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Laurie Niles

Mark O'Connor's Violin Method for Teaching American Music

April 19, 2010 at 6:26 PM

Why is American violin music "supplemental" in teaching American violin students?

This was one of the questions posed by Mark O'Connor and by longtime Suzuki teacher Pam deWall during a teacher training session at UCLA for the new O'Connor Violin Method. So far, Mark has created two violin books, with plans for eight more. He also plans to create cello, viola and orchestra versions and is offering teacher training sessions all over the United States, assembling a national registry of those who have taken the course.

In fact, the very creation of the O'Connor method – which uses all American music as a basis to teach violin skills – is a challenge to the above question. Being a violinist who is classically trained, that is to say –  trained in European classical music – I'd like to take a stab at answering that question. Then I'll tell you all about the teacher training session that I attended in February with Mark and Pam.

First, why are American violin students routinely trained with classical European violin music? A few reasons: because the European-based pedagogy has been the best and most consistent path to a high level of musicality and technique on the violin; because European classical music has reached such a high level of art; because so much of the evolution of the violin, its music and its pedagogy, occurred in Europe.

That said, the violin has had a remarkable journey in the Americas, and Mark's stated goal goes beyond providing some nice fiddle tunes to add to traditional European methods and Suzuki studies (which are European-based). He wishes to illuminate an entire tradition of American violin music: its history, its heroes, its music, its ways.

This ambitious goal was one reason for the delay in publishing the O'Connor method; it was originally to have been published by Alfred, and in fact I reviewed a rough draft of that edition, which was more along the lines of a traditional method book, with diagrams, in black and white. Mark's vision was for a more immersive experience, and so he wound up self-publishing, the result being full-color books with photographs, written histories of each piece, personal notes about the pieces he composed, and even a little Mark avatar ("Fiddle Boy") who makes little comments throughout. This is not to mention the pieces, which include fiddle music, Mexican music, Canadian music, Native American music, Dvorak New World, blues, rock 'n' roll, African American spiritual music and more. He has published two violin books and has plans for eight more. He has shared that one of the pieces for his last book might be the final movement of the Barber concerto, as well as his own Caprices. He also plans to create methods for viola and cello, as well as orchestra versions. He casts a wide net, but it's all about America.

Basically, I don't want to curl up at my window chair and read most method books, but the O'Connor method is different. It's had a similar effect on the parents of my students, who have sat on my couch, as I've taught their kids, thoroughly immersed in reading Mark's method books. I was teaching the Vivaldi a minor concerto to one student while her dad was reading Mark's books, and he kept interrupting:

"Is it really true that Davy Crockett played his fiddle during the Alamo?"

It is indeed. Okay, about that C natural....

"There were Native American fiddlers?"


"'Amazing Grace' was written by a slave ship captain? Who later repented?"

Truly amazing, yes, now back to the violin lesson...

But wait, that IS the violin lesson, isn't it?  The part that captures your imagination is the part that makes you practice. 

"These are the things that movies are made of – but movies aren't made of it. It isn't taught," Mark said at the seminar. Thus the color and the story-telling in the books. "My hope is these histories will help teachers and parents understand why this music is so important."

"Benny Thomasson was my mentor, he wasn't just my teacher," Mark explained to the 20-some teachers at his UCLA teacher training course in February. "Our lives are too busy for that today. We have to get our mentoring from several different places at once."

"If children like the music they're playing, they'll practice more," O'Connor said. "I hope this material doubles their practice time. Finding the meaning in what you're doing is important for kids."

But the O'Connor method does involve more than talking about the meaning American music and teaching its history, there is pedagogy, technique, and musical style, and this is what the bulk of the teacher training seminar at UCLA addressed.

Our teacher trainer, Pam deWall, a 40-year veteran of the Suzuki method who is based in South Carolina, spoke to how to teach this music in real life. She first met Mark when she attended his string camps, and when he learned about her experience teaching, he tapped her to help in the development of his method.

With so many years of experience teaching small children, Pam very obviously sees how this music can fit in with a Suzuki-like approach, but at the same time, she has already come up with ideas for teaching its unique requirements, adding methods for introducing children and beginners to new techniques like chopping, improvising, reading chord symbols and more. She showed a video of a group lesson in which children of various ages took turns improvising to "Boil Them Cabbage Down" while fellow students chopped out the beat on two open strings. A very do-able exercise, yet it leads down a road with new possibilities, if it is carried further.

"I always incorporated American tunes in my own Suzuki teaching," Pam told the teachers at the seminar. "I never questioned doing that. But they were always used as alternatives or supplemental pieces. Mark had no idea how hungry the country was for this method. This is a solid, core method for teaching violin technique. Why should American music be alternative in America? Because we haven't honored it, dignified it, organized it and taught it to the kids."

And for those who are new to teaching beginners, Pam recommended using many Suzuki-based ideas. "Nobody does the beginning better than Suzuki," she said. In introducing the first two books, she provided exercises to address the basics: balancing the bow, placing the fingers, shaping the left hand, holding the violin, introducing the concepts of half- and whole-steps, ear training, string crossing, retaking the bow and more.

"The songs were chosen very, very carefully," Pam said. Mark wanted them to be timeless, pedagogically relevant and culturally relevant.

"I picked out a lot of music that just doesn't go away. This music is in our DNA," Mark said. "I learned violin so late in life, I remember every minute of my first lesson. That helped me in assembling the materials."

With so many years' experience arranging music for shows and composing music, "I can outfit these things to feel great at any level on the violin."

"They're learning real music they will play later on," Mark said, starting with a simple version that they can later embellish, make their own, use as a basis for improvisation.

American music has its own language, and "the language becomes the most significant contribution we've come up with and the violin and stringed instruments were there at every turn." Mark has dissected his. For example, the train. "The sound of the train is a key signature of American music," he said. And the lonesome whistle blow – it developed in to the blues and conjures feelings of freedom, travel, getting out of town, even images of freedom.

For many of the pieces in Mark's books, one can find professional and performance recordings of the same piece, at a far more advanced level. For example, you can compare the student version of Gypsy Fantastic to this version of Mark performing the piece last December. Mark's popular Appalachia Waltz appears in his Book 1, in a much simpler arrangement. Also, in a CD entitled Liberty, Mark has versions of songs that appear in his Book 1: Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier; Soldier's Joy and The World Turned Upside Down. The student version of "Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier" might be more fun to play if you've heard the .

"Teachers don't really need to know how to improvise that well to teach their students to improvise," Mark said. Mostly, they need to introduce the language and provide the opportunities. Here is another suggestion for how to run an American studio: "After the recital is over," Mark said, "then the jam session begins."


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on April 19, 2010 at 8:22 PM

 Excellent blog.  It was a very interesting examination on how teachers approach American tunes.

I am a Suzuki teacher and I the O'Connor books 1 and 2 to use as, I admit, supplemental material.  I am very open to the idea of teaching kids pedagogically using American tunes.  I have also taught all of my students how to improvise (even before these books).

My major qualm with the O'Connor  method is that it does not teach BASIC violin technique as smoothly as the Suzuki books.  Each Suzuki piece builds on itself by adding one new technique.  For example, once the student learns the twinkle variations and twinkle theme, Lightly Row adds using the individual second finger.  Every other skill required to play Lightly Row aside from the individual 2 is the same as Twinkle Theme. 

In the O'Connor method he starts off with three Boil Em' Cabbage Down variations.  Basically, three of the twinkle variations.  The next piece in the books is called Beautiful Skies.  In order to play this piece, the student must be able to string cross while changing bow directions (something not covered in his Boil Em' Cabbage variations), be able to quickly change bow patterns (long notes vs. short notes), and start figuring out how to use the third finger more efficiently.  That's a huge jump in skills required if this was the only book you were learning from. 

From Randy Mollner
Posted on April 20, 2010 at 5:47 AM

I really like O'Connor's method too.  This is the music I play and that my students want to learn to play as well.  My only problem is that my students are mostly from working class immigrant families and it is a VERY expensive level one method book.  It is definitely beautiful and interesting, but, for  a method that goes a long way to debunk the myth of the violin as an elitist instrument. . .

I hope that it sells very well and is picked up by a publisher who can bring the price down.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 20, 2010 at 5:43 AM

I agree with Danielle.  In a way, so does O'Connor.  He says that the teacher must take responsibility for finding exercises to fill in the gaps in technical instruction which Danielle  described. I have been using Essential Elements, Suzuki, and Mel Bay's American Fiddle Method, written by Brian Wicklund.  O'Connor's first two books contain a variety of types of songs which are part of our American heritage.  Most of my students, who are all beginners, want to learn either folk music or a combination of folk and classical music.  I think O'Connor's books will fill a real need for them and for other students,

From Michael Pijoan
Posted on April 20, 2010 at 6:47 AM

Edit: oh, I stand corrected.  I do apologize for making the comment about the bow hold without being properly informed.  I retract what I said.  Many students of this method that I have seen are using Mr. O'Connor's bow hold and I now understand that it is most likely out of admiration for the method's author and not a direct teaching of the method itself.  I should do better research.  Cheers.

From Patricia Baser
Posted on April 20, 2010 at 10:17 AM

I use several American fiddle tunes to teach my urban students, as they respond well to the high energy of these tunes(last week they were beat boxing to Old Joe Clark). However, the cost of this method book is far out of range of the economic realities of my students.

From Gene Wie
Posted on April 20, 2010 at 3:25 PM

"Why is American violin music "supplemental" in teaching American violin students?"

Because it's hard to learn all the musical and technical skills necessary to perform things like a Bartok Concerto, late Beethoven string quartet, or Strauss' Don Juan for those that aspire to a professional career in solo, chamber, or orchestral idioms using fiddle tunes.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on April 20, 2010 at 6:45 PM

 Well, while I like teaching my students new fun tunes and they like learning them, the point behind every lesson is not to appease them by only teaching them pieces that they "like"; it's to teach them how to play the violin.  Frankly, I don't care if they love every piece that they play.  Very few people do.  What I care about is that their technique is solid.

If Mr. O'Connor's books have, by his own admittance, gaps in technique, then for me they fall from "primary material" to "supplementary material."

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 21, 2010 at 3:18 AM

Hi Michael,

After going to the teacher training, I'd say that the series very specifically does NOT advocate using Mark's unique bow hold; such suggestions were purposely left out, according to the teacher trainer Pam deWall. It's up to the teacher to teach the bow hold, and as always, it's preferable to have a teacher that knows how to hold a bow without needing a book to tell them. Certainly Mark's bow hold works for him; it's not the usual way. Ironically, the bow hold with the thumb outside is considered a "beginners bow hold" in Suzuki circles, as it is usually the best way to teach a child under the age of about five, until they have a rounded enough hold to transfer to the inside of the stick.

But there are no pictures of holding the bow that way in the books, and the teacher training did not advocate teaching a bow hold identical to Mark's.

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