End Note: The Great Suzuki Debate

Mike Lawson • Commentary • November 19, 2013

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Shinichi Suzuki

As SBO readers will have noticed by now, this publication recently began running a column, “String Section,” authored by renowned performer, clinician, and educator Mark O’Connor. While unquestionably one of the great innovators in string playing today, as well as an eloquent writer, O’Connor can be somewhat controversial, particularly regarding his unflagging criticism of the Suzuki method.

Hopefully some of the readers who responded to the String Section column’s debut with vitriol aimed at this publication will see that SBO has no interest in entangling itself in the debate about which instructional method is best – or worst, for that matter. SBO’s goal is to empower and support music educators through practical, accessible articles covering the array of topics that band and orchestra directors face throughout the school year. A discussion of the nature of string education, including how to prepare music students for success in a changing professional landscape, is relevant, but only in so far as it stays constructive. (And it bears mentioning that the String Section columns which have appeared in this publication have largely focused on positive examples of innovative performance and learning opportunities for young string players.)

My own view is that anything which fosters appreciation for music and encourages young music makers and parental involvement is a net positive. To those who would argue that point, it seems fairly obvious that the inevitable shortcomings of any method will be addressed by attentive educators, who continuously augment and tailor the latest books and pedagogy to their personal teaching philosophies and to meet their students’ needs.

While designed as an informative and relevant article on its own merits, the interview with Marilyn Kesler of the Suzuki Association of the Americas (SAA) was in part intended to give someone from within the Suzuki world a chance to respond directly to some of the criticisms that the popular string method has faced. Beyond chairing the Board of Directors for the SAA, Kesler has been a champion of music education for nearly a half a century. “Mama K,” as she was affectionately referred to by her students, retired from the Michigan Public Schools several years ago after 42 years in the classroom.

In the course of that interview, I couldn’t help but notice a parallel between something she said and some comments made by Tony Cox of Mt. Juliet High School in the November issue’s cover feature. Discussing the development of a band program capable of fitting in with other elite groups on the national stage, Tony mentions a “triad” of critical parts: “If you’re going to try to compete at the national level, it has to be a collective effort between the band parents, the kids, and the staff – it can’t be something that is just motivated by one part of that triad.” Cox goes on to say, “I don’t know how in the world we could do what we do without the parental support that we have. It would be impossible.”

Kesler, meanwhile, also spoke about the essential role played by parents in the process of teaching kids music, lauding their participation as one of the core elements that has made the Suzuki method so popular. “When teaching very young children, you must involve the parents,” she says. “The triangle between parent, child, and teacher develops strong bonds.” Later, Kesler mirrors Cox’s statement, noting: “Most music departments would not be able to function without parent support.”

Shin’ichi Suzuki did not invent the concept of parental involvement in a child’s music education, but that’s one facet of his educational philosophy that he most certainly got right.

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