Famed 'Fiddler' Pulls Strings for Music Education

By Cnn, Todd Leopold | St. Joseph News-Press, April 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Famed 'Fiddler' Pulls Strings for Music Education


Cnn, Todd Leopold, St. Joseph News-Press


(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. …

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