When violin virtuoso Mark O’Connor won his first Grammy in 1992, he celebrated in typical music-star fashion. “I had a sleepless 24 hours,” O’Connor says, chuckling. “I partied hard.”
And woke up with an existential hangover. “I realized that hunk of hardware doesn’t change who I am, but that I could use that and other accolades to impact music culture.”
Accolades have continued accruing to O’Connor, 52, who won so many bluegrass fiddling contests as a child prodigy that he was asked to stop entering, and went on to wide acclaim in classical, jazz and world music and for collaborations with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis.
He will showcase that versatility in a concert of bluegrass, jazz, Cajun and classical music on Sunday for Festival Miami at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables.
Since 2009, O’Connor’s greatest passion has been the method he developed for teaching string music to children. It’s a subject that can keep him talking for more than an hour at a speed that rivals his torrential playing, ricocheting from the history of the violin to the creative components of music and the closed-mindedness of most conservatories.
They are ideas he is promoting in an expanding series of lesson books, string camps and teacher-training sessions around the country and as an artist in residence at UM’s Frost School of Music.
His goal is not only to supplant the dominant Suzuki method of teaching violin — an ambitious objective in itself — but to expand the teaching repertoire to include American and world music and incorporate creative skills like composition and improvisation. O’Connor wants to return the violin to a central position he says it has lost in music and put American music traditions on a par with the European classical canon.
The O’Connor Method starts, not with Mozart’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but Boil ’em Cabbage Down, a centuries-old African-American hoedown.
“Why are there Russian, French and German schools of string playing, but no American school?” O’Connor asks. “American music has so much to offer, from jazz to bluegrass to western swing to Appalachian to blues to gospel to Hispanic. There’s so much here that’s just been grossly overlooked.”
Born and raised in Seattle, O’Connor started out playing bluegrass and country, and by the 1980s he was an in-demand Nashville session player. Although his career became dizzyingly multifaceted — from composing concertos to jamming at jazz clubs — he has hewn to his roots, exploring ways to connect traditional American music to other genres and championing the rich history of the violin in this country.
“The violin was the most important instrument in classical music for 350 years,” O’Connor says. “What was beautiful is the violin made a perfect transition to American music culture. It was the first instrument to play blues, spirituals and ragtime.”
In ignoring that rich range of styles, O’Connor says, the institutions that teach his beloved instrument have isolated it in a kind of baroque echo chamber, cutting off the violin from a growing world of music.
“People could do themselves a lot better by expanding their horizons,” he says. “As the music world was diversifying more and more each decade, the violin was not. Conservatories were using the same literature, the same approach, the same styles. … They were doubling down on being myopic.”
He is especially critical of the Suzuki method, characterizing it as rote repetition of a limited repertoire that ignores vital skills like improvisation and creativity and fails to impart an understanding of harmony, rhythm and structure — attributes that enable a budding violinist to jam or compose.
“One of my early tunes is When the Saints Go Marching In,” he says. “Say a 6-year-old is learning it, and he has a cousin who plays the electric guitar, and a little jam session happens and this kid realizes his little instrument, the violin, is cool.
“A 21st century string player should be able to be creative, to improvise, to write music, arrange music, lead an ensemble … not just be a person who reads music and plays beautifully. That’s a wonderful skill, but it’s just one skill.”
O’Connor’s philosophy is very much in tune with the changes that Shelly Berg has instituted as dean of the Frost School, where O’Connor has been a resident artist for five years. He spends four weeks a year at Frost, working with the classical string and jazz departments, giving talks on musicology and playing with the salsa band.
Performing with him Sunday in a concert called “Fiddles on Fire” will be Frost classical violin professor Glenn Basham; Uruguayan violinist Federico Britos, a renowned Miami-based player who has worked with a host of famous Latin musicians; and a student bluegrass trio called Avocado Estate. The show will also feature students of Frost graduate Ashley Liberty, who was inspired by O’Connor to start string music programs at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove and the Coral Gables Congregational Church Community Arts Program. The youngsters will play eight variations on La Bamba, part of O’Connor’s next method book.
He hopes they’ll enjoy it. Having fun playing music is as essential to his method as proper bowing technique.
“I’ve never seen a fiddler be disinterested in music,” he says. “The Suzuki generation, it’s all about technique and not about artistry and improvisation and creativity. These kids are all wanting to quit the violin. And I think, ‘Gosh, are they having any fun?’ You can tell how much fun I have in music.”