Update on the O'Connor Method and Interview with Mark O'Connor

March 30, 2012, 10:53 AM · Violinist Mark O'Connor seems to be everywhere -- on Facebook, on Twitter, promoting his compositions, touring, posting videos old and new. But I'd argue that one of the most important things he's doing these days is rather more academic and quiet: writing a history of American violin music, in the form of his O'Connor Method.

"I kind of started this whole concept when I began my camps 20 years ago," said Mark, an award-winning fiddler and composer who lives in New York. "I had the idea for an American string school and method, and the camps really embodied that, with the idea of having classical music being taught alongside of jazz violin, folk fiddling and world music."

He has planned 10 books for what he calls his "New American School of String Playing," and just last month he released Book 3 in the series. (All of the O'Connor Method books, written for violin, viola, cello and orchestra, are available through Shar Music in Ann Arbor.) His new recording, American Classics, consists of all the songs in his new Book 3.

Mark O'Connor

Since the release of his first two books in 2009, Mark and long-time Suzuki teacher Pamela Wiley have conducted about two dozen teacher training seminars throughout the United States and Canada, introducing the O'Connor Method to about 350 teachers (listed on this page) from 40 states in the U.S., with a handful from Canada, Brazil, Finland, Germany, Korea, and Trinidad. (I took the class in 2010 and wrote about it here.)

This year his String Camp in Berklee, which has long been a camp for adult players and professionals to go for cross-genre education, also will offer tracks for O'Connor Method students ages of 5 to 13, as well as teacher training. Also, he's holding a special O'Connor Method Camp (July 30-Aug. 3) in Charleston, S.C. especially for children who are studying the method and for teachers who wish to train in the first three books.

What of the books? Certainly American folk music and art music deserves a bold place in both violin repertoire and pedagogy. But can this kind of method can stand alone, without its European roots? Does it really need to? Mark has called his method a "cultural correction" to the Suzuki method, but frankly, they could work pretty well together.

I don't think I exaggerate when I say Mark's books are works of art; they include a graded progression of American music of all genres: fiddle music, Mexican music, Canadian music, Native American music, classical, blues, rock 'n' roll, ragtime, African American spiritual music, tunes by O'Connor himself, and more. The pages are filled with color photos and illustrations, and the books come with recordings of Mark playing the pieces, as well as piano tracks. The books also include detailed histories of every piece, with eye-opening revelations about the violin's prominent place in the history of America.

"I've been a bit of a musicologist, really, since I was a a kid," Mark said. "I've always been interested in the stories; this is one of the reasons why the stories are in the books. The history of the music is actually part of the method. The importance of American music has been downplayed in academic circles and I think part of the reason is because we actually don't know much about it. It's hard to play it up when you don't know much about it."

As for the future books, "Book 4 will be a more advanced version of Book 3, which will bring it to high-intermediate and maybe beginning advanced," Mark said. "Book 5 through 10 will be advanced books with a lot of repertoire." Starting with Book 5, the repertoire will include materials not arranged by Mark. "I'm going to bring in complete pieces and complete repertoire -- everything from Stephane Grappelli transcriptions to Maud Powell pieces to Jascha Heifetz's Gershwin adaptations to the Barber Violin Concerto. It will be a complete American String Method."

It's an exciting prospect, the idea of assembling together some of America's finest music written for the violin, across many genres. It also opens the opportunity for teaching new skills on the violin (improvisation, an American musical dialect), as well as helping teach the skills we all need to know (positions, string crossings, good tone, bow strokes), using different music and coming at it from a different angle.

For example: jazz and improvisation. How do you teach that? Mark says you start with the blues, the spiritual, hoedown and ragtime, "and you'll find all of those foundational styles in Book 1 or 2, as well as in Book 3," Mark said. "In acquiring the technique to play jazz, one must acquire the language of the music. So Book 3 reveals that for the first time, which is very exciting because of course, jazz is a more complex musical style."

Here's the first "real" jazz piece introduced in the O'Connor Method, "Lazy River," a 1930 tune by "Hoagy" Carmichael.

("Hoagy" Carmichael, "Lazy River," 1930)

"I chose 'Lazy River' because it's a very slow-tempo jazz, swing piece," Mark said. "It almost sounds like it's slowed down for a student, but it's not. The tempo is natural to the piece of music, and therefore the slow tempo is going to be friendly to learn how to play jazz for the first time, to a student, but not feel like they're having to slow the whole thing down and be less-than. This is actually the way the music goes."

It's the kind of tune that can introduce a student to the idea of "swinging" the beat. "The beauty about swing is that it's individual -- everybody swings different," Mark said. "You can swing it a little bit, you can swing it a lot, and it's all okay. It's just how each student wants to interpret the music."

What's swing? "The name of the style 'Ragtime' is actually derived from a term called 'Ragged time,'" Mark said. "It was an African-American musical terminology from the early 1800s. Rather than playing straight eighth notes, you start playing them raggedly, meaning one would be longer and the other short."

