Q&A with Fiddling Groundbreaker Mark O’Connor

By Gwen Orel

Mark O’Connor is a force in the fiddle world.  He knows it.  Not too many musicians will look you in the face and describe the “timeless pieces” they’ve written–but his works, including “Appalachian Journey” (with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer) and “Folk Mass” really are timeless.  It’s not hubris when you’ve got the chops to back it up.  When I mentioned casually to people I knew that I was interviewing Mark O’Connor, I heard, “oh, I love his country records” and “I’ve seen him on PBS” and just “oooooh.”  These responses were from a picture framer, my accountant, and a guitar player.  Of course, my fiddle-playing friends were enthusiastic–and had their own questions to relate.

Photograph by Jim McGuire

Photograph by Jim McGuire

He’s a two-time Grammy award winner; he has his own label–OMAC records (a combination of his and his mother’s name, MacDonald)–and in the nineties, was named Musician of the Year by the Country Music Association six times (1991-1996).  He bridges musical worlds–that’s his mission in life–studying as a boy first with the great Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, and then with the ground-breaking French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.  He plays a kind of Texas Swing-gypsy jazz-classical-bluegrass-old timey style that he calls “American Classical music,” and this fall will release his new Method book of instruction that solidifies an approach to learning that uses the many sounds that pervade American strings.  Some of the people he’s performed with are Rosanne Cash, Ida Kavafian, Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg… for starters.

O’Connor is also a leader in the world of fiddle camps.  Fiddle camp? Yes–every summer adult and youth players can find various “weeks” to attend to increase their skills in their chosen genre.  The Swannanoa Gathering has Celtic Week, Fiddle Week, and Old-Timey Week (and other weeks not for fiddlers),the  Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia, at Davis and Elkins College also has Irish Week, Bluegrass Week and Swing Week, and then, at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, there are fiddle classes galore.

Photograph by Forrest O'Connor

Photograph by Forrest O'Connor

What makes O’Connor’s String Camp unique is that it is multi-disciplinary, by design.  He’s been running these String Camps in Tennessee and in California for years, but 2009 marked the first time he brought the camp to his current residence, New York City.  From July 27-31, 270 string players–mostly, but not all, fiddlers–descended on the Society for Ethical Culture, taking three classes a day, attending evening concerts by students and teachers (who included such greats as bluegrass fiddler Darol Anger and old-timey banjo/guitar/fiddler Bruce Molsky), and an interview series run by O’Connor with guests including Roberta Guaspari, founder of the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music (and subject of the film Music of the Heart), and Alex Miller, General Manager and Senior Vice President of Sony Masterworks. Interviews and concerts were free and open to the public.

I caught up with O’Connor on the second day of the camp.  I was a little early, so sat on a bench for a few minutes, chatting with two middle-aged women who were attending the camp (I could tell by the “Mark O’Connor String Camp” tags they wore).

“There were only about seven people at the Indian class this morning,” one said, explaining how the classes work (a class taught by Mysore Manjunath called “Unique Playing Techniques in Indian Music”), “but Tracy Silverman’s “Blue Strings” was packed.”

Students self-select as either “intermediate” or “advanced” and every day decide which classes in their level to attend.  Each slot has about five selections.  It’s an incredible smorgasbord of offerings and incredibly appealing.  I had just returned from Catskills Irish Arts Week myself, and was thinking longingly about investigating bluegrass and/or swing someday.  At O’Connor’s weeks, you don’t have to choose.  The logistics sound complicated, but it has a spirit of freedom that seems in keeping with someone who champions a quintessentially American sound.

With Earl and Randy Scruggs

With Earl and Randy Scruggs


So what took you so long to bring the camp here?

I’ve been running these camps for sixteen years.  It’s taken me five years to bring this here.  My first journey away from the hills of Tennessee was to bring it to my then-home of San Diego and try to interface what I experienced with my camp there into a more urban environment, namely a campus.  There were a lot of people saying oh you can’t do that, or now that you’ve done that, you can’t do that on a campus–when we were able to do it on a campus and people loved that, then I’d get the same runaround trying to bring it to the Big Apple–it probably won’t work here, it sounds like something that’s very specialized in Tennessee… then I finally moved here four years ago.  I had an artistic agenda in my move here.  I wanted to meet string players to play in my groups, to compose my string quartets, my first symphony, and to bring my string camp to Manhattan.  Four years, almost to the month, the camp is here.

There are a lot of camps with isolated weeks.

I wanted my camp to put forward a different model.  I wanted to create a cross-pollinating environment.

It was very different when I was growing up–there wasn’t this respect for the old-time string culture. I wanted to create a Utopian String Universe, something that would be like a real democracy, artistically. I took my cues from my heroes–Benny Thomasson and Stéphane Grappelli were great cross-pollinators.  They set the tone for me to take the paths I did.

Mark O'Connor with Stephane Grappelli

Mark O'Connor with Stephane Grappelli

It sounds great, but how do you keep it all together when everyone chooses what they’d like to do?

Say you set a rule and make people sign up in advance, well, a lot of people don’t know that they would like to sign up for that class until you create the environment and create the culture.  Once they are created then people might change their minds. The whole idea about the camp is to change minds.  It’s not just to learn further your expertise.  It’s actually to break down barriers and overcome hurdles.  If people signed up for one track or teacher in advance, the entire week my staff and I would be bombarded with people saying “I made a mistake.”  It would be a week full of negativity and no.

