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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Why We Might Have Preferred the Jimi Hendrix Violin Method?

Do overs for me are few... but if I could have waved the magic wand and had Jimi Hendrix pursue his interest in violin along with his guitar in the 1950s, (much like I did - violin & guitar) then his 'method' could have taken our country by storm sending Suzuki and his Japanese violin method packing before he got his corporate power structure going here in the early 1970s. In a year when my good friend Wynton Marsalis takes over as the director of the Jazz Department at Julliard, the violin department could have been full of great artists by now on the level of Ysaye, Kreisler, Sarasate etc. etc. but with American versions of those artists - people like Hendrix. Players who are not only the top technicians, but who could improvise, compose music, arrange tunes, lead bands/ensembles and bring new ideas to the violin, furthering the style, language, techniques and literature, completely ushering in American Classical and American arts music with its own cultural history and relevance. Wow...what a dream that would have been.

But instead we got Shinichi Suzuki who was not good enough to play professionally or even be admitted to the conservatory where he claimed he took private lessons from a well-known pedagogue. Yes, while Suzuki was failing his entrance exams into a Berlin conservatory for violin performance at age 25, Jimi by that age had already turned the world on! And what is the big news exactly in our classical violin era to this day? Well it is still hundreds of thousands of people arguing over what articulation to use on Bach pieces. Boy oh boy! Oh Jimi, we needed you...Yes we did. Some of you might say he is holding the violin wrong in the picture? 
He never did learn how to play it really but you can tell that he would have liked to. But I would take his bow arm position more than Suzuki’s with his "collapsed bow arm" approach any day! It is the truth... I actually have a picture of me playing with Chris Thile using that exact bow grip that Jimi has in the picture. Oh yes... sometimes a picture does not reveal all thousand words!

Jimi Hendrix playing violin
Mark O'Connor and Chris Thile

“Mark, the thing about the Suzuki Clan is they're all true believers. They don't want to be confused by the facts.” –Sam Li

Ha! Exactly. True Believers are residuals of the original cult, formed by teachers (mostly white women coming of age in the 1960s who wanted a cult leader more than a drug dealer) and were "instructed" to write biographies on him, full of information that only he would feed them with - no cross checking of facts and outside sources needed! This is how all of the American parents got to know him... ouch. FYI, these biographies were never marketed or sold in Japan... hmmm... does it feel like we keep getting hoodwinked in this country (U.S.). We are free - free people. Should we use our brains then?

“true, all true!!!!” –Mary Wright
“/applaud!” –Kelly Steele

From Phil Holland 

Ha! Thank you, thank you! Do you have anything with a person bowing in gratitude towards the camera, that could be so appropriate! Suzuki wanted all students in America to bow towards their teachers every lesson! Oh my - is it Imperial Japan???? And the answer is YES, it IS!

                                                       “Here's one” -Phil Holland 

Yeah! I think I could get that guy to write a biography on me! Thanks!
“In the Far East, bowing merely signifies a show of respect: for ones' parents, teachers, elders and mentors. IMO, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.” –Alan Oresky

In America there is something wrong with it. That is the point. We are not made to do that in the U.S., it is not our custom, and has NOTHING to do with playing classical music or the violin. It is rather an offshoot of his cultist demands to fraudulently put himself in some kind of power and control position like a cultist religious leader.

Perhaps if the students keep bowing to the violin teachers here, making them feel like some kind of "god" then the teachers will keep bowing to him, placing him as their quasi-divinity. He was quasi-religious in some of this. There is something VERY wrong with mixing that with our kids, and with the violin. Very wrong.

We are not forced to bow to anyone in this country in schools or in social situations. We don't have to bow to our President. There is no reason to bow to Suzuki. It is the opposite of what you said. There is everything wrong with it in the West. It should have never been done, not because bowing is a bad custom in the East, but that it covers up and supports the fraud of the man that is behind it.

“Mad respect for Hendrix too, but if J.S. Bach knew that his genius music was being used as standard technical exercises for violin students, he'd be rolling in his grave.” –Jack Bird

I agree. Actually Bach composed at a time where he did not believe that his music would be performed outside his friends circle and his church. It was not until Mozart that the concept of "repeat performances" entered into the equation for composers. He could not have imagined radio and records in the 20th century. I believe he did all the repeats to just fill up time necessary for the visiting dignitaries to the church and they demanded a newly written composition! By the time that everyone got done bowing to the royals, he had to repeat the music to make it stretch. This music was going to be heard only one time... like the perfect improvisation, so the repeat would not be detected by the Dukes in one listening!

