Mark O’Connor, yes, Mark O’Connor! This very special guy, the one that fiddles and composes, is here for The Glass. Okay, I really do need something sharper than a pinch this time!
Not that he needs an intro, but let me preface this by saying as many years had gone by, we have watched Mr. O’Connor go from competitive fiddling to playing in bands and jamming/trading licks with colleagues (Dixie Dregs, Bela Fleck, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer–really big list that goes on!), to being a violinist of great stylistic advancements, not to mention become a composer of various repertoire for violin and band, violin and orchestra, just orchestra, string quartet, etc., and has been involved in several different genres that range from bluegrass to country (Mark had actually informed me that bluegrass and country are rival genres in Nashville) to jazz and long-form compositional music (In marketing terms, “classical music” :)).
For many years, Mark has also been a strong advocate for proper music learning, giving lectures and workshops in music schools all over the country, and founding the annual Mark O’Connor String Camp, the organization of which he is currently the president. He has also just published the 3rd installment of the O’Connor Method series of violin books.
It was an absolute pleasure and honor to speak with him!
CM: Can you briefly talk about how you became interested in the violin and the way that your major influences have shaped your music up to today?
MOC: I loved violin from the first time I heard it on recordings and saw it on television. I was drawn to the range and the scope of the violin which not only included Heifetz for me, my favorite classical violinist, but Stephane Grapelli’s jazz and Benny Thomasson’s fiddling. It was the depth of the violin that interested me right from the start up until present day. I felt like it was the instrument that I could most express my emotions through. I also loved the violin as a muse for composition and improvisation. It seemed, and still does seem limitless to me.
CM: You were a major competitor in fiddle contests. There are some soloists that are of the point of view now that competing seems to go against their nature as individual artists. Do you also feel this way now?
MOC: That is pretty funny, I have to say! If these soloists you are referring to are professional musicians, the kind of “competition” they practice routinely against their colleagues, like competing for gigs, recording opportunities, music festival slots, open act slots, radio shows or TV appearances, etc. etc., makes the amateur fiddle contests in Weiser, Idaho for instance, seem like small potatoes!
13-yr-old Mark playing “Tom and Jerry” on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1975
CM: The O’Connor Method is still going very strong, and you just released the 3rd volume of that series. How imperative is it for there to be this method for young players, and how does your method differ from Suzuki?
MOC: It is because of Suzuki that I was compelled to author a method because many see the Suzuki Method as extremely flawed. You have to remember I have directed 40 string camps over the last 20 years and have seen 5,000 students in those camps and so I hear all of the stories about what they see as a failure of the Suzuki Method. And that is just a small amount compared to all of the other classes I have given around the country during my career hearing and seeing the same issues–parents coming up to me, and telling me that their kids are quitting violin. We see the attrition, see the frustration, how it has hurt families after investing a few years into a system that let them down.
Since Suzuki is so widespread, the question we have to ask ourselves regarding just how far string playing and string music has fallen in
American music, in the American culture, in schools and in practically every aspect of music in the American scene, including classical music in the last 50 years? I see my Method as a huge cultural corrector, and hopefully we can turn this around so we can once again nurture creative string playing, string composers, string improvisers, band leaders who are string players, the soul and individuality of soloists, as well preserve and nurture orchestra musicians etc etc.–Can you imagine if Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong had Suzuki training instead of the training they did? We basically need another option, and deserve one. Right now we are in danger of losing strings at all school levels including the University level if we don’t embrace string playing in our culture within this country with our own traditions and history, as well as in new ways and creative ways as well. We have to make a serious attempt to re-engage the violin as an American instrument, not just something we are borrowing from Europe. We simply have
overlooked American music in string playing and string teaching historically. And we are going to pay a heavy price for it. That is why I
authored a new Method featuring American music and learning concepts found in the Americas to learn violin and strings by. I think it will be a great success. It already is.
Appalachia Waltz (w/protege Ruby Jane at PopTech, MN; date unknown)
CM: How did you enter the world of composing? (I really enjoy your concertos, by the way!) Can you also talk about the Improvised Concerto, and is there going to be a recording made of it?
