I am a high school orchestra director. I have found that my students who have studied under the Suzuki method have fantastic ears, good instincts, and play with beautiful sound. The drawback is that they often are not good readers. We don't do much improvising. Bottom line to me is that it takes all types…The Suzuki method was developed under the philosophy that all people learn from their environments by a Japanese man who wanted to bring beauty to the lives of children in post WWII through music. Maybe his initial students, now all in their 70s and 80s, would have something to say about you bashing the technique as harmful to children. Maybe its purpose isn't to create the perfect musician, but rather a person who is competent in music and appreciates the beauty in it. I have not seen any of my students "damaged" by the method and I believe your criticism to be harsh and unwarranted…I am not a Suzuki cultist by any means. In fact, I have discouraged its practice in my district. I just recognize that there are different paths to learning, and like all methods, this one has its pros and cons. –Michael McNamara
Michael, well you have not met the thousands I have who were Suzuki students and that were damaged. Let's start with two of my kids in my family - 2 years each from 2 different Suzuki teachers - never to return to a musical instrument again after both of them insisted on quitting (lived in two different cities as well). I just interviewed with Paula Zahn, the famous newscaster had her three kids in Suzuki for 3 to 5 years. All three quit Suzuki, quit the violin and cello, two of them quit music altogether, and one went to the guitar for fun. I could go on for days with stats like these. I have had thousands of experiences like this. This is real “damage” Michael. Then the ones who stayed on to play the violin after being fully trained - most of these musicians are frustrated by their own limitations – greatly frustrated. Fairly simplistic stuff too that they could have gotten in a holistic methodology, but stayed with their Suzuki Method instead.
You mentioned the “Japanese man that wanted to bring the beauty into the lives of children” in Japan. Our government hired him to do that. 1945 - 1952. He and along with many other teachers in Japan got their orders from our government to stand down, put their weapons down, denounce their Emperor as a living God, and Japanese teachers were used to soften children’s hearts (mostly orphaned) through Western music like Bach amongst other things. The effort was mainly obedience training to turn the little Japanese kids away from their Emperor deity and towards Western culture. That transition was profound and it involved certain philosophies like “beautiful heart” and “good citizens.” But none of this – none of it, has anything to do with classical violin training for the rest of the world, nothing to do with American citizens who are free (and did not worship and lay down their life for an Emperor, as little Japanese children had to). Frankly it has nothing to do with modern Japan and that is why they ditched the Suzuki Method as a serious music method decades ago. I have an article about it on my blog you can look up called; “JAPAN WAS THUMBS DOWN on SUZUKI – decades ago.” A lot of research has been done. –Mark O’Connor
|Other Japanese students besides Suzuki's were playing violin during reconstruction|
I was brought up from age 4 Suzuki, studied under at least one teacher whom had personally worked with Dr. Suzuki, and only stopped because the 2-hour drive down to him was no longer feasible for my family. Since then --that's been almost 5 years-- I have had a couple of more mainstream classical (and fairly good) instructors in addition to playing bluegrass/gospel for the last three. These mainstream instructors have helped guide me forwards and given pointers, but I strongly feel that almost all of where I am today musically I owe to my last superb Suzuki teacher. With him, music was not what was on the page. The notes were a guide, the music came from within. The violin was a mirror of the human voice, I was there to pull the music out rather than to shove it back into the instrument in mechanical, rote way. Through repeated memorization, I had learned how to physically play the violin -- taught and hardwired in an excellent tone, taught my fingers where to go anywhere on the fingerboard, taught my bow to effortlessly work without more than a thought of where I wanted it to go. Now I could take off from there, and all the while he had built in everything I would need.
I wholeheartedly agree with all the observations you have made in prior posts concerning the utter lack of true musicality seen in violinists, particularly younger (read teen) students. This, however, is a problem inherent to not just Suzuki but to much of the Classical music establishment as a whole, Suzuki included. Regardless of (classical) musical upbringing, most students I help or come in contact with all have the same underlying problem -- they are not playing from within. They are focused on the outward: what finger to put down, what position they are in, what string they are on, etc. and end up providing a relatively technically correct performance that is void of character and emotion. At that point I might as well just sample some MIDI, it would be just as clean and likely more musical.
