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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

O'CONNOR vs. SUZUKI by Melissa Tatreau

O'Connor vs. Suzuki

By Melissa Tatreau 

Oh, I hate that it has to be "vs." I've been following this debate since last year. Due to the recent resurgence of awareness with the national and international media articles being shared on facebook,  I've had friends sharing these articles with not nice things to say. I can't sleep until I speak my piece.

I'm a rare person in that...I'm one of the rare ones that can speak to being on both "sides". I'm simply writing from my OWN experiences in hopes that someone might even consider another idea. First: a background on me. I started violin at age 9 in the public schools. My impression of "the Suzuki method" was this: I knew a handful of kids (and later, my best friend in college) in youth orchestra that could play the crap out of a concerto, but had to sit in the back of orchestra because they couldn't read. I was told "Suzuki kids" started playing at age 3 and reading in book 4. I happened to have an amazing public school orchestra director. I ended up taking private lessons in the last half of high school. I had to pay for them myself. I took them for granted. But I played in youth symphony, was first chair my senior year at school (in part because some kids left for another school) and a pops orchestra. I made All-State all 3 years. (Boy, has the caliber of playing skyrocketed in Omaha in the last 20 years... There are seriously some AMAZING teachers and opportunities now). Anyway, I should also say that the summer after 9th grade I took some fiddling lessons and LOVED it. We used a book for the most part, but I can still rock Orange Blossom Special I learned by ear.

I got a BM in Music Ed and thanks to an amazing violin teacher, decided to pursue my MM in Pedagogy. This was the first time in my career I felt torn between two worlds. I had been raised in the public school system, and after my original intention to "give back" by coming back as a public school teacher--I changed my mind. Couldn't do it. The system was broken. And rather than staying to make a change, I left for something I felt was better. More importantly, after teaching lessons to 20+ students per week during college, I felt like I was just starting to get the hang of it. I wanted a methodology. Pedagogy.

The Pedagogy degree changed my playing and my life. It was the right choice for me. We studied a combination of Suzuki, Rolland and Zweig. I liked it. There was no judgement. The String Academy of Wisconsin used the Suzuki compilations of music, but taught note reading and taught the pieces with the Zweig ideology and the Rolland ideas of movement. The kids could play better than I had EVER seen: both technically and musically. They played in groups and orchestras. It was a well-rounded education. Knowing the hows and the whys of playing was thrilling for me. I came back to Omaha rearing to go--a better player and teacher. I worked at a bank and taught in a music store basement until landing my current (and DREAM) job at the Omaha Conservatory of Music in 2004.

OCM was set up as a "Suzuki" school at the time. In the summer of 2005, a "hard-core" Suzuki teacher left and I took over some of her students. (She wasn't the only "hard-core" one--and I call them that because they didn't just use the books, but had done the training and fit the stereotype...) The students I inherited from two teachers left me dumbfounded. They couldn't read. I literally had to spoon-feed them the new piece: note. by. note. It was excruciating for us both. I saw many of the students quit over time. The ones I had inherited struggled because they'd been used to something so different. I specifically remember a lesson where I wanted to move to another piece and the girl told me, "But, I can't. It's not perfect yet." Cue my broken heart... I know the 2 Suzuki teachers I'm thinking of were just doing what they knew best at the time, but it's NOT the best.

Now... this article is not to bash anyone. I'm a yoga teacher. And a Libra. I like peace and balance. This was all just background to show what I knew at the time. A new director came to OCM. (Thank God...) She had studied with John Kendall and spoke of him very highly. Ruth's students were and still are some of the best in the state. In the country, actually. They sit in the front of the youth orchestras and win competitions. They can read. And play with soul. So that's why when she suggested I do some Suzuki training, I listened. In all honesty, I didn't want to other than someone I admire suggested it. I thought, "what could I possibly learn from a book 1 class?" At the time, I was thinking of relocating, so I thought at the very least it'd build my resume. She gave me the name--Susan Kempter. I was off to Suzuki camp in Ottawa, Kansas.

The sour-tasting stereotype of Suzuki was blown away. I had the chance to observe most, if not all of the violin teachers at this particular camp. And most of them were fantastic. A couple trended toward the "old-school" stereotype Suzuki ways. Susan Kempter turned out to be one of the top influences of my life. How this woman ended up at Suzuki camp, I don't know, but thank God I found her. It doesn't matter if she was teaching Suzuki or something she found in the trash. She and her ideas changed my playing and my teaching for EVER. I could write an entire article about just that. I came back to camp the next 3 summers to study with her. I have my training in Suzuki books 1-4. I had an exceptional experience there with Susan. And this is why if I could sum up my stance in one sentence it would be... IT ALL JUST DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER.

Around this time I took a symphony audition that was disheartening to say the least. I did my best, but I wasn't THE best. I had shed blood, sweat and tears preparing excerpts to someone else's idea of perfection. And for what? (An article opportunity about orchestra auditions for another time...) For the first time in my life, I considered quitting violin. But fate intervened yet again and I found myself in San Diego at fiddle camp. Mark O'Connor's fiddle camp.

You guys...It SAVED me. I showed up thinking since I played through a fiddle book in 9th grade, I knew how to fiddle. HA! I was moved to tears over and over again. The first time in frustration because when I showed up to my first advanced class it was all by ear and the 12 year olds were kicking my ass. I caught on quickly. There was bluegrass, jazz, klezmer, rock, classical, irish, old-time, Texas style...everything. And I loved it all. I was THIRSTING for this. To BUST OUT of the box. Let me tell you with no uncertainty: the faculty concerts were the best violin playing I've ever heard. Mark O'Connor himself can play ANYTHING on the violin. The musicians I met here were the best. They KNEW their instrument better than I did. The improvising. The JOY. Oh.... It brings me to tears just thinking about that first time. I had been suffering from trying to perfect something on a page. Being told how exactly to play something. That I wasn't good enough. And at fiddle camp...everyone was family. Everyone was welcome. When I heard the music...All I can say is it resonated with my soul. THIS WAS MY MUSIC. I went back the next year.

