Budding violinists around the world cut their teeth on a series of folk songs, Bach minuets, and of course, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” all included in the first of 10 books in Shinichi Suzuki’s famous method of instruction. Recently, though, renowned fiddler Mark O’Connor has stirred up a debate over the legitimacy of Suzuki’s claim to fame.
The Suzuki method, taught by an estimated 6,000 Suzuki-registered educators in the U.S. alone, teaches young children to play stringed instruments by asking them to learn a series of increasingly difficult pieces. The early songs—beginning with a series of variations on “Twinkle"—are meant to be committed to memory through repetition, allowing students to focus on proper technique and build muscle memory.
According to O’Connor, however, Suzuki built his reputation on a series of falsehoods, which O’Connor describes in a blog post entitled “Suzuki’s BIGGEST Lie.” O’Connor asserts that there is no evidence to back up Suzuki’s claim that he studied with Karl Klingler, a professor at the prestigious Berlin Hoschshule, and that in fact, “Suzuki had no violin training from any serious violin teacher that we can find.” He also casts doubt on Suzuki’s supposed endorsements by Albert Einstein and cellist Pablo Casals.
Though O’Connor is a celebrated violinist himself--he’s released dozens of albums and has been honored by the country music community and classical musicians alike—he also has a clear interest in Suzuki’s credibility. That’s because he’s the creator of the O’Connor method, a competing series of instructional materials.
While the Suzuki repertoire draws heavily on classical European composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Handel, O’Connor believes in teaching students using music from the Americas: fiddle folk tunes, bluegrass, ragtime, and more. O’Connor says his method also places an emphasis on music theory and sight-reading, which can allow students to play new pieces more quickly.
O’Connor’s story gained attention after it was picked up by The Telegraph, which called Suzuki “a liar and a fraud.” In response, a recent piece in the New York Times looked into the allegations. Alice Schoenfeld, a student of Klingler’s, said that Suzuki had studied with the professor privately, though he was never officially enrolled in the school.
The connections with Einstein and Casals are less direct, though the Times does confirm that Suzuki had met the physicist at least once and that Casals was “very moved” by a 1961 Suzuki concert. Given that all of the parties originally involved are now deceased, finding out the truth of the matter is difficult.
Many music educators are questioning whether or not Suzuki’s past even matters. In an interview with NPR, Baltimore orchestra teacher Yonatan Grinberg asks, “Did Suzuki know Albert Einstein? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Is that relevant to a kid who’s learning to play the violin? Absolutely not.”
Image of Sycamore Middle School orchestra by Meredith Bell/Flickr Creative Commons
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.