Famed 'fiddler' pulls strings for music education
Violinist Mark O’Connor wants to build interest in American music -- and music education in general.
April 3rd, 2012
06:20 AM ET

Famed 'fiddler' pulls strings for music education

by Todd Leopold, CNN

Atlanta (CNN) – Mark O’Connor is comfortable with mixing it up.

The Grammy-winning violinist - or “fiddler,” as he prefers - first gained fame as a teenage prodigy, learning at the elbows of Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. He’s played with rock groups, blues bands, symphony orchestras and bluegrass artists, jumping from genre to genre with assurance and joy.

Now he wants to add “educator” to his list of activities. His “O’Connor Method” of string playing builds on his interest in American music, deliberately veering away from the classical pieces emphasized in other programs.

“This kind of cross-cultural approach to music learning could have only happened here,” says O’Connor in an interview at CNN Center. “We, by nature, are curious about being Americans. We generally are interested in what other cultures and other ethnicities offer our country. And music is the perfect vehicle to express these positive attributes.”

Music teachers couldn’t agree more.

“Students are coming to us in American classrooms from around the world, and it makes sense that musical styles are going to reflect the students whom we’re teaching,” says Kirk D. Moss, president of the American String Teachers Association.  He notes that the group celebrates a wide variety of music, even hosting an “eclectic styles” festival as part of its yearly conference.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of different kinds of music and music groups,” he adds. “That whole door is more open now than in the past.”

The gateway of music

It certainly wasn’t that way when O’Connor was growing up around Seattle in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Though he showed a tremendous aptitude for violin, guitar and mandolin - even winning a national fiddling championship at age 13 - the music teacher at his high school, devoted to choral and band, didn’t support his work in a jazz trio in which O’Connor played guitar. And the school itself, O’Connor recalls on his website, wouldn’t approve of a tour he was offered with a local community college.

“Ever since then, I have had an utter distaste for the nonsensical rules of the entrenched, and a fiery desire to plead another approach,” he writes.

After leaving Seattle, O’Connor eventually joined the jazz-rock Dixie Dregs and then moved to Nashville, where he became a sought-after session man. For the past two decades he’s been all over the map, composing for orchestras, small groups and soloists in several styles of music.

But teaching violin remains close to his heart.

“I thought that strings could be in trouble for the first time in the history of strings,” he says when describing the origins of the O’Connor Method. “The string environment has not embraced American music like the other musical departments, like wind and brass and percussion – the strings are still hanging with Mozart and Vivaldi. It’s up to people like me to bridge some of these gaps in our art.”

Music educators appreciate the encouragement, as these are both the best of times and the worst of times for their profession.

On the plus side, programs still enjoy great support. Bands and choral groups are still a mainstay at schools, and at least 150 string programs were created between 1999 and 2009, according to Moss. The recent American String Teachers Association meeting in Atlanta set a record for attendance, Moss adds.

And far from simply teaching notes and rhythms, in the last two decades music teachers have emphasized the subject’s many disciplines, says Mark Kovacs, a music teacher at Tarkanian Middle School in Las Vegas, Nevada, who attended the association’s meeting. Music is an entry point to acoustics, language, history and math, he says.

“I teach physics. I teach European history and culture. I teach French,” he points out.

“We’re required to be cross-curricular and represent all ethnicities, all belief systems,” says Katharine Mason, a music teacher visiting from Boulder, Colorado.

But there’s also the economic challenges of the last decade: budget cuts, job losses - and the need to meet testing goals in key subjects, which prompts some districts to move money away from music. According to news reports, school districts in Kansas, Texas and California, among others, have eliminated or threatened to eliminate music education positions.

“There are fiscal strains in programs, especially music education in primary schools,” says Michael Butera, executive director of the National Association for Music Education.

Currently, 95 percent of elementary school students receive some music instruction, a figure that declines to about 50 percent at the middle school level and 22 percent for high school, according to the music education association. If cutbacks are made in the lower grades, Butera says, the pool of students in the upper grades will go down even more.

All of it keeps music teachers wary.

Creating enthusiasm

Butera observes that music education has benefits beyond simply learning music and related disciplines. The subject creates enthusiasm among students, teaches collaboration and showcases creativity.

“In America, we use music to celebrate our grandest moments, and we use it to help soothe our hurts at moments of tragedy,” he says. “If we demonstrate we care, the students will care. We need to have policymakers understand the long-term value of not just in the school curriculum, but also for life.”

O’Connor agrees.

“It’s amazing how much music is central to our humanity,” he says. “We’ll go to great lengths to have music in our lives.”

Teachers remain optimistic that schools – and parents – will continue to go to great lengths to keep music in the educational curriculum. Moss says that research indicates that administrators want students to have arts experiences, and Mark Kovacs’ wife Ingrid, also a music teacher in Las Vegas schools, says that the skills learned in music class will serve them in their careers.

