Since I released my first professional recording at age 12, audiences and journalists have referred to me as a practitioner of “American” music. Once, a critic wrote that my playing was so completely American that I made him forget the violin was actually a European instrument (!).
Indeed, the instrument’s origins are in seventeenth-century Italy, but the violin did migrate to the New World very soon after it was invented. Many European settlers brought musical instruments with them; given its travel-friendly size, the violin was one of the most common among them. It was precious cargo, an important means for families so far from home to keep some of the cultural language of their homeland alive. Immigrants from the British Isles and central Europe brought it with them to Canada, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and the Carolinas, while Spanish settlers took it to Mexico and Latin America. Soon, the violin became one of the most popular instruments for all musical occasions, both formal and informal, in the New World.
Along with the violin came some beautiful music: reels, jigs, and airs from Ireland; marches, strathspeys, ballads, and laments from Scotland; sea shanties, hornpipes, and galliards from England; volkslieder, Oom-pah, polkas, and yodeling from Denmark and German lands; muinieras and stately marches from Spain; and so on. Much of this music continues to thrive in communities across North America and has been embraced by players and listeners of all backgrounds, although the music itself is still fundamentally European.
So when and how did the “American violin” develop? As far as we can trace through oral history, the seeds of the American violin were sown four centuries ago, soon after it arrived in the southern colonies. During this time – the early days of the southern American slave institution – plantation owners took note of their slaves’ penchant for music. To boost slaves’ morale, owners began sharing their instruments (particularly violins) with them. Musically talented slaves were asked to perform European music, like quadrilles, minuets, and reels, at various white social events and dances. They were also permitted to keep instruments in their quarters at night so that they could practice. Many slaves built crude versions of another instrument native to Africa called the banjo (spelled in various ways, including bandore, banjer, banjon, and banjore) out of wood, sheep/cat gut, and the hides of cats, opossums, raccoons, sheep, or snakes.
In some ways, it was at the meeting of these two instruments – the European violin and the African banjo – that American music was born. As though in exchange for the violins they received, slaves shared their banjos with their owners. The first jam sessions between slaves and whites took place in the slave quarters, since the “raunchy” music they played was typically frowned upon in plantation houses themselves.
Other instances of cross-racial interaction led to the creation of new, distinctly American music, of which the violin was a central component. Across the South, Native Americans, runaway slaves, and whites outcast from English townships banded together in the hills to form new communities (which have, over the course of several centuries, generated tri-racial isolates like the Melungeons, the Seminoles, the Brass Ankles, the Red Bones, and the Lumbees). Natives introduced their indigenous music to the others in these communities and frequently took up the violin themselves. Further south in Central America, the Aztecs became enamored with the Spaniards’ violins, and out of the interactions between these natives and Spanish settlers developed Mariachi and Ranchero music.
Interactions between diverse peoples on instruments both native and foreign led to a cross-pollination of musical styles that formed the basis of American instrumental music. Unlike in Europe, where the task of developing new music was left to the master composers, new music in America was created by interactions between people from a wide variety of races and cultures.
The amateur musicians who were central to this process were often beset with physical and emotional challenges. White immigrants were far from their homeland; slaves were forced to perform grueling labor and were frequently separated from their families; and Native Americans and other indigenous peoples were being displaced and reduced by war and disease. In some ways, music was the only vehicle through which these peoples could communicate with each other on a human level.
For all the suffering implicated in the interactions between these early musicians, the music they developed is, as the current American musical landscape can attest, wonderfully rich. The hoedowns, spirituals, blues, and ragtime played on the plantations, in the Appalachian foothills, and in the parlors and ballrooms evolved into an astounding array of musical styles, including country music, bluegrass, swing, big band music, Chicago blues, Western Swing, Texas Fiddling, Cajun, Zydeco, Rhythm & Blues, funk, rockabilly, Rock and Roll, jazz, bebop, Broadway music, Afro-Cuban music, Gospel, fusion, Newgrass, and so on. As of the early twentieth century, these styles shared two major things in common: first, they developed from extensive cultural cross-pollination; second, the violin was a (if not the most) prominent instrument.
