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An Invitation to O'Connor Method Alumni From the Ann Arbor Workshop

  
  
  
Val

Today's guest blog is from Val Jaskiewicz, the Vice President of Merchandising at SHAR Music. Val has been a tireless champion of alternative styles here at SHAR and was instrumental in bringing Mark O'Connor and Pam Wiley to Ann Arbor for a teacher training workshop in August. Below, Val expresses his heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated and invites the workshop participants to share questions, reactions, and ideas about the teacher training session in the comments section. 

Just one week has gone by since we all met at the Mark O'Connor workshop, and I have heard from so many of you about how much you learned and your eagerness to apply it. Thank you, Pam Wiley, for your masterful and enthusiastic presentation of Mark O'Connor's rapidly growing method, and for showing us how to teach concepts that are not familiar to most of us. Thanks, also, to the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts, who partnered with SHAR to bring this worthwhile event to Ann Arbor. And of course, we'll never forget Mark O'Connor and Melissa Tong's brilliant performance at the Ark Saturday, alongside the great Saline Fiddlers! It was indeed a memorable weekend. I highly recommend you read  James Engman's blog about the event. James was one of the teacher attendees, and is SHAR's newest apprentice. I believe he has brilliantly captured the essence of what Mark O'Connor is doing through his method.

The intent of this blog is to create an opportunity to connect with each other and share ideas about using the O'Connor Method in your studios and classrooms. Fifteen hours of classroom training in the method is a lot of training, but there are always things that come up that you wish you may have asked, usually right after leaving for home! There was definitely a lot of enthusiasm at the workshop and I want to be sure that we can keep the momentum going.

Please jump in with your comments and experiences! This blog is open for all to see, but we'd like to invite the attendees of the August 24-26 workshop at the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts O'Connor to participate in this particular conversation. If you did not attend the teacher training session but still want to contribute, SHAR welcomes you to propose a guest blog, which you can send to our blog editor Joe Chapman at this address: joec@sharmusic.com.







Mark O’Connor Has a Dream for American Violinists

  
  
  
Mark O'Connor

We'd like to welcome our newest SHAR Apprentice James Engman to the SHAR Music Blog! James studied violin performance, physics, and math at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he hopes to use his degrees to excel in instrument repair. What we love about James's first blog is that his enthusiasm is so catching: his experience at the Mark O'Connor Teacher Training Workshop clearly affected him a great deal, and you can sense the transfer of enthusiasm from Mark to James and then to yourself as a reader. And isn't that how most of us got into the arts anyways? We heard or saw or read something amazing by another artist, and we thought: "I want to do that too."

If you know just a little about Mark O’Connor, you might describe him as “the world’s greatest fiddle player.” And while that title is apt, I would go even further. As someone who has followed Mark O’Connor’s career closely, I would describe him as “America’s virtuoso musician.” And I'm not be using the term "virtuoso" in the modern sense of a highly technically skilled performer (even though that would also be accurate). Rather, I'm excavating an older use of the term. In J.S. Bach’s time, a virtuoso was a musician who explored all the realms of musicianship and was accomplished in performing, composing, arranging, teaching, and who also studied theory, history, and philosophy.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. When I heard Mark O'Connor speak this weekend at a teacher training workshop in Ann Arbor, I realized how genuine and deep an artist's dedication can be. He recalled being eight years old and, having seen Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw play “Diggy Liggy Lo” on The Johnny Cash Show, he begged his parents for three years to buy him a violin. It is that young, unbridled enthusiasm – a child's determination to play like Doug Kershaw – that drives Mark O’Connor and his followers. Likewise, his method nurtures this enthusiasm, and it produces well-rounded, creative string players who, above all, love making music. Being a virtuoso is all well and good, but this passion – and a drive to unlock this passion in others – is also an important part of Mark's method. 

