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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mark & Maggie O’Connor - AMERICAN CLASSICS

Mark and Maggie O’Connor - American Classics identifies the cornerstones of repertoire, style and wonderful diversity of A New American School of String Playing. Mining a huge body of repertoire that has made its impact on American music, the tunes I have selected and the arrangements I have created from them represent stylistic importance, pedagogical value and have timeless appeal. 400 years of music informed by string playing in the Americas establishes relevance for the 21st century music audience as well as the student of music through the O’Connor Method book series. It does so by returning the violin to its rightful place at the center of the very music it helped to create and promote.

The American music styles and compositions contained in American Classics helped to create culture and inspire deep understanding between people of various ethnicities and races. The music emanating from great musicians of the Americas was not only for the purpose of telling their stories, but also to inspire future stories to be told. An American song or tune is a living artistic monument – one that changes or even transforms itself with each era, with each musician and in fact with each performance. The music can change with each performance because it was designed to be changed. Western European classical masterpieces are meant to be replicated; American musical pieces are intended to be recreated again and again. There is no better musical path through which a musician can learn creativity.

American Classics and the O’Connor Method at its core, pushes violin playing technique and stylistic development and unlocks the key to further creativity through the improvisational spirit of string playing that has reached across the Americas for hundreds of years of music history. It also established foundational musical languages by way of four major traditional styles - hoedown, blues, spiritual and ragtime

Master European composer Antonin Dvorak, during his sojourn in America in the 1880s, identified a few pieces that he felt could be significant in developing American Classical music. I include my arrangements of three of these pieces in American Classics: the soulful Spirituals Deep River, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and perhaps the greatest melody from the pen of Stephen Foster – Old Folks at Home.

Legendary French composer, Maurice Ravel, came to America in the 1920s and, like Dvorak 40 years earlier, identified some of the stylistic musical hallmarks indigenous to our American culture that he felt could be built upon to create a truly American Classical repertoire. He felt that Spirituals, Popular Songs, Blues and Jazz were the authentic foundation of a noble heritage of a new classical music as yet to be developed in America. From my own life experience in music - falling in love with American repertoire - I whole-heartedly agree with these masters from Europe. The foundation of American music, and therefore our developing American Classical music, stems from “our” collective language created in the melting pot of America by the interconnecting of immigrant cultures from Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Near Asia. Our Blues, Gospel, Rags and Hoedowns, Popular Songs and Jazz are the wellspring of this collective spirit of people from all over the world living in America and making music together. 

The American music system has rewarded professional composers such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Bob Wills from who we offer the western swing classic Faded Love as one of our violin duos. Equal status, however, is given to pieces of music penned by amateurs and tunes of unknown origin that are so utterly captivating that they have caused the world to play, sing and dance. The irresistible Cajun tune Jole Blon is an example. Furthermore, recognition is given to good music born of any class, race or group that has endured and made a difference in people’s lives. La Bamba is an old 17th century Mexican song of unknown origin although all indications point to the source being Aztec Indians and African slaves in Veracruz, that has had a tremendous social impact.

Musical highpoints of my own career involved my recording duets with violinists/fiddlers such as Doug Kershaw, Byron Berline, Kenny Baker, Pinchas Zuckerman and Johnny Gimble featured on my 1992 Grammy-nominated recording Heroes – experiences that inspired me to share the joy of duet playing with more audiences and with students through the O’Connor Method as well. Included in American Classics are the bluegrass instrumental standards Gold Rush and Jerusalem Ridge, western swing’s Fiddlin’ Around and the poignant Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar from the Civil War PBS series.

Two particular styles represent music from my own great teachers and mentors – the creative genius of Benny Thomasson’s Texas style fiddling and the playing of the greatest improviser and jazz player to ever hold a violin, Stephane Grappelli. My lessons with these musical giants inspired my arrangements of key pieces from their respective repertoires for American Classics. Daphne is a piece that was very instructional to me personally as I learned it from Reinhardt’s famed violin partner, Stephane Grappelli. My arrangement of the spirited Daphne includes a “hot” jazz solo – a combination of phrases inspired by African American jazz violin great Eddie South from the 1930s, a little from Grappelli and a bit of my own “hot swing” style. 

My tribute to Texas fiddle great Benny Thomasson is revealed in his classic arrangements of College Hornpipe and Limerock – cornerstones of fiddling and of the million-selling project I recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer as well, Appalachia Waltz - Appalachian Journey. A further tribute to the Texas style of fiddling is to Thomasson’s own teacher Eck Robertson and his history-making thirteen variations of Sallie Gooden.

American Classics includes music reaching across the U.S. border too. The well-known Mexican tunes Jessie Polka as well as the popular Canadian tune Rippling Water Jig are featured, continuing the theme that the American Music System includes the music of our immediate neighbors to the South and North, all adding to our rich and diverse cross-pollination of musical cultures. I also add my arrangement for violin duo of Libertango by Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla.

