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String Section: A Microcosm of Creativity

Mark O'Connor • Commentary • September 19, 2013

The Mark O’Connor/Berklee Summer Strings Program as a model for creativity

Mark O’Connor with students and faculty at the 2013 O’Connor/Berklee Summer Strings Camp

It has been very rewarding to witness the Berklee College of Music in Boston deeply integrating American string music into its school year and summer curriculum.

One of the key programs in this curriculum is my weeklong Summer String Program, which has been held at Berklee for three years now. (This was my 20th year of directing string camps, which have been held at a few different locations around the country.) This program is innovating and changing the standards of string education in this country.

The 2013 Summer String Program lineup was like something out of a string player’s dream:

  • Darol Anger, Jason Anick, Daniel Bernard Roumain, John Blake, Jr., Federico Britos, Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor, Billy Contreras, Alex DePue, Rob Flax, Matt Glaser, Mariana Green-Hill, Kelly Hall-Tompkins, Hazel Ketchum, Jeremy Kittel, Ashley Liberty, Oisin McAuley, Bruce Molsky, Dale Morris, Jr., Brad Phillips, Andy Reiner, Simon Shaheen, Tracy Silverman, Yale Strom, Rob Thomas, Melissa Tong, Pamela Wiley.
  • Gillian Gallagher, Melissa Howe, David Wallace.
  • Joy Adams, Eugene Friesen, Patrice Jackson, Nat Smith, Ben Sollee.
  • Geoff Saunders, Nicky Schwartz.

In addition to group classes with each faculty member, which take place throughout the day, I hold panels with small groups of faculty members each afternoon at the Berklee Performance Center. We discuss everything from string competitions to string pedagogy to the state and future of American classical music. Everyone seems to have an interesting perspective on each of these subjects, but this year, there were a couple perspectives in particular that stood out to me.

In one of the panels, a few of the faculty members said that competitions of various kinds – namely, classical competitions, orchestra auditions, and fiddle contests – were essential to their growth as musicians. Indeed, competitions were also important to me. They were a huge part of my life for over a decade, and they kickstarted my career. Yet I challenged the other faculty members about the relevance of competitions today. Certainly, some of them, like orchestra auditions, are necessary to some extent. But I have witnessed time and time again how an overly competitive atmosphere can drain enthusiasm from students and severely impair their creative development as well as their will to grow as musicians. I am sure the debate over the value of competition will continue to foster many different perspectives.

In another panel, featuring Tracy Silverman, Daniel Bernard Roumain, and Darol Anger, we discussed the state of American classical music and the role of the violin in classical music today. I was excited to hear that both Tracy and Daniel have been performing their own original works with orchestras around the country at least a few times per year. Yet neither of them was optimistic about the future of the orchestra as a musical institution in this country. They believed that the real innovation was taking place in small group settings, whereas the orchestra was suffering because it was in effect an island amidst a sea of creativity in classical music. My experience has been a bit different, as I believe I continue to garner fans and supporters among orchestras. Of course, there are a number of factors to which this disjunction may be attributed. One may be the type of instrument each of us uses. I only play an acoustic violin, even when using a pickup, whereas Tracy usually performs with a solid-body electric violin that creates a clear sonic disconnect between himself and the orchestra. This disconnect may heavily impact the kind of feedback he receives from orchestras, which may in turn impact his perspective on them. In any case, I, for one, hope that the orchestra continues to thrive, and ensuring that it does may well entail exploring and developing music or modes of performance that strike the right balance between tradition and experimentation.

In addition to the afternoon panels, the Summer String Program features a number of concerts throughout the week. Boston is home to a plethora of respected concert venues that embrace string playing, and we are fortunate to offer a concert each night at what is perhaps the most legendary venue of them all: Club Passim in Harvard Square. A few members of the faculty perform at Passim each night, and the lineups are sometimes fairly eclectic. The first night of this year’s series was a good example: Bruce Molsky, a master of the old-time fiddle, and David Wallace, a Juilliard professor, split the bill. It was a fantastic evening of music, and I was pleased to learn that the sitting concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was in attendance. On Tuesday, the lineup featured Federico Britos, Matt Glaser, and John Blake, Jr.; on Wednesday, it featured Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor and Yale Strom; and on Thursday, Jason Anick, Oisin McAuley, and Jeremy Kittel. All four of these concerts were webcasted live around the world via a site called Concert Window, which was certainly an added bonus.

