John D. Kendall, who brought Suzuki violin training method to U.S., dies at 93

John Kendall taught and played violin.
John Kendall taught and played violin. (Family Photo)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 7:19 PM

John D. Kendall, a violin teacher who introduced the Suzuki method of music training to the United States in the early 1960s, prompting a near-revolution in how children learn to play musical instruments, died Jan. 6 at a hospice in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 93 and had a stroke.

In 1958, while attending a music conference in Ohio, Mr. Kendall saw a short film in which hundreds of Japanese children were playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto with surprising skill. Wanting to learn more, he made an extended visit to Japan in 1959 and met Shinichi Suzuki, the teacher who devised a new approach that had children learning the violin at an early age.

Suzuki, who died in 1998 at 99, had the idea that students could learn music in the same way - and at the same age - that they learned to speak. By imitating sounds and repeating the proper techniques of playing the violin, children as young as 3 could make music.

When Mr. Kendall entered a room filled with Suzuki's young students, they immediately began playing the Vivaldi G-minor Concerto.

"It was really amazing," Mr. Kendall told a Time magazine correspondent in 1959. "I was so touched I could feel tears welling up in my eyes."

Mr. Kendall brought the Suzuki method back to the United States and became one of its first and most influential teachers. He adapted Suzuki's instruction books for American students, began a pilot program in Ohio and helped build a network of teachers throughout the country and, later, across the globe.

"He was a real visionary," William Starr, a longtime Suzuki instructor and violin professor at the University of Colorado, said Saturday. "When he saw that videotape, he was curious enough to get up and do something about it."

In 1964, Mr. Kendall helped arrange for a U.S. tour of Suzuki's Japanese students, who thrilled audiences across the country with their astonishing abilities. But the Suzuki method, which often includes group learning and heavy parental involvement, was hardly popular at first.

Renowned violinist Isaac Stern once condemned the practice as "an automated procedure" and "the weakest and most criminal method in music education today."

By the early 1970s, however, Suzuki training had spread across the United States and was credited with reviving the country's moribund state of string education. The principles for teaching violin were extended to the guitar, other string instruments, woodwinds and the piano. Many of the young musicians begin playing on instruments scaled to fit their hands.

Today, according to the Suzuki Association of the Americas - which Mr. Kendall helped found - an estimated 350,000 children are learning musical instruments by the Suzuki method. Many leading classical soloists and symphonic musicians received their first musical training in Suzuki classes. One of Stern's grandsons became a Suzuki student.

John Dryden Kendall was born Aug. 30, 1917, in Kearney, Neb., and grew up on a farm. In addition to working in cornfields and his father's chicken hatchery, he began playing the violin in the fourth grade.

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