Of all the influences of European classical composers, it is that of Johann Sebastian Bach that remains most universal. Many jazz musicians claim that Bach’s influence on them has been no less significant than that of anyone else. Bach’s vast body of dance-based literature, his solidifying of western harmony and his extensive use of counterpoint, improvisation and theme development, create a substantial bridge to the music of the Americas. I studied Bach as a young violinist. The Allemande from Violin Partita No. 2 and the G Minor “presto" from Sonata No. 1 are featured solo works. In addition to honoring Bach’s original version, I have offered arrangements using new bowings, articulation, dynamics, tempo variances, double-stops and rhythmical syncopation as an example of creative study and exploring unique expressive opportunities. 

Included in American Classics are a few of my own compositions that have already become staples in modern-day string playing. Perhaps my most well-known piece Appalachia Waltz is featured as a violin duet. My Emily’s Reel dedicated to Yo-Yo Ma’s daughter and Olympic Reel that I composed for the 1996 Olympic Games and later recorded by Natalie MacMaster on her gold-selling recordings in Canada have been heard by millions of listeners. Strings and Threads Suite is one of the most performed string compositions with orchestra today, music that depicts the evolution and development of American folk music genres by way of ethnic cross-pollination. I have added one of my own pieces to the Blues progression, a favorite from my Hot Swing Band: In the Cluster Blues. This Blues reveals how 6/8 rhythm can be used to understand and experience the feeling of the “shuffle” created by the African style of 6 beats over 2 beats, a style created in the American South hundreds of years ago.

In addition to some of my own American Classical pieces I feature Simple Gifts and Hoedown (Bonaparte’s Retreat) perhaps two of the signature American melodies most associated with American Classical music through the symphonic work of Aaron Copland. I offer my arrangement of the theme and a set of variations of this Shaker song and the old fiddle tune for the purpose of instilling creative concepts and revealing the many ways a theme can be interpreted. These new versions of Simple Gifts and Bonaparte’s Retreat or as we call it in the Method Book Stepp Down Hoedown, honoring the fiddler William Stepp who came up with the specific variation used by Copland, are wonderful ways to showcase the individualism, heroism and celebration that this music calls forth.

Mr. O'Connor, a multi Grammy winning violinist and composer, has composed nine full length concertos that have received more performances than any other concertos composed in the last 50 years. His near iconic “Appalachia Waltz” is one of the most performed string pieces written since Barber's Adagio. He is currently artist-in-residence at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.

American Classics offers a broad and interconnecting compendium of American music through the presentation of violin solos performed by me and violin duos performed by myself and Maggie O’Connor, my wife who plays the violin. Several of the pieces feature piano accompaniment. Audiences as well as students of the violin will find themselves inspired by the songbook of America as they have never heard it before. Present-day Spirituals such as the anthem We Shall Overcome empower us with a significant portion of the American Music System. –Mark O’Connor

The Players:


Maggie O’Connor 

Violinist and American fiddler Maggie O'Connor performs diverse styles of music throughout the US and beyond. In recent seasons, she has performed duets with her husband Mark O’Connor, she has appeared as a guest soloist with the renowned Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the Santa Rosa Symphony, presented recitals in Baltimore, soloed with orchestras in Atlanta, and appeared as a member of the Aspen Festival. She can be heard improvising jazz, bluegrass, rock, and pop with a range of groups including her family band True Dixon, her bluegrass trio Ra Tomatoes, as well as the rock group The Radio Birds. Also an accomplished scholar, Maggie attended the Peabody Institute of The John Hopkins University, where she studied with the legendary violinist Herbert Greenberg. There she has earned the Bachelor of Music degree and the Master of Music degree.

Mark O’Connor 

A New School of American String Playing - The American System and the "O'Connor Method." Solo books of sequenced tunes and exercises featuring technique, creativity, theory, improvisation and ear training. "America On Strings" is sequenced orchestrations designed for elementary, middle and high school level orchestras. The O'Connor Method includes musical literature that represents all of the Americas - Mexico, Canada and every region of the United States - and many musical styles - classical, folk, Latin, rock, ragtime, etc. Teacher Training takes place around the country. 

O'Connor, a mulit Grammy winning violinist and composer, has composed nine full length concertos that have received more performances than any other concertos composed in the last 50 years. His near iconic "Appalachia Waltz" is one of the most performed string pieces written since Barber's "Adagio." He is currently artist-in-residence at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music. 

