravitas. I think one of the main issues with classical music is that the variations can be rather subtle for someone who has not studied music at all. That contributes to the elitist element. On the other hand it does not help that many composers wrote in a lot of rather gratuitous repeats that only stretch out the duration of the piece without adding much musical content -- one wearies of "second time like an echo" after hearing that a few hundred times. One could say, "Oh it changes the *form* of the piece" and certainly that's often valid. My daughter (12) is studying the Gigue from the D-Minor Partita (JS Bach) and we listen to a lot of recordings together. Many times the first half is repeated and it's played exactly the same way. I think that's rather sad. Some players take the repeats and others don't, so the "form" can't be all that critical. Maybe the best thing we can do for classical music is to just agree that we're not going to take gratuitous repeats and spare our more casual listeners from some of their boredom.
Some thoughts on "As a culture, the classical music world is hostile to innovation and individuality in music" and "many composers wrote in a lot of rather gratuitous repeats"...
It's clear that with many composers such as Corelli and Vivaldi, it was just expected that the performer will embellish. This is in the same vein of opera singers embellishing their da capo arias, and a big part of their artistry was the ability to tastefully do that.
On the other hand some composers like F. Couperin and J.S. Bach already so heavily embellished their music that either the composer asked the performer not to add or drop a single ornament (Couperin) or that the composer was criticized for not leaving creative space for the performer (Bach). I think because we have the luxury to play such a wide range of music both in time and geography, we just need better understanding for each's composer's performance practice. Or else in this age when information is readily available, it's like willful ignorance.
I also suspect our overall shortened attention span and habit to shuffle and jump through songs on playlists makes us antsy when we have to sit through a longer work with repeats. A lot of these pieces were written I think with the idea that they won't be heard again, best let the listener another chance at it...and certainly in a lot of solo music you are supposedly play it differently the second time. Bach may be a difficult exception because his music is already so densely ornamented that it's easy to end up ornamenting on ornaments and sound stupid.
My sense is that beginning with Beethoven, we as performers have been taught to play everything on the page as it is divinely dictated on the page, and if we add things, we will get whacked on the head by Beethoven as he did to Czerny. (Beethoven later felt bad and apologized). The problem for us is when we apply this strict interpretive attitude (almost always unknowingly) to older repertoire, they often sound oddly unfitting, chocked, and boring. But in fact it's just not being played with the performer's invention that the composers and audience expected.
I suspect if Aaron Rosand grew up in a time when he was exposed to treatises on performance practice, how to tastefully ornament and heard other musicians play with their own embellishments, he too would have played differently.
I think a lot of players and teachers especially of the older generation is still in the mindset that we have inherited our style from our teachers, and our teachers from their teachers, and so on, and we are like some special guardian entrusted with carrying this ancient unchanging torch. When in fact music has slowly changed over time, and the instruments (grand pianos, steel strings) and style (continuous vibrato, etc) would probably sound very foreign to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. (And that's not to say maybe they won't like it, maybe Beethoven would have loved a big Steinway piano, but that's a different discussion).
What bothers me is that the audition and competition environment is often still tricky if you want to play outside of the strict, "traditional" approach, for a lack of better word, although it's good to see it's rapidly changing especially with the younger generation of musicians and assess to different recordings and concerts online.
Interesting comments, Dorian! I enjoyed reading that. I guess I just can't get on board with the "composer as god" philosophy. In an orchestral setting, obviously, there has to be order, because 100 people improvising at the same time just isn't going to work. But I would love to hear an improvised cadenza even for the big Romantic concertos (a radical idea, I realize!) Granted, it would have to be pretty flash-bang improvisation to match the pyrotechnics of the piece itself. But I don't see why it couldn't be done.
We live in an age where more people have more technical proficiency on the violin than ever before. It's a shame to me that we aren't combining that with creativity to embellish in some way on everything that has come before now, not just the baroque pieces where you're "supposed" to do it. It's not like the standard cadenzas are going anywhere. We have nothing to lose from experimentation.
As far as repeats in pieces, I agree that they were often included because the works were never meant to be performed over and over like they are today. But I also think that people used to be more engaged listeners. Our culture is becoming increasingly biased towards visual stimulation, and as such, our listening skills are suffering. It's boring to listen to repeats because our ears are too sluggish to strain for the finer nuances we may have missed the first time. I notice a difference even in myself between how attentively I listened at a live performance ten years ago versus today. It's really unfortunate, and something I work to fight, and I make my living in music!
On improvising cadenzas...
