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.

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

  1. Connie

    Thank you for your level-headed approach to this. Just one question? How many children would be playing stringed instruments if the Suzuki approach had not been introduced to the United States via John Kendall?

  2. stanhaskins@gmail.com

    I don’t know, Connie – I do have the sense that the Suzuki program contributed to the overall level of involvement across the country, especially between the 1960s and 1980s.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Julia

    I very much appreciate this response. When reading and listening to Mr. O’Connor rant about the Suzuki method, “making mountains out of molehills” and “aggressive/offensive unique selling proposition” come to mind.

    If a method helps a person communicate music more readily to more people, then it is worthwhile. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  4. stanhaskins@gmail.com

    Thanks, Alex – I believe I have read that Regelski, I should probably give it another look, though . . . Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Pingback: The Politics of Practice | Sophia's Voice

  6. stan

    I realized last night that I inadvertently stole the title of this post from Paul Woodford’s book Democracy and Music Education: Liberalism, Ethics, and the Politics of Practice. Apologies to Professor Woodford.

  7. Laura Collins

    What says anyone regarding Yamaha Music School? It is not violin-centered, but a keyboard focus. These both seem to be very similar in their philosophy — all children can learn music and deserve the to learn music—Yamaha teaching is in a structured group atmosphere. Private lessons are not the mainstay of Yamaha, small ensembles of 8-13 or so students with parents in the classroom assisting until the students reach a certain proficiency. structure, however the Yamaha utilizes more theoretical experiences through the keyboard, including transposition, improvisation and creating. Ear training and learning starts at age 3. I was a Yamaha teachers right out of college for 2 years, trained and certified by Yamaha. I have not kept up my affiliation after taking public school position where I’ve remained for my entire career. These two music education programs come from Japan. Wondering which one came first? Did one borrow from the other? How many Yamaha schools are still operating in the U.S. They were very popular in the 1960s – 80’s. I’ve done no research on either of these. My step mother has taught Suzuki violin for 4 decades. At 80, she just retired this year of all violin students. She enjoyed her work immensely and had great success with it. Thanks.

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