Lawrence Toppman

She wanted a music lesson...and found a new life

Classically trained Maggie O’Connor has come back to her bluegrass roots and now tours with the O’Connor Band.
Classically trained Maggie O’Connor has come back to her bluegrass roots and now tours with the O’Connor Band. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Mark O’Connor did his best to dissuade Maggie Dixon, a Peabody Conservatory student with strong classical chops. But like a fairy tale heroine separating grains of sand from grains of gold, she passed his grueling test.

And after one day of duetting with her, he invited her to Singapore to join him in a piece he re-orchestrated. Within six months, they married. Within 12 more, they were anchoring The O’Connor Band, a family unit that tours and records.

She typifies artists he aims to nurture through the O’Connor Method: playing since elementary school, instilled with a desire to improvise and create, loving music from bluegrass to Brahms. “I couldn’t understand,” she says of classmates in her high school orchestra, “why kids hadn’t learned how to play the 12-bar blues.”

If Destiny ever rosined a bow, she handed it to this young woman.

She grew up in a family band that borrowed the flavor of David Grisman’s ensemble, in which Mark O’Connor played. The fiddler in her dad’s band – Dawn Grant, whom little Maggie idolized – idolized Mark O’Connor in turn.

As Maggie was finishing at Peabody in May 2014, she decided to build on her roots music skills. She was a longtime fan of O’Connor, so she found him on Facebook and requested a lesson.

Instead, he gave her an assignment to bring him: Transcribe five minutes of his YouTube video of “Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle?”

“It was smokin’ fast, all sixteenth notes, and it was poorly recorded in this echo-y hall,” she recalls. “He wanted me to do all the bowings, too. It took me a week to write it out. He had a tear in his eye when I gave him the transcription.”

The impressed O’Connor invited her to Turtle Bay Music School, where he was teaching, for a lesson that became a four-hour session. (His payment? A sushi dinner in the restaurant downstairs.) She joined him onstage for “Emily’s Reel,” which he’d composed for Yo-Yo Ma’s daughter.

After graduating, she joined him for that concert with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, joined him in matrimony and now joins him in promoting the O’Connor Method.

“We play together at demonstrations,” she says. “Mark’s a modern-day Mozart: He’s spectacular. But I prove that good technical skills, American styles and fiddling can come together seamlessly.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

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