So early 2009 I went through a divorce and I couldn't afford to go back a 3rd year. But Mark personally messaged me and told me that his method was coming out and he'd scholarship my camp tuition if I went through the books I/II teacher training in NYC. So I agreed. I stayed in a friend's 5th floor non-air conditioned apartment. There were about 30 of us in that first class. The teacher was a pedagogue and a 30 year Suzuki vet. Pam had jumped ship to join this cause. It wasn't hard to see why. Mark didn't teach the class, but he stopped by to speak a couple of times. The music is fun. It's American. It's OURS. It tells our history. It's pedagogically sound. It can stand alone. He put so much thought and research and care into every marking on every page. The enclosed recordings are attainable!!! The books are beautiful. I still got the afternoons off to attend camp. I learned how to "chop" that summer I didn't get to say more than "hi and thanks" to O'Connor. But I knew I'd be a part of this method for a long time. I still fantasize about going around the country to do teacher trainings one day... (hint-hint).

So, that's my (long) background--Now, about the debate. I read all the blog and the facebook rants MOC posted last year. Let me tell you...I felt heartbroken and torn. I didn't want to choose a side. Again, I like peace and balance! I'm not typically a big fan of change. I like the comfort zone. I argued that IT DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER. Mark is one of my true heroes. But the way he was speaking was so sad to me. This is not to be confused with what he was saying--It blew my mind. At first I couldn't believe the things he was saying about "Dr." Suzuki. But I saw all the care and research he put into writing his books. And into his camp. And into his playing. And I thought...maybe he's right. It's a hard pill to swallow, folks. But ask yourself, honestly...could it be true? Was Suzuki a fraud? There's research there. Proof. To ignore it isn't the right answer. I encourage you to read some of the research (links below). I know people who met Suzuki and loved the man. But you have to admit, some people are "cultish" about the guy. I hate the connotation of the word cult, but it seems appropriate. Mark may have been nasty in his battle, but if you actually do the research, some people on the Suzuki "side" started it.

We all have skeletons in our closet. If Suzuki himself was a fraud, does that discount all the lives that were affected? I don't think it has to. I know many people had a great experience. I think the reason it's all so painful is that it did change string teaching in the US. For 50 years, that's really all we had. I guess for me, it's always just been a collection of music. The ideas that all children can learn and let's all make better people... nice ideas. But not enough. When people ask me if I'm a Suzuki teacher...I've always struggled with the answer. Do I use the books? Did I do 4 years of training? Yes. But people STILL have a stereotype of what "Suzuki" is. I'm happy to report from seeing what's happening in Ottawa that things have been in the process of changing for the better. IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER. Here's a fact--the O'Connor method has now released books I through IV. Anyone can buy them. Anyone can teach them. And it will be done badly. There's nothing Mark or anyone can do to control that. Here's another fact--the Suzuki method as it started and intended DOESN'T work on its own. It needs supplemental material and instruction. In my 17 years of teaching I've seen kids quit. I've seen kids get frustrated as soon as the end of book 1. There are some great pieces in there, but it's not enough. There's nothing newer than 1850. The O'Connor method is pedagogically sound. It can stand alone. It teaches theory, history and CREATIVITY. It's OUR music.

I'll be honest. Reading all this stuff made me feel like I was having an identity crisis. I was teaching both. I was sickened by the way Mark was speaking to people. My hero... It was hard to rationalize. I agree with his ideas, but not with the way he was handling it. I was able to attend and present at the 2014 ASTA convention. I wanted to stop by MOC's booth, hoping to just say hi. And we stood there, speaking for 90 min straight. I talked to Mark O'Connor for 90 min straight!! Let me tell you, friends, this guy is genuine. You may find it hard to guess by the way he talks in print, but he's very soft spoken in person!!!! He's passionate about this cause. His 3 year old daughter was there at his side. He's a kid that had some bad musical experiences and then had some awesome ones. He's just trying to share it with all of you. With me. With MY kid. My faith and excitement about string playing in the US was renewed. I'm still on board. He's worth listening to.

I've been typing for 2 hours. I care deeply about this topic. And about you, if you're still reading this. I know it can be hard, but we can't make an informed decision blindly. We must take a good, hard look at the research and what our students need. We MUST MUST MUST always be evaluating what's happening in String teaching in our country. We must never be blind. We must never get in a rut. We must never stop learning. We must never be afraid of something new. It's possible that something we've loved and believed for 50 years wasn't exactly true. Are you still inspired? Are you getting better? Why or why not?

I REALLY LOVE this post by Pam Wiley, the Suzuki vet that leads the O'Connor method.

If you haven't read some of Mark's research, here it the link to his blog--

It is overwhelming, but it's WORTH reading.

I will not ask you to take a side. I'm just asking you to be open. And do the research to make a good decision for yourself.


Melissa Tatreau Holtmeier

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Suzuki's BIGGEST Lie

The first six entries on the 1923 Berlin Hochschule list of auditions (#6 is Suzuki)

An English translation by German music scholars this year (#6 is Suzuki)

     After a series of articles on violin teacher-author Shinichi Suzuki’s fabricated biography regarding both his musical training and major portions of his own life, new information has come forward further substantiating those articles. A life that Suzuki claimed describing a prestigious decade in the Berlin music scene as a young violin student, mixing with the likes of the great physicist Albert Einstein and Professor of Violin Karl Klingler (who was the 2nd violinist in Joseph Joachim’s String Quartet), is refuted by official documents from the Berlin Hochschule (music conservatory). Suzuki was age 24 when he auditioned to take lessons from Karl Klingler in Berlin and was denied.

