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Learning to Jam: The O'Connor and Suzuki Methods

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Jun 29, 2012 4:48:00 PM

I'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":

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.

O'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.   

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Topics: Suzuki, Violin, Beginner Violin, Violin Method, Mark O'Connor, String Community

What I Learned from Performing in a Restaurant

Posted by Alberta Barnes on May 30, 2012 1:24:00 PM

… besides how to play Italian songs with as much schmaltz as possible and how to avoid stabbing the servers with my bow.

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Topics: Violin, Tips, Classical Music, String Community

The Value of a Music Degree

Posted by Alberta Barnes on May 4, 2012 7:00:00 AM

It is graduation season! Many high school musicians are now preparing to move on to college to study music and many music majors are now entering the workforce. To all of these new grads: CONGRATULATIONS! And, to ask the question that many people are probably asking you, “What are you going to do with a music degree?”

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Topics: Parents, Education, String Community

SHAR's 3rd Annual String Quartet Competition

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Apr 17, 2012 11:50:00 AM

SHAR Music is proud to announce the winners of its third annual Quartet Competition!

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Topics: Violin, Parents, Education, Beethoven, Viola, SHAR, Cello, Auditions, High School, Classical Music, Chamber music, Dvorak, SHAR Apprentice, Schubert, Strings, String Community, Performance

Does Classical Music Belong in a Bar?

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Mar 21, 2012 11:31:00 AM



One of my favorite bars in Ann Arbor is Old Town Tavern: it's laid-back, unpretentious, and while the food isn't anything to write home about, it's decent bar fare. The drinks are reasonably priced, but not so cheap that you get college students passed out in the corner booths. As one Charles Dickens character from Little Dorrit likes to say, "There's no nonsense about it." In short, it's comfortable

But now that I've heard about Classical Revolution, a collective of musicians who bring Mendelssohn and Bach and so on to bars in cities like San Francisco and Detroit and Atlanta, and who have a chapter in Ann Arbor, I'm wondering: would a string ensemble belong at Old Town? Is my favorite bar the right place for this music?

I'm not sure if I'd be more worried about the bar losing its atmosphere or the music losing its impact.

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Topics: Bach, Classical Music, Classical Revolution, String Community, Mendelssohn

The Indie Invasion of Classical Music

Posted by Joe Chapman on Mar 13, 2012 2:26:00 PM

              (photo by Georg Schroll)

I'm not sure if anyone out there in the vast, interstellar space of the Interwebs read the Sunday article in the New York Times Magazine on Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist and composer extraordinaire.

The article profiles Greenwood and his forays into contemporary classical music, forays which are fuelled by his obsession with the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Greenwood comes off as a melancholy but brilliant rock musician and classical composer, although, really, more than simply profiling Greenwood, the article attempts to document a transitional moment for Greenwood – how firmly in-between rock musician and experimental composer he is.

This in-between state of Greenwood's is something different, the article argues, than Paul McCartney's "politely received" classical compositions, or anything by Deep Purple or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Or even Billy Joel. Greenwood isn't moonlighting in classical. Or if he is moonlighting at all, he could be a composer moonlighting as a rock musician.  

The article is especially interesting for classical musicians and string players, since in documenting where Greenwood is in his career, it points toward an exciting trend in both indie rock and classical music. The two, once ignorant of each other, are now bedfellows.

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Topics: Classical Music, String Community, Jonny Greenwood

Become a Guest Blogger for SHAR

Posted by Joe Chapman on Jan 17, 2012 12:46:00 PM

Your wildest dreams just came true: we're taking submissions for our blog. Write a blog entry for us and share tips and stories with other teachers, students, and musicians. Have your say. Speak your mind. But first check out the details below.


Call for Submissions:

We're excited about expanding our blog to include our readers and customers! As we increase our number of weekly blog entries, we'd like to read the entries that you want to see on our page. So, we're looking for entries between 500 and 1,000 words on any topic you think the string community would find useful and interesting. That said, here are some suggested topics:

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Topics: Parents, SHAR, String Community

Would Stephen Colbert Make Fun of SHAR's 50th Anniversary?