For more information on the music of the O'Connor Method please go to: or For the histories on American Classics music written by Mark O'Connor, go to

* Photography by Jason Elon Goodman

             The Mark O'Connor - Maggie Dixon Wedding - November 8th, 2014

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The IMPROVISED Violin Concerto

“The Improvised Violin Concerto” composed by Mark O’Connor
…the First One In History

Leaders in the classical music field have weighed in…

“This Concerto is the very first such composition which requires the soloist to spontaneously create in real time. No such concept has heretofore seen the light of day. Ironically, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, to name a few legendary figures in the pantheon of classical composers, were violinists AND improvisers themselves.” -Larry J. Livingston (Chair, Department of Conducting, Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California

“In this first-ever foray into a combined improvised and structured musical journey of epic proportions, guru Mark O'Connor shows us that he is the musical visionary of our generation, and of generations to come." -Dr. Judith Lynn Stillman, concert pianist, BM, MM, DMA, The Juilliard School Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Music, Rhode Island College

"Combining innovation and originality in a violin concerto with the challenge of improvisation has never been accomplished before Mark O'Connor's ‘The Improvised Violin Concerto.’” -Peter M. Thall Author of What They'll Never Tell You About the Music Business: the Myths, the Secrets, the Lies (& a Few Truths) (Billboard Books: Random House 2006)

“It seems natural that Mark O'Connor, being a virtuoso violinist and a seasoned improviser and composer, should write a violin concerto that had an improvisational element. After all, improvisation has had a place in concerto writing for centuries. Ornaments, other embellishments and cadenzas were often left up to the performers. The catch with Mark O'Connor's Improvised Violin Concerto is that the entire solo part is improvised.” -David Frost, (Grammy award winning Classical Music Producer, including Classical Producer of the Year)

It's utterly groundbreaking. -Paul Haas (Conductor/Composer, Music Director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, founder/Artistic Director of Sympho)

For audiences and aspiring young musicians, hearing a completely improvised concerto is a unique and inspiring opportunity. It is a wonderful concept brilliantly executed by the gifted Mark O'Connor. -Marin Alsop (Conductor, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Principal Conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra)

“Mark saw something in the future which had never yet existed, and that was a composed violin concerto where the solo violin part would be completely improvised. So he created it! Until Mark composed and performed the Improvised Violin Concerto in 2010, there had never been such a thing.”-Matt Glaser (Artistic Director, American Roots Music Program, Berklee College of Music

World Premiere - Boston Symphony Hall
How I Came Up With The Improvised Violin Concerto Idea
by Mark O’Connor

Although it’s as old as the art of music, the singular art of improvisation confounds and intimidates even the best-educated and most successful classical musicians. Many believe improvisation to be spontaneous, boundless musical invention, which is entirely true only in an approach I have often embraced, namely “free improvisation.” In most circumstances, however, improvisation is not boundless but rather adheres to (or at least references) harmonic, metric, rhythmic and temporal guidelines.

Three levels of study define improvisation. First, discipline and years of practice are essential to conceiving of and structuring musical ideas and then learning how to musically transition from one idea to another. Second, an understanding of jazz theory, harmony, rhythm and meters is necessary. Third, an intimate knowledge of chord progressions for specific pieces is an absolute. Knowledge of and familiarity with these chord progressions, rather than mere awareness of them, allows the improviser to spend less time worrying about technical details and more time being creative.

Mastery over the Improvised Violin Concerto, then, is no mean feat. Unlike a bluegrass tune, which usually has three or four chords, or a jazz tune, which might have 10 or 20, the Improvised Violin Concerto has hundreds of chords and numerous meter changes over the course of a thousand measures. I am, to some degree, surprised that brilliant improvisers like Mozart, Liszt, Paganini and Mendelssohn did not tackle something like this.

In addition to encouraging classical musicians to become familiar with the pantheon of great American improvisers I have studied, I hope this piece goes a step further and inspires in those musicians a keener interest in improvisation.

The Improvised Violin Concerto unites two disciplines: symphonic composition and improvisational performance art. It is the first concerto to feature an entirely improvised solo part over a through-composed orchestral score.

The piece adheres to three basic principles:
Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras, Federico Cortese

First, the orchestra--a large body of musicians trained to play in perfect synchronization--must not improvise. I cannot envision designing a stable, long-form piece around orchestral improvisation. However, I do score ambient sounds and noise effects, which sound improvisational and thus serve as a link between the orchestra and the soloist.

Second, the violin part must be entirely improvised. Even if a small portion of the solo part were composed, the piece would not live up to its title. The violin must be unbridled, free to introduce its own ideas at any time. And these ideas, and every note therein, will be different in each performance.

Third, the orchestra must introduce and develop themes to provide form and logic. Its score must be essentially symphonic. This affords the violin the ultimate freedom to experiment with and respond to the themes and other musical materials.

