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Friday, April 18, 2014

Mark O’Connor Takes Tough Questions from Suzuki Supporters

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 1923

Yes 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 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'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

Mark O'Connor at age 12 getting after that guitar

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The HISTORY of BLUEGRASS Music by Mark O'Connor

Bluegrass is the latest to emerge of the traditional American music styles. Informed by hundreds of years of culture from many part of the world, its musical language is exceptionally diverse.   The creation of bluegrass as a recognized style is mostly credited to Bill Monroe of Kentucky.  Born in 1911, Monroe was inspired by his “Uncle Pen” who played the Kentucky fiddle style in the family’s Scottish tradition.  Young Bill wanted to fiddle but, being the youngest sibling, the instrument was already taken and the mandolin was the household instrument that remained.  Monroe was intent on making the most of the situation however, and created a new way of playing the mandolin that emulated fiddle playing, even creating some of the most famous American fiddle tunes from the instrument.
Bill Monroe on the Grand Ol' Opry

The Monroe Brothers (Bill and Charlie)
Monroe began his career in the early 1930s with a duo singing an uncharacteristically high tenor harmony above his brother Charlie and refining his mandolin skills while touring extensively in the southeast and Midwest. In 1938, Bill wanted to expand to a full band sound and left the duo traveling to Little Rock, Atlanta and then into North Carolina joining up with Cleo Davis (guitar & vocals), Tommy Millard (spoons) and, arguably Bluegrass music’s first fiddler, Art Wooten.  The music they played was still known as hillbilly music however, although the seeds of change were being planted.

At this same time hillbilly music in South Carolina was also being revolutionized by fiddlers Joseph Emmet Mainer and his brother-in-law Roscoe Banks working under the group name J. E. Mariner’s Mountaineers.  It was when they added Snuffy Jenkins to the group, performing his 3-finger banjo rolls on his 5-string banjo influenced by the 3-finger style blues and ragtime guitar music from his native Piedmont region of North Carolina, that the characteristics of the modern bluegrass band were first heard. 

In 1936 the Mountaineers teamed up for an RCA recording of a music style that would become known as the bluegrass sound – a full two years before Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys made their first appearance.  After a short run on the Mountain Music Time radio show for Ashville, North Carolina’s WWNC (’38-’39), the original Bluegrass Boys (Monroe, Davis, Wooten and Millard) moved to Greenville where Millard was replaced by bassist/singer/comedian Amos Garen.  It was this quartet featuring Monroe’s innovative mandolin playing and the distinctive 4-part singing rehearsed extensively at Monroe’s direction for months  - but still no banjo - that took the Grand Ol’ Opry by storm in 1939 with Monroe’s virtuosic hillbilly singing on his own Mule Skinner Blues.

William, Prince of Orange
The term “hillbilly” has come to have negative connotations despite its noble origin.  The early Ulster-Scottish settlers in the hill-country of Appalachia sang songs about William, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 Ireland.  Supporters of King William were known as Orangemen and Billy Boys and their North American counterparts were referred to as hill-billies.  Monroe despised the stereotype of “backward mountain people” and insisted that The Bluegrass Boys wear suits and ties every time they performed.  They certainly were the best-dressed musicians at the Grand ‘Ol Opry in 1939!

Although he grew up with traditional Appalachian string-band music and the hymn-based music of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers, Monroe was inspired by the blues and ragtime music being played by both blacks and whites in and around his native Rosine, KY – music that was influencing all of the string players at the time.  Monroe learned music from a local black musician Arnold Schultz (a coal miner who played guitar)
Arnold Schultz - African American Blues Guitarist
and by the African American Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet from Virginia with whom he and his brother Charlie had shared the stage often in the Carolinas.
Golden Gate Quartet
The back-beat rhythmic emphasis, likely inspired by black musicians became an essential part of Monroe’s approach. Even more than a lead player, Monroe was considered a great rhythm player placing a huge emphasis on hard driving back-beat “chops,” a rhythmic stroke that was the precursor for the modern-day country and rock and roll snare drum. Another significant influence on Monroe was the playing of the legendary Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith who first joined the Opry in 1929 and who incorporated blues into his fiddle playing as well as developing a new hot “longbow” fiddle style used more for breakdowns than dance hoedowns. In an early studio pairing with Monroe, Smith recorded a few of his original fiddle tunes including Bill Cheatham, Smith’s Rag and Crazy Blues backed by the Bluegrass Boys. This was essentially the beginning of bluegrass fiddling.
Fiddlin' Arthur Smith
It is clear that if Bill Monroe was the “father” of bluegrass,” there were certainly many “uncles.”

