First String: Fiddling Camp

Mark O'Connor
O'Connor Web Site
You don't often see Mark O'Connor performing for a small audience. But it's different when they are students at his fiddle camp, near White Bluff, Tenn., outside Nashville.

"There's not a lot of formalities here. We're all just hangin' out together," says O'Connor.

Arguably the hottest fiddler in the business these days, O'Connor wants students to learn by observing great performers up close, the way he did.

"I think seeing a great player in the first few months of my violin playing inspired me to want to put all my effort into it," he explains.

For seven straight summers now, Mark has been inviting his friends – the greatest performers of fiddle or violin music around – to come to camp to teach what they do best. And you don't even have to audition to come to camp as a student.

"From the beginning, I said, 'This camp is open to everybody – all ages, all levels, all styles of music on the violin, are welcome here,'" says O'Connor.

One of the instructors, Mark Wood, is a classically trained violinist who offers his students a new take on how to practice, not just playing scales. He is on a mission to make playing the violin hip.

Natalie MacMaster was already a star of the Cape Breton style when she first arrived as a camper seven years ago.

She recalls, "Here was a whole other world of all these different styles of fiddling that I hadn't heard before. You know, so there was a lot learn. Mark said to me, 'Gee, it'd be great if you could come back next year and teach this style you play.' And I was like, "Sure! I'd love to.' And meanwhile I was thinking, 'God is he serious? Like, he's asking me to come back and teach?' And I've been coming back every year."

The same thing happened last year to camper Jesus Florido. Mark heard him playing Latin style violin and asked him to give a workshop this year.

Says Florido, "This is an honor! This is one of my idols who's asking me, a mere mortal, to come help…with this camp. I've been waiting a year for this, counting every week."

Every night, the teachers take turns giving concerts, strutting their stuff for their students and lighting up the night with their music.

O'Connor says "it's like a mini-festival but intimate. There's no pressure to perform polished…just get up there and have fun. The teachers really seem to like it."

Buddy Spicher, the great Nashville session fiddler who once played with Patsy Cline, makes time to teach at every camp. He says, "What I feel like I do best is improvise. A lot of the people here are classically trained musicians. I mostly am trying to teach those types of trained violinists how to go about improvising. They're so used to looking at notes, it takes a while to get them off that."

Every day, fiddle camp is an ongoing, informal jam. Folks get to swap music and ideas, and just plain enjoy finding new friends who share the same musical passions.

This is Babette Goodman's ninth stay at fiddle camp. Shhad put her fiddle aside for 25 years before fiddle camp inspired her.

She says, "Still, sometimes, in class, I'm afraid to play, but that's just a thing I have to work through. It doesn't matter how you perform. Someone's there patting you on the back and saying, you know, 'Good job. You did great!'"

That suits O'Connor fine. One of his goals, he says, was "to provide the kind of environment that was safe for the virtuoso players to just kinda let their hair down and be completely natural amongst the students."

The last day, one last class, then everyone's preparing for the final concert.

Says O'Connor, "Usually, the last night is my favorite night, because I get to see all the students finally play. After the week's over, it's always special."

Sometimes, during the camp's first few summers, Mark O'Connor wondered whether there was enough interest in fiddling to keep his camp going.

Nobody's wondering now.

For more information, go to Mark O'Connor's Web site.

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