Let's remember this is really hard and even during the Classical period it wasn't unusual to play off a prepared copy. First example that comes to mind is Mozart writing cadenzas for Nannerl. What would be more realistic and useful is if people are encouraged more to write their own cadenzas. Robert Levin is course a genius at improvising Classical stuff, his concert trick is inviting people to write themes down on paper in intermission and then he picks a couple out and plays on them - but it is a really rare and difficult art and that's why it's such a treat to see it live.
I'm not familiar with O'Connor's component of improvising in his method, I'm guessing this ability to play by ear and improvise is something that he wants more people in the classical community to do, only he went about it in a really messed-up and twisted way.
The old treatises and manuals may disagree with each other, but the one thing they all agree is everything be done in good taste. When I hear people adding random ornaments, it's very irritating because that to me is like the performer telling me he or she is more important than the music, and I think it's the other way around. (Most of the time). I think it really depends on context. I don't think it'll be a good idea to add anything to Beethoven string quartets, but I'll love to hear cool flourishes with Biber sonatas.
Oh, I know it's hard. But so is playing a concerto in the first place. It wouldn't be nearly so intimidating if it were taught incrementally from the beginning. Besides which, there can certainly be blurred lines between writing your own cadenza and improvising one. Most jazz players, for example, practice improvisation all the time. It's not as though their solos materialize out of thin air. They have an established vocabulary of licks and they practice inventing new ones, incorporating other people's, shaping lines, quoting famous tunes, and so forth.
Think of how the technical standard has risen within the past few generations. We could also raise the improvisational string standard if we put our minds to it, which I agree was Mark O'Connor's point. I like the idea, so I'd hate to see it get lost in the cheap shots and weird ranting.
And yes. Good taste is definitely important no matter what. Ornaments, improvisation, and playing straight from the page can all be bad, good or mediocre. Obviously, though, that's subjective.
Lack of technique isn't an issue at the top levels of violin performance. Still, if you're going to improvise a cadenza that's on the same general wavelength as, say, the Flesch cadenza for the Mozart 3, that's going to be very hard to pull off. So you have a choice -- prepare a dazzling cadenza in advance or improvise something that's less flashy (maybe no diminished arpeggios in fingered tenths, for example). Plus even if you do write your own cadenza, the "good taste" part is a problem because there's not always a lot of agreement about what that is. To some, adding ANY ornament to Bach that was not written in his own hand is sacrilege. So, in order to be safe and alienate the fewest listeners while making sure the rank-and-filers get what they paid for, you stick with the standard fare. Anything else is just too risky.
I like Joshua Bell's cadenza in the first movement of the Mozart 3 and if anyone has that transcribed I'll gladly pay for a copy.
I would personally rather hear someone take a risk and not pull it off than never see any risks at all at performances. I know, I know. I'm a rebel. :)
But people improvise (or half-write, half-improvise, or some other ratio of the two) crazy, flashy solos all the time. It is being done. Just not very often in this genre. I'm certainly on board with writing cadenzas completely ahead of time, too. I'd love to see more of that also. In fact, I'd love it to see it as a requirement for competitions.
Interestingly enough since this thread was started I have been reading Arnold Steinhardt's book "Indivisible By Four" and in chapter 8 he makes some of the same points you have presented here. He even describes how they eliminated some repeats from Mozart's K-168 and struggled with the decision.
Oh, LOL, I just heard an NPR report on the whole, sordid subject. I'm so appreciative that these kind of discussions here are able to remain outside the realm of vitriol and mud-slinging (for the most part). Sure do like Violinist.com and its members. Thank you for your intelligent, "seeing both sides" post, Sarah.
Michael, I love that book so much!!
It says OConnor contacted NPR a couple of weeks ago.
Still actively conducting his smear campaign.
That NPR report was watered down to the point of being completely useless. That was Fox News quality reporting.
Mark had it on his racquet. All he had to say, over and over, is:
(1) The O'Connor Method features American music instead of mostly baroque music of the early Suzuki books. The songs in the O'Connor method will be accessible and often recognizable to kids in middle America.
(2) The O'Connor Method is a holistic approach to the study of the violin, with a focus on improvisation that is lacking in the Suzuki Method, without sacrificing technical rigor.
(3) After the whole method is published (not just three books), the O'Connor Method hopes to stand side-by-side with the Suzuki Method as a productive, attractive, alternative approach to violin study.
Instead he went kind of postal. It's just really sad. He had so much to offer, really he did.
Steinhardt -- now there's a statesman of the violin. Take a lesson, Mark.