The musical influences on Bill Monroe and others during the 1930s and early 40s were crucial for the development of bluegrass music, however it wasn’t until 1945 that a seminal lineup of band members took place in Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, a lineup that cast an indelible mark on the music’s future.  During WWII, a jazz fiddler from Florida named Chubby Wise heard that Monroe’s great fiddler Howdy Forrester was leaving the band for the service.  Wise was accepted into the band on a trial basis and although he was not familiar playing Monroe’s hillbilly style, he was talented and a fast learner.  Together Monroe and Wise worked at creating a whole new role for the fiddle in a string band.  Fiddles had traditionally played lead most of the time.  Because Monroe wanted to feature trio and quartet singing and his own mandolin playing, Wise developed a rhythmic role for the fiddle taking on a “chop” function when the mandolin dropped its strong back-beats for a solo break.  He also learned to back up the vocals with complimentary lines, double-stops and fills.
Chubby Wise

Next to join the band was a young singer/rhythm guitar player from Tennessee named Lester Flatt. Flatt was a good fit for the Bluegrass Boys gladly taking over the lead vocals after singing high tenor with Bill’s brother for a few years. With Monroe able to get his “high lonesome” tenor above Flatt’s high baritone, the group’s singing was indeed striking. They sounded like they were singing an octave higher than J. E. Mariner’s Mountaineers.  In the quartets, Flatt was a 2nd tenor to Monroe’s impossibly high 1st tenor, often at falsetto. The configuration of 1st tenor - 2nd tenor - baritone and at times adding a bass voice became a prerequisite for bluegrass bands. The guitar provided a primarily rhythmic function in hillbilly music of the time.  Flatt may have opened the door, however, to the solo flat-picking that became an integral part of bluegrass music with his famous “G-run” – an exciting musical phrase using 8th notes, chromatics and exaggerated accents: G-A-Bb-B-D-E-D-G.  Two years later in 1948, Jimmy Martin would replace Lester Flatt in The Bluegrass Boys carrying on the tradition of punctuating the music with Flatt’s famous “G-run” featured on songs like “Unlce Pen” written by Monroe and fiddler Merle “Red” Taylor. Bluegrass was hard driving string music reaching tempos that were faster than country or rock music could ever achieve and was quickly becoming a genre that was more suited to listening than to dancing.
Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs

In December of 1945, the “band to be listened to” put cash on the barrel head when a 21-year old 3-finger style, 5-string banjo virtuoso named Earl Scruggs came into the lineup - a young man who in the coming two decades would become the greatest bluegrass banjo player-composer to ever come along. The banjo had long been a key component of authentic American music tradition introduced by slaves in the 1600s and had become a common feature in Vaudeville and Minstrel shows in New York City – the forerunners of Broadway and “variety shows” on early television.  Joe Walker Sweeney of the Virginia Minstrels – the first white man to play banjo on stage (1830s) – is credited with developing the five-string banjo for those shows. 
Joe Walker Sweeney and the Virginia Minstrels
After the Civil War, black musicians formed minstrel shows of their own performing banjo and reclaiming their traditional instrument for a new music industry that included African Americans for the first time.  But it was Earl Scruggs’ distinctive playing of essentially this same instrument 100 years later using metal finger picks, a capo allowing him to play in most keys, a resonator, creative use of tuning pegs while playing and the most electrifying right-hand technique anyone had ever seen or heard, that elevated the banjo to new heights of artistry.  Scruggs’ banjo music was unprecedented and aided in establishing the banjo solidly as a necessary ingredient in the new bluegrass sound.

Howard Watts rounded out this 1945 super-star configuration of The Bluegrass Boys playing upright bass and providing an element common to musical show business at the time – clowning.  His onstage persona as “Cedric Rainwater” provided a dimension to their performances that was expected by audiences familiar with Vaudeville and Minstrel shows.  Indeed, clowns were even known to appear sometimes between movements of Beethoven’s symphonies in Vienna!
Monroe, Wise, Flatt and Scruggs

A new kind of country hillbilly music continued to develop into the 1960s without an official name.  The distinguishing characteristics of this new genre were vocals featuring extremely high harmony parts, short improvised solos or “breaks” between verses by each instrument, a hard driving rhythmic groove and incredibly fast tempos.  Even though much of the repertoire included old country songs, fiddle tunes, banjo breakdowns, gospel hymns, swing and boogie woogie, Monroe and other band members wrote many new songs and instrumentals to show off their incredible technique and new sound.  Orange Blossom Special – written by Chubby Wise and Irving T. Rouse – is perhaps the most famous fiddle breakdown associated with this new style. 