In performances today, the problem is that we are so far removed from the original masterpieces from Bach's time that in the effort to be authentic to the composer, it got lost through so many generations with piece-mealing from teacher, to recording, to favorite violin star, to conservatory, to agent to manager to coach, to conductor, to 2nd conductor to - doubt - to no original idea from the player whatsoever. After several generations of this process now, we are at the point where there is little insight in how to be authentic to themselves... and of course when they try, it comes out clumsy, not artistic and are clueless to what being a great musician meant.

What a racket. Really! It is a good way to snatch about $400,000 out of some parents over a 20 year period! You heard it here first... the bubble will be bursting here pretty soon! Time to nurture A New American School of String Playing and fast! If we do it fast, we can slip in and save the conservatory slots for violin. If we mess up and let it peter out, and the culture changes without a great replacement... then it may all disappear. It has already started to erode at the University level. Symphony Orchestra is disappearing before our very eyes even in the richest public school districts in the country, Almost gone. The violin could lose relevancy in every genre including pop, academic and orchestral music culture very soon here. Suzuki did nothing to turn it around. He only reversed the course of the violin and went the wrong direction - doubling down on all technical training and all Baroque music for a decade in a child's life. His only "innovation" was claiming that 3 year-olds can learn to be a better violinist than an 8 year-old, and that is patently FALSE. It was a fraud. I was 11 when I began the violin. His innovation only padded his Suzuki Violin Factory with more money by selling baby violins and selling full size violins to the parents insisting they had to learn too because their kid is only THREE! Can you believe it, really! It was a racket.

I really want teachers to NOT teach my method with Suzuki style teaching, it just pollutes it down. Suzuki is a reducer, and the American system is an augmenting experience. Get the kids going in a holistic approach in the O'Connor Method - allow them to enjoy their materials without dreading awful music in the Suzuki books that has little relevance today. Then after several books, if the child wants to join orchestra permanently, let them go that direction - great. But at least they will have options. Suzuki style players that turned into fiddlers to escape Suzuki, or used as a way for Suzuki teachers to retain their students interest, will not help us either because that is no method – it is an accident. The only thing maybe worse than Suzuki butchering Vivaldi, is Suzuki butchering American fiddling of which he had absolutely no care for. We have to learn how to produce artists, and that is what I have done with the Method. First and foremost, the materials have to be beautiful and classic, and secondly we need to do without all of this Suzuki, memorization drills, repeat and mimic. Students can find and must find their own voice early on... to mimic is easy. They will do it without you insisting. Efforts must be in other places besides the "do what I do all the time because I am right approach" with kids. With the American materials, they can develop great technique, flourish and think outside the box all at the same time. With Suzuki materials they cannot, it is closed off. It only represents what Suzuki himself could accomplish as a musician. He wrote what he knew about, simply put - and that wasn't much.

“Jimi would have eventually set his violin on fire...but seriously, Mark, why give Suzuki such a bad rap? Personally, I think that he made history and did an immeasurable amount to promote string playing and instrumental music education throughout the world...just my opinion.” –Alan Oresky

He has nearly ruined the violin - and if we stay with him, the classical violinist as we know it will go down to the ground in my opinion. Before him, violin was respected in all aspects of our culture. Now we have tiger moms and people out of the Suzuki system with no original ideas in music. As technicians, they still aren't as good as the generation before Suzuki - Perlman, Heifetz etc. But in the tradeoff, we lost all of the originality and creativity those giant artists had. In short U.S. and Classical music loses and Suzuki Violin sales won.

It is my findings that there are more people who quit the violin, and made to hate the violin than the ones who found a way to succeed in Suzuki’s regimented method. With that kind of attrition rate, it is horrific. Suzuki was not able to teach musicians to play music socially nor professionally, nor be a creative artist. Anyone who succeeded in that method had a huge intervention in their life and in their music in order to rattle them out of their years of Suzuki. Some got through, and many did not. Of the ones who got through, there are hardly any top classical soloists in that statistic, no player-composers, no artists. It was a real shame. And really, shame on us - shame on me too. I supported it early on by signing up two of my kids in it. And also held my nose after they both quit and looked the other way for a few years. Not any longer my friend.