Recent articles published from my blog site outed “Dr.” Suzuki as someone without a PhD (never went to college), being “mentored and watched after” by the physicist Albert Einstein, (he was a one-time salesman for the Suzuki violin factory giving Einstein a free violin and got an autograph. He alternatively knew Berlin musicologist “Alfred Einstein,” no relation to the physicist) the ringing endorsement of Suzuki from legendary cellist Pablo Casals, substantial enough for him to use on the cover of his own autobiography “Nurtured by Love” (Casals widow Marta Casals Istomin confirmed to documentarian Peter Rosen this year that both Pablo Casals and she viewed Suzuki and his student presentation during their 1961 trip to Japan in horror) have been widely circulated among string players during the last year. After a good amount of research had come in to us, the interest of a few curious German music scholars was piqued about whether Suzuki had violin lessons at all.

Two German string educators/researchers recently went through the archives of the Berlin Hochshule where violin Professor Karl Klingler taught in the 1920s. They were able to locate, photograph and transcribe into English, the Suzuki audition paperwork. Needless to say, the two scholars confirmed what we had learned previously, that Suzuki was never a student at the Berlin Hoschshule where Karl Klingler taught, and he could not have been a private student of Klingler’s for “eight years” as Suzuki claimed in academic essays and biographies because it was Klingler himself who refused Suzuki’s entry into his own teaching studio in 1923, a full two years after Suzuki claimed that he began taking lessons from him. Klingler affixed his own signature to Suzuki’s audition document denying him entry (signature page below). At a time when Germany was reaching out to Japan for cultural exchange students generally, and Suzuki was the only Japanese person who auditioned in 1923, (the only Asian from the appearance of the register), he was marked as “refused” by Kingler and his fellow violin colleagues. The school does not have Suzuki registered as a student whatsoever.

Shinichi Suzuki was “refused” by violin professor Karl Klingler at the Berlin Hochshule for his one and only audition (1923).

     In Suzuki’s own biographies, he boasts that he was not only Klingler’s student beginning in 1921, but his “only private pupil!” Shinichi Suzuki was deceitful about his music credentials and training to American violin teachers, academics, and unsuspecting families who wished to have good violin lessons for their children. He wasn’t forthright about much of his personal life as well, but at the same time wishing for himself to be known as a man with a “beautiful heart.” His claim of violin training for “eight years” in Berlin, studying with the legendary violin professor, Karl Klingler was invented in order to market himself and sell violin education books largely to the United States. It was his only credential as he had no professional credential to tout. But the lie about Klingler got him a seat at the table with serious violin pedagogues and therefore a chance to market his books and approach with trumped up credibility.

Shinichi Suzuki had no violin training from any serious violin teacher that we can find. He was basically self-taught, beginning the violin at the age of 18, and it showed. He was never allowed a position in any orchestra, never performed professionally as a soloist or was a professional recording artist. And more to the point, very few of his own students in his 70-year teaching career rose to the level of becoming a professional musician.

Featured above is a photograph of the 1st page, listing the violin auditions from the Berlin admission protocol for the summer semester 1923. It was taken in April 1923. In all, the document reveals 42 violinists and violists who auditioned, 13 were accepted for violin, 3 on viola. 23 were “refused” and Shinichi Suzuki was one of the people who was “refused” as a student by Karl Klingler and the other violin professors at the conservatory.

Further analysis of the list of violin and viola auditions for the April, 1923 time period was offered by the two Germans researchers. The median age was about 21 years old. The oldest were 47 and 29, both “refused” for their age. The youngest were 15 and 17. Those accepted played Wieniawski, Paganini, Bruch, Viotti, Bach, Brahms ,Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Mendelssohn concerti. One student got accepted with the Bach G Minor Sonata, and two with Bach’s Chaconne. Two of these players went to Klingler and none, according to the protocol, playing other pieces were earmarked for him. A 21 year-old auditioned with the Corelli Folia and a 20 year-old with a Handel Sonata besides Suzuki and both got refused. Eight requested to study with Hess, the leading teacher of the conservatory, three including Suzuki asked for Karl Klingler.

Title page: Aufnahmeprotokoll: Admissions report

Violin and Viola

Sommerhalbjahr 1923: Summer semester 1923

Final page with viola results and prof signatures

Signatures: W. Hess (who had taught at Harvard and was concertmaster of the Boston Symphony)

Karl Markees (Violin Prof) A. (Andreas) Moser (Violin Prof, Joachim’s friend, biographer and co-author of the Violin Method)

Georg Kulenkampff-Perk (leading violin Prof), Karl Klingler, G. Havemann (violin Prof, Joachim student), Emil Bohnke (Viola Prof)

Gustav Exner (Violin Prof) G. Schünemann (Conservatory director)

     Fifty years after Shinichi Suzuki entered the international stage, perhaps a million string students have quit the violin because of their Suzuki lessons, Suzuki materials and educational philosophy (including two kids in my own family), it all looks incredibly sobering now. Suzuki’s concocted biography runs in direct opposition to all proven facts about what actually took place. He invented nearly his entire life to sell a violin method he used in Japan for 1946 orphans of WWII that taught children obedience, softening their hearts to the West with violin lessons.

When it came to Karl Klingler, Suzuki told his biographers something else entirely
Only known photo (or correspondence) of Klingler and Suzuki (at audition?) Note that Klingler doesn't
bother to look up at the camera.

