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Mark O'Connor: On Learning, Playing, and Teaching Strings, American-style
Peter Anick

When it comes to fiddling, Mark O’Connor has pretty much done it all. He studied Texas style with Benny Thomasson, played swing with Stéphane Grappelli and performed his own classical compositions with Yo-Yo Ma. His Nashville studio work and fiddle camps have done much to revive the popularity of the fiddle in contemporary American music. Last November, Mark achieved yet another milestone, the publication of the first of his string method books designed to create an “American school of violin playing.” With the aim of teaching violin technique through a solely American repertoire, Volume I starts off with variations on “Boil ’em Cabbage Down” and progresses through “Soldier’s Joy,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and a number of Mark’s own compositions. Mark envisions a ten-volume series which exposes the rich cultural legacy of American string music in a graded progression suitable for teaching violin, viola, and cello.

Last December, as part of the kick-off for the new American Roots Music Program at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Mark joined Berklee students for a performance of folk, jazz, and classical music that spanned the spectrum from “Tennessee Blues” to Mark’s Double Violin Concerto. We did this interview the next day as he was resting up prior to a teacher-training workshop for his new violin method.

I’d like to talk about your “New American School of String Playing” and relate it to how you learned to play, how you took your own experiences and translated them into your method.

Well, I had a pretty expansive training regimen in music when I was a kid. Guitar was my first instrument and classical music was the first musical style that I studied. I did that for about seven years and the last two of those years, I added flamenco. So I started to bring in a folk music, world music aspect to my studies.

How old were you when you started?

I was five. I began in classical guitar right away. So I learned how to read music and then later learned some flamenco by ear.

Were your parents musicians? Is that how you got interested?

They were dancers, ballroom dancers.

So how did you get interested in classical music at the age of five?

I didn’t get interested on my own. It was something that my mother wanted me to do. I would say I was barely an above-average student for a while; I ended up developing much more around the age of nine or ten. Then I won a couple of classical guitar competitions.

This all happened before I even got a violin in my hands. Around that same time period I did see some fiddlers and violinists play on television. On PBS. Thank goodness for PBS back then! In Seattle at least, that was our window into a broader world of music. I grew up in Seattle so I was a bit isolated from a lot of the southern and regional fiddle music styles that I would later become proficient in. One of the first fiddlers I saw on television was Doug Kershaw, the Cajun player. I was really moved by his performance –– he seemed like he was having such a good time playing and put so much energy into his performance. Then my mother started getting into the cultural aspect behind a lot of this music, a lot of these styles, and she became very interested in the plight of the Cajuns, for instance, how they came from Acadia and that there were pockets in this country that still spoke mainly French and so forth. All these early insights and experiences from the culture and context of the music that I discovered while learning to play are really part of me today.

So what happened after you saw fiddling on TV? Did you convince your parents to get you a fiddle?

For three years, I begged them for a fiddle. They thought I was a little bit fickle and wasn’t completely serious about my request. And it wasn’t until I was trying to construct one out of cardboard around age ten, attempting to put my old set of guitar strings on it, that convinced my mother. It folded up on me and I ended up crying about it. So I finally got one at eleven. My very first lessons were with Barbara Lamb. She was a player that had classical background and also played some bluegrass and old time fiddling. She got me started on my technique and sound production right away and made sure that my posture was good. Many of the tunes in the O’Connor Method Book I as well as the sequence of them came from my lessons with Barbara. She was a great teacher for me, and believe it or not, she was just fourteen at the time. After about seven or eight months, my second teacher was John Burke and he started working with me in the realm of creativity and improvisation. My experience learning from John is one of the reasons that there is a creative component to the O’Connor Method right from the start. And within a year practically, I was taking lessons from Benny Thomasson. Those were extraordinary times. I was his student for about three years, until I was fourteen.

Was he giving regular violin lessons at a scheduled time every week?

For me, because he lived a little over two hours from my home in Seattle, I had a special situation developing with him where my mother would drive me down to his house and my lesson would literally last an entire weekend. These excursions took place every other weekend. So I would learn from him hours and hours a day on a Saturday and half of Sunday, then come back home in order to go to school the next day. And we kept up that schedule more or less for a good three years.

Had you already been playing contests at that point and that’s how you got involved with Benny?

I’d only entered one. I literally met Benny at my very first contest I went to at Weiser [Idaho]. I was still very much a beginner but he did notice in me, like you said, some kind of potential even though I was not developed at all at that point.

Was that the first time you heard Texas fiddling played or had you been familiar with it before then?

No, that was it. It was Benny Thomasson at Weiser, but not in the competition. It was jamming in the campground that I heard him. That would be 1973. The idea of him teaching me did not come up until I believe it was a week later at a smaller regional contest in Oregon. That was the occasion I remember like it was yesterday. I was warming up in the hallway to compete in the little junior division. I knew very few tunes and I was just doing this for the experience, really. There were not many fiddlers our age at that point in the Northwest –– there were literally only a handful. It was the same three or four kids who entered all those contests for at least a couple of years. And a couple of them were Benny Thomasson’s students. So I developed a little community, created friendships, and it was nice for me because it was a little isolated, like I said.

How did Benny prepare you so that in one year you actually could win a contest?

I don’t think Benny really prepared me for contests as the central vision of my lessons. I learned about 250 tunes from him, averaging about four or five tunes per weekend. Of the 250 tunes I learned from Benny, I probably played only about fifty of them in contests. And I would say that easily seventy-five percent of those fifty tunes were my renditions, my own variations… I would say that our teacher/student relationship had to do much more with me developing repertoire, creating fiddle tune variations, arranging, creativity, and perhaps some technique, too, mainly bowing –– one of the greatest bowers to ever live, Benny. He basically challenged me to be my own deal.

