My method for string playing, the O’Connor Method, is distinguished from the Suzuki Method in a couple key ways: It uses American repertoire (folk songs, classics, blues, jazz, spirituals, ragtime, American classical, fiddling etc…), and it encourages students to develop creativity and learn how to improvise while they acquire technique. Over the last couple years, it has generated quite the debate in the Suzuki world, as you can imagine.
Naturally, I was taken aback when I read the latest issue of the American Suzuki Journal.
In an article entitled “Suzuki and Fiddling – A Natural Combination”, Amy Matherly explains that fiddling reinforces “technique, builds rhythmic skills, and expands knowledge of music theory.” She proceeds to mention three of the foundational pieces in my ‘O’Connor Method’ (though she does not reference me). “‘Boil Them Cabbage’ works well after the Twinkle Variations have been learned…‘Old Joe Clark’ is a good tune to introduce before, or along with, Etude,” she writes. Moreover, she believes Book II students should love the tune “Devil’s Dream” (which I rename “Fiddler’s Dream” in my Method).
Hold on a second.
Unlike the pieces in the Suzuki Method books, “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down”, “Old Joe Clark”, and “Fiddler’s [Devil’s] Dream” are not tunes one learns just note for note. Like many other foundational American fiddle tunes, they can have countless variations, and it is part of fiddling tradition to encourage students to combine elements of these variations in different ways each time they play them. In other words, students are encouraged to make these tunes their own.
Matherly’s article is both ironic and telling because, in the last half-century, the prevalence of player-composers, improvisers, arrangers, and bandleaders – the types of creative musicians that my Method aims to develop – among classical violinists has been weak. After conducting considerable research, teaching and speaking with thousands of students and professionals, I have come to attribute this unfortunate circumstance to the ubiquity of the Suzuki Method itself being the most dominant method for learning strings by far, and which is focused intently on technical development for violin pedagogy, not on creative development.
Take Shin’ichi Suzuki’s historic visit to the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point, WI in 1976, for instance. There, Suzuki delivered a series of lectures and demonstrations, all of which were filmed. Here is a list of the main topics he covered:
- Bowing techniques
- Changing strings
- Finger flexibility and thumb power
- Musical tempo
- Posture and left hand techniques
- Vertical power
- Posture and bowing techniques
- Basic skills and concepts of teaching violin
- The mother tongue method
- Tonalization and bowing techniques
- Tonalization, tempo training
I’ve reviewed the films. There is no discussion anywhere of creativity, improvisation, composition, or arranging music. No inclusion of American music. (The “mother tongue method” is about learning by listening and imitating, not about being creative). If you adhered to all of Shin’ichi Suzuki’s advice as you learn “Old Joe Clark”, you’d still be a long way from truly learning it.
Now that my Method has attained a higher level of visibility in the last couple of years, is Suzuki beginning to realize the importance of some of the concepts from my Method; “American music” and “creativity?” Is Matherly an anomaly at the American Suzuki Journal, or is my perspective on string education really beginning to penetrate the circles of staunch Suzuki advocates?
The well-known string trio Time For Three is an interesting ensemble with regards to these questions. In the same issue of the American Suzuki Journal, the cover story is on Nick Kendall, one of Time For Three’s founding members. (Nick was a member of the chamber orchestra that toured with me across the country as I performed my American Seasons concerto. He (and the other two musicians) modeled Time For Three on my Appalachia Waltz Trio with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, and about a decade ago, I spent roughly 10 hours with him and the other members of the group, advising them on how to emulate my career, per their request. He and one other member of the trio also taught at my String Camp around that same time.) In the recent interview, Nick starts off by setting the stage, so to speak, for a change in the way classical violin is taught:
“I think over the last ten years, at least in the classical music world, there's been a kind of a major shift in attitude. I think especially because of the rich American heritage music that we have….improvising was a part of what I loved to do as a kid – playing in bands and all these varying forms of musical expression. So, when we were at Curtis, it was still a very new thing...even though there was an awareness of it as a tradition, we didn't know exactly how that all fit in…we've actually seen how a couple…students who were avid fiddlers in their small towns are now getting into Curtis as classical musicians, but started as fiddlers. So, it's a shift, and a very steady one.” –Nick Kendall
“I was very good with my ear always, and so obviously the Suzuki method just completely enhanced my inner creativity and provoked me to think outside the box…It's the fact that through the Suzuki Method and through the philosophy Suzuki had, it's okay to have fun while playing – in fact, it's a must, it's encouraged, is the sole reason why Time for Three plays, it's the sole reason why we're able to communicate with such abroad audience, most of which don't go to classical music concerts, and why we are able to do such creative programs.” –Nick Kendall
Nick’s creativity was sparked by Suzuki? In all the Suzuki classes and lectures on film, thinking outside the box creativity and improvisation has never been a matter of concern. There are a lot of influences from American music in Nick’s Time For Three string trio.
Nick’s experience does not seem to align with that of Zachary DePue, the other violinist in Time For Three. Here is an excerpt from a 2007 interview he held with Violinist.com:
Caeli [interviewer]: Did all four of you [DePue brothers] share a teacher?
Zach: No, our dad was very careful to pick the right teacher personality for each boy. I started out in the Suzuki studio of Grace Baker. Then after a year I moved to the private studio of Vasile Beluska, a professor at Bowling Green State who's originally from Romania.
Caeli: You four were all trained in the classical tradition. When did you get into fiddling?
If, as Nick claims, Time For Three can attribute their very existence to the Suzuki Method, then I would be curious to know why Zach lasted just a year with the Suzuki Method at age 5.
Zach’s brother, Alex – an accomplished violinist who also improvises, composes/arranges, and leads ensembles in his own right – has more to say on the matter. In an email exchange dated May 11, 2012, he wrote:
"My teacher did use the Suzuki MATERIAL but he was such a GREAT teacher that the Suzuki “method”, as we know it, was ignored for the most part…I began private lessons at age five and was never involved with anything like Suzuki master-class-ish situations. If you're building robots, I'm sure that “method” works just fine. As a matter of fact, we already know it works…but no, not for me…I'll never forget that feeling of “graduation” when I began to work on the Bach A minor and moved away from the Suzuki material." -Alex DePue
I’d like to call this a bit of a conundrum. Closely associated musicians with analogous careers have such disparate perspectives on the creativity inherent in the Suzuki Method. It is apparent though, that the latest Suzuki Journal issue indicates they are now ready to embrace the very principles and concepts I have been talking about the last three years to teachers, students, schools and the press regarding the contents of the O’Connor Method. As one representative of a major retailer carrying the Suzuki Method wrote to me after reading the new articles in their Journal, “It’s extremely interesting and quite amazing…they can’t ignore your teachings. Sort of an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach.”