American violin professor John Kendall repeated the teacher/student fraud of Klinger/Suzuki introducing Suzuki to the violin world through his 1966 academic book paradoxically titled; “Everything You Need to Know About Shinichi Suzuki

     Of course Kendall had a huge stake in the potential Suzuki empire - he ran the SAA (Suzuki Association of the Americas) as its President for 30 years beginning in 1971, the year of Klinger's death. Was it all just about money, selling an exotic product from Japan to unsuspecting American violin kids? Certainly that place nor did the man know much about classical violin in 1950s. In the aftermath of the treachery and the deception, Suzuki’s pedagogic advice should be considered an undesirable approach in learning to play the violin, such as his insistence for a constant repetition of a small body of repertoire from 250 years ago for sometimes up to 5 and even 10 years, memorization-ear-training as opposed to ear-training one can use musically, taking violin along with the parent in lessons, all-unison group class for many years with others playing the same line, and no creative musical training, theory, improvisation, composition, or stylistic diversity - not even as much as a single American piece of music offered - from a music method devised in the 1950s and 60s! 

The Suzuki Method basically develops technique by way of massive amounts of repetition along with obedience-based learning (follow my hand, do as I do, I am always right and you are always wrong approach) that has spawned the least creative 50-year era in violin history. All other major instrument groups have grown to rival the violin’s preeminence over the same amount of time both in classical music and popular culture. Suzuki is by the far and away the dominant violin teaching method of the last 50 years.

Shinichi Suzuki was “refused” by violin professor Karl Klingler at the Berlin Hochshule for his one and only audition (1923).

Looking at this single line entry of Shinichi Suzuki  - we have a 24 year-old man who was not good enough to get lessons at this music conservatory with any professor there including Karl Klingler, and therefore did not seek violin training at the end of the day. But many years later, he told violin professor John Kendall from the U.S. that he was an “eight-year” student of Klinger. Suzuki turned right around and made up the same story in his autobiography and once he became established, his eventual biographers repeated under his direction ad nauseam, the same concocted story. Not a single one of them caring to check the facts. None of them picked up the phone to call Karl Klingler in Germany about it. He would have been in his 90s during the 1960s when Suzuki’s credentials were being rolled out. Maybe the fact that Klingler died in 1971, just in time for the bulk of the biographies to be released by his first wave of teachers in America meant that Suzuki could pull the caper off? Never before has the old maxim rang more true; “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

Mark O’Connor - violinist, composer, author and teacher (2014)

--> “. . . when Pablo Casals heard a Suzuki recital in Tokyo, he rushed to the stage shouting ‘bravo,’ and hugged the children . . .

 as the front cover of "Nurtured by Love" states, but according to Casals' widow Marta Casals Istomin, that did not happen. They disliked the Suzuki presentation. The soft spoken Casals was 80 at the time and in very poor health, nearly cancelling the 1961 trip to Japan. He was not running nor shouting at that point in his life.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memories of Mom

A picture of my mom. One of the few photographs of my mother because she wanted to do all the picture taking herself and refused to have any taken of her! Thankfully my younger sister Michelle talked her into grabbing her camera and turning the lens on mom for this rare occasion. It is the only picture I have to this day in how I remember her. You see, she died just months after this picture was taken, of cancer. She was riddled with it all throughout her small body of 98 pounds at the time this photo was taken. She succumbed to cancer at age 51, after battling it courageously for practically our entire childhood, the final 7 years mostly being bed ridden and not being able to travel with me. This is why people saw me at festivals and fiddle competitions around the country when I was 12, 13, and 14 by myself. She wanted me to go on the airplane, away from our home to find a better life than what our family's fate turned out to be.

I have had this framed picture by the front door of every place I have lived since she passed. I see her as I leave out the door each time. Just look at the incredible spirit in her face, her beauty. She has the spirit of being a mother. And to think she thought she was ugly and not worth her picture being taken.

When I saw NBA Kevin Durant's you're the real MVP acceptance speech, I welled up with tears. I felt every word, because that is what our mom did for us. We had cans of beans for dinner, lawn furniture to sit in, and boxes with a sponge pad on top for my mom's bed so my parents could be up off the ground in what dignity they could find given our poverty. Eventually we had a 400 square foot cinder block house with no insulation and mold on the inside of block bedroom walls, set in a rough neighborhood where I began to practice my first musical instrument in Seattle. Somehow she knew that when I was six years old, that classical guitar lessons at three dollars an hour was somehow worth her going hungry for as well.

Just months after this photo was taken, her hips and ribs had disintegrated and I had to carry her everywhere. The last time she saw me perform was at the World Mandolin Championships in Texas that my sister and I drove her to in our van with a bed in the back in 1982. She couldn't walk and had just a few months to live. The cancer had spread to her lungs, lymph nodes, brain and really everywhere. We thought that music was a good place to go and to give her some final memories that were worthwhile. As I was awarded 1st place, I did not hear my name called because I spotted my mother in the front row sitting there by herself and looking up at me with her smile.

You see, this place was an outside ravine, uneven ground and a good degree of slope down towards the front of the stage. We had gotten permission to park the van at the top of the amphitheater with the back doors open so she could see the stage from her resting position on the van bed. I did not see my sister beside her on the front row, nor any other person to help her, to assist her. I kept mouthing the words, where is Michelle, who carried you down? She just sat there and smiled up at me with the same smile in this photograph. I did not hear my name called for the championship, the one that gave me the trifecta - national champion on fiddle, guitar and now mandolin - the only person ever to do so. I only remember seeing people look at me and clapping their hands - but there was no audio, I could not hear anything.

It was like I wasn't there, I was just trying to figure out my mom's situation. As I ran through the backstage area and past congratulators, my younger sister ran up to me to hug me. My response was how did mom get to the front row? She quickly replied that she is not in the front row, she is in the van where we left her just before they were going to announce the winners. I said, well then I am seeing a ghost. We both ran out the back stage gate and into the seating area to find her. She was actually there in the flesh. She had made it down the ravine, unfathomably on her own strength. One slip, her body would have broken in two. She simply wanted to be closer to her kids she said, close enough so she could really see me win the competition. We both sat there and shook our heads, blown away by the strength of a mom. Happy Mother's Day, mom in Heaven. You are still my MVP.

