Learning from a Legend

Acclaimed musician Mark O'Connor offers insights to Fine Arts students

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Story by: Annie Beckmann
Published: 2012-10-23

Grammy-winning composer, classical violinist and folk fiddler Mark O'Connor, left, had nonstop inspiration for Fine Arts music students when he visited Seattle University earlier this month. O'Connor's first-ever master class on campus was made possible by Quinton Morris, right, SU's director of chamber and instrumental music, and the Pigott Family Endowment for the Arts.

"Having Mark work with our students granted them an opportunity to experience firsthand what it's like to receive professional coaching from a respected musician," Morris said. "I'm confident they will remember and cherish this for a very long time."

During a lively two-hour master class, O'Connor offered insights on string performances as he listened to students play sections of his original compositions, then played bits of them himself and explained how the students could advance their performance.

"Go smoother and slower," he encouraged. "This is about nature, the outdoors, walking through a meadow toward sunshine. The main thing is communicating the journey."

When each student played a second time, there was evident progress. Along the way, O'Connor shared anecdotes about everything from themes in American music and how they influence his own compositions to playing alongside virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"American music takes a journey rhythmically and metaphorically. It's about traveling, trying to get to a better place, searching for a nice horizon," said the New York resident and native of Mountlake Terrace, Wash., who had returned to his home turf to perform in concert with jazz vocalist Jane Monheit.

He said he'd never forget playing alongside Yo-Yo Ma when the master conducted by waving his arched arms as he performed. O'Connor also noted that his own popular composition, "Appalachia Waltz," was played by Ma at the memorial for the late Steve Jobs, co-founder, chairman and chief executive of Apple Inc.

"'Appalachia Waltz' is one of my most popular pieces. I've played this probably a thousand times, yet when I get to this one part, I wonder if I'm going to make it," he conceded as he advised students as they wrestled with the same challenging segment of his piece. 

O'Connor said he recently learned his CD "Appalachia Christmas" would be played in 540 Barnes & Noble stores through the upcoming holiday season.

He charmed the standing-room-only crowd in the Hunthausen Hall instrumental music room when he played several renditions to embellish a melody line and urged string students to improvise the same way as an exercise. Using the classic minstrel tune "Oh! Susanna," he illustrated how flexible a melody can be. He fiddled "Oh! Susanna" first as blues, then in a minor key with a gypsy flair, as a Cajun tune, with a ragtime sound, even as a sound-effects percussive version.   

"Any melody you give me I can turn into a hoedown. It's a lot tougher to improvise on classical music," he said, adding with a smile, "although I guess you could improvise on an aria."


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