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Learning to Jam: The O'Connor and Suzuki Methods


Mark O'ConnorI've been thinking a lot lately about Mark O'Connor's blog articles, especially his most recent ones "The American Violin" and "Suzuki Has Gone Fiddlin'." The comments section of Mr. O'Connor's blog, especially the "Suzuki Has Gone Fiddlin'" article, show just how much disagreement there is in the American classical community on our preferred teaching methods.

Plenty of folks swear by The Suzuki Method, which was revolutionary when it took hold in the United States through John D. Kendall in the 1950s and '60s. At its core, The Suzuki Method believes that music education functions a lot like early language acquisition: if you create a vibrant musical community through teachers, recordings, concerts, and peers, then there's no reason your child can't learn to play the violin. Or, that learning the violin is as easy as learning to speak and read. (Which is still pretty hard sometimes. More picture books, Dad!)

So why do we need to change anything? Why does O'Connor want to rethink the way we teach our kids to play the violin?

While appreciative of The Suzuki Method's faith in each child's musical ability, Mr. O'Connor wants more. His O'Connor Method focuses on traditional American music like blues, folk, jazz, and spirituals; by making these genres the focus of his method, O'Connor opens the door to imrovisation and thus to individual creativity. (You simply can't learn to play jazz without learning to jam.)

That said, the more articles I read by O'Connor, and the more I examine his method books, the more I'm convinced that he wants just one thing to happen for his students: for them to find their voice. One of my favorite poets, Seamus Heaney, has written on the difference between "craft" and "technique," and I think it's relevant here if only to freshen to conversation about the Suzuki and O'Connor methods. For Heaney, discovering your "technique" is pretty much what most of us would call "finding your voice":

Seamus Heaney Finders Keepers I think technique is different from craft. Craft is what you can learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making … It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self. It knows how to keep up a capable verbal athletic display; it can be content to be 
vox et praeterra nihil—all voice and nothing else—but not voice as in ‘finding a voice.’ Learning the craft is learning to turn the windlass at the well of poetry. Usually you begin by dropping the bucket halfway down the shaft and winding up a taking of air. You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself. ("Feeling Into Words," pgs. 20-21)

Craft looks a lot like technique, but we certainly know technique when we see it. You get goosebumps when you witness technique; you feel like you're hearing something no one has ever heard before. Or, as Emily Dickinson said, you feel like the top of your head has been blown off. And when you learn technqiue, you're finding your voice, which can be as distinct as the way you walk, speak, or dance.

Suzuki Violin MethodO'Connor's deep fear is that we're teaching children craft but not technique. We're teaching capable musical displays but not equipping our students with the true creative potential of technique. (It's a heavy moment in your artistic life, when you've broken the skin of yourself and you're no longer pulling up air, but it's one that is worth the wait.)

There have been plenty of counter stories, though, from Suzuki graduates about how their violin teacher included American genres and encouraged creativity. They narrate a more complex Suzuki Method, a hybrid method. On his blog, O'Connor recognizes the potential of a more hybrid Suzuki Method but worries about the lack of real commitment to creativity in this approach and the dangers of a hodgepode approach to musical education. He's put serious thought into the progression of his method and it's distressing, I think, to contemplate a buffet approach. Fair enough.

In the end, I'm not sure anyone can tell you which method is right for your child. But I do believe techique is necessary to any serious creative endeavor. If you want your child to write American music, then your child needs to find his or her American voice. That begs the question, however, if creativity and finding a voice are always what we want from art. Those things can be frightening in a way that performance isn't.   