-Mark O'Connor, your musician son (May, 2014)

Photo: Marty O'Connor 1930 - 1982.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Icons of Breakdown Fiddling Said Mark O'Connor is the Best

The Icons of Breakdown Fiddling Said Mark O'Connor is the Best

By Fiona Zwieb

They stated it often; Benny Thomason, Herman Johnson, Dick Barrett, Vernon Solomon, Texas Shorty, Louis Franklin…They knew first-hand from facing him in major fiddle contests routinely around the country, only to lose to him. And that was when O’Connor was just a teenager.

All of the great Texas fiddlers came up short to O’Connor in head to head matchups, and most of them with a zero in their win column against him.

However, it wasn’t just the great fiddlers in Texas who believed O’Connor was the best breakdown fiddler, but ALL of the fiddle icons from bluegrass and country too, including the long list of Kenny Baker, Howdy Forrester, Johnny Gimble, Buddy Spicher, Paul Warren, John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Tommy Jarrell, Mike Seeger, Jerry Rivers, Benny Martin and more.  The "King of Country Music" Roy Acuff spoke of O’Connor saying he believed in reincarnation when he heard him play fiddle breakdowns. Acuff loved his own fiddler Howdy Forrester’s waltzes, but when it came to fiddle breakdowns, it was the consensus that O’Connor was untouchable.
Roy Acuff and Mark O'Connor when at age 13, he won the Grand Master Fiddler Contest in Nashville

When O’Connor was a young man, the greats would stand around, circling him just to watch him play breakdowns for hours on end. When you have a head to head record of 6 and 0 against Terry Morris (Texas’ best!), it was a remarkable achievement that a kid from the Northwest was the first to adopt the “Texas Style” breakdowns, and then turned around and played them even better than the originators of the music.

From author and biographer of iconic musicians, David McGee:
“’Mark O'Connor is arguably the greatest fiddle champion in American history. Combined, he has racked up more 1st place finishes, more state, regional championships and national titles in every region of the United States than any other fiddler. Mr. O’Connor entered more than 200 contests nationwide with nearly a 50% winning record, finishing below third place only once. He has the best-combined record in the two major fiddle competitions, National Old-Time Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, ID, and the Grand Masters Fiddle Championships in Nashville, TN. At age 13, he was the youngest person ever to win the Grand Masters Fiddle Championships competing against all ages, amateur and professional. Thirty-eight years later, his record still stands. As a teenager, Mr. O’Connor won a Canadian national title (Calgary, Alberta) and is still the only artist ever to win national titles (open to all ages) on fiddle, bluegrass guitar and mandolin (Weiser, ID; Winfield, Kansas; Kerrville, TX). Mr. O’Connor won an unprecedented six consecutive Country Music Association Musician Of The Year Awards as voted on by his peers.’
The above statement, from Mark O’Connor’s publicity representative at Shore Fire Media, summarizes a portion of this towering musician’s astounding achievements in a career now marking its 40th anniversary. There is, however, much more to say about the journey that brought him from child prodigy (a term that really does not do justice to the artistry he exhibited at an early age) to single handedly daring the world with the fiddle in a way it had not been heard before--as a lead instrument, as a relevant solo voice in contemporary country music after the country music establishment had written it off as old-fashioned, in the forefront of a new iteration of American classical music that incorporates this country’s various strains of roots music and does nothing less than make O’Connor our foremost nationalistic composer.
Concerning that opening statement, however impressive its litany of Mark O’Connor’s triumphs, it only scratches the real story’s surface.” -David McGee

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Mark O’Connor and discuss his performance of the infamous breakdown, “Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle” at the National Fiddler Hall of Fame in Tulsa, OK in 2013. After viewing archival footage from the Porter Wagoner show, where Wagoner states that O’Connor was the best in the world at age 13, reading many articles, various writings, fiddle contest records & first hand stories from O’Connor’s fiddle camps, this was a much-anticipated interview.

O’Connor claimed that he had not played the piece “Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle” or even worked on it for about 15-20 years leading up to this particular performance.

“I just brushed up on it, quickly”, said O’Connor.

But what is so astonishing about this performance is that without playing the tune for all of those years, his rendition that evening was completely brand new! He was not recalling the tune from how he played it last, but rather reinventing the tune right before our very eyes.

What he is doing in the performance is very much grounded in the style of Texas Fiddling’, but at the same time absolutely innovative. On top of not playing the music for many years, his mind must have been processing the music’s structure and ideas to put in that performance.

O’Connor said, “I wrote and developed variations of “Say Old Man”, and for this performance I was improvising on those variations.”

He was doing so as if he had never quit playing in fiddle competitions, but amazingly has not participated in a competition in nearly 30 years – not even so much as a Texas fiddle jam session to get into the swing of things again! It is as if he had been working on “Say Old Man” all of these years with no interruption.

“It was the first time I had played with Texas Style guitar accompaniment in about 15 years,” said O’Connor.

Guitarists in the video are Jake Duncan and Evan Alexander, both Oklahoma Champion fiddlers in their own right who O’Connor had an influence on. He met them both for the first time just minutes before the performance.

"Jake came by this week…we were visiting and I mentioned the video [of Say Old Man and Mark O’Connor]...I asked him what it was like to get to play with you...he paused a few seconds looked up and said was like playing with God. I looked at him and asked what do you mean? He said and I quote…I've never heard anything so perfect...the tone...perfect intonation and lock solid was like playing with God...he said I've never experienced that before..." says John Duncan (Jake's father).