To emphasize this sense of freedom, I allow for extreme dynamic variation in the solo part. With the aid of sound reinforcement (via P.A.) and effects pedals, the violin can negotiate even the loudest tutti sections punctuated by fortissimo brass. On the other hand, the violin has the right to remain silent in the softest moments.

To avoid excessive conflict between the violin and the upper-register orchestral instruments (e.g., trumpets, flutes, oboes), I assign much of the thematic material to lower-register instruments such as the bass clarinet, the English horn, the bassoon and the trombone.

At nearly 40 minutes in length, The Improvised Violin Concerto features the longest improvisation ever called for in a classical setting. To perform it well is a daunting task.

Given the length of the piece, I dedicate each of the five movements to basic, widely interpretable elements rather than specific thoughts or images. “Fire,” the first movement, is passionate, intense, and otherworldly--an excellent launching point. “Air,” the second movement, stirs up a new kind of energy that extinguishes the embers remaining from the first movement. The playful and jazzy third movement, “Water,” introduces the human condition. The fourth movement, “Earth,” invokes blues, rock and heavy metal to convey what I call the “salt of the Earth.” This movement represents the relationship between Earth and humanity.

The final movement manifests what I call the fifth element, “Faith.” It is an invention of humanity, a celebration of the human spirit. After a series of hymnic chord sequences, the movement proceeds through Southern Gospel refrains before morphing into Gospel hoedowns and Buzzard Lope dances. It culminates in a throw-down Jubilee.

The sheet music for the solo violin part contains chord symbols (BAug, Gmaj7, and so on) rather than notes. These chord symbols indicate the harmonies in the orchestra. Otherwise, the solo part contains standard types of information: time signatures, measure numbers, rehearsal letters, tempi, and descriptions of individual sections (like “Impending inferno” and “Evaporation”) that inform the soloist’s ideas and mood.

--Mark O'Connor
World Premiere - Boston Symphony Hall

"Mark O'Connor is a formidable improviser who conjures the soul of the
American vernacular fiddling tradition in the concert hall."  -Derek Bermel – Composer, clarinetist; Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study and Creative Adviser to the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The Alpert Award in the Arts, the Rome Prize, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships as composer

"What a refreshing and exciting concept – challenging the performer to
improvise in a concerto setting!  Mark O’Connor brings back to modern day
how it used to be when musicians improvised all the time and were expected to do so."  -Beata Moon Composer, pianist Music Facilitator for Arts Achieve Project at Carnegie Hall, Music Teaching Artist at Lincoln Center Institute

“Mark O'Connor's new concerto awakens a sleeping giant: improvisation within the classical concerto context.  But unlike past virtuosi who limited improvisation to ornaments or cadenzas, Mark improvises his entire solo part.  Each performance creates  a new, unique, exciting journey.  Mark never "cheats;" even the afternoon dress rehearsal differs stunningly from the evening's concert.  Bravo, Mark; you've raised the bar yet again!”  -David Wallace - DMA; Chair of Strings at Berklee College of Music, Former professor, Juilliard School, Senior Teaching Artist, the New York Philharmonic

“This piece goes beyond "novel".  It's utterly groundbreaking.  We're so used to the idea of a concerto part being written out for the soloist, but here the soloist's musicality is tested to the utmost with a totally improvised part.  In fact, without a total reworking of the music education system - the way Mark has not only advocated but actually put into practice, including an emphasis on the lost art of improvisation - a concerto like this is totally unplayable by the vast majority of conservatory grads.”  -Paul Haas (Conductor/Composer, Music Director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, founder/Artistic Director of Sympho)

“Mark O'Connor is a true American genius. He is bringing to our culture our music, and he's doing it in a way that celebrates both the tradition and beauty of our heritage with the pedagogy that can teach our string players how to play this music in a technically sound and healthy way, in addition to the obvious importance of American string music in the grand historical tradition. He is an absolutely ground breaking artist and his commitment to defining what American music is, is absolutely essential to defining what is unique about our culture and what we need to instill in every American musician who plays a string instrument. His contributions as an artist, teacher, composer, pedagogue are incalculable and will be remembered for ages to come in American music.”  -Dr. Robert Livingston Aldridge - Composer, Director of Music, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University
World Premiere - Boston Symphony Hall

“Mark O’Connor has a unique compositional voice that honors and embraces a great American musical tradition, spanning everything from country fiddling to extraordinarily virtuosic, modern violin techniques.”  -Patrick Summers (Artistic and Music Director - Houston Grand Opera, Principal Guest Conductor - San Francisco Opera)

“As a formable American artist, I could not think of one person capable with Mr. O'Connor's artistry and mastering of the violin and improvising to achieve this important musical statement. He is the leader in challenging our antiquated pedagogy with a fresh and exciting performance that only Mark can do.”  -Mark Wood (Recording artist, performer, producer, inventor, Emmy-winning composer and music education advocate, Founder of Electrify Your Strings program)

"String playing for young musicians in America is changing, molto presto, and often this is without the help of their teachers. These days I frequently hear classically trained violinists who can swing, jazzers who can read,  fiddlers who can shift and shred.  However, when you ask them how they learned to do this, almost no one says "in my lessons" or "at my school."