One of the (good) problems we face is that we have too many faculty members to perform at a single venue during the week. So, this year, concurrent with one of our shows at Passim, we presented an evening of music at one of Berklee’s top recital spaces, the David Friend Recital Hall. I kicked things off with some new variations of old Texas fiddle tunes with some help from Dale Morris, Jr. on guitar. After I played, Alex DePue, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Billy Contreras, and Darol Anger each played 20-minute sets of compelling, innovative music. At the end of the night, we all got up onstage to play together and trade solos. It was one of those evenings attendees may be talking about for a while. More important, it served as a microcosm of what the string world might look like in the coming years, in which players with completely different backgrounds and strengths come together to create new and deeply interesting sounds.

The program concludes each year with a concert at the Berklee Performance Center. It features all the faculty members, sometimes solo, other times in groups of their choosing. This year, like every year, the final concert was a spectacle of sound, style, and musical mastery. I cannot think of another event in the world that features so much creativity, variety, versatility, and virtuosity on stringed instruments. It was particularly impactful this time around because it was hardly two months after the Boston Marathon bombings on Boylston Street (literally a couple blocks away) had occurred. To me, the final night asserted that evil has no answer for the positivity that our music brings to the world. I believe that a desire for harmony inheres within music-making, and that musicians, in particular, are among the greatest potential advocates for peace.

This is all particularly relevant to a nearly decade-old tradition at my string camps: The awarding of the Daniel Pearl violin. In the early 2000s, an American journalist and amateur violinist named Daniel Pearl was slain by terrorists abroad. His family asked me to perform at his memorial service because he had been a fan of my music. The service took place in Boston, and it was clear that the Pearl family wanted to make Daniel’s love of music a central theme: besides me, a number of other friends of Daniel’s performed bluegrass, swing, and classical music during the event. Some time before the service, I announced to my email list that I was to appear there, and one of the members on my list, a Maine-based violinmaker named Jon Cooper, came up with the wonderful idea to build a violin dedicated to Daniel and donate it to the Pearl family. I spoke with the family about the proposition, and unsurprisingly, they were honored by it. Before my performance at the service, Jon and the Pearl family joined me on stage, and Jon presented the violin to them.

After a few months, the Pearls donated the violin to my Summer String Program so that deserving students could play it. They told me it needed to be played in memory of Daniel, not hung up on a wall. I gratefully accepted the violin and initiated a program whereby a particularly stellar student would receive the Pearl violin to play for a year and would also be granted a scholarship to return to the program the following year. The first recipient of the Pearl violin was Jeremy Kittel, who is now a regular member of the program faculty.

Over the last several years, donors have commissioned three more instruments (a violin, a viola, and a cello) from Jon Cooper, so now we have a quartet’s worth of Pearl instruments. On the final night this year, the previous year’s Pearl recipients performed my string quartet arrangement of “Appalachia Waltz.” After they finished performing, they handed the instruments to the new Pearl recipients, and a couple of them had tears in their eyes. It was an incredible moment.

The Pearl instruments represent the conviction that music can bring people together and change the world for the better. The theme of “change for the better” pervades the Summer String Program, and while the Pearl instruments are perhaps the most emotionally striking manifestation of this theme, they don’t represent the only one. I have been thrilled to work consistently with my fellow performers, teachers, and school administrators at Berklee to cultivate new ideas not only to enhance the Summer String program but also to set an example for string pedagogy worldwide.

One of the ideas that has come to fruition is the Berklee Roots Music Orchestra, led by Eugene Friesen and made up of any students who wish to participate. Each year, I nominate four faculty members to write and provide a new piece of music to the BRMO and coach them on it throughout the program. The orchestra performs all the pieces as part of the final faculty concert at the Berklee Performance Center – this in itself is an incentive to participate. More than once, I have heard students in the BRMO ask each other, “Why can’t my school orchestra be this exciting?” My answer to this question is: It is only a matter of time! Introducing students to modern American music and giving them the opportunity to work closely with the composers of that music has clearly enhanced students’ interest in and passion for playing.

Mark O’Connor is a multiple Grammy Award-winning composer and violinist who teaches at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and directs an internationally renowned Summer String Program at the Berklee College of Music. O’Connor has authored the O’Connor Method for violin, viola, cello, and string orchestra. In addition to promoting standard technical acquisition, the O’Connor Method incorporates American music and styles into a holistic approach to musical creativity, improvisation, music history, and cultural diversity. More information on the New American School of String Playing, teacher-training seminars, O’Connor Method Camps, and O’Connor’s residencies can be found online at www.oconnormethod.com

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