Arts Desk

Violinist Mark O’Connor On Playing Whatever the Hell He Wants

Violinist, fiddler, guitarist and mandolin player Mark O’Connor is something of a musical polyglot, or maybe schizophrenic. As a composer, his music blends classical music with jazz, bluegrass, Appalachian folk, flamenco, and whatever else he’s feeling at the moment, and his collaborators range from Yo-Yo Ma to Rosanne Cash. Apparently bored with simply performing music, then composing his own, O’Connor decided to develop his own method of music instruction, humbly called the O’Connor Method. It is, by his account, a more holistic approach than the punishingly repetitive Suzuki method, but it still sounds vague as to what exactly it entails (more on that below). Still, it’s an intriguing new trajectory for a guy who doesn't like to stick to only one thing very long.

O’Connor plays three nights in D.C. starting tonight. Appropriately, it’s not at a classical venue but at Blues Alley. O’Connor spoke with Arts Desk by phone.

How did you get into jazz?

I trained with [French jazz violinist] Stephane Grappelli. I was 17 at the time and he was 71. That was a very formative training period for me. He died in 1997 and I missed him so much I put a jazz group together in 1998, The Hot Swing Trio. It’s been 15 years and this is the group I’m bringing with me to Washington.

What do you call your music? Contemporary classical? Classical fusion?

I just call it American music at this point. I don’t try to separate the genres, I try to bring them together and not repeat the old.

Is the line that defines classical music becoming more blurred due to people like yourself?

When I started making a career out of it, people said what I was doing was impossible. You have to pick and choose one style. I didn’t listen to those naysayers. I wasn’t very anxious to take the academic route. I wanted to make American music more academic, to bring ragtime into the conservatory.

Historically, classical composers have had a hard time succeeding in the broader culture of music, unless someone got a breakout film score. But to put together a great career as a composer is harder and harder to do. I feel it’s because we’re ignoring our best source material: American music. The African-American musical experience especially should always have a central place in American music.

Describe your teaching method.

It’s only been around for three years but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. The way they teach violin to kids, it’s almost like an indoctrination of thinking about music. I hear thousands of stories firsthand of people who quit playing the violin after learning it as a child. It’s usually something that was not a great part of their childhoods. My childhood included other things like basketball, skateboarding, so I wanted to make the violin part of that experience. If you took Suzuki lessons, you used the same temperament, the same tempo, the same few keys, the same expressions. What I teach is an all-inclusive, holistic approach that is embodied in the American music system.

Given your work with multiple styles, genres and instruments, do you worry about cultivating a “jack of all trades, master of none” reputation? Do you ever feel the urge to focus on just one thing?

When you focus on one thing you don’t have to neglect the others. I had people tell me things like “your bluegrass will hurt your classical.” I had heroes of mine tell me I shouldn’t play more than one instrument. It’s not accurate. What helps an artist is inspiration. I pick and choose what I want to express, and I see a lot more multi-instrumentalists out there today. So I advise my violin students, pick a second instrument. Why not? It gives you a chance to experience harmony.

O’Connor plays at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW on Friday Sept. 28, Saturday Sept. 29, and Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8 pm and 10 pm. $45. 202-337-4141.

Photo by Christopher Mclallen

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  • Mark O’Connor

    I would like to make a few clarifications in this article. The nature of cell phone interview these days with drop outs and having to repeat answers can be frustrating at times to get out what you want. I am not sure where the misinterpretation came in to play, but I will take responsibility for it. I don't play anything that I want at any time like it says here. I have projects just like most people and I work in some cases years on them. I composed nine concertos for symphony orchestra and all combined, it took me years to complete those writing commissions. When I am scheduled to play one of them, I prepare for it and play it. I don't play something else or what ever I want. Regarding my Method, I was given one paragraph to explain a body of work that has taken me decades to develop. Unfortunately my basketball reference took up half of the space. For more information on my Method for strings, there is much of it at my official website. Also, I find it interesting that Suzuki can name his method the Suzuki Method, but when I name mine the O'Connor Method, I am the one pointed out for not being humble by certain Suzuki followers. I don't think that is fair, obviously. There is also a reference to me playing classical venues as not appropriate. That is false. I have performed my concertos and original symphonic works more than 600 performances now with symphony orchestra. And those take place appropriately in classical venues. Thanks for your time on these things. MOC

