John Kendall's Legacy and MENC's Contribution

We often do things a certain way because we’ve always done so. Then along comes someone who transforms our perspective.

John Kendall was a game-changer. At a time when string education in the United States was described by the Washington Post as “moribund,” Kendall was one of several American string teachers who helped make a connection that would transform the way music is taught.

According to Matt Schudel, a Washington Post staff writer, “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.”

From Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins to an America where some 350,000 youngsters now study using the Suzuki Method, Kendall was one of the people who was instrumental in sharing an important Suzuki concept: It’s never too early to start learning music.

With the encouragement of string teachers like William Starr (who also did a great deal to promote the revolutionary ideas that Suzuki advocated) and John Kendall, Music Educators National Conference, as MENC was then known, became interested in the Suzuki Method. One exhibitor at its biennial conferences, the Summy-Birchard Company, arranged for the first Japanese Suzuki groups to come to United States and perform at MENC events.

Harriet Mogge, MENC’s director of meetings and conventions through 1993, helped Summy-Birchard get Suzuki instructional materials into the hands of teachers in North and South America. She states, “At the time, I was educational director of Summy and arranged all the company exhibits as part of my responsibilities. In 1973, we got the Suzuki Association of the Americas off the ground.”

Kendall launched a pilot program at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University to share Suzuki’s ideas. The concepts eventually caught on in America, and now the Suzuki Method is used to teach not only the violin but all stringed instruments (including harp) and many woodwinds, as well as the piano. Part of the success of the method is due to heavy parental involvement with the young musicians. A Suzuki education is a commitment of an entire family to learning.

According to Mary Wagner, who chairs MENC’s Orchestral Music Council, “Most string educators are well aware of the many benefits of Suzuki instruction. While it may be difficult to run a Suzuki program in a public-school setting, many school orchestra directors adapt many of the strategies used in the method in their classrooms, making learning to play an instrument a more rewarding and fun experience. John Kendall remained up until the time of his death the ultimate educator to whom many of us are grateful for the advances made in string education.”

John Dryden Kendall, born in 1917 in Kearney, Nebraska, grew up on a farm and began playing the violin in fourth grade. He graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1939 and taught at several universities, as well as served as concertmaster of the St. Louis Philharmonic. He played in the Lincoln Quartet. According to his Washington Post obituary, Kendall died January 6th, 2011 at age 93, leaving several musical children and grandchildren and a more musical world.

MENC member Mary Wagner supervises student teachers for James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is a Fairfax County Public Schools string orchestra mentor teacher at Cherry Run and White Oaks Elementary Schools, Burke, Virginia, and  serves as chair of MENC’s Council for Orchestral Education. MENC member Harriet M. Mogge was the first executive secretary of the Suzuki Association of the Americas and editor of its newsletter. She now lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Note:  According to Harriet Mogge and vol. 1, no. 1 of the American Suzuki Journal (Winter 1973), Kenji Mochizuki, a young staffmember of the Japanese consulate in New York City may have been the first person to discuss the Suzuki Method with Americans.

–Ella Wilcox, February 9, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (