Mark O’Connor Offers Tips for Developing Well-Rounded Repertoire
Mark O’Connor is one of the most well-known and respected violinists, fiddlers, composers, and music teachers in the world. He’s won two Grammy Awards in a career studded by collaborations with artists Chet Atkins, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Stephane Grappelli, Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, and more. His Fiddle Concerto has become one of the most performed concertos written in the last 40 years.
He is also known for The O’Connor Method—his book-bound series, which takes students through pieces and exercises to develop into proficient and well-rounded musicians, blending styles and encouraging creativity. His bi-annual string camps have hosted more than 7,000 young violinists over the past 20 years.
“There are four pillars of string playing,” he explains. “Western classical, jazz, folk fiddling, and world music. Never before had these coexisted, two or three, let alone all four.”
O’Connor’s method focuses on an American style of music, which blends a wide ranging repertoire, from classical to old time. The idea is to focus on the similarities, rather than the differences, in the music. “All fiddle tunes are songs and all songs are fiddle tunes,” he says. By focusing on various styles as a violinist (and musician in general), the player becomes more able to adapt and incorporate styles, making them more capable in any situation, whether it be a bluegrass jam or an orchestral performance.
Here are some of his tips for developing a broad repertoire on violin:
Go back to the beginning: “The secret of American musical language at all levels is seamless in the beginning,” O’Connor says. Rather than separating violin music by genre or type—find the similarities between a hoedown and the blues, popular songs and spirituals. “If you specialize in those genres, then you can concentrate on them,” he says. “Seek the greatest examples of those recordings and become an expert.”
Jam: The O’Connor Method features duos made for teacher and student. “This creates an opportunity for a private stage, but also for a little jam session,” he says. By giving students room to interact with another player, they develop listening abilities that further prepare them for less organized situations and playing opportunities with others.
Focus on phrasing: “Phrasing and rhythm are so important,” O’Connor says. In other types of music you can fudge around, but in American music, being locked into the groove your rhythm section is in is important. He also stresses the importance of creativity and improvisation, which are often overlooked in other instruction methods.
Don’t be afraid to improvise: Classical composers did it, too. The improvised violin concerto is a new idea to the classical world, he says. Essentially, O’Connor created an entirely improvised concerto. It goes through thematic developments, but challenges the soloist to create in real time. Though it’s seldom emphasized in classical schools, legends like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were musicians—and improvisers.
Never stop learning: “I had private lessons, but I didn’t go to music school,” O’Connor says. “I had some great teachers and mentors through my teens. Benny Thomasson, one of the greatest American fiddlers of all time, and Stephane Grappelli, the most iconic jazz violinist in history. I kept on learning from everyone I played with. Grappelli provided an opportunity to go on the road with him. Instead of being in school when I was 17 or 18, I was playing with Grappelli at Carnegie Hall.”
Make it American: “I’ve had queries about what is American Music,” he says. “American music’s strength is diversity of culture and ideas, diversity of musical styles. That’s what is important. That’s what classical music and art is about. Why they never went hand-in-hand with violin playing is so mysterious to me. All my experiences helped me create the [O’Connor] method. It’s a track to journey into the beautiful world of string playing.”