O’Connor vs. Suzuki
Oh, I hate that it has to be “vs.” I’ve been following this debate since last year. Due to the recent resurgence of awareness with the national and international media articles being shared on facebook, I’ve had friends sharing these articles with not nice things to say. I can’t sleep until I speak my piece.
I’m a rare person in that…I’m one of the rare ones that can speak to being on both “sides”. I’m simply writing from my OWN experiences in hopes that someone might even consider another idea. First: a background on me. I started violin at age 9 in the public schools. My impression of “the Suzuki method” was this: I knew a handful of kids (and later, my best friend in college) in youth orchestra that could play the crap out of a concerto, but had to sit in the back of orchestra because they couldn’t read. I was told “Suzuki kids” started playing at age 3 and reading in book 4. I happened to have an amazing public school orchestra director. I ended up taking private lessons in the last half of high school. I had to pay for them myself. I took them for granted. But I played in youth symphony, was first chair my senior year at school (in part because some kids left for another school) and a pops orchestra. I made All-State all 3 years. (Boy, has the caliber of playing skyrocketed in Omaha in the last 20 years… There are seriously some AMAZING teachers and opportunities now). Anyway, I should also say that the summer after 9th grade I took some fiddling lessons and LOVED it. We used a book for the most part, but I can still rock Orange Blossom Special I learned by ear. :-)
I got a BM in Music Ed and thanks to an amazing violin teacher, decided to pursue my MM in Pedagogy. This was the first time in my career I felt torn between two worlds. I had been raised in the public school system, and after my original intention to “give back” by coming back as a public school teacher–I changed my mind. Couldn’t do it. The system was broken. And rather than staying to make a change, I left for something I felt was better. More importantly, after teaching lessons to 20+ students per week during college, I felt like I was just starting to get the hang of it. I wanted a methodology. Pedagogy.
The Pedagogy degree changed my playing and my life. It was the right choice for me. We studied a combination of Suzuki, Rolland and Zweig. I liked it. There was no judgement. The String Academy of Wisconsin used the Suzuki compilations of music, but taught note reading and taught the pieces with the Zweig ideology and the Rolland ideas of movement. The kids could play better than I had EVER seen: both technically and musically. They played in groups and orchestras. It was a well-rounded education. Knowing the hows and the whys of playing was thrilling for me. I came back to Omaha rearing to go–a better player and teacher. I worked at a bank and taught in a music store basement until landing my current (and DREAM) job at the Omaha Conservatory of Music in 2004.
OCM was set up as a “Suzuki” school at the time. In the summer of 2005, a “hard-core” Suzuki teacher left and I took over some of her students. (She wasn’t the only “hard-core” one–and I call them that because they didn’t just use the books, but had done the training and fit the stereotype…) The students I inherited from two teachers left me dumbfounded. They couldn’t read. I literally had to spoon-feed them the new piece: note. by. note. It was excruciating for us both. I saw many of the students quit over time. The ones I had inherited struggled because they’d been used to something so different. I specifically remember a lesson where I wanted to move to another piece and the girl told me, “But, I can’t. It’s not perfect yet.” Cue my broken heart… I know the 2 Suzuki teachers I’m thinking of were just doing what they knew best at the time, but it’s NOT the best.
Now… this article is not to bash anyone. I’m a Christian. I’m a yoga teacher. I’m a Libra. I like love and peace and balance. This was all just background to show what I knew at the time. A new director came to OCM. (Thank God…) She had studied with John Kendall and spoke of him very highly. Ruth’s students were and still are some of the best in the state. In the country, actually. They sit in the front of the youth orchestras and win competitions. They can read. And play with soul. So that’s why when she suggested I do some Suzuki training, I listened. In all honesty, I didn’t want to other than someone I admire suggested it. I thought, “what could I possibly learn from a book 1 class?” At the time, I was thinking of relocating, so I thought at the very least it’d build my resume. She gave me the name–Susan Kempter. I was off to Suzuki camp in Ottawa, Kansas.
The sour-tasting stereotype of Suzuki was blown away. I had the chance to observe most, if not all of the violin teachers at this particular camp. And most of them were fantastic. A couple trended toward the “old-school” stereotype Suzuki ways. Susan Kempter turned out to be one of the top influences of my life. How this woman ended up at Suzuki camp, I don’t know, but thank God I found her. It doesn’t matter if she was teaching Suzuki or something she found in the trash. She and her ideas changed my playing and my teaching for EVER. I could write an entire article about just that. I came back to camp the next 3 summers to study with her. I have my training in Suzuki books 1-4. I had an exceptional experience there with Susan. And this is why if I could sum up my stance in one sentence it would be… IT ALL JUST DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER.
Around this time I took a symphony audition that was disheartening to say the least. I did my best, but I wasn’t THE best. I had shed blood, sweat and tears preparing excerpts to someone else’s idea of perfection. And for what? (An article opportunity about orchestra auditions for another time…) For the first time in my life, I considered quitting violin. But fate intervened yet again and I found myself in San Diego at fiddle camp. Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp.
