Music News & Reviews

Fiddler Mark O'Connor is changing how people play the instrument

"It's been an incredibly busy year."

With that summation, one has no choice but to pose this question to Mark O'Connor: When was the last time you experienced a year that wasn't incredibly busy?

That sends the usually soft-spoken O'Connor into laughter. But the Grammy-winning fiddler, composer, performance artist and educator can pinpoint an answer.

"Around age 22," he said. "I don't think I was doing much that year."

That was about the time O'Connor was setting out on a career that would simultaneously make him one of Nashville's most visible studio musicians and a solo artist, crafting albums that ran stylistic extremes from fusion to bluegrass to country to classical.

The latter field has kept O'Connor occupied over the past two decades. He helped forge a prestigious merger of chamber and Americana music on 1996's Appalachia Waltz and then amassed a library of compositions including fiddle concertos, string quartets and full symphonies. Oh, yes, he also played swing music, the kind immortalized by one of his mentors, the great French violinist Stephane Grappelli, on the side.

Such adventurous compositional and performance activity has changed the way contemporary audiences listen to fiddle music. But of late, O'Connor also has been changing the way people play it.

He has just released the third instructional book detailing the O'Connor Method, a means of violin instruction that, unlike older and more widely utilized learning systems including the Suzuki Method, draws its inspiration from American music, especially, scores of fiddle tunes, folk material, pre-bluegrass country songs and more.

Also new is the aptly titled American Classics album, a recording of fiddle and violin duets that highlights the repertoire featured in the third O'Connor Method book.

"I was always hoping that, at some point, I was going to release a professional CD from my method," said O'Connor, who will put that method on display at Monday's taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre.

"I felt the recording is another message that I wanted to put out there, one that boasted, especially to teachers, that this American music method, even at intermediate levels, is still professional music. It's ready for the stage. There is nothing that prevents a professional musician from walking onstage and playing my transcription of Deep River or Old Folks at Home or Simple Gifts.

"But it offers a great message for students, too. It says that this is not just kids' music or beginners' music. This is music that professional musicians have historically played."

O'Connor has invested much of the past seven years not only in designing the O'Connor Method but in promoting it. His WoodSongs performance, for example, teams him with pianist Melissa Tong and with Lexington violin students from the Carwile String Studio. He also has collaborated in classrooms and with youth orchestras in bringing the O'Connor Method to life.

"It's almost like any other project I've done," O'Connor said. "I have a mixed bag of feelings. I always hope things can move faster and that people can become involved with the method more quickly. Then, when I put my objective hat on, I realize that everything has really gone quite far in a fairly short period of time.

"What I'm basically trying to create is a school of music that uses our entire American string language. It doesn't choose bluegrass over old-time music or jazz over Texas fiddling. It's not designed to indoctrinate students by saying, 'Okay, you're going to be a bluegrass player.' The essence of this string method is to make sure they can play well. And once they play well, they can make their own choice about what direction to go in."

The O'Connor Method, however, represents only one component of the fiddler's most recent "incredibly busy year." Others include premieres of an improvised violin concerto ("the symphony orchestra part is completely scored, but the solo violin line is made up on the spot") and an orchestral overture titled Queen Anne's Revenge. "Blackbeard's ship (the Queen Anne's Revenge) was discovered recently off the coast of North Carolina, so I wanted to immortalize that event."

"You could argue that the 18th and 19th centuries belonged to the music that exploded out of Europe," O'Connor said. "But you can also make a great case that the 21st century is not going to follow suit. This is the American century of music. And my biggest responsibility, especially with my method, is to make sure that string playing is relevant to music — not just to Mozart or even old-time music but to music that happens right now."