Think of Mark O’Connor’s head as a funnel.
Into it has streamed half a century of bluegrass, folk, classical music, flamenco, jazz, country, world music, Cajun songs and blues. Out of it pour melodies sweet as warm shortbread and flowing as a thoroughbred’s stride, concertos and quartets and a symphony, hot licks of all persuasions – and a belief that “Boil ’Em Cabbage Down” might be the essential song of all time.
The world’s most versatile fiddler has created a music education series that turns conventional wisdom around. He teaches kids to play music of the Americas, not Baroque classics or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” His O’Connor Method spurs them to improvise and create, not memorize and repeat.
“Cabbage,” a 400-year-old African-American hoedown, starts Book One of the Method. Students learn basic patterns, then immediately have to make decisions about applying them.
Teacher Paul Lindenauer says his students in Cologne, Germany, gobble it up: “When you’re improvising, you are forced to make choices. Mark starts you with rhythmical variations, then gives you the options of turning those rhythms around. That empowers a kid. You should see their eyes light up.”
Those eyes look like O’Connor’s these days. Everything seems fresh this summer, from the success of the new O’Connor Band to the house where he sees herons fishing and the sun setting over Lake Wylie. (That reminds him of his native Seattle.)
He’s most excited about the 7-year-old Method, which he has filled with “the strongest, most compelling pieces that involve ethnic diversity and possess the most cultural importance.” Those come from the Americas: not just spirituals, pioneer medleys and bayou songs from the U.S. but Canadian tunes, norteño sounds from the Mexican border and Argentine tangos. He picks “Liberty” from Book Three to illustrate:
I had thought (the Suzuki) program handled early violin training well, but I discovered the opposite: It was churning out a bunch of technical students.
Grammy-winning fiddler Mark O’Connor, who has a new method for teaching
“It starts out as a French Quebec tune a couple of hundred years ago. It somehow ends up in the British Isles, and they love it there for 100 years or so. It comes back across the pond into the rural South, and Fiddlin’ John Carson records it in the 1920s. It becomes a huge hit, goes west and becomes a western swing classic for Bob Wills.
“It’s been called ‘Ti Jean,’ ‘Little John’s Reel,’ ‘The Tipsy Parson.’ Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana played it as a two-step. In the northeast, contradance fiddlers took it up. If you want to find a classic that has stood the test of time in every different facet of music – those are the types of pieces in these books.”
A lifelong mission
This musically restless man, who figures he’s played on 500 album sessions, keeps reinventing himself. At 55, he tours now with wife Maggie in the O’Connor Band, whose debut album “Coming Home” was just released. (That sextet, which includes son Forrest and Kate Lee, Forrest’s partner, will play a concert Dec. 7 at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square.)
His real legacy may be pedagogy. His comments about the Suzuki method stirred debate around the music world and were chronicled in The New York Times, but you can bile ’em down this way:
Eight-year-old fiddlers grounded in roots music could “play up a storm all day” at his summer music camps, using good intonation and tone. The classically trained students “were frustrated. They didn’t play as well, and their ability to listen for harmony, counterpoint and rhythm and collaborate with other young students was compromised.
“Those classical students were all Suzuki kids. I had thought that program handled early violin training well, but I discovered the opposite: It was churning out a bunch of technical students, with a lesson plan that was never going to lead to improvising, composing, arranging music or ensemble leading. If those students couldn’t relate to the all-technical, disciplinary approach, they were out of violin in a few years.”
O’Connor vs. Suzuki
So what are the big differences?
We were trying to get Harlem kids to learn to like Mozart and completely ignoring the fact that African-American string playing is incredible.
Suzuki, he says, stresses 1700s classical music in which selections sound similar, omits many wonderful styles and “leaves out American music completely. Which is unfortunate, because the 20th century is largely an American music century.” And though Baroque composers were expected to improvise and arrange music for various ensembles, “Suzuki was using Baroque music to replicate note-for-note.
“Another thing I found was that there was little note-reading in the first several years of Suzuki lessons. They prided themselves on learning by ear, but it is more about mimicking and memorization. In American styles, students learn by ear in a more universal way: listening to chord changes, intervals and rhythms. A student has to be a participant, a collaborator.”