“IMO, memorization ENCOURAGES spontaneity...If one is not tied down to the printed page, one is free to express oneself and uniquely interpret the music...The right amount of memorization can actually encourage interaction between the musicians. If one is (partially) occupied with instantaneously reproducing whatever is on the printed page, little brainpower can be freed up for creativity...No wonder so many "traditionally" trained classical players cannot improvise and have no idea of how to approach improvisation. It is very difficult to change one's mindset once certain disciplines have taken hold. There should be a balance of things that good musicians glean from various methods and incorporate into their own personal style...again, just my opinion, based on much personal experience.” –Alan Oresky

Alan Oresky, I know you are trying, but misfiring on Suzuki. Memorization does not ENCOURAGE spontaneity. You have it backwards my friend. All you have to do in order to prove my point is to go up to any fully Suzuki trained violinist in an orchestra - the ones who have had this "memorization training” and ask them to play something spontaneous... What you will get is a blank stare.

The misinformation is rather large there Alan. I have vetted thousands of Suzuki students. I should know! And I play spontaneously and know how to do it. And I can read music as well. And write music. Suzuki could not on any of it. Did you check out Jingle Bells in 2 different places on the tape, he tried to play spontaneously - he could not do it. Failed, just like his entrance exam to the music school.
 [Shinichi Suzuki gives seminar to violin teachers and attempts Jingle Bells twice]

Memorization is a Suzuki term when it comes to violin lessons. Everyone can memorize stuff. An imbecile can remember all kinds of things. Actually the memory is the easiest part. For kids it is not even necessary to get that far into. They will remember the little tunes in time. Believe me, by the time they will even be ready to explore spontaneous and improvisational playing, they will have long remembered Boil 'em Cabbage Down, When the Saints, Old Joe, Boogie Woogie and the rest. There are few guarantees in life, but on this I can promise you. They will remember it, with very little coaxing from the teacher. This news is good! Now we can free up some space for other musical activities! The act of learning “memorization” is not necessary. The kids will just do it when the group classes get together or at the summer camps... Easy - the easiest part of the whole thing.

I should qualify this, I am referring to memorizing tunes from the O'Connor Method. What Suzuki asks you to do is to memorize one boring étude from 250 years ago after another followed by less than great Baroque music originally written for piano and meanders around without a robust phrase structure etc... No, I could not even remember that stuff. And I have talent!

Students, especially young students do not know their own goals yet. I don't think that mixing and matching methodologies is good at all. Actually John Kendall who was Suzuki's right hand man agrees with me. You should teach one approach for kids because they will get confused and overwhelmed. There is a natural sequence that I have authored that is far better than Suzuki since he did not address American music, creativity, theory, improvisation, jazz, fiddling - heck he didn't even address classical music! He stopped right when it got going (a Mozart concerto) Now, even if you wanted to play Brahms, you would have to retrain out of Suzuki. It is just a bad method, did not add anything, and in the end, it represents hugely diminished returns. I am glad you are on my side on this! We really need to move on, and try to put some points on the board. See Kendall's interview. He never admits that even taught Suzuki - certainly did not teach it at the time of this video!  [John Kendall, the "Evangelist" for the Suzuki Method and the association's first President in U.S.]

 “Great article on your blog. Just shared it. My wife and I are both "conservatory trained" trumpeters. Eastman, CIM, Yale and Northwestern. We want to encourage our four year old daughter to explore her creativity with the violin. Great food to chew on. Thanks for that. BTW I heard you perform in Baltimore once when I was there on tour in the Air Force band. 1997. I'll never forget it. Love your Appalachian Journey album!” –Phil Holland