It's true that this weekend I was certified in the Mark O’Connor Violin Method, which is a relatively new method for learning to play the violin (there are other, similar methods for viola, cello, or bass). But it's also true that I had low expectations when I arrived. I had been classically trained and had little fiddling experience and I knew Mark was primarily known as a fiddler. What I discovered, though, is that Mark’s method has a vast range of styles and is steeped with every aspect of American music. By the end of the weekend, I had been fully convinced by the passion behind the method and by the method itself. I’m unable to put my finger on any one reason that sold me on Mark’s vision: there are just too many. I can say that I see this method as a revolution in early string development, one that could produce fantastic violinists who can adapt to many styles and who possess the artistic creativity needed in today’s musical world.





What Is the Difference Between a Violin and a Fiddle?

  
  
  
Alberta Barnes

With Mark O'Connor's workshop and concert in Ann Arbor fast approaching, we thought we'd share a quick blog post that answers the most timeless question of them all: What exactly is the difference between a violin and a fiddle?

Exploring Home: The Mark O'Connor Orchestra Method

  
  
  
Melinda Rice

We were overjoyed to read this guest blog from Melinda Rice, a violinist and teacher for the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles Program at EXPO (which is a partnership between the LA Philharmonic, Harmony Project, and the LA Department of Recreation and Parks) and Harmony Project. Not only does Ms. Rice's entry convey her passion for music and teaching, it makes a compelling case for learning American music through the O'Connor Orchestra Method. When Venezuelan musicians visit the LA Philharmonic and honor the musical traditions of their homeland, Ms. Rice realizes that through the O'Connor Orchestra Method she is teaching her American students their own native musical language.    


I want to tell you about something wonderful that is happening with children who want to play a stringed instrument. If you are a string teacher who works with group classes and orchestras, like I am, then I think you’ll want to know about this. If you are a private teacher, like I am, then I think you’ll want to know about this. If you love classical music, and long to internalize theory more, then I think you’ll want to know about this. If you are an adult learner who always wanted to play the violin/viola/cello, then I think you’ll want to know about this.

It was two-and-a-half years ago that I was introduced to Mark O’Connor and to his method for teaching string playing through the classics of American music. The method seemed simple and logical – foundational instruction in string playing using songs from the rich American heritage of old time tunes, negro spirituals, jazz, mariachi, and songs from composers from Europe inspired by America. Simple and logical is exactly what I strive for in teaching, and I was inspired to start using the method right away. It has only been two and a half years, but I want to share what I have learned as I taught foundational skills through the American music tradition.

I started off working with two beginning violin classes of about ten students each, and each of these students received a Level 1 book and CD. We met bi-weekly. The kids really liked learning the violin, and many of them started coming to both classes. Most of them got to class early, stayed in the building late, or played music with each other outside in the courtyard after their group class was done. These students are part of an orchestra program, and when they started orchestra, the skill of reading translated into reading skills in orchestra. The skill of adjusting pitches in class while listening to accompaniment translated into adjusting in orchestra. Before rehearsal, I often saw a few of them jamming on either an orchestra tune, or jamming on a tune from the Mark O’Connor method books. Even now, when many of them have moved to other group teachers (this is part of the structure of our program), I still hear them playing improvisations on tunes like Boogie Woogie in between orchestra rehearsals.

As an American, I appreciate that this method begins with a song first sung and played by African Americans who were slaves in this country as recently as 150 years ago. Not only is Boil ’em Cabbage Down a terrific song and a piece of our history, sharing it with students communicates a message of transcending circumstances, and living with our history. I also appreciate that the method continues with pieces from across the genres of music developed in America – from old time tunes and bluegrass to negro spirituals to boogie woogie to jazz to American composers like Joplin and Europeans like Dvorak writing with the influence of America. The music that this method draws on is a unique American heritage, a blend of styles that come from the convergence of African, European, and Native American tradition in one place, communicating with one another in the language of music. I have been richly rewarded with a more colorful and nuanced understanding of the country I live in as I teach from the O’Connor books, and my students get excited to find out that some of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence were playing tunes that they are now learning.

