Yesterday I published a rather sad post that accepted many of the criticisms noted violinist Mark O’Connor has leveled at Shinichi Suzuki, father of the Suzuki method of music instruction. I removed that post last night. I know myself relatively well, and while every day I age I get better and better about not reacting rashly to anything in my world out of anger, I’m not perfect – yesterday’s post was a reaction versus a thoughtful discussion of the issues raised by O’Connor. It was not at all vitriolic, but it was not particularly measured, either.
In thinking about what I wrote as the day wore on yesterday, I realized that the sin for which I was dismissing Suzuki was embellishing a memoir. Such a crime has little to do with the efficacy of the method, used by millions for decades, to learn to play the violin. O’Connor’s criticism of the method itself is encapsulated by this post on Violinist. He says that using classical music and focusing exclusively on technical education and imitating others has created a bunch of violin robots, and even there you’ll only find these robots where you can find people who have not quit out of despair. O’Connor also seems particularly tied to odd issues of national identity, believing the Suzuki Method, which he sees as arising out of a more collectivist minded Japanese culture, to be a poor fit for western individualism, which he thinks is better suited to a method that includes composition and improvisation, versus simply playing and copying old masters. O’Connor sells his own method, an “American Method” that relies on American music exclusively in its beginner repertoire and must also, obviously, focus on improvisation and creativity in some way. His brashness and his desire to sell his own method render his criticisms slightly less than objective-sounding.
As to the embellishment – there are some clear indicators that parts of Suzuki’s biography were embellished. I’ll focus on three – Einstein, Suzuki’s teacher in Europe, and Pablo Casals. Einstein is a very well-studied figure, and there is nothing known of a relationship between the two save Suzuki’s memoir and a formal letter sent from Einstein to Suzuki’s father to say thanks for the violin Suzuki delivered to him. (Suzuki’s family ran a violin factory in Japan so it was likely as a promotional idea the famous scientist was gifted this violin.) It does seem unlikely that Suzuki was a figure running in Einstein’s circles regularly in the 1920s. Karl Klinger was a noted teacher and violinist with whom Suzuki claimed to study for his years in Germany. O’Connor maintains he did not study with the master, and presents evidence of school enrollments at the time and rejections – the evidence does strongly indicate that Suzuki was rejected by the teacher’s school. Suzuki claimed he was in private instruction with Klinger, and the only evidence that exists for that possibility appears to be one woman who knew Klinger who said it could be true based on a conversation she had with the teacher. Finally, Casals’s widow says that her husband did not endorse the Suzuki method, in fact he probably didn’t even know about it. She says Casals was, in fact, deeply moved by a performance where he witnessed a few hundred young Japanese Suzuki students, though O’Connor claims the performance was a travesty and that Casals was non-plussed. It seems to me that most teachers are going to applaud a spectacle like that if they see it, regardless of the prowess of the many children, obviously, but O’Connor seems correct in that no endorsement of the Suzuki Method was put forth by Casals.
O’Connor’s posts I’ve linked to here provide his perspectives on the above and other issues. His blog is not organized into an easy way to find all of the posts on this rather large controversy he created.
The New York Times picked up the debate and mostly comes down on the side of those who want to preserve Suzuki’s memory.
I am a person who believes in facts and who finds the truth valuable. I am also a fierce pragmatist. As a student in the Suzuki Method and as this blog clearly shows, I have been thoroughly enamored of the selections in the Suzuki repertoire. I have found them to be mostly skill-building and well-selected and arranged for my purposes. I have commented on their lack of proper attribution to the proper source piece, at times. I have also found the aural-heavy nature of the method to be useful. I enjoy listening to the music that I will play, and find that knowing how it’s supposed to sound very well and in advance makes playing the tunes much, much easier. And the proof is in the pudding: I set out to play classical music in my living room just over a year ago, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now.
But I am a highly self-motivated adult who loves classical music. I do understand O’Connor’s criticisms on some levels. One point I read on a blog discussing this controversy wondered why there are not more Suzuki practitioners at the highest levels of performance, based on the Method’s dominance in pedagogy, and I too find that to be an extremely compelling question.
At the end of the day many of the answers to facts of biography will have been lost in the mists of time. In my anniversary post for Musical Me I wrote, “I don’t claim heroes – we are messy humans all” – I think I’ll leave it at that.
Thanks for reading.