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.”