Fiddling With An American Alternative To Suzuki American violinist Mark O'Connor has been a sideman for country stars and a soloist with symphony orchestras. He has made 36 albums. Now comes his biggest project yet: He wants to change the way young people learn how to play his instrument.
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Fiddling With An American Alternative To Suzuki

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Fiddling With An American Alternative To Suzuki

Fiddling With An American Alternative To Suzuki

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The American violinist Mark O'Connor has been a soloist with symphony orchestras and a sideman for country stars. This week, he released his 36th album. But it's safe to say that O'Connor's latest project is by far his most ambitious. He wants to change the way young people learn how to play a violin.

NPR's David Gura reports.

Unidentified Person: Ready?

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID GURA: On a Tuesday night at a church in Washington, a dozen children, students of teacher Doree Huneven, make their way through the first movement of a classical-music standard: Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto for Violin in A Minor.

(Soundbite of music)

An arrangement of the piece is in the Suzuki Violin Method, Book Four, for the initiated, and many people have been. Millions of musicians, including this group, have used the Suzuki Method.

(Soundbite of music)

GURA: Suzuki believed that music should be taught like spoken language: by ear. And he liked the old guard of European classical composers: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, Schubert, Mozart and Handel. For the most part, the Suzuki repertoire is canonical. So it was surprising to hear what Huneven's students played next.

(Soundbite of song, "O, Susanna")

GURA: They transitioned from Baroque to bluegrass, to "O, Susanna," a traditional American fiddle tune. It's in a new instructional method by Grammy Award-winner Mark O'Connor, with more two-steps than minuets. He wanted to base it on music from the Americas: Cajun and country, ragtime and rock 'n' roll.

Mr. MARK O'CONNER (Violin Player): Rather than concentrate on all these divisions, it would be great just to broaden the tent and include a lot of these disciplines.

GURA: O'Connor was a fiddling prodigy. When he was 12, he signed his first recording contract. As a teenager, he won national competitions.

(Soundbite of music)

GURA: He was a first-class fiddler. But O'Connor's musical interests grew wider. He headlined classical concerts. He performed alongside jazz greats. And he tried his hand at composing.

(Soundbite of music)

GURA: Over the years, O'Connor became hard to categorize. He blazed a trail across genres as few string musicians have and along the way, O'Connor says, he realized something.

Mr. O'CONNOR: That it doesnt have to be such a unique path. That path could be duplicated. And, in fact, it could be in some ways kind of copied and emulated in the process of really developing a full-tilt exploration of American string playing.

GURA: O'Connor wants to create what he calls super string players for the 21st century: musicians who can improvise and experiment, who want to use the violin to play all kinds of music. He wants to bring fiddling in from the margins, into the center of the classical music world.

O'Connor developed his method at annual summer music camps for string musicians, where classically trained violinists take classes with fiddlers, and teachers come from all over the world.

Doree Huneven remembers how exciting the camp was.

Ms. DOREE HUNEVEN (Violin Teacher): There are these teenagers who are just in love with the instrument, and they were playing blues and Cajun and world music. And I thought, that's amazing.

GURA: In the '70s, she sat at the feet of Shinichi Suzuki. She was the third Western student to graduate from his school in Japan. Now, Huneven is an O'Connor acolyte, one of the first teachers to use his new method. The books are richly illustrated, with information about the history of every piece, and every melody is catchy.

Ms. HUNEVEN: It grabs them. It ropes them in. It's Pied Piper music. They just love it. They can't stop playing it.

Ms. NICOLE MATTEY (Violin Student): Every time I listen to music, I can think of the notes. I can hear it better.

GURA: Nicole Mattey is one of Huneven's students.

Ms. MATTEY: When I play a fast song in classical, I find that it's a bit more like fiddle than I would've expected.

GURA: Still, Huneven acknowledges that some people don't get what O'Connor is trying to do: to blur the lines between jazz and bluegrass and world music, to re-brand America's various musical traditions as American classical music.

Ms. HUNEVEN: I still have parents that say: Oh, are we going to play the fiddle music? But it's not. It's violin music. It's really important that they understand that this is our music.

GURA: Mark O'Connor is adamant that his method doesn't handicap students from playing traditional classical repertoire.

Mr. O'CONNOR: Say they want to play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, there is nothing in this method that will prevent them from doing that.

GURA: He says that in his books, theres more theory, more of an emphasis on sight-reading than there is in the Suzuki Method. And how does O'Connor know it will work? He's living proof, he says. After all, it's the way he learned how to play.

David Gura, NPR News.

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