What kinds of people come to the camp?

This year the youngest is 8.  We have students, literally, from 8 to 80.

When did you start playing music?

I was 11 when I started the fiddle.  I started playing the guitar at 5.

Do you still play the guitar?

No.  I studied with Benny for three years, and with Stéphane from 17-18.  In between, I studied music theory, voice.  I had a period where I didn’t play as much.  I wanted to play the violin because I saw it as the window to my soul.  I could communicate through it.  It had such directness.  I wanted to make people feel the music, whether it was happy or sad.

When did you start writing music?

I was 13.  A little girl asked me that today!  One my very first pieces, called “Mark’s waltz,” was recorded for a thirty-year retrospective.

The Applachian String Trio

The Applachian String Trio

When  I knew I was going to interview you, I asked some fiddler friends what they would want to ask you!  So here are some of the questions.  What’s your practice regime like?

I practice about 45 minutes to an hour a day.  There are two or three things I play routinely–a ragtime étude that I wrote–then caprices for technique, finger strength.  I spend most of the day creating music and writing.  When I have a concert coming, I spend a couple of days in prep.  Most of my own pieces I know so well.

Here’s another from a fiddler.  Did you ever get discouraged when you were learning?

At Age 13, for cover of "Pickin' in the Wind" album

At Age 13, for cover of "Pickin' in the Wind" album

When I was young, yes, a few times.  I was considered a child prodigy.  To make that transition from “freak show” to adult is hard for any child musician, and it was for me too.  There were some years in my early 20s when I wondered if I wanted music as a career.

I was scrambling, and wondered if emotionally I could handle my talent. I thought it might be better to get a normal job.  In music you lay it all out–you have very little privacy.

As a composer it’s natural for me to be private.  I have to spend time in a cocoon.  If your deadline is in two weeks, you can’t go out and party with friends.  As a performer, you’re so public.

What kept you going?

I think the answer is you have to look for a break, and you have to be ready to receive it.

You have to put yourself in a position to succeed if the opportunity comes along. When I look back at my career, there were a series of those opportunities that came and I was able to snag them.  I know friends who had opportunities that they missed–through overconfidence, thinking it will come again, some of them.

I got a letter from Chet Atkins when I was 18–he wanted me to come to Nashville and play guitar.  I didn’t even know if I liked country music.  I liked jazz.  He asked me what I’d like to do–I said “be on television.”  He arranged that!  That was my first break in Nashville.  (You can read more about this in an interview O’Connor did with Tom Redmond of Misterguitar.com here.) The ability to see outside your immediate circle is so important.  You have to seize the moment, give yourself a chance, be ready.

Mark doing a PBS show with John Hartford in 1976

Mark doing a PBS show with John Hartford in 1976

What do you love most about being a musician?

Fiddle culture has really changed.  There’s probably no danger in traditional music dying out, but when I was a kid that was not the case. Fiddle contests were held to perpetuate old-time fiddling.  There were almost no kids playing–I had a huge burden laid on me by older players.

I felt I was responsible for perpetuating fiddling, and getting more young people involved.  They pressured my mother too, “he could do so much for our community.”Now look what I’m doing forty years later–the string camp perpetuates the idea of old-time music.  I love that I can contribute to that.

What do you like the least?

It’s a fickle community in terms of keeping your career afloat.  If you don’t do a recording in three or four years, it’s as if you’ve fallen off the face of the earth.  If I did not perform, people would ask “where are you?”  The constant feeling of letting people down if I don’t do enough. There are not enough hours in the day to keep up with the people I perform with and play with.  I put on three camps this year, but I feel like it’s not enough.

Are you from a musical family?

No.  I’m the one that developed the interest.  It took me three years to beg mother and dad to play the fiddle, I begged from age 8 on.  I heard Itzhak Perlman on PBS.

What are you listening to now?

In New York, I go to see music live.  There was a show of Vivaldi at Carnegie Hall that I really enjoyed.  You can go see music live every night here, people that don’t live here don’t have that opportunity. Even in San Diego, a town with three million people, there were times that I might not have a musical act to see for weeks at a time.  I have a stack of CDs from colleagues that reach to the ceiling that I haven’t listened to yet.  For me, music is research, study, something I’m critiquing for a friend.

What do you do to unwind?

I watch Comedy Central–I like Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report.

That’s only one hour.

I work all day and night. I couldn’t have done this in my 20s, I didn’t have the brain or emotional capacity.  I’ve matured.  I feel like there’s a lot behind me.  I feel a sense of urgency that I didn’t have when I was 25, except, how was I going to pay for dinner.

What are you excited about right now?

My new method book–I’ve introduced a new method to 40 teachers this week (Teacher training was one of the tracks at the String Camp).  I’ve had the idea for the last fifteen years, to create a sequence of American traditional tunes.

It’s how to learn to play the violin in an American style. I felt compelled.  I see all the things not being done–like, why isn’t there a fiddle concerto–20 years ago I wrote one.  I asked, why isn’t there cross-disciplinary training?  So I created this method.  There’s a Russian school, a German school, a French school–this is for the American school.

On stage in San Diego

On stage in San Diego

Gwen Orel writes about music, theatre and culture for many outlets.  She is a slave to Celtic music.

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Posted on 04 Aug 2009 at 11:00pm
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