If you don’t know who Mark O’Connor is you can visit his website or his wikipedia page to learn a bit about him. He is a fiddle player who has become a very successful “crossover” artist. I performed with Mark O’Connor when he played his Fiddle Concerto with the Youngstown Symphony many years ago.
A couple of years ago Mark announced that he was coming out with a brand new method for teaching children. This method would involve listening and would have ten volumes. This method would be brand new and completely revolutionary. This method would involve American music.
Well, as a Suzuki teacher always looking to improve my teaching, the idea of a revolutionary method is exciting! However…the Suzuki method already uses listening, has ten volumes, and (let’s not forget) was brand new and completely revolutionary, no matter how much people like to dump on it. Before the Suzuki philosophy swept the United States there were not enough string players coming through school to fill our orchestras…nowadays there are so many good players auditioning for each spot in an orchestra that very few get a job. The concept behind the Suzuki Method wasn’t to create professional musicians though—it was (and still is) to help children become better people. To make the world a better place through music. Or as Susan Kempter said the other day, to offer an alternative…
Okay, so where does that leave us? A few weeks ago I learned that there was to be a teacher training seminar for the first two Mark O’Connor method books at Webster University. The cost: $100, which INCLUDED the two volumes with CD ($29.95 each, only sold at Shar). What a fantastic deal! I signed up immediately. (You know I love my teaching seminars).
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to meet Mark—he was in town on Wednesday and Thursday, but I wasn’t able to get to the workshop until the teacher training officially started on Friday night. His assistant and editor Pamela Wiley was teaching the course.
Did I have preconceived notions about the method? Yes, I’m sorry to say. I’m suspicious of people who seem to be out to make a buck at the expense of children, and selling the book at only Shar smells like buck-making to me. Additionally I felt (in advance) that much of what Mark said about his method was insulting to the Suzuki method since that truly was a revolutionary method. Group classes, listening to recordings repeatedly, parental involvement, very young children playing the violin, and teacher training…all of those fantastic ideas are FROM the Suzuki method (philosophy) and that in today’s music teaching take for granted as things that people do.
I do have students that grow tired of the Suzuki repertoire. Often these are students who aren’t progressing the way they should because they aren’t practicing or listening. But perhaps they just aren’t inspired. I also have students that do not use the Suzuki method (modified OR full-fledged). For these students I am constantly looking for better ways to teach them. THAT is why I jumped on this workshop! Plus, did I mention it was only $100?
I showed up Friday night with a friend. We checked in and received our books. Class started, and it was pretty evident that the teacher was a disciple of Mark O’Connor. She firmly believed in everything he was doing, which is good for a teacher of the method. It was also pretty evident that this was not a method for beginning teachers to teach, but for those already pretty well versed in teaching…okay, fine, it’s brand new. But subtle jabs towards Suzuki kept coming “This is SUCH a better way to teach low 2” or “ HERE is how you really play up-up bowing” or “This is much easier for children to learn than Allegretto.” Okay…maybe I’m overly sensitive. But again—let’s not pretend that Suzuki doesn’t make the method possible! Without ALREADY trained Suzuki teachers teaching all over the US, there would be no real framework for the O’Connor Method to spread.
Enough of the negative. What’s good about it? Well—it’s all American music. Which is just fantastic for students to relate to. None of those dead European composers (well, other than Dvorak?!). Plus each piece or song has a little story about it’s history, which is really interesting and informative.
But the cool part is: the children are encouraging to start improvising RIGHT away. Usually people are trained in a classical manner and then learn improvising, or perhaps start on the fiddle and learn to improvise but never really learn in a systematic way. But with this method, perhaps kids can improvise in a variety of styles and play classically as well (I say perhaps because there are only two volumes so far, and nothing is proven.) In just a few days, I myself have learned so much more about improvising and a variety of styles (olde tyme fiddle, blues, irish fiddle) than I have in my life. I even feel I could teach my students to do this! And if you start early, well, you won’t be so scared later in life. Four year olds improvising! Well, that is almost as exciting as thousands of children playing the same song together . Why is improvising important? Well, creativity in music (as in life) is always an important skill. Improvising is one part of creativity.
I doubt I will become a true Mark O’Connor method teacher like Pam Wiley, but I will certainly use the songs and ideas in my own teaching. Another teacher told me the thing they liked best about the workshop was how Pam had really embraced these new ideas after teaching Suzuki for such a long time—she felt it meant that she would be able to keep growing and changing as a teacher throughout her life, and that you can teach an old dog new tricks.