Just for the fact that you are a trumpeter and in the band.... way more creative than any Suzuki violin student could ever be as the "eye on the prize" is right in the middle of that orchestra section. Unison all the way baby! Thanks for writing and providing the various forms of “applause!” And we want your girl to take from my Method. Audiences and students want authenticity. But at the very least some balance between originality and Memorex!
“I began playing the violin when I was 11 and after two years my mom signed me up for lessons. I was so excited and could not wait! And then I was introduced to my teacher and the Suzuki method. My teacher constantly paraded her 5 and 6 yr old and continuously told me how much better her kids were than I was ever going to be because I refused to learn the songs and the method. I would cry before every lesson but I never gave up and I am glad I made it through. Even though I began playing at what some consider a late age, my family and my orchestra director encouraged me to never give up! Love your post! So so true!” –Heather Pamela Nielson-Corbett

About that teacher of yours who bragged, showed off and made you feel like nothing --- it would ALWAYS be nice to ask them about their own Suzuki training. Ask them if their own Suzuki training helped them get to Carnegie Hall? Or a record deal? Or on radio and television? Or to be invited to solo with a great orchestra? Or to be invited to appear on stage with great musicians in a chamber group, or to read some duos with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman? Wouldn't it be great if we were just armed with the information that I have here, to just toss it back in their face once in a while after all of the abuse they have given us. Teachers should know better. It is all about the kids, not about teachers. Suzuki making kids bow to average run of the mill teachers - was not correct.

“It's fascinating- as an Irish fiddler I've rubbed up against many classical violinists who simply do not know what to do if the music is taken from them...unable to understand any articulation but that which may be written...seriously limiting in terms of musicianship.” –Matt Early

In my approach, people will be able to both read and play by ear - I do and it has been just right. Would not have it any other way. We need to get past the this or that stuff - it needs to be about the 21st century musician who can navigate in the music scene.

“I'm a guitar player and a big fan Mark . I think what your doing for violin is completely epic and you have accomplished so much already .Just amazing !” –Jeff Dillenbeck

And we are just getting started. Before I depart this Earth, I want to leave the environment with a healthy violin culture - players who can read and write. (seems simple doesn't it) And listen, and improvise, and feel rhythm and play in ensembles, and have an original idea. But largely, we are illiterate. They wanted us to play Mozart perfectly - just like Hilary and Midori can - but at what expense? Not very many of us will ever play a concert without a mistake. But that is not the only sign of a great musician. Actually, it might not be any sign whatsoever of a great musician.

“His [Suzuki’s] influence may not be as far reaching as his books/repertoire selection. A few of the teachers I had just used his books, not his methods.” –Judy Wu

He doesn't have repertoire! You can get any of that stuff free from the Baroque composers sheet music. Suzuki didn't own that, they are just pieces that have been around for hundreds of years. He didn't arrange them. It's time to loose the Suzuki name, we just don't need it. If you want to play a Vivaldi piece, just get another edition.

On this video posted here, we can see why we don’t need to keep his name synonymous with the violin anymore. It is a disgrace. Besides Suzuki acting out like a monkey, he's got string tied around that little girl's arms to make her bow arm collapsed. (take a look around on the internet and let me know if you see Perlman, Grappelli, Heifetz, Kenny Baker, me or anybody of note play with a collapsed arm). Then he sticks his big finger in her face and holds it on her violin, sort of getting off on it that I can see. What a nightmare. And we bow down to this guy? Nope, Not anymore. We exposed him as a fraud, he lied about his entire list of credentials and actually never took any violin lessons of note like he claimed. He pulled one over on us boys and girls. Let's get the New American School of String Playing going. Finally!
“It would be impossible to have any power on the G string with such a collapsed bow arm. I don't understand how Suzuki could teach that, or why Suzuki teachers would accept such bowing technique.” -Catherin Rose

And why did we accept his insistence that 3 year-olds had any more of an advantage at playing violin than starting at 7 like he declared? And on and on it goes. He was a fraud and made it all up - all up. His approach with young children on the violin run counter to every academic study on early childhood education published. He was just selling some swamp land. He did not offer anything of his own that was of merit, and even worse, he hurt the violin culture immeasurably. He had no knowledge as to what it takes to be a musical artist. He did not know how to play the violin basically. He was a hack - and the violin equivalent of a used car salesman.