One could say O’Connor is better now than he ever was before, better than when he was the dominant fiddle champion in history. Mind you, as a young man in the 1970s and 1980s, he was competing against the best competition fiddle players of all time: Texans Norman Solomon, Louis Franklin, Texas Shorty, Terry Morris, Canadians Rudy Meeks, Graham Townsend, and Southeastern players J.T. Perkins, Randy Howard to name just a few.

Another highly unusual aspect regarding this performance is that O’Connor plays this breakdown for over 4 minutes in length but never repeats a single variation the same way. It is long for a breakdown, but still played in a way that completely engages the listener in every phrase. Four minutes is the entire length of a contest round at the National Old-time Fiddler’s Contest in Idaho for three tunes in three various styles and tempos! Could modern fiddlers even know how to play a breakdown half that long before extensive repeating?

O’Connor spins off phrase after phrase with intense rhythmic energy and a bowing arm that is the finest of any fiddler in history, with a left hand strength and articulation second to none.

Whole sections of the tune are completely new to any lover of “Say Old Man, Can You Play The Fiddle.” Yet, it all fits perfectly and played seamlessly – no interruption of a thought or idea, no episodic improvisation that departs from the core intent of the tune. But at the very same time, nearly everything is new – new to O’Connor and new to the fiddle enthusiast! He essentially created another rendition of a classic, just as his late teacher Benny Thomason did with “Say Old Man” 60 years before. O’Connor rewrote the tune like he owned it; as if he and his mentor Thomason owned every part of the tune forwards and backwards.

Mark O'Connor performs "Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle" at the National Fiddler Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2012.

This performance was all consuming for O’Connor. Notice the expression on his face as he played his final note -he looks as if he had just seen the ghost of Benny Thomasson, his beloved teacher he was there to tribute. At once, startled by what he had accomplished in the performance, but relieved that he was able to play for “my teacher Benny” as he likes to say. It could be observed that he recognizes his musical gifts.

There is no documented performance of a Texas Fiddle breakdown performed for over four minutes that consists of uninterrupted variations without repeating sections of the tune note for note that we know of. O’Connor obviously wrote variations of the tune, but each time he played them, they were crafted uniquely as well as improvised in a way that you couldn’t tell which were improvised notes or the composed notes. It is quite simply an historic performance, the likes of which had never been done in Texas fiddling on this level perhaps.

This was quite a special performance and the audience was excited by it. As one can see in the video, fiddle enthusiasts spontaneously stood up during the lingering applause at the formal roundtable dinner. And it was just his first tune! (He played a swing tune for his second tune). This performance by O’Connor was not only important because he was accepting the Hall of Fame award on behalf of his beloved teacher, the iconic Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, but because of what O’Connor played in tribute to his memory and legacy that evening.

Benny Thomasson living in the Northwest told a young Seattle Mark O’Connor, as well as several others around him including family members, that O’Connor would become the best Texas fiddler in history. He didn’t have to be from Texas or live in Texas in order to accomplish this. The geographical and culture question was a singular and unique achievement to overcome at that time in the 1970s certainly – it was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Thomasson, Dean of Texas fiddlers was quoted as saying in 1975: “There is a boy in Texas now, Terry Morris is his name. He is as good a fiddler as anyone who has ever come along in Texas there, the best since we were playing. He is great Mark - but you are better." I invite you to enjoy another recent YouTube from 2013 of his student on “Say Old Man” by O’Connor. 

Mark O'Connor plays "Say Old Man" on the sidewalk after his matinee concert in San Diego backed up by 5-time national fiddle champion Tony Ludiker.

Mark O'Connor's tells us some of his history as a breakdown contest fiddler?

"But with all of that said, I am playing at the very top of today's fiddling on this video. You could see toward the end I started smiling and laughing even, I kind of couldn't believe it that it was all so easy, so spontaneous. That performance there could win Weiser, Hallettsville or the Grand Masters today just like it was 30 years ago for me. And just imagine if I even warmed up or practiced it! It was as natural to me now, as it was when I was a kid. Benny Thomasson taught me the breakdowns for sometimes 12 hours at a time when I was a boy, overnight lessons lasting a day and a half every other weekend for years. He taught me everything about the breakdowns - the art of the breakdown. He showed me how to create my own variations immediately, he wouldn't let me play it like him. He wouldn't allow me to copy him even though I was his student. Once he tried to take me fishing when I was 12 and I sat there on the riverbank with the pole and the line cast out back of his place on the Kalamath. He looked at me, and said, ‘You want to get back to breakdowns, don't ya son?’ I said, ‘Yes Benny.’ You could say that I came along exactly at the right time. A time when he taught me all of this that was so fundamental to my education. You can't get it out of your system even if you don't even play it for a long time! It became a constant source of inspiration because I was so inside it so long ago.”
Norman Solomon and Mark O'Connor (age 16) in Jam Session as Benny Thomasson (in hat) looks on

Louis Franklin, Mark and Benny Thomasson

Contest Strategy from 1970s Fiddle Contests

O'Connor shares his strategies against his fiercest rival in fiddle competitions.

“Here is how I beat the great virtuoso Texas fiddler Terry Morris every time, even though he was the best competition out there, I was able to win. Terry was five years older than me. Since we knew we were each others greatest competition, we stayed close - sometimes we would ride together, eat together, jam together, one time we even bunked together! We each watched each other warm up, and most of the time we watched each other compete in the rounds. We often used the same guitar players as accompanists - exactly the same guitar players. We had a quite a psyche out deal going...With Terry, even though he was a genius, he had tunes he played that were great, and tunes he played that were frankly more on the average side. I also had my best tunes too... My worst tunes I felt were not as average sounding as Terry's average though, and that is where at least some of the "game" was played out. Who could stretch their repertoire the most. Terry's best tunes were basically unbeatable in my opinion. Those mostly included some key breakdowns and a couple of ragtime tunes. For instance his best breakdowns were 'Sally Johnson,' 'Billy In the Low Ground' and 'Dusty Miller.' My best breakdowns were 'Sally Goodin,' 'Grey Eagle,' 'Say Old Man' and 'Tom and Jerry.' If we went head to head on these seven tunes, it was likely a draw to a lot of judges. The waltzes it was no contest though, I had Terry on those every time.

