Take heart. Frustration isn’t the sole province of the modestly talented. Even the most gifted students of music can find themselves discouraged and adrift.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was frustrated with music as a youngster and wanted to quit, especially in my classical phase,” says Mark O’Connor, today among the most celebrated violinists and composers on the international scene.
“I know very well what it’s like. When I was young, we had to scramble to find some teachers for me. I was very challenged, but my family was very resourceful. What a tragedy that would have been for me had I not continued on.”
O’Connor, who will attend the second annual O’Connor Method Summer Camp here, says that he devised the teaching approach that bears his name in part to circumvent this kind of attrition.
“The thing we do not want to do is teach a 5-year-old for two years, it not turn out very well and they quit. Once a student is a teenager and they can easily make some of their own musical choices, that’s a different story.
“My method is really about getting a firm foundation in playing this beautiful instrument — the biggest reason I created this method. Too many thousands of young people were quitting in droves, leaving them and their parents unhappy.”
Directed by Pamela Wiley, O’Connor Method Camp Charleston runs Monday through Friday at the Unitarian Church downtown, with headquarters at the Mills House. O’Connor will perform 6-8:30 p.m. Friday at Charleston Day School, with the event to be followed by a meet-and-greet 9-10:30 p.m. in Gage Hall.
Performer, composer, teacher and recording artist, O’Connor has a career and repertoire spanning classical, jazz, bluegrass and other musical forms. As a youth, the Seattle native won national string instrument championships on the mandolin and guitar as well as the violin, and as a teenager he toured with such legends as French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.
Above all, he considers himself and his method to be grounded in, and informed by, the American Music System.
“The method is largely drawn from my own education,” says O’Connor, who has been producing camps for 20 years. “I thought in terms of two general descriptions: the actual method, which is (laid out) in the series of books we have published, and another body of source material that I often refer to as the American System, which is what I came out of.
“It is a form of learning music that really can only happen, historically, in the U.S. There were several different traditions involved in learning American music, and the American System has supplied us with some of our greatest musicians from Louis Armstrong to Vassar Clements. The list is endless. It’s an incredible system.”
O’Connor, having tapped into that larger tradition and refined it, says that the commonly used terms “American Music System” and “American Music Movement” are not exactly interchangeable.
“Academically it’s a system, emotionally it’s a movement. It’s a movement involving our history, our environment. It’s what’s happening on the ground, and it’s moving at a rapid pace, especially in string playing in the academic setting. There had been almost no movement in jazz strings and bluegrass strings and other kinds of traditional music until recently.”
O’Connor says his method approaches teaching in a more holistic way, and that embracing the symphonic orchestra is a central part of it. Orchestral music offers a firm foundation from which to learn and to appreciate different styles and different tempos.
“I believe in orchestra. I believe in ensembles. I believe in many, many string instruments playing together. But these are things that are nonexistent in bluegrass music, for example. The method itself is very inclusive, and of the American environment.
“And in the American environment is orchestra. We brought it here in the 1840s, and this is a part of our culture, too. American composers composing for orchestra, especially people like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, are also a part of our culture.”
Wiley, re-energized as a fiddler and teacher after contemplating retirement six years ago, heartily concurs.
“The O’Connor method makes American music primary, not supplemental, something on which you can build your technique in classical music, blues, jazz or what have you,” says the Jacksonboro resident, who commutes each day from her home to her teaching post at Charleston’s Hungry Monk Music. “It lays the foundation for all those styles.”
For O’Connor, one of the most rewarding facets of the Charleston camp, his first employing the O’Connor method, is having it “spring up” with his director of education and teacher trainer at the helm.
“It’s fitting because Pam Wiley is such a great leader who sets a great example for future teacher trainers and future camp directors. Several teachers attending the camp are also interested in starting their own O’Connor Method Camp within the next year.
“It was part of the plan to have camps emerge as part of a sequence: introducing the method, having teachers trained, and having it be taught in studios and in schools, and then have summer camps. The trajectory was in place from the beginning.”
The goal, especially in an era of decreased financial support for (and emphasis on) the arts, is to replace the network of support and direction that once was commonplace.
“What’s been happening in the American system is that in the past, everybody had their teachers and family and a community that supported music. But we are in a different era now and we do not get those opportunities.
“A lot of string playing and string students fall between the cracks, and what I wanted to do was put a methodology together that featured our very best material, material I’ve been thinking about for decades. Then to weed through that and get the very best material in a sequence that mattered, that will connect the right dots and not repeat the technical issues you’re already learned.”
That material, the core of Western classical violin training, is built on the work of giants — Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, et al. — and this material is itself “a huge part” of his method, says O’Connor.
“In the last 10 years, I’ve really honed in on the material and methodology.”
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.