December 16, 2014

The last word on the Suzuki/O’Connor music book debate


There were dozens of these in my house growing up.

There were dozens of these in my house growing up.

The New York Times has reported on an increasingly rancorous debate in the world of children’s music books. This debate is centered on the reputation of the popular music education program, The Suzuki Method. Named after violinist Shinichi Suzuki, who created it, the method of learning to read music is taught internationally.

Though Suzuki died in 1998 his foundation continues to promote the method and “seek to create a learning community, which embraces excellence and nurtures the human spirit.” However, one contemporary violinist has called out Suzuki and his method as outdated and based in false premises. Mark O’Connor, who recently published his own instruction book, claims Suzuki’s biography contains numerous fabrications and that the trademark method, which includes learning “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” is bland and uninspired.

As the Times report noted,

The kerfuffle exploded in the violin world like an out-of-tune screech in a Haydn quartet. The Suzuki method is vastly popular, selling some half a million books a year, according to its publisher; Mr. O’Connor is a star who has toured with the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, worked as a major session musician in Nashville, composed for the concert hall and recorded with top musicians including Yo-Yo Ma. The spat lit up the Internet with violin vitriol.

From the article it’s clear that O’Connor has a book to promote, and he thinks lashing out at his competition by calling him “one of the biggest frauds in music history” is one way to do that. He certainly doesn’t do himself many favors in my eyes by applying a conspiracy-theorist level of analysis to disputed details of Suzuki’s autobiography.

But then again, I’m not an expert on teaching children violin. So I turned to someone who is: my mom, Kate O’Brien. She’s a professional violinist who plays every style of music under the sun, she’s the former director and primary teacher of the Suzuki School in West Haven CT, and she’s been teaching children violin for decades. You can check out her website here, and follow her at @obrienstrings.

Hi Mom! So, first question. What method did your violin teacher use when you first started practicing?

I started the violin in school in 4th grade. Before that I had taken piano lessons, so I always already knew how to read music.

So as a professional violinist and teacher, what are your thoughts on the Suzuki method, critical or otherwise?

As a former director of a Suzuki school, I’ve seen both the method’s positive and negative sides.

Pros: I believe the method works well for preschool young children who thrive on learning by rote. For beginners on violin, it’s so important to get the left and right hand positions and bowing technique started properly. Having a simple song or songs that they can memorize easily helps to let them actually look at their hands as they play. Three, four and five-year-olds enjoy all playing the same thing in a small group.

Parental involvement is important with the Suzuki method too. At that age, they need some parental guidance at home anyway, just to make sure the violin does not get broken/damaged. Sometimes, in order to get the kids’ technique started properly, the parents take lessons too, and it’s a fun activity for them to play with their children at home. The kids really like quite a few of the songs/pieces in Book 1 and 2. The books are inexpensive, and I can combine the later parts of Book 1 and 2 with other studies/books/duets/pop songs etc.

Cons: staying with only the rote learning and polishing of songs past third grade is doing a disservice to students. The only way to learn to read is by constantly reading new pieces and passages. Starting older kids or adults on only the Suzuki method can be really problematical if there is no combining both music reading and a bit of memorizing so they can watch their hands too. And the Suzuki first music reading book is boring and not to my taste. There are so many better beginning books for music reading out there, there’s just no reason to have a truly boring one.

The later Suzuki books, number 3 through 7, have quite a few lovely, standard classical pieces. And again, the books are inexpensive. But I tend not to use them. I don’t like the editing on a number of these more advanced pieces. I find the bowings to be awkward, the fingerings not to my liking, and there are lots of what I consider to be incorrect notes compared to other editions. As far as memorizing and repeating constantly, I’m not in favor of it after the very beginning stages. My opinion is that the only way to really memorize is to “know “ what you are doing, i.e. getting some basic ear training, seeing and hearing the intervals, knowing some basic harmony and theory, looking at your hands and knowing what you are doing. That slowly comes in stages as a student progresses.

Do you think the importance of Suzuki’s method to music education outweighs the possible inconsistencies in his autobiography?

I have not read his autobiography. Nor did I get trained formally in the Suzuki method. Instead, I got hired to teach and got informally trained by a number of teachers at the school at which I eventually became the Director.

In my days as Director of the Suzuki school, I saw many kids in large group classes with their parents sitting in the back looking on lovingly. It often struck me that these classes were mostly for the benefit of these busy parents. They wanted to make sure they were getting the right activities for their children. As the Director, I thought it would be unethical for me to suggest that they save their time and money and stay home in their pajamas on Saturday mornings, listen to CDs or the radio or sing/dance/clap around with their kids. Then wait until they were 6 or 7, take them to free concerts and see if the kid was interested in the violin. This was just one of the reasons I resigned as the Director and began to teach older kids privately for a number of years.

Does this debate come up when you speak with your colleagues? If so, have you sensed a shift in the opinions of the teachers you’ve known, one way or the other?

Teachers definitely talk about this, and many teachers use parts of the Suzuki method and their own combination.

O’Connor positions his program as newer and more exciting; for example, he claims that kids should learn a jazz tune before they learn Twinkle Twinkle. Having seen so many kids through learning their first tune, do you think O’Connor has a point?

My opinion is: if the kids are excited and/or familiar about the first tune they learn, it doesn’t matter what it is. The little ones all know Twinkle Twinkle. The first tune I play with my 2nd graders is Hot Cross Buns – all on one string. But kids these days also want to play pop and other styles.

I’m lucky to have studied for several years with the great jazz player Linc Chamberland, who had his own method of teaching ear training. He was a guitar player but I took my violin to lessons with him. My training with him changed my life forever as a musician and teacher. I have a collection of jazz duets used by guitarists that I have edited with bowings and fingerings for violin. The kids love them, and enjoy learning how to play “crooked time” (swing). As I say on my website, I offer my students classical music as well as popular/fiddling/rock and improvisation. I use those to teach technique, discipline and organization skills, and I also run student ensembles and provide assistance for students joining youth orchestras.

With so many other challenges to music education, such as the cutting/shrinking of arts program funding, what if anything would you change about how violin is taught in schools that you think would better benefit the students? More emphasis on parental involvement, etc?

Starting kids in small group lessons (4 -5 kids tops) so they get good technique is critical. I have many kids taking private lessons, who started in school and have terrible left hand technique. Every lesson after the first one is remedial. It’s really hard to change what they have done for a couple years.

What kind of bagels do you want me to bake for Christmas?

Anything but cinnamon raisin.


Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.