Who is Mark O’Connor and Why Should We Care?

Back in the late 70’s, when playing music was still an important part of my life, I discovered a group of musicians playing an interesting brand of fused blues, bluegrass and jazz. They called themselves the “Newgrass Revival”. I was playing guitar and mandolin at the time, and one of the main players was an amazing mandolin player named Sam Bush. For me, traditional bluegrass wasn’t all that interesting to play. I found the rigid structure tedious, and it required repetitious practice to stay in the structure with the rest of the musicians. I enjoyed listening to bluegrass music, but I wasn’t interested in playing it. It was a source of frustration for me, because most folks see a mandolin and assume it’s a bluegrass instrument. I found blues, and country-rock more satisfying to persue. However, these “Newgrass” guys were onto something quite intriguing. Their style was improvisational and fresh. Problem was, they were so damn good, I knew I would never achieve their level of musicianship. Still, I loved it and tried to use elements gleaned from their songs when I could, to elevate my own musical offerings.

When I gain interest in a song, group or style of music, I try to find out as much as I can about the musicians and especially the song writers. One musician I discovered in the process was multi-instrumentalist Mark O’Connor. I still love all those newgrass cats (Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck), but Mark has been the most visible, even if it was as a Nashville sideman. In the early 1980’s Chet Atkins invited Mark to Nashville and opened key doors for him. It started with some television appearances, but evolved into him becoming one of the most demanded musicians on the Nashville scene in the decade. Multiple CMA awards and Grammy’s later, he felt the need to push his boundaries again. He loved (still does) traditional American music, but the musical universe is boundless, and Mark wanted to explore. His musical experiences already included touring with the great Stephanne Grappelli, but classical music and bluegrass was in his blood as well.

His earliest years were focused on the guitar, especially classical and flamenco styles. Later he mastered the instrument in the bluegrass style of Doc Watson and Clarence White. Later, in 1969, he heard Doug Kershaw playing on the first Johnny Cash television show and made him want to learn the fiddle. Vassar Clements was another of his early idols. In 1975, when only 13 years old he started winning prestigious national championships with his fiddle playing. Before reaching 19 years old, his resume included four national fiddling championships, competing with amature and professional fiddlers of all ages. In separate venues he won championships in guitar and mandolin. If this were not enough, he included touring with the great Stephanne Grappelli while still in his teens.

I heard him in an interview stating he had more fun at these contests when he came in second or third. If he won, nobody wanted to jam with him in the informal sessions that accompany such gatherings of talented musicians. If he took 2nd or 3rd place, folks were more inclined to let him sit in, and it was these sessions that pleased him more than the competitions themselves.

The mid 1990’s saw him express his classical side, recording with Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma, and appearing on stage with Wynton Marsalis performing hot swing jazz. Yet he kept his musical expression as “American”, recognising the value it brought to the music. His abilities are too vast to be encapsulated by any single genre. To watch or listen to him perform with Sam Bush, Alison Krauss or Jerry Douglas, you would believe him to be one of the greatest of American fiddlers (and he is). To see him perform hot swing jazz with Wynton Marsalis you’d find him as one of the great jazz violinist of our time (and he is). When you exam his performances with Yo-Yo Ma, it is apparent he is well schooled in the classics, yet adding his own nuances to the performances. To discover that the concertos being performed are his own compositions, you begin to see hints of his remarkable range as a complete musician. These compositions are beautiful enough that Yo-Yo includes them in his Bach concerts and not just when he is in O’Connor’s company.

He has recently developed a passion for teaching a new generation of string players. This man has developed a revolutionary way to teach the art of string playing that has developed a following worldwide. Recognising the failure of traditional education to provide a rich musical experience in today’s youth, in 1995 he began setting up learning workshops he called summer camps. He found it frustrating that some of the younger participants struggled and seemed lost in these camps. These were often kids under 11 who were brought up under the “Suzuki” method. I understand Suzuki emphasizes memorization of scales, almost as an academic exercise. O’Connor felt this was killing the joy of music in these kids. His ideas percolated, and he started writing books for teaching the stringed instruments in what he calls “American Classical Music”. There is much written about this revolutionary approach, so I won’t try to expand the subject here. In my opinion, this ground-breaking educator has found his highest calling to date. He calls his approach “The O’Connor Method”. We, and the rest of society are in his debt.

I thought I’d share a few You-Tube videos as samples. I encourage your own searches, as there are LOTS of videos out there to explore. Be advised, You-Tube embeds advertisements in these clips, but the are easily dismissed with a strategic click of the mouse.

Here he is in 1975 at 13 years old:

Here’s Mark O’Connor playing along side his “New Grass” Buddies in the early 1990’s:

Here’s Mark O’Connor playing with Wynton Marsalis in 2010:

Here’s Mark O’Connor with Yo-Yo Ma in 2012:

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