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Laurie Niles

Mark O'Connor Talks about His New American Violin Method

November 16, 2009 at 7:17 PM

If you can't go forward, go sideways for a while.

This wisdom came from one of my teaching mentors, Jim Maurer, who recognized that not all students can progress straight through the Suzuki method, or any course of study, without reaching the occasional plateau.  When a student has been stuck on the same piece, week after week, don't keep beating it into the ground. Move on. If you aren't ready to move up, find something different, but at the same level.

Learn the same thing, a new way. Teach the same thing, a new way.

These are my thoughts as the much-awaited Mark O'Connor Violin Method is released today,  exclusively through Shar Music.

Mark O'Connor and kids
Photo courtesy Mark O'Connor

Mark just might help us find a new way to teach violin playing, but one that moves alongside traditional and Suzuki methods. No need to throw anything away, but here is a way to move sideways, to broaden our base as we move forward.

Mark's stated goal is to create an “American School of Violin Playing," using all American music to teach violin technique. Some of the titles in Mark's first two books include: Boil 'em Cabbage Down, Oh Susanna, Amazing Grace, When the Saints Go Marching In, Old Joe Clark, Sweet Betsy from Pike, Red Wing, Cielito Lindo, and Shenandoah. In addition, Mark wrote many of the pieces included in the books, including his Appalachia Waltz (an arrangement of the piece he recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer), Beautiful Skies, In the Summertime and more.

In the unlikely event that you have never heard of Mark O'Connor, he spent his childhood winning fiddle contests and studying with American fiddler Benny Thomasson as well as with French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, has collaborated with famous musicians of many different genres and trains people young and old to learn new genres of violin playing every year at his fiddle camps. Lately he also has spent much time performing and recording in classical spheres, having released recordings earlier this year of his American Symphony and String Quartets, Op. 2 and 3.

I talked with Mark over the phone on Friday about his O'Connor Violin Method, and he emphasized that there is an entire history of the violin – an American history – that is yet to be told.

“Not just classical musicians, but even folk musicians don't know most of this (history)," Mark said. “People from all over the world cross-pollinated their cultures to create these amazing American music styles. Through hundreds of years of musical experimentation, we have some of the most important musical contributions the world has ever seen. That story needs to be told. Also, people need to be reminded that the violin itself took a lead role in that for 350 years, up until, arguably, when rock 'n' roll came into play in the 1950s. The violin was there at every single turn of every cultural movement, of every musical style: ragtime, blues, bluegrass, swing, jazz, and Cajun, Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville. That's something that this method will expose. The histories are riveting all the way through it."

Indeed, there is a lot more than sheet music in these books. First, they come with a CD of Mark playing all the tunes. They also include a history for each piece, colored photos and illustrations, alternate ways of playing the tunes, lyrics, theory and technique, and a cute little Mark avatar named “Fiddle Boy" who has a kid-like comment for each piece.

So far, Mark has written two method books for violin, with piano accompaniment, and he plans to write a total of 10 books. He said that over the coming months he will work on versions of the first two books for viola, cello and bass, as well as orchestral arrangements meant for group or school settings.

“It is an oversimplification to say that this is 'just like the Suzuki method but with American music as its content,' but that is a pretty fair and concise description," said Charleston, S.C.-based violin teacher Pamela Wiley, who has been teaching the Suzuki method for more than 40 years. She was a consultant on the O'Connor method books, as was strings educator in Lexington, Boston, Washington D.C., Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Albany, Cleveland and Toledo.

“Mark did not set out to copy or compete with the Suzuki method," Wiley said. “Both men have the same goal - the happiness of children and the love of the violin - so there are natural comparisons. There is certainly nothing anti-Suzuki or un-Suzuki about the method. I, personally, see Mark's method as a natural evolution of the Suzuki method for our emerging musical culture in America."

Suzuki had his Twinkle Variations that every beginner learns; Mark has “Boil 'em Cabbage Down" – an old African-American song that was the first tune Mark himself learned to play on the violin. The first book begins with the variations, then sprinkled throughout the books are more challenging variations that introduce new techniques.

“I patterned my method after some of the great methods out there, especially Suzuki, because they introduced very young people to a sequence of tunes. That's something that is also inherent in folk music learning, too," Mark said. The aural tradition – learning by ear – is another element shared between Suzuki and folk music. Ultimately, violin technique is the same, whether you are playing fiddle music, classical music, jazz or any style. The challenge was in creating a sequence of tunes that both teaches the proper techniques and holds together artistically – this is why the project had such a long gestation period – about 14 years, with pen going to paper over the last four of that.

“I was very careful in selecting the music for this method. I didn't pick something because it was a nice old tune," Mark said. “It had to bring something to the table, technically, so the student could acquire a specific skill." As with “Boil 'em Cabbage Down," Mark used a lot of the tunes he first learned as a student. “There are some of the old tunes that are not as instructive and not as pedagogical. But I was very lucky in that I had teachers who taught me tunes that helped me learn how to play the violin, as well as being timeless, cool tunes and great rhythms."