You guys…It SAVED me. I showed up thinking since I played through a fiddle book in 9th grade, I knew how to fiddle. HA! I was moved to tears over and over again. The first time in frustration because when I showed up to my first advanced class it was all by ear and the 12 year olds were kicking my ass. :-) I caught on quickly. There was bluegrass, jazz, klezmer, rock, classical, irish, old-time, Texas style…everything. And I loved it all. I was THIRSTING for this. To BUST OUT of the box. Let me tell you with no uncertainty: the faculty concerts were the best violin playing I’ve ever heard. Mark O’Connor himself can play ANYTHING on the violin. The musicians I met here were the best. They KNEW their instrument better than I did. The improvising. The JOY. Oh…. It brings me to tears just thinking about that first time. I had been suffering from trying to perfect something on a page. Being told how exactly to play something. That I wasn’t good enough. And at fiddle camp…everyone was family. Everyone was welcome. When I heard the music…All I can say is it resonated with my soul. THIS WAS MY MUSIC. I went back the next year.
So early 2009 I went through a divorce and I couldn’t afford to go back a 3rd year. But Mark personally messaged me and told me that his method was coming out and he’d scholarship my camp tuition if I went through the books I/II teacher training in NYC. So I agreed. I stayed in a friend’s 5th floor non-air conditioned apartment. There were about 30 of us in that first class. The teacher was a pedagogue and a 30 year Suzuki vet. Pam had jumped ship to join this cause. It wasn’t hard to see why. Mark didn’t teach the class, but he stopped by to speak a couple of times. The music is fun. It’s American. It’s OURS. It tells our history. It’s pedagogically sound. It can stand alone. He put so much thought and research and care into every marking on every page. The enclosed recordings are attainable!!! The books are beautiful. I still got the afternoons off to attend camp. I learned how to “chop” that summer :-) I didn’t get to say more than “hi and thanks” to O’Connor. But I knew I’d be a part of this method for a long time. I still fantasize about going around the country to do teacher trainings one day… (hint-hint).
So, that’s my (long) background–Now, about the debate. I read all the blog and the facebook rants MOC posted last year. Let me tell you…I felt heartbroken and torn. I didn’t want to choose a side. Again, I like peace and balance! I’m not typically a big fan of change. I like the comfort zone. I argued that IT DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER. Mark is one of my true heroes. But the way he was speaking was so sad to me. This is not to be confused with what he was saying–It blew my mind. At first I couldn’t believe the things he was saying about “Dr.” Suzuki. But I saw all the care and research he put into writing his books. And into his camp. And into his playing. And I thought…maybe he’s right. It’s a hard pill to swallow, folks. But ask yourself, honestly…could it be true? Was Suzuki a fraud? There’s research there. Proof. To ignore it isn’t the right answer. I encourage you to read some of the research (links below). I know people who met Suzuki and loved the man. But you have to admit, some people are “cultish” about the guy. I hate the connotation of the word cult, but it seems appropriate. Mark may have been nasty in his battle, but if you actually do the research, some people on the Suzuki “side” started it.
We all have skeletons in our closet. If Suzuki himself was a fraud, does that discount all the lives that were affected? I don’t think it has to. I know many people had a great experience. I think the reason it’s all so painful is that it did change string teaching in the US. For 50 years, that’s really all we had. I guess for me, it’s always just been a collection of music. The ideas that all children can learn and let’s all make better people… nice ideas. But not enough. When people ask me if I’m a Suzuki teacher…I’ve always struggled with the answer. Do I use the books? Did I do 4 years of training? Yes. But people STILL have a stereotype of what “Suzuki” is. I’m happy to report from seeing what’s happening in Ottawa that things have been in the process of changing for the better. IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER. Here’s a fact–the O’Connor method has now released books I through IV. Anyone can buy them. Anyone can teach them. And it will be done badly. There’s nothing Mark or anyone can do to control that. Here’s another fact–the Suzuki method as it started and intended DOESN’T work on its own. It needs supplemental material and instruction. In my 17 years of teaching I’ve seen kids quit. I’ve seen kids get frustrated as soon as the end of book 1. There are some great pieces in there, but it’s not enough. There’s nothing newer than 1850. The O’Connor method is pedagogically sound. It can stand alone. It teaches theory, history and CREATIVITY. It’s OUR music.
I’ll be honest. Reading all this stuff made me feel like I was having an identity crisis. I was teaching both. I was sickened by the way Mark was speaking to people. My hero… It was hard to rationalize. I agree with his ideas, but not with the way he was handling it. I was able to attend and present at the 2014 ASTA convention. I wanted to stop by MOC’s booth, hoping to just say hi. And we stood there, speaking for 90 min straight. I talked to Mark O’Connor for 90 min straight!! Let me tell you, friends, this guy is genuine. You may find it hard to guess by the way he talks in print, but he’s very soft spoken in person!!!! He’s passionate about this cause. His 3 year old daughter was there at his side. He’s a kid that had some bad musical experiences and then had some awesome ones. He’s just trying to share it with all of you. With me. With MY kid. My faith and excitement about string playing in the US was renewed. I’m still on board. He’s worth listening to.
I’ve been typing for 2 hours. I care deeply about this topic. And about you, if you’re still reading this. I know it can be hard, but we can’t make an informed decision blindly. We must take a good, hard look at the research and what our students need. We MUST MUST MUST always be evaluating what’s happening in String teaching in our country. We must never be blind. We must never get in a rut. We must never stop learning. We must never be afraid of something new. It’s possible that something we’ve loved and believed for 50 years wasn’t exactly true. Are you still inspired? Are you getting better? Why or why not?
If you haven’t read some of Mark’s research, here it the link to his blog–
It is overwhelming, but it’s WORTH reading.
I will not ask you to take a side. I’m just asking you to be open. And do the research to make a good decision for yourself.
Melissa Tatreau Holtmeier