MOC: I knew a long time ago that even as good a player as I was, it will be my composing, my musical ideas and stylistic development for the violin that people will also remember me for. I used to tell my friends that if I ever want to make the music history books, I will have to write my way there too! And I still believe that! I made sure that I had plenty of time to compose beginning around 1990, dropping all outside music work as a freelancer and seeking out the right commissions for me to compose. Those commissions have now produced an enormous amount of music, including nine full length concertos. My latest is the Improvised Violin Concerto. I just performed the finale of the concerto for a gala at Loyola University last month, and played the full piece with the Buffalo Symphony the month before. The composition was commissioned by the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras and the film of that premiere will be a DVD release next season! It is pretty exciting to have yet another completely new musical idea out there and inspiring a whole new generation of string players. The fact that I am actually improvising every note of the concerto on stage is quite a new thing for classical music presentation. I hope I live long enough to play it all over the world!
Fiddle Encore (Live in Brooklyn, NY 2008)
CM: I had just interviewed Natalie MacMaster, and she speaks very highly of you and loved teaching at your fiddle camp (She said of meeting you it was “like meeting a movie star” and she says to give you a “big fat HELLO”)! Any thoughts?
MOC: Natalie MacMaster was one of the first success stories of my String Camp. She was a student at the very first one 20 years ago, and so the Camp helped her realize the musical and career aspirations she was seeking there. She further discovered at my camps that a Cape Breton fiddler could become the world’s fiddler. And she did it! Natalie also began teaching there by the 2nd year and because of this, begins a long line of students becoming teachers and leaders in the string music field at my Camps. I am grateful for all of the times we have played together, including her recording my “Olympic Reel” twice and helping to make it a standard in Canada. Many Canadian fiddlers I have run into today believe that “Olympic Reel” is a traditional Canadian classic! But in fact I composed it inspired by Natalie visiting my string camps, and used her for my muse. The commission, however, was from the Closing Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in 1996. I remember when I first played it for her, I prefaced it by saying that I wrote this in her style. She responded by saying that I love it and I want to learn it, but I don’t recognize any of my playing or style in your tune! I would like to match her “big fat hello” and raise it one by saying “Natalie, I love you!”.
CM: And there was the great collaboration/battle on “The Devil Comes Back To Georgia” with Charlie Daniels on the other fiddle, and Johnny Cash among the vocalists (from your CD Heroes). Were all the parts cut at the same time? And can you talk about skateboarding and playing simultaneously?
MOC: The iconic Charlie Daniels and I played live in the studio together with my American Music Shop Band for our “Devil Comes Back to Georgia” recording in 1992. You can actually see some live footage of the recording on a video from my YouTube channel called: “Devil Comes Back to Georgia” feat. Mark O’Connor with Daniels, Cash, Tritt and Marty Stuart. The vocals were overdubbed later, but we got those fiddles rockin’ live on that track but did some fixing and overdubs on it too! I played the part of Johnny and Charlie had to do the Devil’s part. Although I don’t think he was that excited about representing the Devil in the video! So we got Travis Tritt to do a lot of the devilish faces and antics that helped make the video so widely watched and liked! Johnny Cash singing lead on the song was a dream come true as well. He was my hero since I was eight years old. What a cool project to have pulled off! It still gets a lot of attention–the epic fiddle duel, that I ended up winning…Maybe those early fiddle contests helped me prepare for this ultimate role against the Devil!
In the video of the song I did a little playing and skateboarding. That was not an overdub–live take! Just rubbing my win in to the Devil as the song concludes! Charlie was incredible to work with. It was the first video to receive airplay on all three video formats of the day – VH1, MTV and CMT. It is a featured track on my album Heroes, easily one of the best albums I have made!
The Devil Comes Back To Georgia (Music video w/Charlie Daniels, Johnny Cash, Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart; Mark O’Connor on fiddle and skateboard; 1992)
Mark’s official website. Click on it for all kinds of info, including how to purchase his O’Connor Method books as well as his new CD American Classics