I think the idea of having students write and perform their own cadenzas is wonderful! Sometimes the teen years can be tough for kids learning the violin. It's a time when a lot of kids want to experiment and take some risks and ownership and not necessarily do what adults tell them. And having more opportunities improvisation and creativity could really light the fire for these kids.
And, thank you so much for one of the best responses I've read on this whole topic. I saw it first on the blog section and clicked through, and I'm glad you posted it here. I had been finding this topic so dispiriting that I had almost stopped coming here.
My first introduction to Mr. O'Connor was from reading his articles about the Suzuki method. Whatever legitimate points he may have been trying to make were completely lost on me, as it was difficult to focus on much beyond beyond Mr O'Connor's polemical style, his egotism, bullying, and racism. I really have no interest in trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Mr O'Conner's method may very well be wonderful, useful, etc. But I will never use the method simply because I refuse to play any role in offering even a nickel of financial support to someone who is behaving so badly.
Terez, I have really come to appreciate Arnold Steinhard's abilities as a writer as well a musician. I just finished his other book "Violin Dreams". Off topic but anyway...?? Maybe we should start a Steinhardt thread.
In the final analysis it may be of little importance to focus on personal data about Suzuki or O'Connor. What is important is the methods, and their values in training musicians.
Regarding the Suzuki method and pianists, an experienced and talented teacher who I am close to, tells me that there is often a problem when an ex-Suzuki player continues with a traditional teacher. This is because their reading skils are pretty bad, and they fall behind especially in the grade exams because of this.
From a totally personal angle, if I had a five and an eight year old wanting to take fiddle lessons (or piano) with a teacher, I would not want them to go down the Suzuki route. A good traditional method teacher would be my first choice.
I would also add as an aferthought that there are of course talented musicians who rise to the top no matter what method they followed. If Milstein, Heifetz or Oistrakh had started of with Suzuki, their sheer talent would have seen them succeed to the pinnacle of violin playing.
> This is because their reading skils are pretty bad, and they
> fall behind especially in the grade exams because of this.
Well, that's the fault of incompetent teaching, not any particular method. There's plenty of pianists out here who have no problem tossing off their Chopin or Liszt but can't sight-read a piece of chamber music or play a musical theater accompaniment to save their lives. :P
That may well be the case, but I've heard it said enough times that I'm wondering if it is the case that reading music is neglected by a lot of Suzuki teachers?
Also, I wasn't referring necessarily to sight reading, but just as much to being able to read the scores accurately for the pieces they are learning, and to be able to play them correctly enough.
EDIT: I'm talikng about young people who are in the 13-17 age bracket hear, just in case you thought I was talking about 3 year olds!
I think the real problem with the Suzuki method is that it's too full of itself. Saying that people have to learn the violin in their childhood in order to play well is incorrect.
That opinion is NOT the sole domain of Suzuki.
Just look at the posts here on the forum:
"I'm a late starter, I began when I was ten...can I ever become a competent violinist?.. etc...)
What Suzuki attempted to do was to make early violin learning more accessible to even the youngest students who otherwise would have zero interest in learning Sevcik exercises, or whatever the "classical" method had been prior to that.
And, since it was targeted to children as young as 3 or 4, who probably can't even read written language, let alone musical notation, it focussed more on learning by copying and by ear.
It's not written in stone that they are FORBIDDEN to learn to read music. Just that at an early age there are other aspects that bear fruit better than trying to get the concept of musical notation across to a young child.
BTW, I'm 47 and am learning via a mostly Suzuki curriculum. Works for middle aged men just fine.
It is correct that the Suzuki method has a reputation for producing poor readers. But a lot of kids struggle to read music no matter what the method. It's really unintuitive for a lot of them. The problem may be more noticeable with the Suzuki method because it does start so early and often manages to get kids to a foundational level of technical competence *before* learning to read music is even developmentally appropriate. At that point, learning to read feels like a pointless exercise in tedium since they can already play by ear. I've found that this a problem for a lot of students who naturally play well by ear, but it's exacerbated when the methodology does not ask them to read for so long. That's part of why I prefer to start students when reading is developmentally appropriate.
> Saying that people have to learn the
> violin in their childhood in order to
> play well is incorrect.
The Suzuki Method does not, in any way, and has not, at any time, said that people have to learn the violin during their childhood years in order to play well.
The "big idea" that it promoted at its inception was that one could begin playing an instrument and learn music in a process that parallels language development in children as young as age three.
> It is correct that the Suzuki method has
> a reputation for producing poor readers.