This era also saw the rise of the first American violin stars. Eck Robertson’s 1922 recordings of “Sally Gooden’” and other fiddle tunes made him the first ever country music recording artist. Fiddlin’ John Carson and Grand Ol’ Opry stars Uncle Jimmy Thompson and Arthur Smith sold droves of records and earned widespread radio play. Benny Thomasson, a student of Robertson, spearheaded the development of Texas fiddling. Joe Venuti and African Americans Eddie South and Stuff Smith pioneered jazz fiddling and had a major impact on fiddle music worldwide, influencing musicians like Frenchman Stephane Grappelli (jazz); Bob Wills (Western Swing); and Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, and Vassar Clements (bluegrass).
In the classical sphere, however, the American violin was establishing less of a foothold. Iconic American composers like Ives, Copland, Gershwin, and Bernstein respected America’s history of musical cross-pollination between cultures, and so they cross-pollinated: Ives drew heavily from gospel, minstrel music, marching band music, and ragtime; Copland incorporated Appalachian fiddling and Mexican music into his pieces; Gershwin explored ragtime, swing, jazz, and Broadway; and Bernstein harnessed jazz, Latin Jazz, and Afro-Cuban music to create his masterpiece, West Side Story. These composers, and others like them, created distinctly American pieces of music, yet performances of their music were still left up to musicians trained in European schools and styles. American classical music was then (and still is) the only American music form that did not “require” American training, per se. It goes without saying that the training required to perform a Brahms or Mozart composition, for instance, is vastly different than the training required to perform a jazz or swing-influenced composition. The classical music establishment, which in many ways opposed the development of a distinctly American classical music to begin with, was far from willing to embrace indigenous American styles of music as well as the training needed to perform it.
It is no wonder, then, that soon after it rose to prominence in the early to mid-twentieth century, American classical music began to lose traction, both in quantity and quality; and because the violin was so central to this music (as it had been so central to classical music generally speaking), it never grew into the leading role for which it was destined. Gershwin’s legacy remained in Broadway. Copland’s populist pieces like Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and others formed the core sound of Hollywood’s Western films, and Copland himself returned to academic modernism later in his career. Save for an occasional Heifetz adaptation of a Gershwin jazz tune, American classical music (not to mention American classical violin music) largely fell into obscurity and even disrepute in the classical world in this country.
There is a single entity to blame for this grand mistake in the history of classical music. Music conservatories in the United States became both more numerous and more influential in the early twentieth century. Violin curricula centered on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Paganini. Jazz, bluegrass, and old-time fiddling were ignored. The study of any American fiddling – which would have contributed immensely to the interpretation and performance of music by the great American classical composers in the first few decades of the century – was left up to a few ethnomusicology students, who often did not play the violin at all. (To this day, I still cannot believe that the great jazz violinist (and one of my mentors) Stephane Grappelli, who performed at Carnegie Hall and numerous other noteworthy venues around the world, was never invited to give a masterclass at Juilliard.)
Suffice it to say that the indigenous American music-influenced classical landscape in the second half of the twentieth century was barren. In the 1980s, when I was in my 20s, I observed this and strove to do something about it. Late in the decade, I composed my first string quartet as well as several violin caprices, and in 1992, I composed “The Fiddle Concerto”. Classical music audiences and critics were disarmed by the sound of a “classical violin” performed with an American approach. Early reviews mentioned that I “held onto that American fiddling,” a sound I would hopefully forsake so that I could develop the “right violin sound” for the classical setting.
So, early on in my American classical career, I made some key adjustments to focus the critics’ attention. I noticed they often latched onto novel characteristics of my style and performances that set me apart from the traditional classical sphere. Often, they devoted far too much time discussing signatures of American fiddling in my playing, such as blues slides, hoedown bowing, swing rhythms, and the use of improvisation. As a result, in a number of my pieces, including my caprices, String Quartet No. 1, and the “Fiddle Concerto”, I downplayed all these elements in both my writing and performances. I stopped wearing Fedora hats (which I wore during my Nashville session days) and cowboy hats (from my fiddle contest days). I removed from my biographies anything associated with Nashville, country music, fiddle championships, or bluegrass. Once in 1994, conductor Marin Alsop mentioned my vest on stage and suggested that perhaps one could distinguish a fiddler from a violinist by whether or not he wore a vest. I never wore one again. (One executive director of an orchestra even asked me if all the musicians could wear jeans and boots during my portion of the concert, and of course I said they could do so if they also wore them when they played Brahms later in the evening.) I eliminated every potential conversation-robber that might cause critics heart palpitations so that I could focus the conversation on the new music style and the compositions.