This past semester, I lead a beginning string orchestra in playing Mark O’Connor’s arrangement of Boil ’em Cabbage Down from his orchestra series that corresponds with the method books. Students worked on their parts in group classes, and came together to play in orchestra. We talked about structure, melody and harmony, and root notes in I, IV and V chords through this one piece – the arrangement made it easy for the students to demonstrate these concepts within their parts.

The students are also building foundational skills in creativity. They practice improvisational soloing in class, and they get to make simple and small choices about dynamics, rhythm, and pitch. In parts of the American tradition (and in fact in many traditions around the world), a piece of music can be arranged authentically in different ways, depending on how the musicians want to communicate the music, including factors like the instrumentation available. This is reflected for the students as we listen, practice, and talk about the piece in different ways.

At the site in Los Angeles where I work with these young musicians, we have been given the gift of inspiration and aspiration by the LA Philharmonic’s conductor Gustavo Dudamel and by Venezuela’s El Sistema. Our students hold memories of and treasure the mentors who join us from the Phil, and our visitors from Venezuela. As a teacher, I am inspired by the joy and vivacity and virtuosity of our visitors from Venezuela. When our orchestra plays arrangements of a Beethoven symphony and of Gerardo Matos Rodriguez’s La Cumparcita, we are exploring different musical languages together, striving to understand what each is communicating. Our own musical experiences are our preparation for understanding these languages. When two violinists learning fundamentals pick up their violins and arrange the classic Oh! Susanna as a duet, choosing the number of repeats, who will play the melody when, and who will play the chords when, they demonstrate tools for engaging with structure and harmony that can develop their love of music from around the world, from many times in the history of the world. At the same time, they are following in the steps of other musicians who have honored the musical traditions of their homeland, just as we have witnessed in the Venezuelan youths who visit and perform around the world.

I am taking a moment away from working with the young musicians who are my students to write this because I want to share what I have witnessed. I am grateful for the tools for training that I have been given from so many generous musicians, and especially from Mark O’Connor. I am sharing this because it has been truly wonderful in my teaching and musical practice, and when something is wonderful, it is important to share.

Learning to Jam: The O'Connor and Suzuki Methods

  
  
  
Mark O'Connor

I've been thinking a lot lately about Mark O'Connor's blog articles, especially his most recent ones "The American Violin" and "Suzuki Has Gone Fiddlin'." The comments section of Mr. O'Connor's blog, especially the "Suzuki Has Gone Fiddlin'" article, show just how much disagreement there is in the American classical community on our preferred teaching methods.

Plenty of folks swear by The Suzuki Method, which was revolutionary when it took hold in the United States through John D. Kendall in the 1950s and '60s. At its core, The Suzuki Method believes that music education functions a lot like early language acquisition: if you create a vibrant musical community through teachers, recordings, concerts, and peers, then there's no reason your child can't learn to play the violin. Or, that learning the violin is as easy as learning to speak and read. (Which is still pretty hard sometimes. More picture books, Dad!)

So why do we need to change anything? Why does O'Connor want to rethink the way we teach our kids to play the violin?

While appreciative of The Suzuki Method's faith in each child's musical ability, Mr. O'Connor wants more. His O'Connor Method focuses on traditional American music like blues, folk, jazz, and spirituals; by making these genres the focus of his method, O'Connor opens the door to imrovisation and thus to individual creativity. (You simply can't learn to play jazz without learning to jam.)

That said, the more articles I read by O'Connor, and the more I examine his method books, the more I'm convinced that he wants just one thing to happen for his students: for them to find their voice. One of my favorite poets, Seamus Heaney, has written on the difference between "craft" and "technique," and I think it's relevant here if only to freshen to conversation about the Suzuki and O'Connor methods. For Heaney, discovering your "technique" is pretty much what most of us would call "finding your voice":

I think technique is different from craft. Craft is what you can learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making … It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self. It knows how to keep up a capable verbal athletic display; it can be content to be 
vox et praeterra nihil—all voice and nothing else—but not voice as in ‘finding a voice.’ Learning the craft is learning to turn the windlass at the well of poetry. Usually you begin by dropping the bucket halfway down the shaft and winding up a taking of air. You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself. ("Feeling Into Words," pgs. 20-21)

Craft looks a lot like technique, but we certainly know technique when we see it. You get goosebumps when you witness technique; you feel like you're hearing something no one has ever heard before. Or, as Emily Dickinson said, you feel like the top of your head has been blown off. And when you learn technqiue, you're finding your voice, which can be as distinct as the way you walk, speak, or dance.