The adaptation of the method in countries like the US where basic music literacy is not part of the school curriculum was less effective initially, and that was probably the case fifty years ago.
But right now, where teachers of all methods use a wide range of resources to support the learning of music fundamentals in students of all ages, that isn't the case. Access to materials and access to competent teachers is more of an issue!
Sarah, thank you for your excellent thoughts on all of this.
I agree that reading is often difficult for those with a good ear. I was not brought up in the Suzuki method; I started playing at my public school. Reading was introduced maybe a month after I began playing, but I definitely preferred to play by ear. It took me a good long time to become a fluent reader, and I think being in orchestra did more for my own reading than my private teacher did. In my own Suzuki group, we offer "Music Mind Games" classes to the very young kids (early book 1). I start doing weekly reading in mid-book 1 with the private students, and it is working well. Yet still, with my students, I think that what really helps the reading is being in orchestra, which is to say, the practice of doing it under a bit of pressure and with a lot of peers around.
Thank you, Laurie. I know from taking the "Every Child Can" class, and from those teachers I know who are more involved with Suzuki, that most teachers are aware of the problem and working to correct it. I've also noticed that the newer editions of the books remove the finger numbers much sooner, which I think is good. (But of course, the O'Connor books also have the finger numbers over the notes!)
Like you, I started playing in public school and then took very traditional private lessons, so the concept of playing by ear was fairly foreign to me for a long time. No one ever asked or encouraged me to do such a thing until I started playing in the high school jazz band. For me, reading came very easily--although I was an older beginner, I don't even remember learning to do it, and I sometimes wish I did so as to be more helpful to my students--but I had some pretty yawning gaps in my ear training. (I don't want to admit how old I was before I understood the concept of intervals, for instance.) I strive to make sure my students have both, since a deficit in either area can be limiting. And I agree with you that orchestra is probably the best way to learn to read. Not only is there social pressure to do so, plus long periods of time practicing it, you also aren't always guaranteed the melody. You can only get away with listening to what other people are doing and imitating it for so long in an orchestra setting.
Music-reading, especially sight-reading, is not just a function of exposure. It is a function of *practicing* doing so. Merely routinely watching the notes as you play a work may not really substantially improve your reading skills.
When I was around the book 4 stage in a Suzuki program, my teacher was someone who had just moved into town (her husband had been transferred) and she had already had a multi-decade career as a Hollywood studio musician. Unsurprisingly, she placed a huge emphasis on sight-reading, both during regular practice and during lessons.
Some sight-reading is also a function of technique -- recognizing patterns and having your hands automatically react.
I am horrible at reading written rhythms, despite having had plenty of training. I am dependent either on carefully working out those rhythms slowly, subdividing as need be, or on listening to recordings.
I find this particular debate rather interesting. To those people who will boycott Mr. O'Conner's method because you disapprove of his behavior rather on the merits of the method, I believe are making a mistake. These are two completely separate things. Not that I approve of the type of defamation that he appears to employ for his own advancement, but as to his method, either it is good or it is not, to whatever degree. I would submit to you, if we all found out that Antonio Stradivari was a right rat fink of a human being who cast aspersions upon the parentage (the chief insult of the day) of his fellow Cremonese liutai to promote his own business, would we all stop playing his violins? It's not any of our jobs to teach Mark O'Conner behavior lessons. It is our job to teach our students by the best means possible, and leave the personality issues of the creator of the method to his friends, family and colleagues. I believe it would be we, ourselves, who do the damage to the teaching community by the way we keep giving his statements any "air time" than anything he himself may have said. I never would have heard about it if people didn't keep going on about it. How many others have had their attention brought to it by this ongoing dissection and criticism?
I hear what you are saying.
However, I do think the idea of boycotting MOC's $30(!) a book method due to his choice of public actions is a reasonable course to take.
His method books may very well be excellent. However, there are plenty of other options out there as well. Given the choice, I would prefer not to support ruthless individuals nor corporations in any of my purchases. In this case, the choice for me is quite clear.
I mean, I think MOC himself brings this up, doesn't he? He has questions about Suzuki's personal character, and thus thinks his whole methodology is somehow not valid. So, if anybody happens to think MOC has issues with his own character, isn't the correct thing to do to avoid his methodology as well? Give him a taste of his own medicine.
Steven, most people in the community did keep quiet about it for a long time. But when some keeps ranting on and on for years, calls the press, and generally just won't let it die, eventually there comes a point when it's appropriate to respond.