“What foolish-looking behavior {in the Suzuki video}.” –Hans Klein

Yes, it is the worst that I have ever seen from a known figure - that is for certain. I have seen plenty of the same from Suzuki's underlings. But this is an incredible low. I have inside information from former insiders that he was basically "an idiot." ("a stupid person," "helpless") faked his PhD so his behavior would be construed as eccentrically brilliant. Couldn’t understand English well so he acted confused when questions were asked of him over here by teachers…Man oh man...

“So glad this fraud is exposed, can't believe how many folks thought his poo didn't stink!!! I have several books by him and kept thinking, huh???” –Cillie Louise Steinwand Murphy

“It is ridiculous isn't it...time for everyone to wake up!” –Libuse Young

I know - WAKE UP! What is the problem? Just the cultist mentality continues? Its all about a measly method book for goodness sakes! Something he spent very little time on - as he didn't write hardly any of the materials OMG. Whereas I am spending 10 years authoring mine. I am authoring the materials!

“Yes. It's seems people are afraid to jump ship but what is there to loose? There certainly is a lot to gain. ( I might have a nightmare after watching that video Mark! Ugh. Takes helicopter 'parent' to a whole new level!!).” –Helen Grice Russo

Yes, someone contacted me about their looking into possible child abuse on those tours of his with the dozen 8 and 10 year-olds from Japan. Evidently he did not have the parents come with them on those 30-city tours to hock his Method to Americans. What can one say...

“Boil 'em Cabbage Down is a great first tune and all my students love it. It also impresses parents when their kids learn it so quickly and then dress it up!” –Liberty Rucker

“I am adult student of violin and working through your book 1. I feel like I can actually play something from your method. Thank you.” –Alecia Fair

Yaaaay! Those are the results we want to hear! Enjoyment, enrichment, fulfillment - and early results...just think about the kids getting all of that too. A revolution in violin training I would say. The American School.

“…something truly needs to be done "for the kids." I have examined over 40,000 patients in my time and wouldn’t need more than 2 hands to count the number of times a patient-child or adult- listed an interest or actual musical skill in one of the violin family of instruments. Either your method turns the tide back to strings interest and education, or the entire scene-for kids AND adults- might continue to dry up and disappear. The kids need to play to enhance their academic achievements as well as develop the sense of joy and satisfaction with playing a musical instrument well. And with so many things that take up their time and attention, they need an interesting and fun method that engages their interest immediately. I took my own daughter to quasi-suzuki-classical violin lessons for 5 years (this was right before the MOC method appeared). And of course, there is no strings program at her school. She grew to hate the whole thing regardless of what her teacher and I tried to do-and she truly had talent, it came very easy to her. To this day, she refuses to play her violin. What a shame. Simply no interest. Had she started on the MOC Method, I really believe her interest may have been maintained.” –James Dinnebeck

Or we could have had the Jimi Hendrix Violin Program… our generation’s Paganini. What if he was not discouraged away from the violin when he was a child as many African Americans were during those times? To see that picture of him with a violin gives me chills thinking about it. What if he was allowed to be an individual on the violin by his school teachers or music teachers, rather than to spend years worried about the correct articulations for Mozart pieces? Everyone has heard what he did with The Star Spangled Banner. What could he have done with Bach’s Chaconne and Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, let alone bring in Americana music in all of its glory to the violin, front and center. The 1950s and 60s was a time where our violin culture said we don’t want you to the right people and we want you to the wrong people. The 1950s and 60s was a time where our violin culture took a major wrong turn.

-Mark O’Connor


  1. I was reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell today and it made me think of this topic, especially about bowing before the teacher. That is a very Japanese cultural thing, but it is also very contrary to the US. Gladwell discusses the cultural dimensions defined by Geert Hofstede and the consequences of the communication differences in things such as airplane crashes. By Hofstede's scales, the USA is the most individualistic nation on earth. Japan is far more conformist. How such a method took control in the US is rather surprising to me when I read about the general cultural differences. What's more, the fact that this teaching method is far more popular here in the US than it is in Japan is really puzzling.

    Parents may like it because it's easy to find a teacher and it gives them very clear rules to follow, but because the kids are ultimately rooted in this culture, too many don't manage the conformity well. Those that do are usually the very quiet, compliant little kids, often (though not always) the girls, or children with a heritage from a more conformist society. Wild little boys and all strong-willed children don't last, despite the violin being a wonderful way for such children to funnel their creative energies.