Another ongoing lesson has to do with the nature of improvisation, that it occurs within a framework. "If you went up to a violin player and you said, 'Improvisation,' their head would come apart," Mark said. "They would think that they would have to improvise every single note, every single measure -- from scratch. But No jazz musician thinks like that. No blue grass musician thinks like that." The first song in Book 3, the "Rubber Dolly Rag" is structured in such a way that certain anchor notes are clear, and some simple improvisation can be inserted around those.

As for those skills that every violinist needs to learn, Mark has incorporated pieces to help with that as well. "A lot of the techniques that are in Book 3 are still about learning how to play the violin better," O'Connor said. "The big technical acquisition for Book 3 is going to be shifting to second position and third position." For that, "I chose two pieces that inherently go into second position and third position naturally and organically, and repeatedly, within the phrase."

The music he uses to introduce third position is a fiddle tune called Grey Eagle, which, as he explains in extensive notes in the book, was a favorite tune of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, who played the violin himself. "Grey Eagle is the very piece that I learned how to shift into third position," Mark said. "So this is really the method I used."

Here is a version of that tune (the one in the book is simplified for a level-three student):

The shifting even comes with a nice, big slide, and "the slide itself is a part of the music, so you don't have to go, oh gee, it's unfortunate that I have to do this sliding," Mark said. "They can actually take their time with it, they don't have to worry about making it a quick gliss, and they can find their pitch that way, too."

Mark presents Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" to introduce second position, and it works in a similar way: the shift comes repeatedly in the melody - six times in the "A" section. "It's a very natural motion, to go back and forth and get the feeling of shifting, and the musicality of it, until hopefully it becomes second nature," Mark said. "And it's such a strong melody, that's the other thing. When the student is enduring learning these technical feats, they're actually liking the music they're playing. Once they've got the shifting done, they've got the tune, so they can play it, they can entertain somebody with 'The Entertainer'!"

Whether these pieces will work as planned, remains to be seen. My own students have played music from these books, with mixed results, mostly because many of them need something more advanced that does not yet exist in this method. They've enjoyed learning to enhance a song with slides, to improvise, to swing a rhythm. One of them can't stop playing "Florida Blues," from Book 2. Of course, I'm not trying to make her stop! They've learned the music quickly, but as teachers know: learning some pieces and learning to play are two different things. Learning to play involves a great breadth. My most fiddle-hungry student, a regular improviser who also needed some extra work in second position, tried "The Entertainer" but found it so repetitive that she politely asked to get back to the Vivaldi concerto and Wolfahrt. I imagine that Mark's upper books will give her more of a challenge.

But it seems to me that she, and many others, will be interested in both Bach and Barber, in both Vivaldi and Grappelli.

Shinichi Suzuki had thousands of children playing at a very high level before teachers starting begging him to share his ideas. Even then, he would not call his philosophy a "method." His method was a means to an end, not an end itself. So I hope we keep an eye on the prize. Certainly American music, with all its rich history and unique components, should be part of the picture. But it's a big picture. I love the idea of the O'Connor Method, but time will be the real test of where it belongs and how it helps best, when it comes to teaching the violin and helping students become fluent in music and their own cultures.


March 30, 2012 at 08:18 PM · Thanks for quoting my interview, Laurie! :)

March 30, 2012 at 09:05 PM · Thanks Laurie for the blog on my O'Connor Method! I did want to correct a couple of your statements at the blog's conclusion. I want to make sure the information we share is correct because I want people to read your article and come away with the accurate picture. I actually tested the theories, concepts and materials of the O'Connor Method - the American School of Strings if you will to thousands of students in the O'Connor Camps over an 18 year period before coming out with the Method two years ago. Many players who have participated in what I am calling the American School, have now attained an incredible high level of technical ability and musicianship. They have succeeded with my concepts and philosophies of violin pedagogy/training in the American scene that includes folk music, jazz, improvisation - fiddling... Many of these former students are so accomplished that they in fact teach at my Camps (Berklee College) today, lead ensembles, play with orchestras and compose.

In addition to that, the majority of the musical pieces, styles and concepts I use in the O'Connor Method have allowed "fiddler's" for the last 100 and 200 years to achieve excellence as well. So these very concepts culminating from the American scene historically in fact have been tried and tested for hundreds of years including my own development as a music student. I just wanted to make sure that this is very clear. While my method is new, the concepts, materials, creativity and philosophy is not only as old as my own string camps that have seen 5,000 students come through them, but in fact specifically and literally taken from hundreds of years of training and excelling in the American scene! -Mark O'Connor

April 11, 2012 at 02:34 AM · There is a difference between testing concepts on students during a course at a week-long camp and testing a primary method over the crucial first eight or so years of a student's weekly lessons and daily practice. The O'Connor Method remains largely unwritten, so I'd still hold that time will tell. Also, when 5,000 students who learned to play the violin elsewhere go to a one-week camp and then go on to play well and earn awards, you can't really claim that solely as the achievement of the camp's methods. Certainly people have been very inspired and learned a great deal, even changed their entire focus as a result of these wonderful camps. But I need no correction in asserting that time will tell about the O'Connor Method.

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