My strategy worked. Critics, audiences, and other musicians began to talk about my compositions, musical style, performance approach, and the rebirth of American classical music. Then, in 1993, I composed “Appalachia Waltz”, which became the namesake of a recording project I did with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer two years later. The three of us were able to relaunch American classical music – and, in particular, American classical string playing – further than anyone could have predicted. With noteworthy classical musicians like Yo-Yo, I showed how the finer points of classical technique married with the finer points of American string technique implicated in my new American string style. In a chamber music setting, the performance aspects of this new music were further analyzed and compared to the performance aspects of my solo music. With Yo-Yo’s contribution to the “Appalachia Waltz” projects over the course of six years (1995-2000), over a million CD sales, and a couple world tours, the “American violin” began to resonate more in classical circles than it ever had before.
Since the “Appalachia Waltz” projects, I have composed a number of other pieces in order to further this development. My “American Seasons” concerto (2001), which I recorded with the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, won universal critical acclaim. The “Double Violin Concerto”, which I premiered (and have since performed many times) with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, has cemented the idea that the American violin is something that classical virtuosi can enjoy and embrace. And given that my music has increasingly been programmed alongside pieces by Gershwin, Bernstein, and the other aforementioned American classical luminaries, growing audiences worldwide have become aware of this movement.
I have also been hard at work on the educational front. My string camps, which have taken place each year since 1994, have attracted thousands of fiddlers, violinists, and other string musicians interested in exploring the music of the American violin. Many of the top young practitioners of the American violin grew up attending these camps, in large part because of the legendary faculties I assembled to teach at them. Moreover, my masterclasses at The Curtis Institute of Music, The Cleveland Institute of Music, Rice, and Juilliard (where I was the first string player to give a masterclass on American string styles and improvisation) have introduced many classically trained students to this rich yet (to them) unknown world of music.
These days, there are many signs that the American violin is becoming accepted by the classical establishment. John Corigliano has written an American-styled “fiddle piece” for the Tchaikovsky Violin Competition. Both John Adams and Terry Riley have written electric violin concertos. Jennifer Higdon has written a bluegrass concerto. Ethel, Kronos, Turtle Island String Quartet, Time for Three, The Knights, and Brooklyn Rider have begun to make serious inroads in the classical world performing music reminiscent of the “Appalachia Waltz” projects. Violinists like Kenji Bunch, Daniel Bernard Roumain, and Tracy Silverman have explored new avenues for American violin performance, while American music innovators such as Chick Corea, Bela Fleck, Bobby McFerrin, and Chris Thile have brought their unique talents to the classical stage. Even eminent classical violinists like Josh Bell and Hilary Hahn have begun dipping into bluegrass and fiddle tunes on occasion.
The ultimate challenge that remains is to modify string education so that students can have equal access to both European and American classical music. To this day, formal training, whether it is Suzuki classes for young students or intensive courses for professionals at Juilliard, excludes instruction on composition, improvisation, arranging, and bandleading. In other words, it excludes instruction on how to truly be creative. Although some beginning (including Suzuki) teachers attempt to teach their students “supplemental material” (i.e., how to fiddle on the side), these teachers typically lack the materials and methodology necessary to do so, which renders their instruction haphazard and incomplete. They teach students fiddle tunes the same way they teach “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”: repeat the notes exactly until you memorize them, and don’t creatively delve into or manipulate the material. Unfortunately, they end up training “fiddlebots” to learn “memorized fiddling,” as some fiddlers might say.
I am doing my best to address this challenge. I have begun releasing a series of books covering an instructional method I have developed called the “O’Connor Method”, which simultaneously develops technical proficiency and creativity for both individuals and orchestras. I have moved my string camps to the nation’s hotbed of musical cross-pollination, the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, which boasts roots and jazz degree programs as well as an orchestral performance track. I am in residency at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, which is generating more interest in jazz and fiddle music among classical string students and is encouraging more of these students to audition for both European classical and American music degree tracks.
The number of adherents of the American violin is growing, and the American classical music environment is becoming more fruitful and more widely accepted. The American violin and American classical music by necessity rise and fall together, and at the moment, their rise looks extremely promising.
I welcome your thoughts and comments!