I don't boycott his materials. I use the first book, in fact, because I think the music is enjoyable and relatable for the kids. My standard repertoire for a beginner is the Suzuki Book 1 and O'Connor Book 1. I also understand those who choose not to use his method. It irks me a little to do so for the reasons I've mentioned, but I believe it to be good material for the students, so I use it.
There is a difference between avoiding the financial support of a living creator that you believe is doing something wrong, and avoiding the works of a deceased creator because of the way they lived. Some people will understandably not want MOC to profit from his current approach.
Does Suzuki really teach people to play by ear first? If it does then that is something in its favor.
I have heard the argument before that Suzuki students are weak readers but I never hear addressed the fact that traditionally taught string players have little or no ability to play by ear. The career advice I hear from string players - "Soloist, orchestra, chamber, teacher", are all lines of work where you can get away with such a lack of skills. However, step outside of these realms into virtually any other style and you will need to play by ear, memory or improvise. I've had advanced students come to me that are technically advanced but when you ask them to play Baa Baa Black Sheep by ear they are like a beginner again!
Methods and teachers need to find a balance here and produce players that can play with or without written music.
That's my mission, Christopher!
Steven - Mr O'Connor is behaving badly because he believes that it is to his financial benefit to do so. I am making a conscious choice as a consumer not to purchase his materials and to make a public statement as to why in the hope that it may be part of the broader conversation that leads him to rethink the wisdom of his actions.
As Lydia and Serphim have pointed out -- there is more good instructional material than a person could play in a lifetime. I would much rather give money to Rachel Barton Pine for her wonderful dvd accompaniment to the new release of Wohlfahrt or to Ben Chan for all of his videos and his work transcribing violin scores of popular music, or the Masterclass foundation or any of a dozen other people or groups long before I would consider rewarding Mr O'Connor for his bad behavior.
But Playing By Ear is the very basis of music, as in singing by ear. Sound is not just an illustration of the written note, it's the written note's raison d'être!
I have plenty of opportunity to compare children with, say, 4 years of Suzuki-like training, with those from the French conservatoires. The former have better rhythm, intonation, style, and tonal variation; they listen to what they are doing, and they know when to look away from the page to see how I do things.
But you can do both. Read well and do improvisation. I find improvisation easy (although no one would want to hear my attempts) and it frees me up. I do it every day (more or less) and I also play from muzak and from memory, although my diminishing brain cells can be sorely tested.
After accompanying a performance of Haydn's D major 'Cello Concerto at my old school I took the opportunity to ask Leonard Elschenbroich (If anyone asks "Who?", think Nicola Benedetti's boyfriend) whose cadenza he'd played. His reply was that he was following the practice of classical times in imbibing the style of the composer and improvising a cadenza in that style. I hope he understood why I was virtually speechless, except, I think, to indicate that I thought the cadenza was a masterpiece. It certainly had me spellbound. There were no fireworks, but the techniques of expression and timing were exquisite, in a way which "the layman" might not appreciate.
Any method that achieves vast progress in learning a discipline carries with it the possibility that an area is not addressed at all. To take learning to read a language as an example: When we learn to read English we really have to learn how to pronounce each word individually, because our alphabet is a joke - It's not such an exaggeration to say that the difference between English and Chinese is that English claims to have an alphabet. But when we do read, we will recognize and comprehend each word we read. Now take a language that has an alphabet worthy of the name. You can read out a passage pronouncing each letter according to the rules of pronunciation (Turkish is a prime example of this, but most languages are at least better than English), and others will possibly understand it, but it doesn't follow that you have, in your mind, registered the words. Reading with comprehension is a separate skill.
So I think it is with the Suzuki method. You grow up with the violin as your partner. But if you're going to be a "great musician", you still need to learn to bully it into submission, to make it your slave. The greats with a Suzuki background have mastered this.
Sorry to nit-pick, but Chinese doesn't have an alphabet at all. It uses kanji, which are representative of entire words.
There is nothing wrong with the English alphabet, but rather the large proportion of irregular rules for using it in particular words compared to other languages that also employ a largely similar alphabet.
Detail: the Japanese use a version of Kanji, but also have Katakana for phonetic representation of foreign words.
I must dig out the Chinese Kanji for "listen" (t'ing) with explanations of each stroke: it is superb!
Was MOC made aware that the Japanese appropriated their kanji from the Chinese?!
Part of The Fraud at some level, no doubt....