Mark O'Connor has been a beacon for creative string players, and is lighting the way once again, this time with his beautiful  "Improvised Violin Concerto." This concerto, with its brilliant weaving together of written and improvised material, invites string students and teachers alike to move into a world where inspiration is as important as training, and music thrives both on and off the page.  I'm sure Bach would have approved!”  -Melissa Howe PhD, Chief of Staff, Berklee College of Music

“The Improvised Violin Concerto is a remarkable and singular achievement by a remarkable and singular artist.  This stunning piece weaves elements of Americana into a cogent and wonderful union.  There are soaring melodies embodying the American spirit, infused with unmistakable elements of jazz, folk, gospel, bluegrass, and jaw-dropping old-time fiddling.  There is not another violinist who can conjure up all of these styles, and move seamlessly and virtuosically through them over a compelling and often sophisticated template.  Most remarkable of all is that every note of the violin part is improvised out of the orchestral background.  You can't take your eyes and ears off of Mark as he literally creates the violin melodies and virtuosic passagework of an amazing concerto, in real time, right before your eyes.”  -Shelton G. Berg - Dean - Patricia L. Frost Professor of Music, Frost School of Music University of Miami

"Mark O'Connor's  'The Improvised Violin Concerto' is a innovative way to approach the musical interaction between soloist and orchestra. This piece is a great vehicle for a whole new generation of violin soloists whose background includes an eclectic approach to the violin.  It also requires a new set of skills that will encourage young virtuosos to develop high level improvisational skills.  The string world welcomes this addition to the repertoire that supports one of our national standards for music education, improvisation."  -Bob Phillips - President, American String Teachers Association

“Mark O’Connor’s "The Improvised Violin Concerto" is a phenomenon. An exciting and appealing concerto, with  great rhythmic vitality and rich harmonic sonorities,  it is one of a kind. There has not been another violin concerto composed and recorded since the times of Bach and Vivaldi  where the score calls for the solo instrumentalist to completely invent or improvise the entire lead in each performance, until "The Improvised Violin Concerto" in 2010.

"The Improvised Violin Concerto" will prove to be a challenge for any top classical violinist to ever perform unless the current training for classical violinists will  include more improvisation, arranging, and composition as well as jazz theory and American styles.”  
-Igal Kesselman - Director, Lucy Moses School, Kaufman Center, New York, NY

"The Improvised Violin Concerto by Mark O'Connor affords us the extraordinary opportunity to experience transformative creative genius.  

As Winston Churchill remarked, 'Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.'  O'Connor has brilliantly encompassed the dual art of honoring tradition while welcoming innovation, by exploring boundary-expanding, revolutionary frontiers with The Improvised Violin Concerto.

In this monumental, cutting edge world, the performer is able to interface between structure and freedom, the tangible and the intangible, the physical and the metaphysical.  The orchestra provides the inspiring backbone, framework, a canvas; while the soloist soars into unbounded, unbridled, imaginative realms of inspiration, exploring an ever-expanding palette, with his own heart and soul as muse; the result is magic.

In this first-ever foray into a combined improvised and structured musical journey of epic proportions, guru Mark O'Connor shows us that he is the musical visionary of our generation, and of generations to come."
  -Dr. Judith Lynn Stillman - concert pianist, BM, MM, DMA, The Juilliard School Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Music, Rhode Island College

“When listening to Mark O’Connor performing his Improvised Violin Concerto, one might wonder at the beauty and ask: How does he do that?

Mark’s Improvised Concerto follows in the tradition of violin concertos that have been developed over the past 300 years, from the improvised cadenzas that were requisite in the Baroque era to standards established 150 years ago like the Mendelsohn and the Tchaikovsky violin concertos.

He has built on these traditions and also on American violin traditions by combining a fully notated symphony orchestra score with a fully improvised violin part that includes, like a lead sheet from the Jazz tradition, chord symbols, time signatures, tempo markings, and descriptions of individual sections. The solo violinist also makes use of a PA system and effects pedals, harkening to the American tradition of rock and roll. The Improvised Violin Concerto is a logical continuation of the concerto tradition, and it draws on skills that are developed in the rich and varied genres of violin performance practiced across the Americas.

So, back to the question, how does he do that? Well, the answer is not just, “Practice, practice, practice.” In fact, I can guarantee you that if a violinist will just practice-practice-practice playing notated music in time and with good tone and with careful intonation, that violinist will not learn all the skills needed to perform this work.

