Story time.

Two years ago, I was involved in a project which brought together three classical composers with three composers from Chicago’s improvised/free jazz community. Each composer was going to write a piece for the sextet, which was split along similar lines. Team Classical was a piano trio, and Team Jazz was two reed players & a drummer. As the collaboration began, a member of Team Classical emailed the group with a warning shot:

Just to let you all know: I am NOT an improviser.

I shook my head for Team Classical. What would the jazz folks think of us?! If a cellist (typically cooler and more low-key than violinists) was behaving this way, imagine what I, the violinist, would do! Would I demand to be kept in a separate room from the improvisers to avoid catching anything contagious? Violinists, after all, have a reputation for being uptight. I would probably up the ante and come in to rehearsal with a shirt that says do not ask me to improvise. Right?

(Wrong. I was in an all-improv violin quartet in high school. I’m dying for someone to ask me to improvise!)

But this is the phenomenon that Mark O’Connor is — quite rightly — bemoaning in his recent blog post. He writes that “in the last half-century, the prevalence of player-composers, improvisers, arrangers, and bandleaders – the types of creative musicians that my Method aims to develop – among classical violinists has been weak.”

On this point, I totally agree. Our training as classical string players has huge holes in it. And it’s killing us. When we don’t land that orchestral or academic job we dreamed about, having the kinds of skills O’Connor mentions (composing, arranging, bandleading, improvising, and collaborating) is essential. Successful artists need a diverse array of competencies in order to survive. Unfortunately, our violinistic training is highly technical and specialized. We sound great on our concertos, but economically and artistically, we’re vulnerable.

But what O’Connor blames for this narrow-minded training is the Suzuki method, which, he says, “is focused intently on technical development for violin pedagogy, not on creative development.” O’Connor reviewed film of Dr. Suzuki visiting Wisconsin in 1976, and finds not a shred of evidence that Suzuki cared about developing creativity. He claims that  the thousands of violinists who have come up in the Suzuki method had their creativity stunted by a narrow-minded and mechanical teaching method. It appears that O’Connor sees his own teaching method as directly competing with the Suzuki method, so maybe this accounts for his broad dismissal. But I think there are a few key things to say here:

1. The method has changed quite a bit since 1976, and while its central principles remain strong, no two Suzuki teachers are alike. Suzuki himself was Japanese; he was not a folk musician or an improviser. It makes sense he didn’t include this in his own teaching. Today’s teachers, trained in the method, bring all of their musical experiences with them. While my MM is in classical performance, I’m also a songwriter and folk musician. I work with my group class on improvisation. We talk about chord changes and we explore the many sounds the violin can create. Watching tape of Suzuki teaching in 1976 is, while valuable, probably not an accurate indication of what teachers are doing in their studios today.

2. The main mission of Suzuki teaching is to create a lifelong love of music, an appreciation for beautiful sound, and joy in music-making. At the time, this was a pretty revolutionary response to harsh violin pedagogy which focused too heavily on technique and strangled enjoyment. Suzuki’s teaching of very young children was also a kind of cultural revelation about what a four-year-old can do. I know that joy in music-making is something that matters to Mark O’Connor, and matters to all of us!

3. In my opinion, if we are to be truly free and creative as violinists, we have to have a strong technical foundation.  O’Connor makes a list of Suzuki’s teaching priorities (bowing techniques, changing strings, finger flexibility and thumb power, posture and left hand techniques, tone, etc.) as if they were boring and soulless. These may not be the most fun things to learn, but good technique is an essential tool. When we can write our own fiddle tunes, it helps if our string crossings are clean, our bow hand flexible, and our intonation pure. It’s possible to teach technique and creativity at the same time, and I believe that’s what many of my colleagues are striving for today.

(Full disclosure. Three days a week — when I’m not writing feminist rants, cursing on the internet, practicing new music, or writing songs with my band — I teach Suzuki violin. I wasn’t raised on this method, but I’ve found it to be an effective and joyful way to train young musicians.)

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