Yes, you guys are right. I travel to Japan frequently, and thus know them as "kanji". And they also have katakana and hirigana and "romanji"( English letters)
Spanish is a language that has what you call a "real alphabet". Each letter reads the same all the time, or at least 90% of the time. An "a" will always sound the same. But, if I understood your words correctly, you are saying that a Spanish speaking person is in jeopardy of not understanding the words, because the letters follow rules of pronunciation. I'm not sure about that. I had never thought about that and I don't know how to compare it to violin playing.
Seraphim, I didn't say Chinese had an alphabet. I merely implied that unlike English, it didn't claim to have one.
Ezequiel, my point is that there will be a stage in a Spanish speaker's learning in which he is able to read Spanish out loud without his brain connecting what he reads to any meaning at all - It may not happen with multitasking ladies!
I'm pleased that my thread has evolved into a linguistics discussion! Another passion of mine.
Peter, improvisation that no one wants to hear is not quite what I'm talking about. ;) Of course it's easy to improvise badly. It's not easy to improvise well.
Music is a language too and like any good linguist you should be able to speak the language, not just read it from a page.
Actually Christopher, you're really illustrating my point. It is possible to speak a language, read it out correctly from the page aloud, and yet not understand what you're reading, but it's not often observed when there's been a struggle to learn to read or, for that matter, when the learner has been learning the language from written material. However, in music, the constituency that can play by ear and sight read well and yet can hardly read a score is quite significant - To be frank, I have to admit to myself that that description fits me far too closely for comfort. Of course, one can learn to read a score with practice, but it is a separate discipline - like reading with comprehension in language.
"Peter, improvisation that no one wants to hear is not quite what I'm talking about. ;) Of course it's easy to improvise badly. It's not easy to improvise well."
That is not quite what I said. Some people have quite liked my improvisations, jazz and other types, but I'm not keen on making a big deal about it. The reason I do it is for my own development both technically and musically.
Anyway, who is to judge about the quality of the improvisation? You are likely to put people off trying it by being so snooty about it.
Actually, it's exactly what you said. You said that no one would want to hear your attempts.
I'm not snooty about it, but it's not easy to do well. As far as who is to judge, I think it would be the same people who judge any other aspect of music: the musician and the audience. I certainly judge myself more harshly than I judge anyone else. If I'm finding something as broad as improvisation "easy," that means that I'm not challenging myself enough.
For the record, I didn't mean to be personal about it. I don't consider myself an amazing improviser. But I also don't see it as "easy."
Imagine if someone said "Paganini is easy to play, but no one would want to hear me play it." Well...it's probably not all that easy, then. I submit that there are as many levels of improvisation as there are of classical violin playing.
We should be careful not to put people off improvisation. They are going to be "less good" at it when they start but that is unimportant. Just like beginners who are not that good in the first few months at playing the violin, but we don't tell them they are not good. Soon they get good, in a few months or more they may be pretty good, and in a couple of years very, very good.
As soon as people start to bring in levels of good and bad, it will put people off. Being good or bad is NOT the point. Doing it (improvisation) is everything, as it opens up the sound, the technique and the imagination. One should never expect to be at the level of a Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, but who knows, someone gifted might reach that level.
I don't want people to hear my improvisation (even if it were pretty good) because it is a private thing between me and my dog. (She's the only one that hears it). She groans when it's boring and bad, and sighs when its OK.
So let's all lose this judgemental pseudo intellectualism, which is a big probelm in the arts field, and just encourage people to have a go. No one will die, and nothing will be lost.
I do encourage people to have a go. But sometimes I encounter the misunderstanding that improvisation is easy, that all you have to do is just play anything you want, anything goes, and so forth. (That's where the tired debate between classical players and jazzers of who works harder comes from!) It's not like that. Good improvisation requires an excellent ear, unfaltering rhythm, an understanding of chords so ingrained as to be second nature, an appropriate musical vocabulary, and of course, style! Yes, of course people get better at it with time, but that's because it's possible to get better. That's not "pseudo-intellectualism." It's just an aspect of music like any other. The more left-brained work you do in the practice room, the more creativity you can pull out at the session.
Also, if someone is so put off by the idea of playing well or poorly that he or she can't handle a discussion on the matter, violin is probably not for that person, period. I understand your point that sometimes it's important to just open up and let the right brain take over. I agree that's a valuable part of musicianship. But that doesn't mean all improvisation actually is created equal. We're on a message board specifically for violinists (a rather academic setting), not in a lesson or at a session, so I approach the topic differently here than I would elsewhere.
I think it's easier to improvise on the violin if you can already do it on the piano.
Totally agree, John! My piano is nothing to write home about, but it's striking how much easier it is to improvise on piano. It's just all right there!