The 1945 Bluegrass Boys was truly a dream team of musical talent.  However, life on the road as a musician proved to be very difficult. Earl Scruggs decided to leave the band after two years to return to “an easier life” of working in the mills and caring for his ailing mother back home in North Carolina.  The Bluegrass Boys would continue to perform with different personnel. Some of the greatest bluegrass fiddlers - Vassar Clements, Kenny Baker, Bobby Hicks - drifted in and out of Monroe’s bands.  Many former “bluegrass boys” formed other groups or went on to solo careers.  Fairly quickly Scruggs teamed up with Lester Flatt and Paul Warren to become The Foggy Mountain Boys gaining national fame with a Martha White Flour sponsorship on the Grand Ol’ Opry, a national television theme song and appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies and the soundtrack for the Hollywood blockbuster Bonnie and Clyde. 
Flatt and Scruggs

The Foggy Mountain Boys became the most famous bluegrass band in the world but, wanting to avoid any reference to Monroe, they did not call their music “bluegrass.”  They were marketed as folk music taking advantage of the folk boom of the ‘60s.  They even downplayed the role of the mandolin in the band and introduced “Uncle” Josh Graves as the music’s first dobro player.  Monroe claimed that the dobro was not a bluegrass instrument and therefore disqualified Flatt & Scruggs from being a bluegrass band.  In one artistic response, Flatt & Scruggs changed the chord structure of the1946 tune Bluegrass Breakdown, kept the original melody and renamed it Foggy Mountain Breakdown for Warren Beatty’s Bonnie & Clyde.  Flatt & Scruggs remained together until the late 1960s when Scruggs wanted to follow Bob Dylan’s lead by “going electric” and perform with his three sons. Flatt was disenchanted by  the “folk scene” and wanted to remain a traditionalist playing country music with his Nashville Grass.

Ironically, Monroe did not fare as well commercially as many who had played with him for a short while.  The so-called bluegrass music itself was spreading slowly and in a very disorganized fashion.  The internal squabbles of the most prominent players did not go unnoticed and some felt the whole movement might come crashing down.  In 1965, a huge admirer of Monroe, Carlton Haney had an idea to put “bluegrass music” on the map for good.  Patterning his concept after the many folk festivals that had sprung up around the country and had included acts like Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and the successful and prolific Stanley Brothers (featuring a banjo player in Ralph Stanley that rivaled Scruggs), Haney produced the very first weekend-long bluegrass festival in Fincastle (Roanoke), Virginia.
First Bluegrass Festival in Virginia, 1965
 This “first” festival featured all of the first generation patriarchs of bluegrass: The Stanley Brothers, The Osborne Brothers, Don Reno, Red Smiley, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wisemen, Clyde Moody and Doc Watson.  Notably absent, however, were Flatt & Scruggs.  Naming the festival - and hence the music - “bluegrass” with its obvious connection to Bill Monroe’s band was a matter of some controversy.  However, all agreed that for the purpose of distinguishing it from the country music of Nashville and the folk music festivals with Dylan, Baez and Seeger, it was a good idea.  Given marketing and bottom line considerations, the various acts were concerned about the future of the music they all loved. 

Ironically, Monroe himself was not 100% behind the broader use of the term “bluegrass.” Monroe’s stubbornness was a trademark.  He felt that this music was his alone and wanted to maintain control of the term and of his music.  Haney and Monroe’s manager Ralph Rinzler convinced Monroe to let it go, arguing that the whole genre may not survive rock and roll, Nashville and the Folk music boom.

The Stanley Brothers were Melungeons
Mac Wiseman was a Melungeon
Jimmy Martin was a Melungeon
It has come to light recently that the vast majority of the people on that “first” festival’s roster who had worked with Monroe - in addition to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs themselves – were Melungeons,  a mulatto or mixed race people with part European, part Native American, part African American and perhaps Turkish and Mediterranean lineage. 
These Melungeons all came from a geographical area within a hundred mile radius bordering Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia – the center of that area being Bristol, TN where the Carter Family (also Melungeon) lived. 