Regardless, the point is this: I can quite easily point out the same problem throughout the classical teaching world, not just within Suzuki. Reflecting back, I received much more from a true, hardcore Suzuki teacher then I ever have from any other instructor since. Suzuki is not a finishing program, it is designed to give a base on which to build. I know many classical players who have never gone outside that base-- and their playing suffers greatly. They have put the emphasis on the technical and get technically solid playing but lack emotion and feeling. They sure can play but would be utterly lost in a jam session or with a band, lost if you asked them to do anything other than spew out what they have jammed in their head by repetition. Improv is a nightmare for any classically trained musician who has never made progress past thinking "third finger, second finger, open a...".
On the other hand, I know quite a few fiddle players of whom I envy the amount of emotional depth their playing can embody, but who are very technically lacking. When I started Bluegrass/Gospel a few years back, everything I needed was there. Thanks to my prior training in Suzuki, I knew how to play my instrument (and quite proficiently at that) and learning how to improv --something that I had never really tried before-- came quite naturally. The best musicians have the technique from the classical, and the emotion oft lacking from it. On an aside, that is precisely why I have always admired you and your works. You have always been technically amazing and had the stuff to back it up. I very greatly admire your Method in the same way, you have very solid technical info, and you show the depth behind the notes. You have the best of both worlds.
All above said, I am not in any way saying all Suzuki programs are like what I have experienced. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful experienced teacher; I have some severe reservations concerning others I have met. I have heard my fair share of horror stories and have seen many students who are unable to see farther than the name of the note on the page. But I can observe the same problem manifested in similar ways across the entire spectrum of classical teaching. Classical students tend to be very stuffy, devoid of true feeling and regurgitating what they have blindly memorized/seen on the page. I think your Method is a perfect medium, teaching technique while making student's music their own. Keep going -- I eagerly await Book 4, and will never forget the grin on the face of one of my students this afternoon when we played the duet for Appalachia Waltz together for the first time. -Jonathan Romanko
Jonathan, thanks for this comprehensive post. It sounds like you are still a teenager or early 20s. Meaning you were learning things like bluegrass and improvisation as a mid teen… That is not the Suzuki Method. But you are young enough to perhaps get away from Suzuki-classical and try other things. You say that you picked up bluegrass fast, but obviously I would have to take your word for it as I have not heard your bluegrass playing at all…If you are not playing classical anymore and it does not seem like you are because you didn’t mention that you played in an orchestra or were performing in chamber groups a single time in that entire letter… then why endorse Suzuki at all? Suzuki teaches classical music! You quit classical music and actually criticize the classical scene a lot here. If you wanted to play bluegrass and improvise, just think how much better you would be by now if you had it included in your earlier training? If you actually studied that music in your formative years, just imagine how much better it would be. I mean there is a reason why I am good at something I do today. I had the musical language planted in my brain like a seed when I was a kid.But, I do have friends who dropped Suzuki and classical music in their teens, and had a musical and cultural “intervention” as I refer to it in their life (which is extremely unusual, but it can happen as it may have for you) and have gone on to do well – luckily and thankfully. But that is no methodology. That is not a method for kids. It is actually an “un-method.” To imagine that a kid would find the exact things that you found randomly and by happenstance…? That simply will not take place for most kids. That is why we have methods, and that is why we do teacher training, so we cut down the risk of accidents going the opposite direction from the way that you seemed to go.This “cultural intervention” that made you give up classical music performance for good it seems, and then cast you into a whole other line of music is rare. I have had some Suzuki friends in the exact same position. It was impossible for them to continue with Suzuki or classical music for a myriad of reasons and they just had to do something else. Of course switching gears away from classical music as a teenager is not a “method” or an “approach” either. It is failure of a classical music pedagogy that did not thrust a serious music student like yourself into success with it. You had an unusual situation that not very many people on this planet could have planned for in that you found another music styles(s) as a kid because your classical teacher lived too far away to continue. Almost no kid would have your exact set of circumstances to somehow find bluegrass at age 16, and have the classical teacher live too far away all at the same time.