O’Connor’s own training followed a unique path. He started with classical and flamenco guitar in elementary school but, after seeing a fiddler on Johnny Cash’s TV show, got a fiddle at 11. (The family bought one for $50 at a pawn shop.)
“It immediately became my whole focus. I really started to imagine music for the first time .... I felt I could reach the full range of emotion I was carrying around in my little mind. I could say a lot more through an instrument than I could verbalize, and that can be the case with most children.”
He had an epiphany when he met revered Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, who lived two hours from Seattle. Thomasson would let him hang around all day for informal lessons, sometimes teaching young Mark five pieces in a weekend: “He’d let us stay overnight in our station wagon and, if it was the dead of winter, let us sleep on his floor Saturday night and continue my lesson Sunday morning.”
O’Connor went on to play with the David Grisman Quintet and The Dregs and on albums for Paul Simon, Dolly Parton, James Taylor and countless others. It wasn’t until 1994, after he’d won a Grammy for “The New Nashville Cats” and five Country Music Association Awards, that he realized something was wrong.
‘The diversity issue struck me hard’
First, he cut the epochal album “Heroes,” playing second fiddle in duets with greats who’d inspired him in all fields: Doug Kershaw (Cajun), Pinchas Zukerman (classical), Stephane Grappelli (jazz) and many more. As he jet-setted from L.A. to Paris, he learned that none of these masters knew about the others.
Then he appeared at Carnegie Hall in a benefit concert for Opus 118, the Harlem music school profiled in the documentary “Small Wonders.” Only he and two African-American musicians played music from their native land; the rest played European classics.
“The diversity issue struck me hard,” he says. “We were trying to get Harlem kids to learn to like Mozart and completely ignoring the fact that African-American string playing is incredible: blues, jazz, hoedown, ragtime. They were not getting to learn it and celebrate it, and people don’t want to be separated from their culture.”
O’Connor could draw a crowd to his musical ideas. So “it became almost a mission to get the word out: We are ignoring huge chunks of the violin world, and we wonder why the violin is losing relevance and losing audiences.”
The O’Connor Method, which is now up to five books of technique and will add five of repertoire, began to bloom in his mind. It has proven universal indeed.
“Musical tradition is not culturally biased,” says Lindenauer. “Kids respond only ‘Do I like this?’ or ‘Do I not like this?’ Mark has been careful to include a rainbow of musical styles that reflect his background. I had one kid who could play the Samuel Barber quartet yet was interested in (bluegrass) chopping techniques.”
Playing right away
Pamela Hamilton, a New York City string teacher, has been an O’Connor fan since she saw a video of him fiddling while riding a skateboard. She approached him at a performance of his iconic “Appalachia Waltz” (from the album that won a second Grammy), and he invited her on the spot to teach at a string camp.
“All my students are African-American and Hispanic Harlem kids,” she says. “They know ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In’ and ‘Amazing Grace,’ which are used in the Method, but they appreciate the accessibility in Book One of songs they’re not familiar with. ‘Boil ’Em Cabbage Down’ – they chew that one up. It’s music they can take home and play right away. With ‘Oh, Susannah’ and ‘Buffalo Gals,’ they learn the words, too.
“When I get Suzuki students and put music in front of them without any finger numbers or letter names, they stop and ask, ‘Where do the fingers go?’ My students can identify the written notes with the notes they hear.”
Because O’Connor had to write and edit books for the Method, composing has taken a back seat since 2010. That was the year of his Improvised Violin Concerto, in which the soloist invents his entire part to intertwine with written orchestral music. (“It’s the only one I know, and I’m the only one who has played it.”)
The O’Connors have already made inroads in Charlotte, where they moved so they could both be nearer family members in the Southeast. A dozen teachers came to Plaza-Midwood this summer for two days of training in the Method; he and the Charlotte Symphony have talked about a possible concert and instruction for string players.
But his academic revolution won’t fully succeed until the great conservatories – Juilliard, Curtis, Peabody – heed the call.
“Europeans and Africans and Middle Easterners and Asians came to the Americas, starting in the 1600s, bringing their bowed and plucked instruments and creating a cross-pollination. The development of American music out of this pool of millions of musicians – that’s a kind of genius. For American institutions to ignore this genius...”
He shakes his head. “There are tens of thousands of kids learning my method now. My hope is that, at some point, conservatories will have a track for strings where American music takes its rightful place alongside Vivaldi and Mozart.”