I'm agreeing with everything you say so far Sarah. I think a lot of classical players see improvisation as important or wish they could do it but many just think it's a "fun" sideline rather than an essential part of musicianship.
Getting back to the Suzuki/O'Connor thing, I have worked with both books when students bring them to me. One thing that occurs to me is that the book alone is not a method but collection of graded pieces of music - not much more. Suzuki might say something like "Play with a beautiful tone" and O'Connor might give a background about the piece with maybe some encouragement to be creative but it seems that the books alone are not the method. It seems both parties have some kind of teacher training. How much of the method is imparted to the teacher? Can we really say a book is a method if it does not give much instruction other than a few encouraging words and stating the obvious? Sarah, you mentioned the O'Connor teacher training - what does the method involve specifically? Suzuki teachers who have been trained - what are you taught that is not in the books?
"Suzuki teachers who have been trained - what are you taught that is not in the books."
1) I like to insist that two thirds of violin technique is between the notes.
2) Hands and minds are as different (and as similar)as faces.
So, we teachers are taught detailed and adaptable ways of mastering the various new challenges in each piece. A good teacher, (with sufficient caffeine!) invents on the spot, then writes down, tricks & tips to solve individual problems.
I love your post and agree with you. Very well written and interesting. Deb
Thanks Adrian. I was really asking what an official Suzuki/O'Connor teacher is taught if you sign up to become an instructor of that method.
Adrian, re your last post. That exactly describes my Suzuki-trained teacher - she was able to provide a solution to every problem, and the whys and wherefores were always discussed in detail. Most importantly, she taught me how to identify and analyze future problems, and that a viable solution to a problem should emerge out of a good analysis, an example of which is how to tackle tricky bits in a piece.
From what Adrian and Trevor have said, it would appear that we have reached a conclusion, and that is, Suzuki teachers are individuals who, like all good teachers, solve problems themselves, and there is no universal "method."
Please correct me if I'm wrong, but it would appear then that the Suzuki books are the material that helps progression, just like other books, or even like the exam syllabus that various international bodies use (eg ARBSM in the UK).
Maybe I'm talking a lot of rubbish (as usual!) but that seems to clarify a few things for me. Would I also be right in saying then that Sazuki teachers are all individuals with their own methods, but using the same materials and at the same time encouraging certain ideals such as for example, involving parents much more than is the normal practice?
I think you hit the nail on the head with that one, Peter.
Using a common repertoire allows players from diverse backgrounds to meet, play together, and learn from one another even if they don't speak the same language.
Even in his preface to his own book on the violin, Galamian states "no book can replace the live student-teacher relationship." At best, the materials provide a framework to chart the course of instruction, and for beginning teachers they can rely on a progression of works that has weathered the test of time. The teacher training presents an opportunity for experienced instructors to pass on their effective strategies for early childhood music education to the next generation.
And perhaps most importantly, it allows teachers to begin with kids as young as age three, which in the past prior to Suzuki's work, no one really attempted to do on a large scale.
Thanks Gene - I think I have a better understanding of Suzuki in relation to all the traditional methods, and their various strengths.
Yes Peter you've twigged!
Can I just add, or rather repeat, that the Suzuki sequence introduces technical challenges in a significantly different order from many other methods, a fact which has inspired one or two very agressive posts in other threads..
From long expereience I find his choices inspired more by how chidren move and percieve, and less by what we accomplished players think they should in the first stages.
Oh Adrian, you have never experienced me being aggressive, surely? (Stop calling me Shirley ...)
PS It takes me a long time to twig, I'm a slow learner. Shortage of brain cells you see.
Well, we spent a lot of time watching videos of Mark O'Connor play. We also spent time watching videos of Pam Wiley's students improvise, chop, and create their own arrangements as ensembles, which I enjoyed seeing. Then we went through each piece in the book and discussed the main pedagogical points, which I understand is very similar to what happens in Suzuki teacher training. We also played the pieces ourselves.
Unfortunately, we did also spend a good chunk of time talking about the perceived disadvantages of the Suzuki method, largely because Pam Wiley had just written her "Confessions of a Former Suzuki Teacher" article about a month prior to the workshop. I think she was still feeling shellshocked from the aftermath. I was completely clueless about all of it going in, however, so to me it seemed quite bizarre that it had such an anti-Suzuki slant. I spent a lot of time in my hotel reading blogs after the first day.