It's a pity that O'Connor has chosen to market his new method by setting it in opposition to Suzuki.
Posted @ Saturday, June 30, 2012 12:05 AM by scott bailey
I want to thank Joseph Chapman for the very thoughtful blog entry about my own blogs on education. Joseph illustrates both similarities and differences to other systems, and that is always good to do. It is the conversation that should be taking place in my opinion. 
I would like to point out that Scott Bailey's comment here is inaccurate though. I did not choose to market my method in opposition to anything or anyone, nor have I done that. I think Scott is confused between "reviews" and "articles" written by others about the "O'Connor Method, and quotes emanating from major writers or magazines, my own blogging and essays on my music, career and materials which is for academic consideration, and the actual marketing/advertising of the "O'Connor Method" which does not mention Suzuki or Hal Leonard in the advertisements.
Posted @ Monday, July 02, 2012 10:03 PM by Mark O'Connor
Thanks, Mark! That's a good distinction: the discussion around and of the O'Connor Method is different than a conscious, deliberate marketing approach that pits your method against the Suzuki Method. And I hope that your method gets folks talking about creativity not only in music programs but beyond them -- hopefully our educators will make it a part of the discussion and come to value it as essential to a well-rounded education. Our national obsession with test scores and measurable results ignores the enormous potential of creativity (thinking around and through problems, dissolving problems, creation of culture) simply because creativity is less measurable. Though, in a way, I understand the hesitancy of some educators to talk about creativity. It is scary to create; as opposed to the safety of performance and imitation, there's a great deal of risk involved in making art. You are constructing, in some sense, an artistic self with specific values when you creating art. What if no one likes it? What if you feel like you have nothing to say? These are huge fears but ones that are, without a doubt, worth confronting in the classroom.
Posted @ Tuesday, July 03, 2012 10:37 AM by Joseph Chapman
While I admit to not having fully explored Mark O'Connor's method in depth, my initial impression is that it is very much like Suzuki, only with different repertoire. The first piece in Book 1 is a fiddle tune yet addresses the same rhythmic variations as Suzuki Book 1 addresses with Twinkle. The book comes with a CD so he does encourage listening. There are many similarities on the surface.  
I think it is worth considering that even within the Suzuki community, there have been people upset by the amount of Baroque music in the repertoire, that even in the classical world there is not enough variety. That said, I am a Suzuki child turned Suzuki teacher and I have definitely found my own voice, so to speak, in large part because I did have teachers who included other styles of music on occasion for fun. Later I ended up fiddling in local jams and have been in both Bluegrass and Celtic bands. So while the bulk of my study was straight out of the Suzuki books, that has not hurt me in the least. Further, once kids reach adolescence and are in orchestras and ensembles, they are going to be exposed to other styles even if their teachers haven't introduced them to it. Not to mention the fact that America is what it is- obsessed with pop culture. Little Susie may take Suzuki lessons, but she is hearing all about Taylor Swift from her friends at school. No man is an island.  
And wht about performers like Casey Driessen? It sounds as if he had Suzuki beginnings, yet look at where he is now. I don't think we have to worry about a lack of creativity so much... If you are passionate about the instrument you are learning, you will eventually grow to put your heart into all you play... And if that does'tt satisfy you, you'll find new genres that will allow your heart to really say what's in ther. 
Posted @ Thursday, July 12, 2012 12:34 PM by Jennifer
That's awesome, Jennifer! It sounds like you've really supplemented your Suzuki training with other genres and improvisation. I know that Mr. O'Connor would probably say that his method takes jamming and improvisation so seriously that it's built into the method and that you don't have to supplement with other genres. It's the thing being taught. But your story is one that's really common and full of success: musicians using Suzuki as a base for experimentation with other styles. For other musicians out there who want to do something similar to Jennifer, Christian Howes has a short blog about how to add some creativity to your practice sessions: Check it out!
Posted @ Wednesday, August 01, 2012 10:23 AM by Joseph Chapman
I'd like to point out that Mr O'Connor's blog post here is a long comparison of his method to the Suzuki method. He points to what he claims are shortcomings in the Suzuki method that his own method addresses.
Posted @ Wednesday, August 01, 2012 4:08 PM by Scott Bailey
I find it constructive to look back on previous posts in evaluating ideas and the motivations behind the authors. What I initially found attractive in O'Connor's "New American School of String Playing" is still compelling today, a year later. It is the difference between technique and craft, discussed by Joseph Chapman. To actively pursue creativity for all students assumes the risk that not everyone will allow that inner voice to come out and play, thus resulting in some disappointed students, but the rewards that will result from the many that do develop their inner creative voice will be profound and will have Mr. O'Connor to thank for it. For those that ask what is unique about the music, the answer lies in its adaptability to be improvised. Once a generation has been raised on this approach with their inner creative voices alive and working well the value of music in our schools and in our everyday lives will be greatly enhanced by the increased artistry displayed by so many of our children. This is what should be at the heart of our discussions.
Posted @ Friday, June 07, 2013 7:51 PM by Brad Harbuck
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