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.
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