I'd say the primary tenets of the O'Connor method are: 1. an emphasis on improvisation as a core skill rather than an "extra" and 2. a strong emphasis on American music. I am more enthusiastic about the first than the second. Although I appreciate the idea of teaching children the music of their own cultural heritage, and I really enjoy American music, I don't think it's nearly as important as Mark O'Connor does. I think improvisation is a much more important, far-reaching and foundational skill.
"you have never experienced me being aggressive, surely?" No Peter that was not aimed at you!
Now, being an arrogant Brit, and an insufferable Suzuki-trainee, I use Irish and Scottish tunes, rather than their American imitations........
I love playing Irish tunes! Usually when someone comes to me wanting to learn something other than classical, they ask to learn Irish tunes.
I was only joking Adrian! It's my wicked sense of humour. Like when I've asked a conductor which one was his down beat!
I only get aggressive when my E string whistles and then I belt hell out of it. Must try a .27 Goldbrokat as Rocky reccomends!
Peter, I couldn't work out where and how Adrian was calling you Shirley, but I would think he was referring to your wrestling skills.
It's an old joke from a film (Orson Welles?) - surely - Shirley. Maybe you need a US accent to bring it off. It perhaps does not work so well in print!
The "surely/Shirley" joke is also in the film "Airplane!" - that's a U.S. production of course.
[Edit added Dec 5 2014]
The "surely/Shirley" joke from Airplane! is this dialog between two of the characters:
Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.
Trevor - yes, I remember that also in the film.
I think the original film however, may have been Citizen Kane. (Of Rosebud fame ...)
Sorry I'm being so thick, Peter, but the first time the word "Surely" appears in this discussion is in YOUR post, so I've still not got it.
I take it you all got my reference to wrestling?
Attacking such a well known person and method has generated a lot of publicity and discussion. This is free advertising. Many people have heard of the O'Connor method because of his inflammatory anti-Suzuki message.
I find the controversy about Suzuki interesting and somewhat puzzling. It's interesting because I can see positives and negatives in the method; but it puzzles me how people can get so worked up over a voluntary pursuit of pleasure. If you don't like your Suzuki teacher vote with your wallet and feet; find someone else.
Every summer we go to a Suzuki summer camp as a family vacation, even though the youngest violist's teacher isn't a Suzuki teacher, the oldest violist/violinist is far past the repertoire and the other kid plays the oboe. The camp is family fun. There is a great origami teacher, and excellent classes in marimba, singing, introductory orchestra, chamber music and a teen program. We have friends we see year after year.
The shared Suzuki repertoire and method that emphasizes group classes, can build a sense of community. The leveled books give some basis of common skill sets. Conversely, if it's not managed well it can encourage competitive parenting.
I think there is a tendency to see Suzuki as far more uniform than it is. The perception of whether Suzuki is good or not comes from the individual teacher. Some are rigid "old school" with limited background and repertoire who hold students back. Others are innovative, perceptive teachers with solid musical backgrounds that include all of the traditional studies as well as the Suzuki repertoire.
One thing I think Suzuki does well is teaching of young children. I see a number of Suzuki teachers who have large "bags of tricks" for teaching kids 7 and under. Since Suzuki provides teacher training and summer camps, teachers exchange ideas. Of course, you might ask why do you want to start kids with formal instruction on an instrument that young. Some kids want to play an instrument at a very young age. I had one kid start violin at 2 1/2 and the other at 8 years old. The Suzuki method worked very well for the 2 1/2 year old.
Take a look at the NYT article about the MOC smear campaign.
Then take a look at how MOC twists and spins it on his own blog.
I really think this shows how irrational this man is. I mean, he really seems to be nuts!
Yes, Seraphim. He really does come across as unhinged. He deletes any dissenting opinion or criticism, no matter how politely stated, from his blog or Facebook page immediately. I have seen him go out of his way to attack random Suzuki teachers for disagreeing with him. He doesn't hesitate to remind them that he is famous and they are not, although he is apparently not too busy to spend ample time belittling and berating them. And some of his earlier blog posts about this issue from last year are embarrassing to read, particularly those talking about "instilling Japanese values in American children."
I do not believe he is a "genius," as he and those close to him seem to believe, but then I have a pretty high standard for bestowing that title. I think he's an excellent and accomplished fiddle player with a few good ideas about pedagogy (and I really do appreciate his student composition "Beautiful Skies;" that might be the best thing to come out of the method) who has now dug himself a hole too deep to get out of and shattered his own credibility in the community. I also think he's crazy.
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November 10, 2014 at 09:41 PM · Thank you for this balanced, lucid post Sarah!