Thursday, December 11, 2014

Musical Back-Biting

There have been two nasty scandals brewing in the world of music education lately. The first one concerned "El Sistema", the Venezuelan music education system that has become popular enough to be taken up in other countries and whose most famous alumnus, Gustavo Dudamel, is the young conductor of the LA Philharmonic. Geoff Baker, an English academic, has recently published a scathing critique of the system, calling it a "tyranny". Here is a recent essay summarizing his argument. There are replies to his claims, but I can't turn them up at the moment, sorry!

Even more recently, an American violin teacher, Mark O'Connor, levels his own harsh criticism of the violin method of Shinichi Suzuki as recounted in this NY Times story:
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 his 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.
Evidence to the contrary, one assumes. In fact, there is reason to doubt the validity of both criticisms. It may be time to refer to some old wisdom regarding this sort of thing: Do not take at face value the criticisms of those who stand to gain from bringing down someone or something. The best targets for this sort of thing are big, successful people and programs that have a high profile like El Sistema or the Suzuki violin method. If you can sling some mud and land some blows then you yourself will become famous in the process. This is often a cheap and crude method of achieving notoriety without having to do anything really worthwhile.

Both of these sallies are a bit surprising because the practice in most of the professional music world is to mute criticism of one's competitors in public and for academics to avoid sensationalist claims. Still, this is the 21st century when, apparently, anything goes.

This blog, of course, has a strong music criticism component as there are many things and figures in the music world that are good candidates for evaluation--both positive and negative, of course. But I always try to keep in mind a couple of basic principles: try and show readers (and listeners) what you mean and let them hear and see for themselves, give sound reasons for criticism and, above all, do not criticize for the simple goal of puffing oneself up. Do not criticize for selfish reasons. I think in both of the above cases, this is a real danger.

I don't have much else for you today, but look for a big Friday miscellanea tomorrow. Let's end with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil de Netzahualcóyotl (try saying that three times quickly) in the Danzón No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez:


Nathan Shirley said...

I briefly looked into the O'Connor method a while back researching various violin teaching methods. His website and its vague information struck me as very suspicious, strong infomercial feel. I guess my gut instinct for his system was about right (plus it relies heavily on American folk music... not my cup of tea).

Bryan Townsend said...

From what I read in the New York Times, that isn't too surprising.