O'Connor's deep fear is that we're teaching children craft but not technique. We're teaching capable musical displays but not equipping our students with the true creative potential of technique. (It's a heavy moment in your artistic life, when you've broken the skin of yourself and you're no longer pulling up air, but it's one that is worth the wait.)

There have been plenty of counter stories, though, from Suzuki graduates about how their violin teacher included American genres and encouraged creativity. They narrate a more complex Suzuki Method, a hybrid method. On his blog, O'Connor recognizes the potential of a more hybrid Suzuki Method but worries about the lack of real commitment to creativity in this approach and the dangers of a hodgepode approach to musical education. He's put serious thought into the progression of his method and it's distressing, I think, to contemplate a buffet approach. Fair enough.

In the end, I'm not sure anyone can tell you which method is right for your child. But I do believe techique is necessary to any serious creative endeavor. If you want your child to write American music, then your child needs to find his or her American voice. That begs the question, however, if creativity and finding a voice are always what we want from art. Those things can be frightening in a way that performance isn't.   



















The O'Connor Method: Joy, Creativity and Cool Cabbage!

  
  
  
Ashley Liberty

Our guest blogger Ashley Liberty teaches violin at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Miami, Florida in addition to maintaining an impressive performance career in which she's been Concertmaster for the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra and performed alongside Bruce Hornsby, Andrea Bocelli, Bernadette Peters, Steve Miller, and Ricky Scaggs. Ashley makes a convincing case for using the O'Connor method: she firmly believes that the benefits of teaching American music with lyrics and a rich historical context outweigh any of its challenges.

I began my journey with the O’Connor Method after attending the O’Connor String Camp as a professional classical violinist looking to develop my abilities in other styles. I was introduced to the method there, and I decided to pursue training. Early on, I became a believer with an urgent desire to completely devote myself to teaching the O'Connor Violin Method to my beginning students, especially after attending the certification class with the method’s inspiring editor, Pamela Wiley. Since adopting the method as my curriculum with my 250 school violinists, and with all of my beginning to intermediate-level private students, I have been very satisfied with the results, and often completely surprised.

Don't Panic: We Have Last-Last-Minute Gift Ideas

  
  
  
Mark O'Connor An Appalachian Christmas

We try to quell your rising holiday panic by sharing a few gift ideas.

I have a confession to make: after work today, I still have three Christmas gifts to buy. Tomorrow, I'm flying home to North Carolina. Every year, I do the same thing. I start thinking about possible gifts in October and then revel in the platonic perfection of these un-purchased gifts.

It's usually not until December 20th or so that I really begin to panic and worry about actually buying these oh-so-thoughtful presents. Sometimes, I'm still scrambling on Christmas Eve for the perfect gift, clinging to the idea that I will find a snazzy iPad case or hip cardigan for the Grinch on my list. (You know this person: your friends and family members all call each other every year, saying, "Um ... what are you getting So-and-so?)

Here are a few quick ideas if you're struggling to find the perfect present for the musician on your list. If you order the item with Express Delivery by 3 p.m. today, you'll get the gift in time. If you want to think about it more, you can still order by 3 p.m. tomorrow and add 2nd Day Air. Good luck!


$25 & Under:













Mark O'Connor's
An Appalachian Christmas.This will be an immediate hit. You can ditch Pandora for a little bit and throw this album on the stereo Christmas afternoon. It's only $8.99, which is a small price to pay for a terrific album. (The Wall Street Journal thinks so too; they put it in their list of the top six Christmas albums.)














Folks can get attached to their rosin brand, but it's worth trying Liebenzeller. It's a high-quality rosin that's a tiny bit indulgent: and aren't those the perfect gifts? The gifts someone will actually use and love but might not buy for himself? It's on sale for $20.