The tunes of choice were the wild cards. Terry had an incredible 'Black and White Rag' and '12th Street Rag,' really unbeatable. I had 'Herman's Rag' and 'Wild Fiddler's Rag' both were really unbeatable as well. So here was the strategy. We watched each other closely and we matched tunes. If he did not play his strongest breakdown or tune of choice then I could "wander" a bit, and get him with tunes like 'College Hornpipe,' even two part tunes like 'Hell Among the Yearlings.' The reason why this was a good strategy for me is that the judges got tired of us playing the same old warhorses all the time. So if Terry “wandered,” then I needed to as well, and vice versa. It would appear bad for me if say Terry played 'Tugboat' while I went with one of my warhorses like 'Grey Eagle' in the same round because it could be thought of as over compensating and it would seem that I did not have as large of repertoire and range of fiddle tunes to pull out of the hat – just the "practiced ones." So it was a little bit of a cat and mouse game and we watched each other closely through all of the rounds, even the first round which most of the time sets the tone for the entire contest. By the percentages, if you win the first round, you usually win the contest because you set the stage to do so. Somebody would have to knock you off the hill, or you would have to really lose it. It is never good to start slow when it comes to fiddling… it is not a foot race where you can pace yourself in the qualifying heats. It is mostly about how you are playing that entire contest weekend, even in the jams and warming up back stage matters to the environment that you create.
Benny Thomasson, James "Texas Shorty" Chancellor, Terry Morris and Mark O'Connor (1976) Mark is age 14 in this picture.

Here is where some of Terry's weak points were concerning tunes of choice. While his 'Black and White Rag' was mind-boggling good, he would do other tunes like 'Dill Pickle Rag' or some little swing tunes that would not be that great oddly... Some of his tunes of choice did not resonate as well and like I said sounded uncharacteristically more normal. So basically when Terry wandered into his other material, then I would do the same. But when he brought out 'Black and White,' I would come with 'Wild Fiddler's' and dazzle the judges at that as well in the same round and it would be a wash again. The thing about the breakdowns is that we each had a slight edge on each other with our best breakdowns. For instance I never played ‘Sally Johnson’ first in a round for fear that Terry would follow me with it and show me up a bit. I would only play ‘Sally Johnson’ after Terry played something else in that round. Conversely he would never follow me playing ‘Sally Goodin’ or ‘Grey Eagle.’ So those big breakdowns won me a lot of contests.

If Terry went off his greatest stuff, I could usually get him on some of that. For example, he liked to play some tunes in Bb and F, but his intonation was a little suspect on those, usually going sharp often. While they were still very good, he was never quite as smooth with the bow on them like he was with his big breakdowns. I was generally smooth on everything I played really. If he played a tune in a flat key to show his "range," I could come with 'College Hornpipe' in Bb, which I had better than any other fiddler living at that time. No one could play that in Bb with the strength in the left hand I had and not get pitchy. It was not the  incredible Texas tune that the warhorses were, but as soon as Terry deviated to a flat key for a breakdown, it allowed me to play something like 'College Hornpipe' and just floor the judges because no one else could play it that good! If Terry got nervous and he played just his standards against me, then the judges could sense that Terry was nervous of me too and didn’t want to take any chances. Those were some of my strategies that really worked with Terry!

It was an amazing rivalry, but I sure knew how to get Terry in the contests. 6 and 0 record for contests we competed against each other in New Mexico, Louisiana, North Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma."

O'Connor shares his thoughts with another chief contest rival.

"It was different for each one actually, because each rival had different strengths. While Terry’s waltzes were his weakest card, ol’ Herman Johnson could charm you write off a cliff with his waltzes! Herman Johnson was a major champion and a veteran. He was about 35 years older than me. But Herman was an enigma when it came to his competition reputation. There were more than a few times where he pulled out of contests when he knew I was coming to compete in them. I used to poach in his backyard some, loved to compete in Oklahoma. I loved competing in all of the border states to Texas because in the 1970s (during my contest days), they would not allow me to compete in Texas except for a very few! The two that I did compete in Texas, I won. (Grand Champion in El Paso and the winner of the age 40 and under category at Crockett). But for the most part, “no foreigners” is how we used to describe getting blocked out in Texas. It was the only state competition in the south that would not allow out of state players a chance at the title. Whereas I had state titles not just in my home state of Washington, but in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, California etc…

So I used to compete in Herman's backyard, and won a few Oklahoma State contests, which he did not enter but could have. I remember him pulling out of an invitational in Oklahoma actually when he checked the registration list I was told. He drove all the way up to a North Dakota international competition, saw me there, we talked for a few minutes and then turned right around and drove back home! I am a bit unclear as to what contests he pulled out of and which ones I beat him in and around the mid south and Midwest. But when I got 2nd to him at the Nationals in Weiser when I was 16, that pretty much made him not want to compete again. There were no other fiddle competitors that I ever knew who would do that. It is a strange story.