To the next point, "the classical music establishment" is in fact Suzuki entirely when it comes to age 3 - 12 years of age in the United States. You kept referring to the classical music establishment as something other than Suzuki largely. I am talking about kids with regards to teaching methods and the “establishment” is very much Suzuki. It has been by my estimation that it is 80% of the “market.” The remaining classical traditional teaching has been persuaded and influenced by Suzuki as well because of it being the only game in town in most places of the country. So that needs to be straitened out in your statement. I am referring to teaching kids the violin - the “classical establishment” is Suzuki. And what is not Suzuki has been greatly influenced by Suzuki because of its dominance in America. I just want to make that clear, because I think you did not articulate this correctly, and therefore you are not understanding it fully. There was one single community school in New York City where I live that held out against Suzuki for years... it was led mostly by Russian training and teachers. They finally buckled 10 years ago and added Suzuki because of business reasons like paying rent, and of course that is the main attraction at that school now for kids because of the brand name. So I want to make sure that you understand and the readers here understand the facts. But having said that, these are stats of five years ago, and then I released my Method...You referred to Suzuki as “Dr. Suzuki.” That is a stage name. He was not a doctor or PhD of anything. He did not go to college. He flunked his entrance exam in 1923 at the Hochschule (Conservatory) in Berlin and Karl Klingler rejected him as a student. It is in writing and in the school records. Suzuki claims his only teacher was Klingler for “eight years.” He invented that story to sell himself to the American educational environment. To rephrase for you - Suzuki was a fraud who faked his professional relationships and academic credentials to climb the ladder. We had done thorough research on him with researchers from around the world. The article you will want to read is this one. More than two years of research went into this article; KLINGLER Rejects SUZUKI as his Student in 1923Yes there are good teachers out there who "saved" Shinichi Suzuki’s method to some extent and supplemented so elaborately that their students got through OK. It sounds like your teacher did that with you. But at base, I don't think we should have our children follow a liar and a fraud as well as a very poor musician - that being Shinichi Suzuki. No matter how many teachers are out there covering for him and his brand – just because his well-known “brand” brings students to them. Those same teachers can retrain and teach something else, including my Method in fact, and have more success. As it sounds like you are going to be doing…even more so after you read this I bet! Thank you and I am glad you are looking at my materials and sharing “Appalachia Waltz” with your students! –Mark O’Connor
|Suzuki - Klingker (audition when rejected)|
I am not a Suzuki cultist nor would I even begin to argue your expertise as a violinist. But, do you really believe that the Suzuki method is hurting students on an intellectual level or is it just another method some teachers use to allow beginning students to use as a method of playing? As a music educator there are many methods teachers can use and I'm sure many do use Suzuki. –Brad Cole
Brad , absolutely it is. The Suzuki Method has hurt and even crumbled musical intelligence in most of their students. There has never been another time period in classical violin other than the Suzuki era where there have been less artistic and creative violinists. Nearly no player-composers, arrangers, improvisers, ensemble leaders, or violinists with an original idea of their own have come out of the Suzuki era of the last 50 years. It is shameful. –Mark O’Connor
Wouldn’t an intuitively gifted student KNOW there is a better way? I truly believe (now) that this must be the case. Those students who realize they are limited by Suzuki, they are the ones that will seek out better methods. Music is such an intuitive process. Its also for many, a gift. I know everyone is capable of learning to play music or sing, but I only recently discovered that the learning process depends on the brain we are born with….Suzuki must be good for those students who would never be able to achieve…The truly gifted ones, the ones born with natural ability, they will know there is more out there!
With that said, no, Suzuki method is not doing well, but it serves its purpose for the average student, those who maybe wouldn't have even gotten that far musically without Suzuki. They would never have been able to learn to improvise anyway! I truly believe this type of skill is not teachable unless you were born with musical instincts. –Marie Hashima Lofton
Students, when they are young are not free to make choices. So it does not matter in a practical sense if they know something is wrong, one of the most popular choices is quitting. And that is the choice that most often happens. Kids don't get into choosing their teachers until they are in the mid teens. And that is very far down the road. That is after many books in the Suzuki series have been gone through. So yes, this is a freedom and “prison” issue. We have been locking up their little minds in a method that is not nurturing their artistic growth - and there is no way out for them other than to disappoint every adult around them and quit. And sadly that is what we make them do with Suzuki.You mentioned Suzuki being good for the "average" student. Just think how many average students in life became great. Take a look around, read the newspapers. You never want to sell any kid short in life. The language that you use in your note here, separating average from gifted, is not a necessary part of the American music experience. The same literature, concepts, philosophy of learning music in the O’Connor Method suits all students and they will all take it as far as they want to take it. But there are no differences perpetuated in the American System - O’Connor Method as far as intelligence, culture, status, race... Everyone can enjoy the same things from it and we pick no winners and losers. Classical music in America will learn something from us, and we will in turn help classical music by our student’s ability to fully participate. –Mark O’Connor
|Mark O'Connor with String Students in Brooklyn, NY|
There has yet to be a scientific study of whichever method effects the prefrontal cortex in a more meaningful way. Indeed, some studies have shown that, while improvising, certain portions of the prefrontal cortex are inhibited (Limb & Braun, 2008), which is speculated to be related to relinquishing self-monitoring in the face of creating new musical phrases, and language at large - something we can relate to in the art of live improvisation.
