Harmony Hits a Note of Discord in Violin World ; Fabled Japanese Teacher Accused of 'Con Artistry' by Rival Method's Creator

By Cooper, Michael | International New York Times, December 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

Harmony Hits a Note of Discord in Violin World ; Fabled Japanese Teacher Accused of 'Con Artistry' by Rival Method's Creator


Cooper, Michael, International New York Times


An American violin virtuoso fans debate about the Suzuki method and about the authenticity of the creator's biography.

The bitterly traded charges of deception and unfair attacks would have been right at home in a rough-and-tumble political campaign. In this case, though, the acrimony erupted in an area that is usually much more placid: the market for children's violin lessons.

It all began when the American violin virtuoso and composer Mark O'Connor, who started publishing his own instruction books several years ago, took aim at the giant of the field: the Suzuki method, known for teaching legions of children around the world to saw away at variations of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Mr. O'Connor not only criticized the method but also accused its creator, Shinichi Suzuki, of fabricating parts of his biography to promote it.

The International Suzuki Association countered that Mr. O'Connor's allegations were "inaccurate and false" and implied that he was trying to discredit Mr. Suzuki, who died in 1998, to sell his own books. An examination by The New York Times of some of Mr. O'Connor's key charges found that they were undercut by evidence.

Yet the kerfuffle exploded in the violin world like an out-of- tune screech in a Haydn quartet.

The Suzuki method is vastly popular, selling some half a million books a year, according to its publisher; Mr. O'Connor is a star who has toured with the jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, worked as a major session musician in Nashville, composed for the concert hall and recorded with top musicians including Yo-Yo Ma. The spat lit up the Internet with violin vitriol.

"People are sad, I think," said Rhona R. Reagen, a violin and viola instructor in Skokie, Ill., who teaches both the Suzuki and O'Connor methods. "We who are educators have a tough sell when it comes to selling classical music versus the local football team. Schools are cutting arts programs right and left. Anything like this makes us feel uncomfortable."

Mr. O'Connor began making his accusations in long posts online last year, but the charges gained a wider audience this fall after he was quoted by The Telegraph's British news site accusing Mr. Suzuki of inventing his back story, calling it "one of the biggest frauds in music history."

That caused Mr. Suzuki's backers to mount a more vigorous rebuttal of his charges and led Charles Avsharian, the chief executive of Shar Music, a major retailer that sells both methods, to urge Mr. O'Connor publicly to "bring an end to the hostilities."

In a recent interview, Mr. O'Connor explained the goals of his own violin method, which he calls "an American school of string playing," and spoke excitedly of his hopes of inspiring a new generation of players. He took out his violin to demonstrate why he thinks "Boil 'Em Cabbage Down," the fiddle tune that starts his book, is superior to the well-known "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Variations" that the Suzuki book begins with.

But he made clear that the hostilities had not ceased: At one point, he accused Mr. Suzuki of "con artistry."

His main factual charges involve several episodes Mr. Suzuki described in his book "Nurtured by Love," which is part memoir and part exploration of his method. He questioned Mr. Suzuki's claims that he took lessons from the German violinist Karl Klingler in Berlin in the 1920s, his account of having been part of Albert Einstein's circle in Berlin and his description of a 1961 concert that some of his students gave in Japan for the cellist Pablo Casals.

Mr. O'Connor also asked why Mr. Suzuki is often called "Dr. Suzuki" when he lacked a Ph.D. Gilda Barston, the chief executive of the International Suzuki Association, said that he did not refer to himself that way, but that many of his followers called him "Dr." as a sign of respect after he was awarded various honorary doctorates.

In a blog post titled "Suzuki's BIGGEST Lie," Mr. O'Connor questioned whether Mr. …

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