Mark has set out the skills that he was given by his teachers in his own training in a systematic method – The O’Connor Method. From the very first piece in Mark’s method, Boil ’Em Cabbage Down (a piece he also references in The Improvised Violin Concerto's final movement), Mark develops two essential ideas for performing the Improvised Violin Concerto: melody exists in relationship with harmonic structure, and personal creativity. These skills, which are manifest in improvisation, arranging, and composition, are developed alongside skills of playing in time with good tone and careful intonation in The O’Connor Method. With all of these skills as a foundation, Mark answers the question: How does he do that? for every violinist who has a desire to play the violin in a way informed by the past 200 or so years of American music tradition.”   -Melinda Rice - violinist/violist, teaching artist for the EXPO/YOLA and Hollywood Programs, including Harmony Project, founding member of improvising trio A-tribute ensemble

“A truly groundbreaking addition to today's virtuoso violinist's repertoire, Mark's "Improvised Violin Concerto" is the first of it's kind, calling the soloist to embrace spontaneity and tap into their own creativity in performance - an idea that pays homage to the great violin virtuosos of our past while looking ahead to a hopeful future in the music industry. With a focus on composition, arranging, song structure and improvisation in our school systems and exposure to superb works like the "Improvised Violin Concerto", the violin will be given a new voice in our world. How exciting to be artistically empowered, challenged and honored as a violinist!” -Hilary Castle - BM Boston University/Royal College of Music, MM Mannes College of Music, PSD Mannes College of Music. Private and group instructor at Turtle Bay Music School, New York City
“Since its inception, the violin has been an instrument of diverse and haunting power. Originally a vehicle for folk and popular music, the violin morphed over time into the definitive classical music machine. Lost in this evolution is the importance of improvisation. Mark O’Connor’s Improvised Violin Concerto (2010) resurrects the great tradition of playing by ear. While the orchestral parts are written out, the solo violinist is provided ONLY chord changes, as is typical in jazz music notation. The Concerto is set in five movements each of which depicts an aspect of the human condition, from the serene to the jubilant, from the sacred to the profane, from the noble to the quotidian. Because the solo part contains chord symbols but nothing more specific, the soloist must invent on the spot, each rendering being unique and different. Carefully structured in its totality, the work is organized around standard symphonic forms. Yet, because of the remarkable freedom given to the soloist, the Concerto is as much an IDEA as a composition. Stylistically, the piece is built upon a musical vernacular wholly American. The orchestra presents arcing melodies akin to folk song interlarded with toe-tapping tunes clearly inspired by Gospel, blues, and country fiddle musics. At the same time, the soloist is able to generate, respond with, and/or counterpose original material.

This Concerto is the very first such composition which requires the soloist to spontaneously create in real time. No such concept has heretofore seen the light of day. Ironically, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, to name a few legendary figures in the pantheon of classical composers, were violinists AND improvisers themselves. O’Connor’s seminal work revisits the concept of improvisation, not as a sidebar but as core to the business of making music. The Concerto is demanding of orchestra and soloist. For the orchestral musicians, the challenge is a familiar one, tricky technical passages, unusual stylistic inflections, and subtle rhythmic figures. For the soloist, however, there is a more fundamental conundrum. Improvising! Modern violinists spend all of their time learning and performing (covering?) the repertoire of the renowned classical masters such as Bruch, Mendelssohn, Sibelius and the like. Violin teachers are obsessed with this important literature to the exclusion of virtually everything else. Until violin pedagogy includes the art of improvisation as part of its training regimen, this Concerto will rarely be performed. What Mark O’Connor has done is not just compose a stunningly beautiful and original work, he has also invited his colleagues in the violin world to reacquire something long lost but there for the taking. In so doing, he may have permanently changed the landscape for his magical instrument.”  -Larry J. Livingston - Chair, Department of Conducting, Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California, Director of Educational Initiatives - Guitar Center, Music Director - Idyllwild Festival Orchestra, Music Director-Music for All Honor Orchestra

"One component of Mark O'Connor's extraordinary genius is his vision. Mark sees mountain peaks in the far distance, while most of us are still looking at our shoes. Mark saw something in the future which had never yet existed, and that was a composed violin concerto where the solo violin part would be completely improvised. So he created it! Until Mark composed and performed the Improvised Violin Concerto in 2010, there had never been such a thing, because, who else could have done it? Mark's creation and performance of this piece changes the landscape for all performing musicians in a radical, but deeply gratifying and exciting way. Now musical training must include the recognition that a truly high level performer would have the ability to improvise the entirety of their part to this (and other?) concerto's. It's not easy. It's a new world. But that's what geniuses do. They change the world."  -Matt Glaser - Artistic Director, American Roots Music Program, Berklee College of Music

                                                               *Photography by Deanna Rose and Michael Lutch

Sunday, December 7, 2014

New York Times Substantiates Mark O’Connor’s Findings on Shinichi Suzuki Bio

Violin World Yowls at Challenge to Fabled Teacher – Mark O’Connor Fans a Debate About the Suzuki Method
NYTimes:  “It all began when the American violin virtuoso and composer Mark O’Connor who started publishing his own instruction books several years ago, took aim at the giant of the field: the Suzuki method, known for teaching legions of children around the world to saw away at variations of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Mr. O’Connor not only criticized the method but also accused its creator, Shinichi Suzuki, of fabricating parts of his biography to promote it.”

