November 15, 2012 at 5:28 AMFor the last few years, I’ve been looking for a violin method that is thoughtful and exciting, comprehensive and musical. I’ve always been an open-minded guy, so my search has been wide and practical. After teaching the O’Connor Method for the last two years at the SOL-LA Music Academy, I can say that it is what I was looking for: it fits my priorities and my students love it.
There are certain qualities that I was looking for and here is why I think the O’Connor Method nails them. A perfect method should be...
1. Musical - the repertoire must be fun, interesting, inspiring and relevant.
The songs in the O'Connor method are recognizable classics that are tuneful, memorable, singable and trace the tradition of American fiddling as well as much of American music in general.
2. Intuitive - it should take minimal effort for a child to figure it out before they can start playing.
Once a child can play with three fingers, they can start volume 1. The first three songs are easy variations of Boil 'em Cabbage Down, an old African-American song. The note changes are slow, they go with the harmony and are easy to remember. Similar to Twinkle variations but less cumbersome and more harmonically-oriented (more on that next).
Each song naturally flows from the one before, so the student feels comfortable and confident. If you try to teach from the written music first, you'll run into trouble, so by ear is definitely a better way in. Isn't that, after all, how so many great musicians learned and passed on their musical traditions? With each new song, just start singing, clapping and playing. Trust me, reading after that is a piece of cake.
I only wish that the full lyrics were included with each song, though maybe not the full original lyrics with their 20 verses.
3. Comprehensive - it's not enough for violinists to know how to put one note in front of the other. It should help me, as a teacher, to teach harmony, rhythm, form, all within each song.
If you want your students to be well-rounded and intuitive musicians, teach them to feel the harmony, the rhythm and the form. The O’Connor Method has chord symbols (if you don't know what they mean, learn them tonight!), cool rhythms and easy forms that we use every day. Verses and choruses are more important to understand nowadays than sonata form, and a good ole' AABABA may apply as much to an Irish jig as to an old German one.
Grown-up descriptions often get in the way: listen, sing, play and your 5-year-old student will master sub-dominant chords without ever saying 'sub-dominant chord'.
4. Open - it should give me and my students the freedom to improvise or compose variations, solos, accompaniments, etc.
The O'Connor Method makes it easy for me to teach by exploration and play, which, as I talked about in my previous blog-post, I see as the basis for artistry and learning. With the chords, I not only can accompany the students in any way I want (besides the published piano part), but I can also easily teach the students to accompany me or even themselves (with GarageBand).
The songs are meant to be variated, arranged and improvised upon just as they have always been by both professional and amateur musicians. With this method, a beginning student can do all those things as well and learn so much in the process.
5. Practice-friendly - Students need to be able to practice the music on their own, so it must have practice resources like recordings or guides.
Most methods provide this and the O'Connor method is no exception. The violin part in the CDs is recorded by Mark himself, so the students get a sense of how to play these styles. This has been helpful for me as well, as a newbie to some of the American fiddling traditions. It's also helpful that the CDs include accompaniment-only tracks.
It would be great if we could get slower versions (maybe 3 tempi for each song), since not everyone has access to tempo-changing apps such as the Amazing Slow Downer. This could easily be made available as mp3s and would make practicing that much easier. For now, students can only play along with a track once they have already mastered the song.
6. Communal - some of the most effective and enjoyable learning happens socially, so the method has to make playing with others easy and interesting.
This is where the O'Connor method really brings it home. The music was born out of communities and traditions and Mark has been an activist for extending this spirit of making music together. I saw this aspect of the method when I attended his most recent summer camp in Charleston, South Carolina. Every day, students and teachers got together and jammed for two hours. Also, students were encouraged to play music outside as much as they wanted in any way they wanted: singing, tapping, clapping, playing and chopping. Just friends making music. I observed Pam Wiley (Mark's passionate collaborator for the method and Suzuki veteran of more than 30 years) engaged the students in all kinds of improvising schemes that I wish were included in the method in one way or another.
The method is a mammoth effort for violin, viola, cello and string orchestra, one level at a time and with ten in mind. There are three violin volumes published so far, so it will be a while until the whole thing is finished. In the meantime, I have already incorporated what’s out there so far into my teaching. To be sure, I teach other music as well, but this has given me such a great set of tools that I can’t even remember how I managed to teach before.
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