Flatt and Scruggs took their band name from a famous Carter Family tune called Foggy Mountain Top.  Through their own DNA and cultural heritage, most all of the patriarchs of bluegrass represented all of the places in the world from which the roots of bluegrass music can be traced.  Bill Monroe’s hometown of Rosine, KY is not included in that geographical area however.  His 100% Scottish heritage, his geographical home, his drive and skill as a bandleader and his strong personality all contributed to Bill Monroe’s being seen as a task master, the boss man and “wheel hoss.”  Monroe provided opportunities for many musicians who would not otherwise have been able to play because of the racist atmosphere in the Jim Crow Era.  Further, no one disputed Monroe’s genius as a musician, songwriter, bandleader and entrepreneur.  His seniority and long-standing history with The Grand ‘Ol Opry counted for much among the musicians who had worked with him.  It is not surprising that Monroe felt that this music was “his.”

The 1965 Fincastle festival had the atmosphere of gathering “competing” bluegrass bands together on a single stage for a weekend. Yielding to Monroe as the headliner and joining him on stage in sequence of each player’s stint with The Bluegrass Boys, for a finale was something they could all live with if it secured the future of bluegrass music.  Nashville’s country music industry had kept all of them at arm’s length for the past two decades considering their music not commercially viable.   With the exception of the Grand ‘Ol Opry, bluegrass players and singers had been blacklisted from working in country music circles in Nashville.

It was also in 1965 than a fantastic young fiddler named Byron Berline first met Monroe at the Newport Folk Festival, the occasion where Bob Dylan infamously “went electric.”  Berline had played with The Dillards who were regulars on The Andy Griffith Show and had won the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest.  Berline was The Bluegrass Boys’ fiddler in 1967 when Monroe announced from the Grand ‘Ol Opry stage that from this point forward this music was to be known as “bluegrass music.”  That same year Monroe established his own bluegrass festival at Bean Blossom.  Berline played with Monroe for a scant 7 months before being drafted to serve in Vietnam.  During those few months, however, the young fiddle great and Monroe penned one of the classic bluegrass fiddle tunes of all time – Gold Rush. 
Byron Berline, Bill Monroe and Mark O'Connor

The discovery of gold in northern California in 1848 and the subsequent California Gold Rush brought over 300,000 people to the San Francisco area within just a few years.  People all over the world left their homes in search of riches and a better life – one of the versions of the American dream.  It is noteworthy that one of the signature tunes of the bluegrass music genre should be entitled Gold Rush.  The American characteristics of rugged individualism, aspiration, optimism and drive are all exhibited in these very separate human endeavors – the California Gold Rush and the invention of Bluegrass Music. One could add that all of these folks were moving just a couple of clicks faster than most too! 

-Mark O'Connor (2014)

Monday, April 14, 2014

What J. S. Bach “Intended?”

Another Look at the Allemande for Violin

The solo violin compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) are among the greatest contributions to musical literature ever written.  Regarded as the father of western harmony and counterpoint, Bach and his music – together with the stories of his own performances, improvisation and great violin playing – create an important artistic bridge of western European musical culture to the Americas.

For more than a century there has been conjecture concerning Bach's intentions for his solo violin music.  Many serious students of classical music take pride in using Bach’s bowings and articulation verbatim even though experts agree that the Baroque era was filled with improvising musicians and player-composers.  One could question whether Bach envisioned an entire population of future musicians discovering his music from the single handwritten manuscripts he left of each piece.  And further, one has to imagine if he could have foreseen the mass copying, engraving and publishing of his music not experienced in his lifetime.

It is at least possible, and maybe even likely, that Bach did not intend for anyone beyond himself to perform his solo violin works.  Scholars have speculated that a handful of Bach’s violin-playing colleagues may have performed his unaccompanied violin works but there is no record of it.  Also, Bach’s manuscripts suggest few fingerings in general.  His violin phrases could be naturally played on more than one area of the fingerboard.  If the music were intended primarily for himself, he would have remembered most of his favorite fingerings giving himself a little reminder here and there as he did occasionally.  Since fingerings determine which string is played on and where the bow needs to cross the strings, most bowings would likely follow any given fingerings.  Therefore Bach’s bowings can be considered both specific in some cases and general phrase markings in other cases.  Bowings in Bach’s day were freely interpreted on solo repertoire and the phrase markings could serve merely as general guides to a natural improviser.  Bach and composers from his era were composing in real time.  They prepared music for the week and most likely moved on to more music the next week.  The idea is substantiated by the stories of Bach’s wife using original manuscript of her husband’s to wrap fish in!  There was simply not much of a need to keep old music laying around.  Once it had already been performed for the Prince, it would be prudent to work up something new.