NYTimes: “Mr. O’Connor is a star who has toured with the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, worked as a major session musician in Nashville, composed for the concert hall and recorded with top musicians including Yo-Yo Ma.”

NYTimes:  “His main factual charges involve several episodes Mr. Suzuki described in his book Nurtured by Love which is part memoir and part exploration of his method. He questioned Mr. Suzuki’s claims that he took lessons from the German violinist Karl Klingler in Berlin in the 1920s, his account of having been part of Albert Einstein’s circle in Berlin and his description of a 1961 concert that some of his students gave in Japan for the cellist Pablo Casals.”

NYTimes:  "An examination by The New York Times of some of Mr. O’Connor’s key charges found that they were undercut by evidence."

But some of the key charges are substantiated and therefore the New York Times wrote a feature article and lists them here.  When Albert Einstein scholars inform the Times that there was no relationship to Suzuki, therefore a chapter in his autobiography dedicated to how Einstein was his "guardian" and that he "looked after" him was completely invented for the purposes of selling himself to violin teachers.  

Pablo Casals' widow also denies any endorsement of the Suzuki Method.  "Eight Years" of lessons cannot be proven with Karl Klingler of Berlin, and Suzuki does not have a PhD to be titled "Dr." in academic circles.  The remainder of the charges are “undercut” - meaning the Times documents the same flimsy hearsay by Suzuki’s flock, failed auditions, handshakes, nice comments intended for other Japanese teachers besides Suzuki, and the sale of a violin from his factory.  Combined, these “relationships” represent Shinichi Suzuki's credibility as a musician or teacher and his sole professional and academic credentials to introduce a method of teaching classical violin to the world. 

“Dr. Suzuki” does not have a PhD.

NYTimes: “Mr. O’Connor also asked why Mr. Suzuki is often called “Dr. Suzuki” when he lacked a Ph.D. Gilda Barston, the chief executive of the International Suzuki Association, said he did not refer to himself that way, but that many of his followers called him “Dr.” as a sign of respect after he was awarded various honorary doctorates.”

New York Times can only find one single piece of hearsay evidence, that from violinist Alice Schoenfield (in her late 80s) suggesting Suzuki was a private student of Professor Karl Klingler in Berlin.  Suzuki asserted "eight years" but Mrs. Schoenfield cannot substantiate it.  There is no record in Berlin of Suzuki being a pupil of Klingler discovered by the Times reporter.  The audition on record was at the Berlin Hochshule (conservatory) where Suzuki did not pass, and Klingler's signature was affixed to the school document in 1923 stating "refused" to his violin studio.  (Mrs. Schoenfield was not alive in 1921 when Suzuki claims he began with Klingler). 

NYTimes: “In a blog post titled “Suzuki’s BIGGEST Lie,” Mr. O’Connor questioned whether Mr. Suzuki had studied with Mr. Klingler for eight years, as he claimed, and posted a photograph of records showing that Mr. Suzuki was not accepted by the Berlin Hochschule, where Mr. Klingler taught. “Shinichi Suzuki had no violin training from any serious violin teacher that we can find,” Mr. O’Connor wrote.”

NYTimes: “But Mr. Suzuki claimed in the book to be a private student of Mr. Klingler’s. A well-known protégé of Mr. Klingler’s, the violinist Alice Schoenfeld, confirmed in a recent interview that he was.”

NYTimes: ““Klingler told me about Suzuki,” she said, adding that while Mr. Klingler did not generally take private students, he made an exception for Mr. Suzuki, whose father owned a violin factory in Japan.”

NYTimes: “She said that she had the impression that Mr. Suzuki had been an “on and off” student. “But he studied with him, and he gave him also a beautiful violin to say thank you when he went back to Japan,” she recalled. “It was a violin that I played at my recitals. So I know for sure that Suzuki was under his guidance.””

New York Times confirms with several Albert Einstein scholars; the guardian/mentor relationship that Suzuki claims with the physicist, is baseless.  Suzuki is quoted that Einstein "looked after" him and was his "guardian" in his books.