  2. Mark, I am so glad you are standing up to this atrocious "method"; I salute you! I've been trashing him for years and trying to grab kids stuck in it and play around with them to loosen them up. -I had totally forgotten about the "bowing" part. It is a TOTAL cult. In Stevens Point, he had his inner circle, and the Moms would all get excited and braid our hair too tightly. The kids in the workshops were not spontaneous or fun, they COMPETED with EACH OTHER. Why - because it was a bogus hierarchy built on extrinsic motivation i.e. fear of failure and hope of adulation designed to create new Suzuki Teachers - not musicians (-Typical pyramid scheme using CHILDREN!). Bogus! I'm so glad I knew it was BS and kept on going and learning on my own. I feel pretty good about my playing now, but man oh man do I lament the wasted time with Suzuki! I think I would have been better off if someone would've given me the darn fiddle and some records and told me to figure it out on my own. I love your method. -Read the first 3 books today! Thanks for everything, Maggie (PS - The "Jingle Bells" video is HILARIOUS!)

  3. Mark - You triggered memories of my first time on stage with my friend, the late Bo Diddley. We were pleasantly surprised at how well we blended, and he confided: "People think I play by ear, Hell, I play by what's between my ears..."

  4. Oh my. That Jingle Bells attempt! I mean... I'll give him that it's not from his culture per se. But given how many times he had played that same note in a row, to miss the other beginning pitches of such a simple melody is inexcusable for a teacher of music.

    1. Funny, I never heard my "guru" play in all that time! I had jingle bells figured out when I was 4! -Maggie

  5. While we’re dissecting what is off the mark with the Suzuki method and violin pedagogy in general, is it appropriate to pull this conversation in the direction of taking a look at the violin teachers themselves? In my experience, most do not even go into teaching out of a desire to share their love of the instrument and mastery of it with aspiring young musicians, but rather as the default way of earning income to supplement low-paid orchestra jobs and freelance work, if they are even professional-level players in the first place, or just as a way to earn a living, period, because several that I have met have never even had a professional performance career at all, and in fact, can barely even play their instruments! The bar needs to be set higher for qualification of teachers.

    I emphatically agree that the traditional approach to violin pedagogy is NOT producing *artists*, i.e., inspired, creative musicians who as you so aptly put it, could “bring new ideas to the violin, furthering the style, language, techniques and literature, completely ushering in American Classical and American arts music with its own cultural history and relevance” (and the Suzuki method is far worse still) because again as you put it, the essence of what is being taught “got lost through so many generations with piecemealing from teacher to recording to favorite violin star to conservatory, to agent to manager to coach, to conductor, to 2nd - doubt - to no original idea from the player whatsoever”. So what about the students? Why would anyone be inspired to want to learn to play the violin, especially now that it has lost its place in our culture so there is no longer any social context for it? How will today’s kids discover what a wonderfully expressive, versatile instrument it is, and want to be able to play it and use it as an outlet for their own creativity?

    In my few exposures to “full-on Suzuki”, I was taken aback at the unison playing, as opposed to ensemble playing. I thought it was weird and unnatural, particularly when seeing students performing in recitals with their teacher playing (poorly) in unison along with them. I also remember my teachers (from the one music pedagogy course I had to take to complete my performance degree) hawking the Suzuki method as a guaranteed source of sustainable employment for I forget what reason...because it is/was so well organised and the only game in town??

    You are entirely correct that we need a systematic, relevant, *REAL* Method or approach to teaching the violin that engages and motivates the students while preparing them to be able to use the instrument within the current musical world, whether just for fun or professionally, and not only in a highly rarefied corner of it that has extremely few and ever-diminishing job openings! Could this be a “call to arms” for the violin pedagogy community to stop “sitting around arguing over the correct articulation for playing Bach”, and start a public education campaign to raise awareness of WHY one should want to learn to play the violin (hint: the answer is NOT so they can be a Suzuki teacher when they grow up!), and what qualifications to look for in a teacher as well as the method of instruction before string programs completely disappear from school systems nationwide, hopefully in time to save our instrument from its tragic and unnecessary trajectory toward the dustbin of music history?

    Sorry for the long-winded rant. This discussion has really hit a nerve with me!

    -Brenda K