It’s hard to keep a room full of fifth grade students from fidgeting during an early morning orchestra lesson.
But with the flick of their wrists, husband-and-wife duo Mark and Maggie O’Connor stirred up a peppy rhythm to the delight of the elementary kids as they played boogie-woogie music on their fiddles.
The couple spent Thursday morning at Dunwoody Elementary School holding a small workshop to offer some lessons on strings and playing a few selections from Mark’s practice books. The event was part of Spivey Hall’s Education outreach program that seeks to engage young people in the Atlanta area through music.
“Community engagement is an essential part of the mission of Spivey Hall Education,” said Melanie Darby, education manager at Spivey Hall. “It allows us to bring artists like Mark and Maggie O’Connor together with wonderful orchestra teachers like Natia Esartia of Dunwoody Elementary and Darilyn Esterline of Whitewater High School to create superb musical learning experiences for Georgia students.”
The couple are in town to perform with their musical group, the O’Connor Band, on Saturday night at Spivey Hall. The band is made up of Mark and Maggie, along with Mark’s son Forrest and his fiancé Kate Lee. Rounding out the six-piece ensemble is National Flatpick Guitar Champion Joe Smart and double bassist/old-time banjoist Geoff Saunders.
“The family business continues into our band,” Maggie said. “Kate plays fiddle, Forrest plays mandolin and they both sing like birds.”
Earlier in the week, the band won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album at the 59th annual Grammy Awards for their album entitled “Coming Home.”
“It was just a wonderful surprise,” Maggie said. “We all worked so hard on that album, so just to see that payoff and to do it with family was even sweeter.”
During Thursday’s workshop, Mark weaved a tale about the influence of the violin on American music, from African American spirituals to hoedowns to blues. For much of his adult life, Mark has been a fierce advocate for bringing attention to string instruments—the violin in particular—and re-energizing a passion for them among the public.
It’s part of the reason why he created the O’Connor method to teach children how to play string instruments. The style focuses on improvisation, creativity and collaboration, while vigorously celebrating American music.
“We encourage children to play this music with anybody they can find that plays an instrument—percussion, guitar, or whatever that instrument is—we don’t want to have strings left out of our culture,” he said. “We want to have people join us and make the violin beautifully relevant again like it had been for hundreds of years. “
Mark himself is a critically-acclaimed musician of bluegrass, jazz and country styles. The Seattle, Washington native gained attention as a child prodigy and gave virtuosic performances as a teenager that garnered him victories at competitions including the Grand Master Fiddler Championship and National Flat Pick Guitar Championship.
He has since recorded or collaborated with several music icons like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Bobby McFerrin, Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma.
“I’ve dedicated so many years of my life to musical education and writing materials and really informing a new American school of string playing I think we desperately need in our culture,” Mark explained. “The thing about the violin is that it’s not just about Europe; it’s about the Americas. And we have an incredible amount of diversity in our music emanating from African American music to Hispanic music to Native Americans.”
The students at Dunwoody Elementary were mesmerized by Mark and Maggie’s playing ability. At one point during the workshop, Maggie taught the students how to chop, a technique where the violinist strikes the bow on the strings to create a thumping sound to mimic percussion rhythms.
The duo also held an impromptu jam session to the delight of the kids.
The O’Connors imparted some advice to the students about hard work and constant practice to keep their skills up.
Joined by students from Peachtree Middle School’s orchestra, the whole group closed out the workshop with a soft rendition of Amazing Grace.
“I think it’s amazing because they actually get to see someone who’s a master in their work and they don’t necessarily get that just from everyday music classes,” said Natia Esartia, orchestra director at Peachtree Dunwoody.
She hopes her students will get inspired to continue playing their instruments and for some to become professional musicians.
The O’Connors' residency through the Spivey Hall Education program is funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Georgia Council for the Arts.
The O’Connor Band plays Spivey Hall on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. More information about the performance and ticket purchase can be found at the Spivey Hall website.