NYTimes: “A chapter on Einstein in his [Mr. Suzuki’s] book contains a subheading that reads, in the English translation, “Dr. Einstein as My Guardian.” Several Einstein scholars said that there were no indications that Mr. Suzuki had a close or lasting relationship with Einstein.”

New York Times confirms from Marta Casals Istomin (Pablo Casals' widow) that he never endorsed the Suzuki Method and furthermore, was not even aware of it.

Casals attended the 1961 student demonstration in Japan to see his pupil Yoshio Sata’s Japanese cello students perform Saint-Saens, "The Swan and a Bach "Bourree." His statements reflected other teachers there, not just Suzuki.  Asking to hear the tape finally collected by the New York Times revealed what was suspected all along.  Casals does not mention Suzuki nor his method of violin education in his address.  There is no endorsement of Suzuki's approach to violin pedagogy by Pablo Casals then, nor at any other time.

NYTimes: “Mr. O’Connor dissects this event on his blog with the minute attention to detail that some people use to analyze the Zaprude film of the John F. Kennedy assassination. He charged that an old edition of “Nurtured by Love,” which has a blurb on the cover from a Newsweek article about Mr. Suzuki that mentioned the Casals visit, falsely implied that Casals had endorsed the Suzuki method. He questioned why a photograph of the two men at the event obscured Mr. Suzuki’s face, whether the event even took place and, if it did, why there was no tape of it.”

NYTimes: “Casals was 84 at the time, not 75, as the book said, and the remarks attributed to him were evidently translated from the English that Casals spoke into Japanese, and then back into English for the English translation of the book.”

NYTimes: “Casals’s widow, Marta Casals Istomin, said in a telephone interview that she did not wish to be drawn into a controversy over competing violin methods.”

NYTimes: “But she confirmed that she had attended the Suzuki concert in Tokyo with Casals in 1961. She said that Casals, who had taken a lifelong interest in children and music for children, had been “very moved” by the sight of so many young children playing music, and that he had embraced Mr. Suzuki, but that he had not endorsed the method or given much thought to it.”

NYTimes: ““He was very touched to hear these children,” Ms. Casals Istomin said in an interview, adding that Casals had wept, as he often did at concerts. “At that moment, he didn’t think of it as a method. He thought of it as an idea of bringing young people together with music, not whether it was a good method or a bad method.””

Pablo Casals visit in 1961 to Japan and chronicled by Shinichi Suzuki was principally to see one of his former cello students and his group of young Japanese cello students play a demonstration. The speech Casals gave at the conclusion of the event would have largely been about his former pupil and his cello students. Since Casals does not mention Suzuki's name in the speech, nor at any other time for the remainder of his life did he mention the name Suzuki or the Suzuki Method, the only logical explanation is that it was more about the cello students than Suzuki's violin students. Casals is the iconic cello player after all. He comments a lot on the music itself - mostly Bach. But never on how it was played by the students. Just the fact that it was being taught in Japan and there were many children involved learning classical music 15 years after WWII.

Since he did not mention "Suzuki" for the entire speech, it easily could have been about the cello students who weren't taking the Suzuki Method or Talent Education approach at all.

Excerpted from Suzuki's own "Nurtured by Love" autobiography:

"Following this part of the concert, 15 young cello students taught by Yoshio Sato, a pupil of Casals, played Saint-Saens, "The Swan and a Bach "Bourree."

It seems to say that the cellos students were last on the program... but whatever the order, his speech followed the final aspects of the program. So invariably he would have been mostly referring to how well his own pupil taught Japanese children how to play Bach on cello. If you will, the Casals "method." 

For the full NYTimes article, read here:

Suzuki quotables:
"Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens, noble human beings. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets beautiful heart."
"Where love is deep, much will be accomplished."
"My dream is for the happiness of all children. I feel respect and friendly feelings for everyone. In particular, I cannot help but feel respect and warm feelings for young children. And my heart brims over with a desire to help make all the children born upon the earth fine human beings, happy people, people of superior ability. My whole life energies are devoted to this end."
"Man is the son of his environment."" --Shinichi Suzuki

 O'Connor quotables:

"The beauty of music for children is found in melody, harmony, counterpoint and rhythm. Not just playing the melody. It is found in listening, sharing, feeling, accompanying, leading, smiling and laughing. Not just perfected memorized performances.

Instead of putting children ages 5, 7, and 9 years-old through endless musical etudes - drilling, repeating, memorization ear-training, mimicking, foot charts, learning by rote and tethered to a teacher’s hand signals, it is all too robotic for kids. What about some musical creativity and fun? Let children learn the fundamentals, improvise and create music through the diversity of American music styles and literature now. It is time to move the string world forward again." –Mark O’Connor

Shinichi Suzuki with students - Mark O'Connor with students (Photos from the New York Times)

For more information on the emerging O'Connor Method for violin, strings and orchestra, please refer to for all you need to know.