Virtuoso-to-be Mark O’Connor grumbled as a child when he was forced to take music lessons. At first, anyway.
“I could barely get my hands around the fret board,” says O’Connor, whose dance-teacher mom, Marty O’Connor, insisted he take up the guitar at age 5. “I cried because the strings hurt my fingers. I probably would have quit if I had my own way.”
But he didn’t quit. He stuck with his guitar—and later, mandolin—lessons. Soon he was mastering one classical and flamenco piece after another.
At 11, despite his mother’s worries that music was spreading her son too thin, O’Connor took up yet another instrument, one that would become his bread and butter.
“As a child, I was drawn to the expression of the violin, how sad you can make it, how happy you can make it,” the soft-spoken O’Connor says. “I didn’t have the vocabulary to say what I thought, but I could play music.”
O’Connor, who now lives in New York City, grew up poor in Seattle. His father, Larry, worked long hours as a laborer, and despite his son’s obvious talent, would not have allowed O’Connor to spend so much time playing music unless there was a payoff.
“My dad wanted me to work with him in construction,” O’Connor says. “He was going to make me be productive after school. So I either had to climb under houses (among the rats) and help him repair foundations, or I could make money playing music. That was extra incentive to get really good, really quick.”
O’Connor applied himself and was playing concerts throughout the nation by the time he was 12.
“I practiced and practiced like there was no tomorrow,” he says. “I knew what it meant that I was allowed to play music, and I never, ever took it for granted.”
Throughout high school, O’Connor studied classical, jazz, folk and world music. He won hundreds of string-festival contests and recorded several albums before he could drive himself to the recording studio. At 17, while touring with the great French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, he lived every musician’s dream: playing Carnegie Hall.
Since then, O’Connor has piled up scores of accomplishments and accolades and is widely regarded as one of America’s top instrumentalists. He has played on some 450 albums, working with superstars including Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill, plus recorded 35 CDs of his own and toured all over the world.
He was named Country Music Association Musician of the Year six consecutive times (1991-1996) and has won numerous Grammy awards, most recently for Appalachian Journey, his 2000 collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer.
O’Connor is also an acclaimed composer whose first full-length orchestral score, “The Fiddle Concerto,” has been staged more than 200 times worldwide.
His son, Forrest, seems to have inherited some of his dad’s musical genes. He’s an accomplished mandolin player who recently graduated with a degree in sociomusicology from Harvard University, where he founded the Harvard College American Music Association.
Despite his impressive credits, O’Connor may leave his most significant mark as a teacher.
Since the early 1990s, he has staged annual fiddle and string camps to nurture musical talent in budding performers of all ages. The popularity of the camps—which took place last year in Tennessee and New York—recently inspired him to write and publish the first two volumes of The O’Connor Violin Method, an instructional series.
O’Connor’s method is appealing because it spotlights American music, says Pamela Wiley, 64, a longtime violin instructor who leads O’Connor’s teacher training courses.
“In the past, violin students were taught European classical music, and only occasionally music from this country,” Wiley says. “Why not make American music the core of our method?”
Both Wiley and O’Connor say that when students learn by playing familiar American folk songs, they have fun and tend to practice more. And that just may inspire a new generation of American musicians.
“Music brings people together in communities and gives children a way to express themselves,” O’Connor says, recalling his own childhood and the role music played in helping him find his way through it. “That’s so important.”