This could suggest that learning to improvise at an early age is not a great habit for someone who wants to learn self control, generally. I think it is premature to want to compare an early-improvisers brain to someone who learns to memorize at an early age - we may be shocked to find that the memorize-er has developed habits which exercise and thereby strengthen the prefrontal cortex, and in turn they may have nurtured a more calculated personality growing up - though they may be less able to improvise like a pro. = )
I know that person wasn't me, and I can hardly keep my mouth shut... Though I improvise well. I wouldn't be raring to compare my frontal cortex to a Suzuki player…Unlike you, I'm sure, I stink at reading music but I am a great improviser. I also have been studying neuroscience for a few years now, so the activity of the brain with regards to musical processing, creativity and listening are of great interest to me, and that's my angle - I agree that composing is highly challenging (I am an amateur, studied it in college), and that your work is evidently the product of creativity, discipline, attention and endless fine tuning which I will probably never amount to.
Now for the science. Indeed, someone with half of a brain would be unable to operate both hands at the same time, at the very least. Clearly both hemispheres are employed in the act of composing and violin-ing, however fMRI studies by Limb showed that, when trading 4's, the median prefrontal cortex was shunted of blood, vis a vis inhibited - this is not a bad thing, and it likely reflects the player's intention to make stuff up on the spot instead of recite something rehearsed.
Our brains are far more complicated than "more of mine is active now, so I'm thinking more than you". Indeed, some parts of our brain NEED to be turned off in order to be awake, or chew, or pay attention - so, my point is only that we shouldn't expect a better improviser's brain to be more "lit up" than someone who is having difficulty improvising, in fact, it may be the opposite - the improviser knows how to shut up certain parts of their head so that they can be in the moment, and focus. – Amir Sheth
You are providing a "this or that" scenario and that is not what I posed. You largely missed my whole point in wanting to test myself and a typical Suzuki violinist. The point is that all of my brain is working when I play music! I can remember, read music, memorize and drill just like anyone! But I also am creative and can imagine music. The point of a potential test in analyzing the lateral prefrontal lobes of a typical Suzuki player and myself for instance is not to say that one side of the brain is better than the other to the notion that the other can be absent! The point is that I use my entire brain through the act of music making and I believe that the Suzuki player does not in fact. The testing by John Hopkins neuroscientists proves that an improvising jazz musician can "light up" all of the brain while the person who merely reads or plays by rote cannot.
Most jazz musicians improvise yes, but they also write music – all of them. People who are not professional composers have no idea what kind of discipline and control it takes to do all of this tedious work. I edit, constantly. I compose full-length orchestral scores of a million notes. And nearly every note is correct when I deliver the score. I am an author. I go over and over materials, I research, rehearse, teach... In essence I am using the brain more completely through the act of music making and the scientists at John Hopkins proved it, regardless if one part of the brain is shut off for a specific event or not. I have ALL of the brain firing off and “lit up” as you put it, within my musical performance. I want children to have all of the synapses firing every day in music. Your argument is merely academic – for the sake of a technical theory that you are guessing. Meaning that it is more or less meaningless to people. It has really nothing to do with the reality of a music student’s life - or their brain. That, is what I am aiming to change and fix with my Method - its materials and philosophies for the whole person, the whole brain! Let’s “light it up!” –Mark O’Connor
|Mark O'Connor performing his own concerto with symphony orchestra (the brain is lit up!)|
What other "systems"? Those who move on to greatness seek it out. I don't believe Suzuki was ever meant to be "There, you've finished Book 10. You're the perfect violinist." What musician does that? If you want to be great at improvising, here's what you do...you improvise a lot. There's no "method" to teach it that is as effective as just doing it. You learn other people's improvisations from recordings and emulate it, and assimilate their tricks of the trade into your own. You learn different scales and modes and how to harmonize those scales. You listen a lot. What great improviser learned how to do it from a method? You think John Coltrane sat down with Bob's Tenor Man method to become an improvisational genius? No way. Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were his teachers, and in no formal capacity. I would tell my students to buy your recordings and learn your solos by ear before I tell them to buy your method book. Suzuki is but one method that people have used as a starting point, and from what I and a lot of educators have seen, its results are more good than bad. If it were the end of their musical education, you'd be 100% right.
