The Politics of Practice: a Response to Mark O’Connor’s Recent Articles Regarding the Suzuki Method

Mark O’Connor has recently written a series of articles in an apparent attempt to discredit the Suzuki Method of violin instruction. From what I’ve seen thus far, it seems we can summarize O’Connor’s arguments against the Suzuki method as being comprised of the following five points:

I would like to preface any further discussion with a few words about myself, and why this topic is of interest to me. I’m a music teacher who specializes in string teaching, and am currently working towards being a teacher educator and researcher, hoping to establish and maintain some kind of harmony between these endeavors and the other facets of my professional career. I have no formal affiliation with either the Suzuki program or the O’Connor method, though I have attended a number of Suzuki institutes both for teacher training and as a parent – in fact, my own daughters have all been involved in Suzuki playing as either violinists or pianists since their preschool years. Personally, however, I see the Suzuki “method” as just a part of my children’s overall music education; it is not, by any means, “the whole story”. In other words, I don’t believe anyone can conceivably accuse me of being a member of a “cult”.

In short, I don’t identify myself as a “Suzuki Teacher”, “Suzuki Parent”, or “Suzuki Practitioner”. I do, however, have a great admiration for many Suzuki practitioners and the methods they use. I’ve often found myself defending “Suzuki methodology” to others in the world of music education, as I’ve had some very good experiences with the program and have tried to incorporate some aspects of it into my own teaching. Also, as mentioned earlier, I’ve made a conscious choice to involve my own children in Suzuki instruction with private teachers and at institutes since they were very young, and my wife and I are generally happy with what they’ve gotten out of this involvement.

Rather than responding directly to any of Mr. O’Connor’s specific attacks on the Suzuki method as summarized above, I’d like to mention some of the salient features of the Suzuki program that I believe are positive and unique contributions to the field of instrumental music education:

  • The intentional creation of a peer-driven social context for learning an instrument. Through the practice of learning a common repertoire and participating in group lessons, the students become socially invested in learning to play and improving on what they’ve already learned. They don’t learn a solo merely for the purposes of one performance or evaluation, only to put it away forever (a problem I believe we’ve all observed with traditionally trained school musicians of varying levels).
  • The intentional involvement of the student’s family in instruction and practice The concept of the “triangle” between student, parent, and teacher is, to my mind, a very useful model for encouraging successful home practice. We’ve all experienced the difficulties inherent in teaching students with inadequate parental involvement, and I believe that the concept of teaching the parent to be the student’s “home teacher” can be a productive approach in many circumstances. At the very least, it’s generally a good idea to involve parents in being accountable for the amount and quality of practice.
  • Game-like, child-friendly approaches to teaching musical and instrumental skills Suzuki teachers I’ve observed (and I have observed hundreds of hours of Suzuki instruction) usually have a wealth of clever and stimulating games and activities to encourage good habits of posture, tone production, motor skills, and musical content.
  • The idea of a sequential solo repertoire, independent of technical exercises, where each new, embedded skill builds on the ones previously learned
    While I’m not convinced that the Suzuki sequence is perfectly structured, the idea of progressing from one piece to the next, with each piece having embedded, skill-based teaching points, is a good one. I think the idea of using actual concert repertoire in this manner was a unique contribution of the Suzuki approach.
  • The fundamental concept that “every child can” Until the Suzuki method popularized this idea, performing classical music was considered to be an exclusive activity reserved only for the best performers with the highest level of skill and training. I have to agree with the egalitarian principle that, given support, materials, and instruction, all children can benefit from playing, and can progress musically.

I maintain that all of the above principles can (and maybe should) be adopted in some measure by other instrumental programs and teachers – they can’t be copyrighted and thus aren’t “owned” by any of the Suzuki associations or Suzuki practitioners. However, I also believe that these principles were pioneered, or at least brought to the general attention of practicing string teachers, by the Suzuki program. Those involved with the past and current development of the program deserve their due, and it’s unjust to characterize them as “cultists” or to label their method as “faulty” or “dying”.

Mr. O’Connor is right to claim the strengths of his own method – his materials, camps, and teacher training sessions are clearly producing some very good results that are worth getting excited about, and there’s no doubt that he’s an excellent player with a unique concept. However, I’m not convinced that this recent series of ad hominem attacks against Shinichi Suzuki, the Suzuki program, or Suzuki practitioners is productive or necessary. It’s not evident to me that the success of one program relies on any demonstration of the failures of the other.

In conclusion, I’d like to articulate my own position regarding any commercially produced music “program”, be it Suzuki, O’Connor, Kodaly, or any other. We need to be careful to note that the acts of teaching and making music are both more important than are formalized teaching methods or programs. Involving students with music, as opposed to aggrandizing a program or its founder, should be the primary goal of any good “method” of music teaching.

Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of methodological or ideological affiliation.