“There are a lot of beginning materials that might work technically but aren't artistically as sound," Mark said, “and there are a lot of traditional materials that are great artistically, but they don't really break down the skill acquisition correctly. So you have to think on all those different levels."

The sequence is progressive, with each new piece building on skills learned previously. The trick was to find the perfect piece to introduce each technique, and to get them in the right order. For example, the tune Mark chose for introducing the low second finger is “Old Joe Clark."

“Here's the perfect melody for the low two," Mark said. A student who hears “Old Joe Clark" wouldn't dare misplace the second finger when playing the tune. “You listen to it and you just know, there can't be any other way that melody is going to sound, that's the way it is. It's so catchy." When the music itself makes those kinds of demands on the student, the teacher finds it much easier to teach the needed technique. “The literature itself reveals some of the mysteries, secrets, and – honestly – a lot of the hardships that teachers deal with, trying to get the message across."

“Students want and need to learn traditions – history inspires young people," Mark said. “But they also want to be involved with something that's happening now." Mark's new pieces are a bridge between new and old, and he hopes that they also “show how these materials can develop into a new American classical music, to the point where this is no longer a fiddle method, or a folk music method or a traditional music method; it's designed to launch the player into any area of expertise that they ultimately want to go to. So if somebody wants to play Beethoven and Mendelssohn at some point, there's nothing in this method that will prevent them from doing that. Same way with jazz, same way with folk music."

“There's a whole creative component," Mark said. A student can choose more than one way to play these tunes, and the book shows this by offering alternate versions of various passages, accompanied by lyrics. “The children will get to see that the material is flexible: you can stretch it, you can twist it. Here are the lyrics, here is a slightly different rendition. I have made sure the student will be able to play the version that the lyric is attached to. Right away they'll see there are options."

My students were lucky enough to have been among the guinea pigs for Mark's new violin method over the last year, and quite honestly, they ate it up. And I'm evidently not the only teacher hungry for a new way to teach the timeless art of violin technique, for music that speaks to my American students.

“I've been using (Mark's) method in my own studio - private lessons and groups - since March," said Wiley. “The kids just love the music. They want to play this repertoire and they will do what needs to be done (technique-wise, practicing) to do it. I have kept up with some of the Suzuki repertoire also, but the children are more naturally motivated by Mark's music - both his original compositions and his choices from the American music tradition. I have also received many reports from other teachers using the method of similar experiences. The music is infectious and highly motivating."

“This sort of method gets people playing tunes that are also fun to play, but at the same time are very comprehensive in skill sets that they embody along the way," Mark said. And it is essential to get a student to play, and to play often. “There's only one way to learn the violin, and a teacher can't give that to you and a method book can't give it to you: It's called 'practice.' Unless the student is playing that violin, practicing and giving  attention to the instrument, they're not going to be able to acquire this skill."

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 17, 2009 at 9:11 AM

Thanks so much for posting this, Laurie.  I was interested in Mark O'Connor's new book, and now I'm very eager to see and try it.  Normally I would wait until the book has been out for a while to get feedback from other people, but you've told us that the book has been very successful in its prepublication uses.  I'm glad you wrote about O'Connor's philosophy and approach.  Those are of utmost importance in writing an instructional book.  I especially like his use of variations for many of the tunes.  I find variations lots of fun to play, and I think that they will help each student find his or her own musical voice.  I also like his mix of violin / fiddle styles.  I hope this will induce a broadminded, adventurous attitude in both students and players.  My next stop is  Thanks again.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 17, 2009 at 3:00 PM

I just checked, and they say that the books are out of stock but they can be back ordered.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 17, 2009 at 6:44 PM

 Oh, what a darling photo! And what a wonderful musician Mark O'Connor is. Enjoyed reading this.

From E. Smith
Posted on November 17, 2009 at 8:47 PM

 Same here, backordered!

From Patricia Baser
Posted on November 18, 2009 at 2:41 AM

One of my inner city students' favorite tunes is Liza Jane.  The second half of the tune is the same as Funga Alafia, so they often recognize that as well.  We learn the 4 melodic chunks that make up the song and then after that is put together, I teach them a very simple bass line and then a twin fiddle part.  They will often say it sounds "Chinese" because of they recognize the sound of the pentatonic scale but don't realize how common that scale is in folk music of many cultures.  Sometimes I have them make their own fiddle tune using the same structure and pentatonic scale. 

From Laurie Trlak
Posted on November 22, 2009 at 11:22 AM

I only just got around to reading this, Laurie, but thanks so much for posting it. I'll definitely have to look into it. A new method built on American music that is somewhat modeled after Suzuki sounds very intriguing (as well as useful). And it makes me wonder how it might help me with my playing!


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