  • Katy Alexander

    I read this "interview" with some surprise-was it Mark O'Connor that was being interviewed, or is this just an expose of Mike Paarlbergs ignorance of Mark O'Connor. Mebbe baby before you start typing you need to check who it is you are talking to.The dudes a legend, has been working at music since he was 13, is a concert player of renown, has composed huge amazing music, and is a really good, good guy. His Method is a really beautiful gift to future generations of musicians, and he himself is a development worker of huge importance. He worked in nashville as a very sought after session musician for 10 years and won the CMA musician of the year award 3 times, and thats only 1 type of award he has won. Your article is very tacky, has a very silly tone to it. Also, you kept inserting yourself into it, which is psychologically interesting if nothing else. As Joe Strummer would say "what do you think this is? do you think this is 1976 and you are talking to the sex pistols?" Try for a bit more substance in your stories maybe?

  • Dean Seabrook

    I was quite taken aback by the snide, rude tone of the interviewer. Do you approach all your interviews this way? Have you done any homework? O'Connor has released over two dozen albums and played as a first-call sideman on dozens more with almost every A-list artist you can name. He is a multi-award-winning champion musician in three different instruments, but your take is that he began his Method because he was bored with playing and composing? Are you aware that he has produced string camps for many hundreds of players young and old for many years? Perhaps that's where he was inspired to create a way of teaching strings that integrated American music into the curriculum? I was frankly appalled that you would treat such an accomplished artist with such disdain; do you treat others that way? Who are you, in your great accomplishment and wisdom, to deprecate Mr. O'Connor? There is always a place to discuss or critique work and approach, but if you're starting out with a negative, snarky attitude, where are you going to go? What are you trying to accomplish?

    Very poor interviewing, and very poor writing. Learn from this; perhaps learn to approach your subjects with respect and do your homework.

  • Marcia Stallon

    Yes, the tone of the interview starts off so defensive and negative. Mark truly is a legend and he's created a method that is so engaging for young (and older) children. A few years ago I had to work very hard to get my son to practice violin using the Suzuki Method (which by the way is a great method as well...there's room in the world for many different methods of teaching children to play). Once he attended the O'Connor Method Charleston Camp two years ago, he LOVES playing--he WANTS to practice. My child gets so excited now to play because he loves the songs of the Americas. He's now in book 3 and eagerly awaiting book 4. Thank you Mr. O'Connor for igniting a passion in my child that has forever changed his life trajectory.

  • Phyllis Woods

    "Mark O'Connor has been astounding listeners with his genius since he was thirteen. I believe he and Itzhak Perlman are two of the greatest musicians on the planet. After telling the world about Mark's magnificent gift for a very long time I appreciate the opportunity to repeat my compliments".-Chet Atkins egp (Nashville Cats CD)

    A gifted practitioner of different indigenous forms,O'Connor,through his work as a concert composer,employs classical ideals and forms to elaborate upon his skill,knowldege and experience as a violinist. In that sense O'Connor calls to mind yet another protagonist in the classical tradition: the virtuoso. A creature largely of the early 19th century, the musical virtuoso became a composer because there was no existing music that took advantage of his or her particular characteristics as a performer. Following in the footsteps of such notable figures from the classical pantheon as Paganini and Liszt, O'Connor proves himself to be the consummate compostional advocate for his distinctive manner of playing.-Jackson Braider,Producer,WGBH Radio Boston.

    These reviews are worthy reviews written by people who actually know what they are talking about. Perhaps you thought Suzuki was under attack?