One thing that really rattled him was the fact that he taught me some tunes when I was 12 and 13 like his own tune ‘Herman’s Rag,’ and that tune in particular became one of my signature tunes in contests ironically. I won with it at the Grand Masters when I was 13 even, following Herman’s win there. Herman had gotten 3rd place the first year of the contest. But he didn’t like to lose. Eventually it became possible for me to outpoint Herman on his own tune because I added a few things to it and got it a little more exciting than his own rendition for contests. One of my strategies in going up against Herman was that I sometimes waited for the round that he played his own ‘Herman’s Rag’ in and if I was to follow him, I would have the nerve and play “Herman’s Rag” after him! I got his attention like no other competitor doing that stuff. It shook him and that was tough to do, since he was “Mr. ice,” “Mr. cool.” Yes, Herman pulled out of some major contests and would refuse to defend his Oklahoma State titles, Grand Masters and National Championship titles at Weiser titles when the going got tougher and I started winning everything in sight! But he continued to enter selected contests. By contrast, I never pulled out of a single contest because of who showed. I got kicked out of several though including Galax and Smithville!

My family and I were requested to leave the grounds at the big Galax Fiddler's Convention in Virginia when I was 14 because they heard that I had won the Grand Masters and at that time, fiddle contests were always won by old men who were veterans. The contest director told us that if I won their contest, it could cause a riot. For public safety and security, I was forced to leave the grounds! We had driven a thousand miles to go there. In Smithville, it was the very last contest I entered at age 25. Because I was so far ahead in the first round, the judging staff determined that no one had a chance to catch up to me in the 2nd and final round. They kicked me out of the contest for unfair advantage and for being a professional. Even though many in the contest made money for performers. Literally, they had a policeman escort me to my car in the parking lot and made sure that I drove off and left the grounds before the 2nd round began!
Herman Johnson winning 1st place at the National Old-Time Fiddler's Contest in Weiser Idaho. Mark O'Connor gets 2nd place (at age 16, Mark was the youngest allowed to compete in the grand champion division, and Dick Barrett is awarded 3rd place.

In this photograph from 1978, I was 16 and just lost the national championship at Weiser, ID to the iconic contest fiddler Herman Johnson who played so smooth he could hypnotize you right into deep water! The other iconic contest fiddler in the photo is Dick Barrett mostly of Native American descent and originally from the Texas/Oklahoma border came in 3rd place that year (he had won the championship four times). The photo is quite something as it captures such a moment in time. I had learned from both musicians in private lessons, and you could see I was comforting Herman having my hand placed on his shoulder, even though he won! He was so nervous that I would upset his undefeated record being just a kid... He retired from the competition that night.”
O'Connor becomes National Champion in Weiser for the 4th time in 1984, flanked by Texans Ricky Boen and Ricky Turpin

O'Connor's thoughts about today’s fiddle contests and contest winners?

“At one time in the past (my era) two things were taken for granted in the world of fiddling and fiddle contests. 1. The top fiddlers vying for all major contest finals, brought their own materials, their own style, renditions of tunes, improvisation, creativity, regional accent, individuality etc. The last time a contest champion copied someone’s version of a tune in my era, was when they themselves were students learning how to play. 2. It was assumed that all fiddlers were authentic; otherwise they would not be fiddling folk music. So the judging was skewed for more technical considerations in order to separate the top players for placement: ie tone, intonation and rhythm.

Today, the fiddlers pretty much sound alike, and they are for the most part not creative, performing rote renditions they copied off of some select jam tapes, usually the same ones that have been passed around. Since the scene has drastically changed, then the judging criterion has to change. There should be some accepted criteria to help the culture of fiddling in general. It is obvious to me, that originality and creativity must enter back into the judging picture in order to force the copiers into finishing lower in the standings until they get the picture that they either need to work on their style, individuality, creativity, variations and improvisation, or not enter major fiddle competitions. Fiddling must represent personal expression, not Memorex expression. Tex-Memorex is what I call a lot of this new stuff. And a lot of it was influenced by the Suzuki era and Suzuki style teaching that some of these fiddlers started with. It promotes repetition, mimicking, learning and playing by rote, with little or no creativity. In the days that I entered fiddle contests, the top 10 at the Grand Masters in the 1970s each had individual styles and renditions of tunes, immediately recognizable to even the most passive fiddle fans. The top 10 when I was winning was who’s who in fiddling, each with their own variations, sound and approach – Benny Thomasson, Louis Franklin, Norman Solomon, Herman Johnson, Terry Morris, Vernon Solomon, Larry Franklin, Sam Bush, Rudy Meeks, J.T. Perkins, Texas Shorty, Dale Morris, Randy Elmore, the list was long!

If I was advising fiddle contests today, I would adjust the categories to have more points for "ability - creativity- originality...," and lower the “intonation” and “tone” categories by about 10 or 20 points. Let the best "fiddler" win, not just the best "executor." Timing or rhythm can stay where it is I think, move originality up by 20 points, move both intonation and tone down 10 points each out of a 100 total score. I think this would begin to correct the issues. But even better than that, I would change the modern day fiddle contest to include improvisation categories and tune writing - best original tune. Add those scores into the breakdown and waltz categories and you have your best fiddler as the champion. Fiddlers historically have always been the creative players, improvisers, bandleaders and writers of new tunes. The best fiddlers were responsible for adding to and replenishing the repertoire.

Today, the creative player is getting less points compared to another fiddler who copies someone from a tape and plays in tune with good tone. I believe that needs to change for there to be continuing credibility in fiddle contests of this new era. That is also what is wrong with orchestra auditions today as well, where they reward the person who plays with no mistakes and perfectly in tune like a robot from memory, not accounting for artistry, or even sight reading and overlooking soulful and individual players who really have something musically to offer. Very similar situation!”

Mark at age 13 performing his own rendition and variations of "Tom and Jerry" that won him the Grand Master Fiddle Championships in 1975

One of the last times that Roy Acuff saw Mark O'Connor in a breakdown jam session (Acuff can be seen towards the end of the clip); 1987 at John Harford's home in Nashville.