“Children need to have a well-rounded education to be flexible in the skills they bring into the workforce, and that’s what employers are looking for,” she says. “Even though our schools are maybe modeled after the 19th-century factory workplace, our workers now have to be much more able to take on new tasks quicker than 100 years ago or even 50 years ago.”

“We’re built to learn,” adds her husband.

O’Connor believes that it will take him up to seven years to complete the O’Connor Method books. (The first book came out in 2009; Book III was released last fall.) He’s been devoting more time to playing with students, including an appearance at the Atlanta conference and a concert in New Orleans with a student ensemble. He says it can’t help but make him more committed to the cause.

“I’m living out the experience,” he says.

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  10. Lucretia_Borgia

    Saw Mark OConner years ago in Pittsburgh. Just him, his fiddle and an empty stage. He played solid for well over an hour.

    Gushing fans explained they would be jamming later... Would he join them? Of course. He gave some part-time fiddlers a memory to treasure that evening.

    A wonderful memory for those in the audience as well.

    April 3, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  11. relians

    one of the most fantastically talented and enjoyable musicians i have ever listened to. i have a cd with yo yo ma, meyer and o'connor that is wonderful

    April 3, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
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    April 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  13. Laura C. Bates

    I am currently accepting registrants for the first Canadian seminar on the O'Connor method to be held from May 4 – 6 in Toronto. Please email me at info@lauracbates.com if you are interested.

    April 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  14. vcatron

    Music is what makes kife work,. I have been a Mark O'Connor fan for years. I play guitar, banjo, bagpipes and whistles. I had a fabolus music teacher in HS named Bob McKinsey who had us explaore all musical styles and that was great. I am a fan of many new and innovative musicians Sierra Hall and Sarah Joroz to name a few.

    April 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • CTYank

      Just so others can search on them, the young ladies I think you refer to are:
      Sierra Hull
      Sarah Jarosz.

      We'll be hearing of/from them for many years, I hope. (Samples of their work are on YouTube.)

      April 3, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  15. Rob

    Well that's a bright side I came from banning dinosaurs from tests.

    April 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • don


      April 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |

    Mr. Conner – please stay in Nashville and use this curriculum in our public schools with the We are Music Campaign where we intend to implement all avenues of American, classical, and modern music. Mayor Dean has a unique approach that I believe is worth your time to investigate.

    April 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  17. Derick in NC

    I knew O'Conner when he played with the Dregs. He was humble with his greatness as a young adult and it is wonderful to see he is still humble after all the fame and glory.

    April 3, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Dan

      Agree w/Derick 100%.....I saw mark in the 90s perform solo at a small church in S Fla and he was a true gent as well as top notch musician......."Gina-Lolla-Breakdown" anyone?

      April 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  18. Wintergrass (Bellevue, WA)

    Mark is right on target!!! You should see the exciting things that we've been doing at the Wintergrass Music Festival (Bellevue, WA) with Roots/Bluegrass music and youth education! You'll see tons of kids jamming throughout the festival! Unlike the statistics for the music drop-out rate in the traditional school approach to music, kids learning American music find a community! They pick up an instrument and play for the rest of their lives making all sorts of friends wherever they go! So far we have two middle schools (one an inner city school and one a suburban school) who have incorporated American music into their orchestra program (including starting bluegrass bands and going on bluegrass retreats!), a Wintergrass Youth Orchestra performance with 150+ students from multiple states and at least 6 different middle schools (and ethnically diverse) performing with world-class musicians, a teacher seminar on incorporating American music and dance into a multi-discipline approach to motivate students and increase learning, a Youth Academy for 7 – 14 year old, and 90+ workshops for folks of all ages. There's also a spin-off after schools youth orchestra focusing on American music and summer camps. The Wintergrass youth Orchestra conductor is incoming president of the AMerican String Teacher Associtaio (ASTA), and the Wintergrass Education Director is chairing ASTA's Eclectic styles (that's where, jazz, bluegrass,folk and other American music gets classified) committee. A whole lot of excitement and "buzz" going on there!

    Many thanks to CNN for recognizing Mark O'Connor and the importance of American music!!! There are a lot of amazing programs that are getting started and people need to know about what's going on!!! The results have been amazing! Kids are having a blast, they've got a wonderful supportive community, they're doing well in other studies, and parents are very enthusiastic about the results!

    April 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  19. amboygirl

    It's important that music be taught via a method that fits individual styles. If the curriculum is too rigid or involves music the student doesn't like, it will not benefit the student. The love of a particular music style is very motivating. I'm wondering, with the introduction of music therapy into schools, could Mark's program coordinate some of that therapy into his curriculum.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  20. smalltownkafka

    Ah, so like me, you must know his son and his family and have all kinds of back-up?