I think that alone would make your brain scan study not scientific. You would also need other controls, such as years of experience playing and other methods of study. If a student did 10 books of Suzuki and then studied in some other way, it could be the other way that skews the results. If they only studied the 10 books and did nothing else, you have been playing for over 40 years so it could be the years of experience that skew the results. But as a starting base for kids, I'd say it has been widely successful, and certainly not damaging. I have personally born witness to how advanced many of them were on many levels compared to their peers who had traditional teachers…the problems you speak of are not just in Suzuki...it's the way classical music is taught in general. -Michael McNamara
Michael, what you say is off by an ocean. It matters how you begin anything in life, and music is no exception. You don't start a method that you know is compromised, hoping that the child will somehow find the right teacher or another approach when they are 10 years old - 12 years old. It is a pathetic pathway. With your words, you only perpetuate the problem rather than help it. Once again you blast criticisms at classical music string lessons as somehow being separate from Suzuki in America today. It is nearly one in the same! I am talking about kids… Suzuki has 80% of the market. And the other 20% is Suzuki influenced – even fiddle lessons now have become Suzuki influenced and because of that, we have also seen the least amount of creative American fiddlers in this era than ever before in history.You are wrong when you say there is this vast other thing called classical violin lessons for children that is not Suzuki. Most all of it is. This whole era has become Suzuki Method influenced violin lessons producing the most un-creative era of violin players the world has ever seen. They all do the same thing and learn the same pieces. It is all standardized to get into to youth orchestra. There is very little difference. If there was a difference, then the “classical” part of the violin lesson world would be producing Sebelius’ and Kreisler’s… people who can compose, arrange, and lead, and improvise and become full artists who have musical ideas. But that is not happening. It is in fact a Suzuki dominated era.
My testing idea has just as much validity as a jazz musician improvising and that same jazz musician who probably does not read as well as someone like Yo-Yo Ma. It is logic like you write which is horrid and has gotten us into so much trouble with education. I can pick apart every sentence you wrote and destroy its logic. It’s so far off, where to begin. Suzuki has not been widely successful except for selling lessons to kids. If you factor in the attrition rate which is horrifically high, as well as satisfaction rate of everyone who got through Suzuki in tact, and factor in the limitations of those players, as well as the fact that we have less creativity in classical violin in the last 50 years over every single other 50 block history in violin history - it all adds up to a dismal failure. Failure for string playing, for its literature, for progressing the violin beyond anything that happened 50 years ago, failure for American music, and allowing nearly every other instrument group to advance on strings.
"Appalachia Waltz" is on par with Barber's "Adagio for Strings"... just my humble opinion.... - Jay Jimerson
|Mark O'Connor composed Appalachia Waltz for album with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer|
Jay, that is extremely kind of you. Let me turn it around. Would it be possible for a Suzuki trained violinist (with no other training) to compose something beautiful? The fiddlers could. Fiddler Jay Ungar wrote Ashokan Farewell. Could a Suzuki trained violin player ever in a million years approach that creative beauty in their mind? No, not the Suzuki trained classical violinist. That method robs the creative juices right out of the brain through the constant drill-mimic-rote-memorization-ear training-repeat lessons from age 3 and 4 years old. By the time they are done, they can't write, and they still can't play as fast and as accurate as someone like me either. It is a lose - lose. I mean it could be saying at least something if the Suzuki violinist could play technically proficient and challenge me in that department. But they are not as good at that either. And every orchestra director I have ever had this conversation with will tell you that they dread the Suzuki students because they can't read that well either. Then the Suzuki players claim they can play by ear... but ask them to take a solo on something and they stare at you like you are crazy for asking.The definition of a “blank stare” is what you get when you ask a Suzuki trained violinist in the orchestra if they could take an improvised solo on something. They double down on technical training, and they are still not as good technically as anybody else. And in the process they lose all creativity, and they don't read well, and they still are not good enough with their ear to play in a bluegrass band or rock band unless they had a life changing experience happen to them, some kind of “cultural intervention” that stood them on their head.
A little child's life at play, how they have decorated their bedroom and how their preschool classroom is arranged are all creative places, designed to imagine things beyond their little world. That is what music should be doing if taught to little children. If any teacher disagrees with that, I will debate them on any forum in front of the public. Let me have that opportunity. I have tired from folks treating music education for young string students like it is some foreign project that is somehow different than any other instrument or from singing. The bizarre direction that string education took 50 years ago, did not produce the effect of "good citizens" but of 2nd class citizens to most musicians - people who can't compose, arrange, who can't think of musical ideas, who can't fully participate in bands, who definitely can't lead a band, who can't even read as well as others in youth orchestra, and certainly cannot improvise. It should change, and dropping Suzuki style learning from our culture is a great start. -Mark O'Connor