Posted by Joe Chapman on Jan 10, 2012 5:19:00 PM

SHAR is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. I can't help but get all self-conscious about the celebrations and wonder how Stephen Colbert would respond to institutional birthdays. I also admit that SHAR is a good and decent company after all and probably deserves a birthday celebration.


With all the talk about Super PACs in the Republican primaries and the two-year anniversary of the Citizens United (2010) Supreme Court case coming up, I feel a little strange writing a blog about SHAR's 50th anniversary. Mainly, I guess, because we're celebrating the birthday of a company. (Are institutions people? Who should actually get the cake and presents?) I worry that Stephen Colbert, comedic genius and chief tormentor of the new Super PAC practice, might mock me. 

It's true. The two-year anniversary of the Citizens United case and its effects on the current political climate have got me thinking too much about the intricacies of SHAR's big 50th celebration. Here are my further questions: Is it weird to celebrate a company's birthday? Do companies have birthdays like real people? And, more importantly, can you hurt a company's feelings by not celebrating its birthday?



Of course, SHAR is not a person. It's a company that sells strings and string instruments to make a profit, and SHAR probably does not have feelings that can be hurt. That said, SHAR has done some things worth celebrating. It started out as a family business in 1962 -- in the basement of Michael Avsharian, Sr., the father of Charles Avsharian, the current CEO -- and has remained a family business since. And though SHAR does sell stuff, it doesn't just sell any type of stuff: it sells musical instruments, strings, sheet music, and all the accouterments and accessories necessary to making music. If most folks can agree that making music is one of the finest things in this world, then serving musicians and the teachers of those musicians is a good and decent mission for a company.


And to celebrate the SHAR's good and decent mission, we're releasing a video series that documents the company's history and its engagement with the string community. Mostly what comes across in this video series is SHAR's commitment to fine craftsmanship, education, and, especially, to musicians, whatever your age, level, or budget. One upcoming video episode will focus on our highly respected violin repair shop (the Henry Ford collection asked SHAR to work on their violins). Other episodes will highlight our deep commitment to the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) and school sales and rentals, with testimonials from the former president of ASTA and local high school teachers. Essentially, the point of all these videos is to show that for fifty years SHAR has provided quality goods to musicians throughout all the stages of their careers: from awkward middle school players to refined orchestra members.


(Excuse the brief self-awareness and pop-culture reference, but I wonder how Don Draper and Peggy Olson from Mad Men would write pithy ad copy for SHAR if Don and Peggy played up the stages-of-your-career angle. "We're there for you from string orchestra to symphony." "Make music. We'll worry about the rest." I could go on. If you're so inclined, leave a comment below with your own Don Draper and/or Peggy Olson ad copy for SHAR.

Anyway, all this is to say that SHAR is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and we're happy about it. It's tough to think of a company as a person, but maybe it's not so tough to think of SHAR as a group of folks with good intentions who are dedicated to music and music education. Check out our weekly videos here every Monday and raise a toast to fifty more years.     

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Topics: SHAR, String Community

This American Voice: Mark O'Connor's Upcoming Concerts

Posted by Joe Chapman on Nov 22, 2011 9:39:00 AM

Mark O'Connor's approach to American classical music is not just innovative – it's democratic.

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Topics: Violin, Mark O'Connor, String Community

Get Your Art On: October is National Arts and Humanities Month

Posted by Joe Chapman on Oct 25, 2011 5:11:00 PM

Though much of the rhetoric about American schools has been focused on math and science, test scores, and the growing gap between the quality of education in the United States and other first-world nations, the value of the arts and humanities in education is receiving national recognition during the month of October. Perhaps this recognition shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Many economists such as Edward Glaeser (check out his recent book Triumph of the City) are beginning to recognize the value of creativity in our future economies; the development of our creative sides, through music and the visual arts, could be an asset (gasp!) instead of a hindrance. Huzzah for the economy of the future and for October.

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Topics: Education, SHAR, Bows, String Community

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