String Section: Making Strings a Part of the Future

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 18, 2013

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Innovative string curriculum at the University of Miami’s  Frost School of Music

Performing with the Frost School of Music’s Opera program is one of many innovative opportunities for string players at the school.

Five years ago, I was booked to perform my American Seasons violin concerto with the Miami Philharmonic. One of my former students at Vanderbilt University, Ross DeBardelaben, was working on his doctorate at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, so I arranged to have lunch with him while I was in town.

Two weeks before my concert, I received the very disheartening message that the Philharmonic had gone bankrupt, so my guest soloist spot, along with the rest of the concerts that season, had been canceled. I called Ross to tell him I wouldn’t be able to meet him, since I wasn’t coming to Miami. But Ross had an idea.

He told me that the Frost School’s new dean of music, Shelly Berg, was making some waves on campus. Ross thought Berg would like to get acquainted with me and perhaps arrange for my canceled performance to take place at Frost with student string players. I thought it would be a wonderful idea if he could pull it off. I already had the weekend free and the plane tickets in hand.

If I had known then as much as I know now about Shelly Berg, there wouldn’t have been any “ifs” about it. Of course, Berg pulled it off. And after he watched me warm up for the concert that evening, he told me he had plans to make many major changes at the school. And he wanted me to take part in them.

Thus began my artist residency at the University of Miami, not to mention a strong, productive friendship between Berg and myself.

Shelly Berg

Shelly Berg is a jazz pianist extraordinaire and former dean of the Jazz department at the University of Southern California. He is also very knowledgeable about classical music, and he likes strings and believes that they deserve more attention.

Dean Berg’s credentials don’t quite align with those of most conservatory deans, but in my opinion, that’s a good thing. He thinks outside the box, and he is coming up with ways to invigorate music education and ensure that it stays relevant. I recently heard him give a speech to an audience of arts advocates. Many things he said resonated with me, but a couple points he made stood out:

I believe musicians draw from two inner “wells”: the spiritual well and the technical well. The technical well is filled with all of the “things” we learn to do and master, while the spiritual well is filled with our emotions, aspirations, sorrows – everything we can feel. All of humanity is unified by the universal emotions found in the spiritual well. The technical well should be called upon unconsciously to help convey those universal emotions.

Emotionality, Dean Berg says, is as critical to a valuable and effective education as technicality. His mission at the school reflects this tenet. Dean Berg is creating a model for arts education that incorporates stylistic diversity and encourages personal expression in both individual and social settings. It is worth noting that a major part of Dean Berg’s strategy is to make American music central to the curriculum – something I agree with wholeheartedly, as you can imagine.

Now, Dean Berg has only held his post for six years, but if you looked at his list of accomplishments so far, you would think he had been dean for at least twice as long. To begin, he is practically doubling the physical size of the music school. A capital campaign he spearheaded has generated enough funds to add nearly 90 new music rooms in the coming years.

Innovative Happenings

Berg has also overseen the full implementation of the Bruce Hornsby Creative American Music Program, which is administered by professor Rey Sanchez. This program offers a major in songwriting as well as courses in other musical subjects and styles you do not often find at music schools. For instance, during the second year of my residency, Sanchez’s program offered a class on bluegrass, and there was so much interest in it that many students had to be turned away. But what an impact that class had on campus! I have many positive memories of walking across the courtyard on a cool evening under the stars and listening to students jam on old Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers tunes.

Dean Berg’s biggest accomplishment thus far might be bringing the Henry Mancini Institute to Frost. At the time Berg became dean, the Mancini Institute had recently discontinued its four-week summer program affiliated with UCLA. But Berg had a greater vision for the program. He got in touch with Ginny, Henry Mancini’s widow, and told her that he wanted to embody the ideals of the Mancini Institute on a year-round basis – in other words, incorporate it into the school’s full-time curriculum. Ginny agreed.

Today, there is nothing like the Henry Mancini Institute anywhere else in the country. Led by trumpet virtuoso/film composer Terence Blanchard and jazz composition professor Stephen Guerra, the institute offers students unparalleled education in both creative and practical subjects, ranging from improvisation for classical musicians to entrepreneurship, stage presence, and audience development. The institute boasts an all-star student string quartet called the Stamps Quartet, as well as an orchestra that is so good that it has appeared on a number of albums by major artists in the last few years.

In fact, the Mancini Orchestra has recently developed a strong relationship with PBS. The orchestra has appeared in nationally aired PBS specials featuring various acclaimed soloists, including Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea. Thus, it has offered its student members great exposure and performance experience. But PBS – whose resources have thinned as of late – has benefited immensely from the relationship as well, because it has only had to pay the student orchestra a nominal fee. Without this arrangement, PBS would probably be without an orchestra for those tapings.

Avocado Estate.

Unsurprisingly, all these developments have attracted an increasing number of string students from around the country with a broader range of interests. I have recently been working with three students who transferred into Frost’s master’s degree program. Two of them have teamed up with a fiddle champion from Montana to form a trio, Avocado Estate, which is modeled on my Appalachia Waltz Trio (with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer). You know good things are happening when inventive string ensembles start popping up!

It goes without saying that it has been a real pleasure for me to serve as an artist-in-residence at Frost for the last five years. I have given classes, demonstrations, workshops, and lectures in nearly every department, including classical string performance, music history, composition, musicology, music education, music therapy, jazz band, jazz composition, salsa and Latin jazz, songwriting, and even bluegrass. It is clear to me how thrilled students are to be able to learn about such diverse subjects in one place.

I have had many rewarding experiences during my time there, but I will share one in particular just to give you a sense of the environment. I took part in a Latin jazz concert at Gusman Hall with the student salsa band, led by professor Alberto de la Reguera, who has long been a fixture for Latin jazz in Miami. The 30 performers, including six singer/dancers, created an intoxicating groove – a groove so tight that it would come across as professional by anyone’s standards. Performing with that salsa band was such a blast for me. After the performance, a number of string students approached me and told me they did not know violinists could play Latin music. Now they know, and now they will begin to explore it on their own, I’m sure. And this was just one of many, many events at Frost that inspire students and encourage them to think outside the box.

You may be wondering by now: How have the tenured string faculty at Frost received these new developments? “Positively” would be an understatement. Take the Bergonzi String Quartet, for example. This quartet has been in residence at Frost and essentially the heart of the string faculty for nearly 20 years. It is comprised of Glenn Basham (1st violin), Scott Flavin (2nd violin), Pam McConnell (viola), and Ross Harbaugh (cello). Flavin is now the conductor of the Mancini Orchestra. Basham, who plays jazz and improvises, oversees a Grappelli/Reinhardt-influenced Hot Club student band. Harbaugh, the chair of the string department, oversees my residency schedule and often asks me to coach not only violinists and violists but also his cellists as well. Suffice it to say that even those who served on the faculty long before Berg arrived have truly embraced his vision and the steps he has taken to implement it.

I firmly believe that all budding string players – let alone all budding musicians – should be able to participate in a variety of musical styles and activities while they grow. Both their technical and creative brains benefit from exposure to, and investigation into, musics from different segments of society that demand different types of skill. Under the leadership of Shelly Berg, the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music has, in my opinion, developed an excellent model for music education, and I hope other schools are inspired to follow them.

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:

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