In the rush of preparation for a holiday devoted to being grateful, I’ve been thinking a lot about the great gift of being a musician and getting to share it with others. In the midst of all that, two recent stories of less than salutary behavior in the music world have caught my attention, and I’d like to share them as a reminder that we all need to keep our eye on the ball and not get caught up in less productive efforts.

Most people view classical musicians as pretty well-mannered, especially the string players (the brass section is a whole other story, believe me!). Early childhood educators are also are pretty good about minding their manners. Lately, however, the intersection of these two seemingly polite groups has seemed like a war zone. Two major figures in the beginning education of string players have recently come under fierce attack.

First, Mark O’Connor, the well-known fiddler, has accused Shinichi Suzuki, father of the ubiquitous method that bears his name, of having falsified his credentials and endorsements from well-known musicians of his time. The Suzuki Association of the Americas has fired back, and many teachers have weighed in, mostly to rebuke O’Connor for his rather nasty comments. You can hear an NPR story about this whole thing here.

O’Connor has a method of his own, and is quite up front about his frustration with the Suzuki method’s popularity and its effect on his own market share – reading O’Connor’s posts, it’s nearly impossible not to connect his business ambitions with his attacks on Suzuki.

There are a couple of big problems here – first of all, O’Connor looks really hypocritical for suggesting that Suzuki behaved less than honorably in promoting himself. As a good friend of mine loves to say: “One finger pointing out, three fingers pointing back.”

Secondly, O’Connor’s criticisms of Suzuki’s methods, many of which have merit and are shared by others in the string world (myself included), have been lost in the fuss over O’Connor’s ad hominem attack on someone who can’t defend himself.

Full disclosure: I was not a Suzuki student, but got excellent training in playing chamber music at the School for Strings, a Suzuki school in New York. I am also not a Suzuki teacher, but I use the early books with my beginning and intermediate students – for the most part, they are put together well, and do a good job. I do use other materials to supplement them, though.

I do share some of the popular misgivings about the method itself, the biggest being the note reading weakness of many Suzuki students. I have former Suzuki students who struggle with this and it is a big problem. However, I also have had former Suzuki students who read very well. And this brings us to a critical point.

O’Connor, to his credit, shares an excellent article on his blog by Melissa Tatreau, a violin teacher who hits the nail on the head: with any method, Suzuki or otherwise, IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER. As with any subject, there are good and bad teachers, and results vary widely.

If you are interested in the details of all this, read Tatreau’s piece – it’s first rate.

My main point here is that this whole thing is a really bad waste of energy – for those of us working in a field wrongly viewed by far too many people as a luxury, we can’t afford to be seen as petty. If you truly believe that making music is a life-changing and enriching experience, and that everyone should have the chance to do it, as I do, picking fights with dead people is not a good use of your time.

I’ve long respected Mark O’Connor as a great fiddler, and his attempts to broaden the options for teaching string playing should be welcomed by all of us who do it. However, he should not be using ad hominem attacks to promote himself. And I have to say, having not yet explored the O’Connor method, I’m less inclined to at the moment, because of this whole thing – it leaves a sour taste in my mouth (one which I will ease with cranberry sauce tomorrow!).

Next week I will turn to El Sistema, the Venezuelan method of community building through youth string education, which has received tremendous attention in recent years, and has inspired many new programs in countries around the world, but is also currently under attack.

In the meantime, count your blessings, and stay focused on what really matters – good intonation and pumpkin pie. Happy Thanksgiving!

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