    April 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  21. wunderland

    Pleasantly amazed that CNN put this as a lead page e-article.Mark O'Conner is a musical genius – in any musical genre – and its encouraging to read what he is trying to do for American public eduction.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  22. M Donohoe

    Music opens the mind. Anyone who know anything about history knows that the code breakers in WWII were recruited from musicians. Computer programming followed as there is a link between the art of music and the mechanics of programming.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Matty Alou

      Not to mention the link between music education and success in math. Could we be losing the technology wars due to a misguided belief that music is some artsy-f@rtsy luxury when it's actually a foundation for the kind of learning we need to encourage?

      April 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  23. jj doe

    I had a fiddle for 10 years, and never knew what to do with it – until I ran into Old Time /bluegrass music. Very easy to play, and the music is made to be played on the fiddle.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  24. George Bausewein

    I agree that strings are most often associated with classical. However, having a great appreciation for Sinatra's music, and especially the wonderful arrangement that accompanied him, I also have a great appreciation for the many orchestrations that include strings. They added such a lushness to the sound. Without those strings, there would be a great deal missing from the beauty of the Sinatra catalog.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  25. Matty Alou

    Mark O'connor is a giant of American music and of traditional "classical" music. It's really refreshing to see someone who can embrace both. In my experience, the classical world turns up its collective nose at anything that sniffs of regular folks, and most "fiddlers" refuse to consider more complex forms because they're afraid their audiences will turn away. Among the few exceptions are Perlman and Ma, who have both recorded with O'Connor. The term "classical fiddle" has never been so apt as when O'Connor coined it several years ago.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  26. Aunt B

    Having been a student of both Mark O'Conner and Jana Jae; I would choose Jana Jae over Mark O'Conner a million times.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • smalltownkafka

      Thanks for making a good story about you.

      April 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  27. jc

    what mark is doing is incredible and should be applauded. he's an amazing musician and more students should be made aware of great teachers and players like him...

    April 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  28. NorCalMojo

    He's fighting a losing battle. Music and culture are too closely tied. Schools are already getting into trouble because they can't put on a concert without offending someone. If they cater to the chronically offended, concerts are boring and contrived.

    Public school music programs are dinosaurs. Hopefully private clubs will fill the void.

    April 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Mark in California

      I completely disagree. Our Public schools need to keep or bring back music programs as its a part of a well-rounded education. I haven't heard of any schools having problems with concerts and those music programs that I have attended have shown a beneift to all. It brings a value to children that you can't get anywhere else.

      April 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • jc

      i hope you don't show up then. these are the types of opinions we, as educators, have to fight against!

      April 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
      • Newton Fountain

        Got your education to pervert a making of perverts right hear in my wonderful of actually being to read, liars and really stupid one's at that with only malice intent,. owe lie to me again, whatever baby killers with my flute so far up your ass no one can see, and your well like you would no what was your up ass.

        April 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • smalltownkafka

      For someone who sounds so certain, you couldn't be more wrong, but then I'm inside the story rather than outside it making it about me

      April 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • smalltownkafka

      so, you're wrong but negative. Sounds just like the kind of instrumental teachers who succeed at making kids hate music. Glad there are people like Mark

      April 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  29. Pander Bear

    Mark O'Connor is a stellar player and a stellar human being.

    April 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  30. ericgoestoholland

    Yes, Maestro...

    April 3, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  31. Jim in Texas

    I teach strings/bluegrass in the Dallas area, and am fully supportive of this approach to getting "American" music introduced into schools. Putting a violin in the hands of a kid and immersing them in dead European composers is a fast track to a fiddle in a garage sale the day that kid graduates. Kids are surrounded by music they want to hear, learn, and play, and American schools are just beginning to release themselves from centuries old European models of teaching.

    April 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Bud in NC

      Jim- I agree with you to a point. As an amateur, I have played in orchestras as well as Bluegrass bands. I love Bill Monroe as well as Mozart. The violin/fiddle is great no matter what the style of music. The schools should introduce all styles of music, then let the students pick their favorite. Mark O'Connor is a towering genius. I do agree with your point about fiddles in garage sales.

      April 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  32. Kenny of Salt

    When I was in music school many years ago, I took a master class from Mr. O'Conner's fellow Dreg, pianist T Lavitz. He had a similar eclectic approach to playing music that I have tried to emulate and that continues to shape my playing to this day. Thanks, Mr. O'Conner, for helping keep American music growing.

    April 3, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Dan

      T Lavitz & the Bad Habitz.....RIP Mr T!

      April 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  33. LaBuffster

    Mr. O'Connor could easily sit on his laurels but, like many big fish in the Americana/Bluegrass/American Roots' pond, he's giving back.
    What an enlightened and welcome piece, CNN. Thanks .

    April 3, 2012 at 11:48 am |