$50 or more:








String instrument players always need strings. Do a little quick research and find out what kind of strings the person on your list uses. Pair it with something a little more indulgent like a fine chocolate. Well, that's what I would want.


$200 or more:















Maybe it's time for your player to step up to a higher quality bow. Right now, you can have three bows shipped to you with 2nd Day Air at no charge. Then you can send one, two, or all three back, free of charge too. The only catch is that the bows need a price tag of $200 or more. But this is the perfect chance to let someone try out multiple bows with minimal pressure. Check out this link for more details, but you have to call before December 21st.




































































Classical Music in America

  
  
  
Mark O'Connor & James Taylor

More this week on hybrid styles in American "classical" music.

I've still got Mark O'Connor, the fiddler, composer, and Grammy winner, on the brain. Thinking about his upcoming concert at West Bloomfield High School in Michigan (as well as his concerts in North Carolina, Florida, and Texas), I came across a brief essay written by violinist and former SHAR apprentice Phoebe Gelzer-Govatos.

                       (Mark O'Connor & James Taylor)

Ms. Gelzer-Govatos's essay describes a new understanding of American "classical" music that seems to be gaining popularity. Classicly-trained American musicians, instead of striving for a European purity in technique and influence, are drawing on a range of distinctly American styles and genres, including jazz, folk, spirituals, bluegrass, and more. These American classics mix with their more traditional training. The point is not purity. It's syncretism.

Syncretism explodes safety in art. It opens up the borders of a tired art form. I think of Jean Cocteau's experiments in film, such as his Orphee trilogy, where dance, visual art, poetry, and film all mix under the heady influence of surrealism. Or the current experiments in the lyric essay, where poetry and the personal essay, two close cousins in the first place, are now sharing the same page. One might even point to the music video as a syncretic form.

           (The title sequence of Jean Cocteau's Orphee)

And while the American fiddler Mark O'Connor isn't doing anything as drastic as Cocteau, he is synthesizing a wide range of American musical styles. This syncretism within an art form seems just as important as the syncretism of different art forms; it gives new life to a form, or even jumpstarts a new genre. 

As I wrote last week, it's exciting to hear about American musicans who are opening up the artificial boundaries of classical music. Opening up the boundaries of a style is risky, and it doesn't always work out. (Was jazz fusion a good idea?) But risk is inherent in good art. Phoebe Gelzer-Govatos writes in her article that learning the Lalo concert and moonlighting on the electric cello are both exciting, valid choices for a musician. I would go further and say that these choices shouldn't be isolated, and that the joy of off-hours playing absolutely has a home in on-the-clock playing. It's a matter of figuring out how to combine them.

Below, I posted  YouTube clips and quotes from Jeremy Kittel and Mark O'Connor. Enjoy!



I was interested in many different styles of music and my classical playing at that time wasn’t necessarily good enough to get into a lot of the good schools for it. The path that I found was to study jazz in college. At that point, I really didn’t know that much about jazz. I auditioned at the University of Michigan for their jazz program, and they basically had me do some ear testing and general improvising. After my audition, my mom went out and bought me a Coltrane record and a Miles Davis record and I thought, “Wow, this is cool stuff. Maybe I’ll try this out.” And I kept on listening more and more and by the time college came around I was ready to go at it. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but it’s been a really major part of my musical development since then.

Jeremy Kittel




Could the door to an American Classical music, once opened by such luminaries as Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, be re-opening with 21st-century American composers and musicians? With a new focus on eclecticism and world music within the sphere of classical music, a growing interest in American concert music that is informed by American string playing styles is posed to have a major impact on classical music today. Contemporary musicians and composers may have another chance to swing the door wide open on developing American arts music with a lasting influence. American music, perhaps with the violin, along with its relative cousins, is leading the way for innovation in classical music
.
Mark O’Connor



























This American Voice: Mark O'Connor's Upcoming Concerts

  
  
  
Mark O'Connor

Mark O'Connor's approach to American classical music is not just innovative – it's democratic.

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