The tunes in Book I of my method for string playing, the O’Connor Method, sound simple and charming; one might assume I selected them based on their simplicity and melodic appeal. Yet these tunes are surprisingly sophisticated, and the manner in which they are arranged optimizes the student’s technical development and maximizes his/her emotional engagement with the music.
I will introduce you to a few of these tunes here:
The first tune in the method – and the first tune I ever learned – is the 400 year-old “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down” in A Major. The infectious melody features only four notes, each of which is played over a different chord. The tune remains on one string yet withstands many repeats; moreover, it is inherently open to rhythmic variation, so while I present several such variations in the book, the tune itself “encourages” students to develop their own variations.
The second tune in the method, “Beautiful Skies,” is also in A Major, but its slower tempo, more tranquil mood, and slightly more sophisticated harmonies render it starkly different from “Cabbage.” Also unlike “Cabbage,” “Beautiful Skies” features all notes of the scale and thus introduces the string cross.
A bit later on, the student encounters “Old Joe Clark,” a strong melody that emphasizes the low 2 (natural or flatted played with the 2nd finger) in conjunction with the high 2 on the adjacent string. The modality of this particular tune offers the student to a fresh yet familiar take on American music.
Soon thereafter, the student learns “Boogie Woogie,” another modal tune that emphasizes the low 2 but whose chief function is to make the student feel a strong swing and groove without actually learning how to “swing” (I introduce note-swinging in Book II.). It adheres to a fairly standard blues progression.
The first minor tune in the method is the lyrical “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.” The minor key is particularly enthralling to young students, but unfortunately, most violin methods complicate the introduction of the minor key by presenting pieces (typically in D minor or G minor) that require low first finger placement (i.e., a half-step above the open string), which is one of the most frustrating aspects of technical acquisition for beginners. Rather than postpone the introduction of minor to accommodate technical development, I present “Johnny” in F# minor, the relative minor of A Major, a key (and hand shape) with which the student is already familiar. The magic of the key of F# minor, and the relative ease with which “Johnny” can be acquired, softens the transition to, and enhances the anticipation for, D minor and G minor, the next minor keys I introduce in Book II.
As I mentioned earlier, the selection and arrangement of the tunes in Book I is carefully planned. While you and I can appreciate a catchy melodic phrase or an interesting harmony, children respond more naturally to changes: tempo changes, dynamic changes, rhythmic changes, style changes, mood changes. Presenting a series of tunes with similar tempi, moods, etc. would not cultivate versatility or a sense of musical adventurousness – two things so imperative for the modern musician. At the same time, even though Book I features tunes with all manner of tempi, rhythms, and so forth, I ensure that some common threads remain (American music, for instance) so that the transition from one tune to the next is not so jarring as to bewilder or disengage the student.
One unique aspect of these “beginner” tunes is that they are more than suitable for “professional” performance. I recently played “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down” with jazz trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis at the Marciac Jazz Festival in France, and the performance received a standing ovation. Last year, I played “Beautiful Skies” at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York with the great bassist John Patitucci, and the jazz audience absolutely loved it. In American music, there is no need to distinguish – indeed, there is no basis for distinguishing – between “beginner” and “professional” music. Thus, using my method, the young, aspiring performer never feels as though he or she is learning throw-away “bridge” material in order to get better. Every piece is equally valuable and artistically durable.
The vision underlying the O’Connor Method is quite simple: Violin students should learn music that inspires them to play on their own as well. Every minute students practice, they acquire a bit more of the skill required to perform at a high level in any style of music. Parents can only insist their child practice for so long before the child becomes frustrated. But what if the child returns to the violin after finishing dinner and plays voluntarily for a younger sibling, a childhood friend, plays their lesson for the family pet, or sits down to play some tunes outside in the backyard? Then, something magical is at work. The student is no longer merely a lesson-learner; rather, he or she is an active artistic force in their own environment and culture.
My method prepares the student to master any style of music, whether it be jazz, bluegrass, classical, or something else. Already, the method is working for tens of thousands of students around the country.
I invite all string teachers to the Teacher Training sessions for the O’Connor Method. Both Pamela Wiley (a 40-year veteran Suzuki teacher) and I will be leading almost all the courses this year. Our next Teacher Training course will take place at the O’Connor Method Camp in Charleston, SC during the first week of August. We’ll have another course in Ann Arbor, MI later in August and one in Ashokan, NY in September. Others are being scheduled in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and elsewhere in the near future.
I’d love to hear from you!