  [retraction in italics - can't be proven] It is significant that Bach did not include bowings or phrase markings for his equally towering unaccompanied cello suites.  Those works were not intended for himself to perform as his two principle instruments were the violin and organ. 

Students who have learned Bach’s solo violin music faithfully via modern mimeographs and academic editions may be in for a surprise.  Most of the well-known editions have altered what Bach actually wrote regarding bowings and articulations as well as the appearance and nature of the musical notation itself.  Consequently I have transcribed the Allemande as Bach wrote it for this book.  This transcription includes honors Bach’s concept of note beaming and also renders the ½ and ¼ measures at the beginnings and endings of some staff systems.  This replication also preserves Bach’s original bowings and articulation.  Of special note is a 16-note down-bow slur in the ninth measure.  This directive by Bach’s hand has been omitted in most subsequent editions.  It is clear that Bach wanted 16 notes slurred in one down-bow in that ninth measure because the bowing that follows works out correctly.  There is no need for bowing this passage in groups of eight notes and using hook bowings to make the bow distribution come out evenly as found in many endorsed and recommended editions of this piece.

In Bach’s time, vibrato was used as ornamentation if at all.  Continuous vibrato as a component of general tone production was a feature of the Romantic period and was not used by Bach.  However, Francesco Gemanani and Leopold Mozart – contemporary composers and teachers of Bach – stated in the early 1700s that they preferred some use of the vibrato in performance.  Also, the instruments were much different in Bach’s time.  If one wanted to interpret this music as Bach himself might have sounded, he would need to use a short-necked fiddle strung with sheep gut resting the instrument on his collarbone without a chinrest and would also need to use a bow that arched away from the bow hair. 

More confusion about authentic Bach centers around the belief that since many of Bach’s solo violin pieces have dance name titles, they must be music written for various dance genres.  There is no evidence, however, that Bach’s solo violin music was ever intended to accompany dancing.  There is no doubt, however, that this music was inspired by various popular dance genres of the day.  It is a testament to Bach’s progressivism that he brought this dance influenced music into very formal settings.  Because Bach’s virtuosic solo violin music was not intended for dancing it is not necessary to play it at steady dance tempos or at a single dynamic or devoid of soloistic liberties and dramatic rubatos. 

On the other hand, many modern violinists have performed the Allemande at half the tempo intended for that dance thereby masking the original mood and the spirit of the music as well as losing the integrity of Bach’s syncopated phrasing.  Bach composed many cantatas and much serious church music.  It is most probable that the dance-influenced solo violin music was intended as a contrast from this composer showing even more great variety and scope.  It is counterintuitive to perform these pieces without addressing at least the sprit of the dance contained in the musical phrasing.  An interesting point with regard to the particular dance here is that an allemande was a social dance involving couples.  One of the distinguishing characteristics is for the gentleman to turn his lady partner.  The term “allemande” was used for centuries in dance vocabulary all the way to the Americas in square dancing:  “allemand left, swing your partner, do-si-do.”  

Bach’s solo violin works were largely forgotten in the century after Bach’s death and rediscovered and popularized as recently as the 19th Century by the great violinist Joseph Joachim.  There is a distinct possibility that Joachim’s 1904 recording of some of the Bach pieces could have been considerably slower in tempo than he would have otherwise performed them as a younger musician.  Joachim was 75 years old in 1904 – quite old for that time.   However, Joachim’s slower tempos from the end of his lifetime may have unwittingly set an incorrect precedent for subsequent performances of these dance-inspired movements.

Perhaps the most telling indicator in the controversy of how to properly interpret Bach is the simple yet perhaps forbidding “repeat sign.”  It stands to reason that the very existence of repeat signs – rather than an expanded form including developed treatment of the music already presented by the composer himself  – suggests that the performer was expected to vary the music the second time around.  This practice has been handed down in the American tradition of performing music from this same time period – American fiddle tunes.  It stands to reason that Baroque era performers in America and Europe alike were expected to exhibit their creativity and theoretical knowledge during the repeats of the composed music.  Isn’t it interesting and indeed wonderful that it is the American fiddlers who may have more faithfully perpetuated this aspect of what Bach himself intended!

–Mark O’Connor (April, 2014)