Like my first experience attending Mark O’Connor’s Fiddle Camp in Tennessee nearly 10 years ago, everywhere I turned at his inaugural Mark O’Connor String Institute at UCLA, students shared their feelings about their experience as “a great way for classically-trained musicians to get into something non-classical;” in other words, moving toward a whole array of other musical genres ranging from jazz and classical to fiddling and world music.
I had a chance to sit down with Mark on the final day of his L.A. camp before heading off to the afternoon classes. In addition to being known as a multi-Grammy-Award-winning composer and violinist, Mark’s musical passions include teaching and providing venues where students and teachers come together for five days of music and a lifetime of memories and friendships. Unlike the Tennessee camp, this program includes instruction for viola, cello and double-bass. While there is still no audition required to enroll, the program specifies it is not open to beginners. Students attend a variety of three 90-minute class periods daily. There are also student and teacher performances nightly which remain open to the public free of charge. Although I didn’t get the chance to stick around for the evening performances, Mark told me this camp still maintains one of the best features which is the nighttime jam session, now held at a beautiful terrace near the dorm rooms which houses many of the participants. A total of 52 students attended the camp, less than the 90 who attended his Tennessee program and the over 200 that signed up for his upcoming sold-out New York City String Camp, which includes a Teacher Training Course designed for music teachers.
Ideally, Mark tells me, he’d want to provide scholarships for younger students to attend his camp, a subject he calls close to his heart. His focus next turns toward his soon-to-be published new O’Connor Violin Method in two separate method books with Method 1 starting at the very beginning with lots of visual aids. “Fiddle Boy” who acts as a musical buddy, appears throughout the book encouraging students to focus on the feeling of the music, rather than clinging to ideas of perfection. Instruction books will provide an accompanying CD and full piano accompaniment. Another reason for the books is to illuminate the importance of American musical literature, which he calls “powerful.”
When it came time to return to afternoon class sessions, I sat in on violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s Master Class – Practice Habits and Performance Preparation. The classroom consisted of all boys, mostly high school and young college age that made the usual excuses for “not practicing.” The kids come from a mixture of classical, jazz and fiddling styles and seem relieved to hear Rachel’s talk on “mental practice” and encouragement to listen to all kinds of recordings, including you tube videos as a way to prepare and think about musical interpretation. There was a refreshing discussion concerning fears about playing in front of others, and one student seemed to strike a familiar chord when expressing his fear of being the subject of “gossip and rumors” if he made a mistake. To help allay fears, Rachel suggests that while we have to work on the technical aspects of playing, we need to shift to the reason we’re playing music in the first place which is meant to enrich and uplift the lives of our audience. “You have to think about the bigger purpose of why people come to hear you,” she emphasizes.
Next, I stopped in on a class (somewhat ironically) called “Crossing Over – Support Group for the Classical Musician,” taught by cellist Mike Block. Mike is far from your typical classical musician and walking into his class and seeing a blues scale written broadly across the chalkboard, I knew I was in for an interesting discussion. He discusses a topic not often talked about – what one wants to do to be happy as a professional musician. He explains that while he’s had intense classical training, he really enjoys playing lots of “different types of music.” He adds he doesn’t really listen to classical music much (oh, the shock!) and “wanted to come out of being trapped in a classical music identity.” Perhaps my favorite line came when he said: “It’s O.K. to make a fool out of yourself” and added it’s necessary if one is going to try something new.
Other classes included Canadian Fiddling Tunes by April Verch, “Keys to Understanding the Development of a Solo by Creating New Melodies” with jazz master John Blake and an opportunity for students to take private and/or group instruction with cellist and UCLA music professor, Antonio Lysy.
While students varied in age, experience, musical taste and whether or not they had the ability to improvise, one thing is certain; as Rachel Barton Pine points out, “it really doesn’t matter which style you play, you still need to practice every day!”
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