I remember when I asked him when I was twelve, “How do you get your own style, Benny?” He said, “Why Mark, you don’t sound like nobody else I have ever heard, and that means you have your own style.” And honestly, he couldn’t have cared less if I ever won a contest. He was not about that, at that time. He was a world champion and fifteen-time Texas State champion back in the 1940s but that seemed so long ago, it did not come up, really. He did attend many of the contests, though, and entered, but it almost seemed more symbolic for some reason. I always got the distinct impression, since he lost so many of them, that it was the socializing, friendships, jamming, and fiddle trading that attracted him the most to that environment. Everyone looked forward to the jamming way more than the contest itself, that was a no-brainer. You know, I believe he lost the vast majority of the contests I saw him enter. He would even lose the senior divisions. Wrongly of course, I might add, because in my book he was always the best. I lost three out of four myself, you know. Lots of people only remember my wins, which is very nice, of course, but I had to learn to lose seventy-five percent of the time. It was a humbling experience, and it made you appreciate the other more wonderful things that happened at these events besides the competition part. It was more important for me to be in a learning environment that these contests provided after hours –– some wicked jam sessions, really some of the best jamming I had ever been in, and of course, picking up tunes and new variation ideas. 

I’ve always wondered about Texas-style fiddling –– was that something that developed specifically for these competitions?

First and foremost, Texas fiddling is that state’s regional musical culture complete with the indigenous strains of Hispanic music, along with the Bob Wills sound of a new hillbilly swing that took Texas by storm in the 1930s and 1940s on the level that Glenn Miller and the big bands did with the rest of the country… Texas fiddling had its own culture. “Cotton Eyed Joe” is Texas fiddling. Two steps…the Texas dance halls, “San Antonio Rose,” waltzes inspired by the rancheros, walking bass lines and moving guitar chord progressions with a different chord on each beat. All of these things represent Texas’ own folk music culture. Just like Kentucky has bluegrass and Louisiana has Cajun fiddling. Texas fiddling made for some great dance band playing and great jam sessions, I have to tell you. Just amazing jams. There was real character in those jams back in the ’70s, and the personal styles and variation display was just riveting at times.

But to your question, I would say that many times both Benny and I would in fact lose the contest because we played Texas style, and frankly that style was frowned on in many regions of the country, including the Northwest where we both lived in the 1970s. I would say in the great majority of the contests I entered, I would have been better off either playing old time, bluegrass, or Canadian fiddling in order to win fiddle contests when I was a kid. You have to remember that Texas fiddling did not become popular for contests until I eventually won every contest at least once around the country playing in the Texas style by the time I was twenty –– I sort of proved it could be done, I suppose.

Texas-style fiddle hoedowns, largely developed in the 1930s by Benny Thomasson, was one of the first styles of fiddling not specifically designed to accompany dancers. So in effect the Texas- style hoedown is performance music –– music that you should sit down and appreciate rather than get up and clog, buck dance, or two-step to, if you will. You could also make a case that bluegrass music was also designed for performance and not to specifically accompany a dance. That music was also invented in the 1930s and 1940s. Bluegrass fiddling has always been a little more showboat and improvisatorial, and Texas fiddling is more about the craft of the variation, careful melodic development. The expertise behind playing this Texas style does not translate well to broader audiences and has been mainly relegated to devoted aficionados. Benny basically expanded the form of a traditional music in a way that seemed to appeal to me and perhaps my mother’s classical aesthetic. When you’re raised listening to classical music on the phonograph till age ten, and that was constantly the only thing you heard, your ear probably starts gravitating to longer forms and more development. And it seemed to us that Benny Thomasson was this genius creative fiddler that worked on these fiddle tune variations so masterfully.

And so the idea of variations came very early to him.

Right. Very early, he told me, at age nineteen. And I think that’s what inspired and motivated him. The theme and variations concept of Texas fiddling really is a very nice interesting musical bridge to other styles of music –– jazz and classical, for instance. So it was a legitimate development of the folk material that Benny was involved in. His father and grandfather played fiddle music and he learned from them and so now we’re talking about a lineage that goes back to the mid-1800s just in a couple of generations of Thomassons. It did not escape my mother that I was getting to be mentored by a legend, connected to a legendary fiddling legacy.

When he was teaching you how to create variations, what kinds of advice did he give you? How did he guide you?

I remember this mental struggle that I would pose for my teacher Benny in that I basically just wanted to emulate him. I wasn’t that precocious that I would show up and go, “Hey Mr. Thomasson, check this out!” I wasn’t that kind of person. I was actually pretty shy. I realized that I was sitting right across from musical greatness. As a matter of fact, I wanted to be like him so much at some point that I started to walk like him with a little bit of a bend in my back. He had a bad back. But it was that mentor-pupil relationship where I kind of idolized him. So we had a bit of a mental struggle there because he saw in me, maybe just a little like himself, a unique voice that was bubbling inside and just kind of waiting to come up.

[For much more of this interview – discussion of Mark’s new method books, more on Mark’s contest years and the history of American fiddling, the Nashville scene, his current work and more, purchase the Fall 2010 issue.]

For information on Mark’s new Method Books, his fiddle camps, recordings, schedule, and more, please visit www.markoconnor.com.

[Peter Anick, author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” teaches fiddle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]

Top: Mark by Deanna Rose
Bottom: Benny Thomasson and Mark at the 1975 Grand Masters Championship, courtesy Mark O'Connor