Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Musical Method: The ZOEN Talks with Mark O'Connor (Part II)

In Part II of The ZOEN's interview with Grammy-winning violinist Mark O'Connor, we discuss Mark's own pedagogical method of music instruction and why O'Connor Method Certified teachers have joined The ZOEN:

ZOEN: In recent years you've been dedicated to creating "The O'Connor Method: A New American School of String Playing."  What are your founding ideas and principles for the Method? 
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MOC:  "The O'Connor Method" for violin and string instruments as well as string orchestra is the first official offering in music pedagogy for "A New American School of String Playing." As surprising as that sounds, there has never been an official "American School" of string pedagogy, even though there is plenty of history of great string playing in the United States, Canada and in the Latin American countries.

The foundation for the Method embraces the great centuries-old classical violin training and opens it up into the 20th and 21st century. The young student will still learn the proper techniques in order to the play the instrument well i.e. bowing, fingering, intonation and tone. But the means to do so is greatly heightened by way of becoming a musician and an artist in the process and early on. Not just a technician. To accomplish this more holistic process, there is no better system to employ than what I am calling the "American Music System" of learning. It involves more self-reliance and less mimicking, more inspiration and less drill and repeat, more creativity and less memorization ear-training, and more relevance and less gray wigs from Europe, always having to the practice the museum pieces for year after year as beginners and intermediates.

My centerpieces include American music, creativity, improvisation, music from across four centuries including a lot of music from the 20th and 21st century, stylistic diversity, music with ethnic diversity. There is a large component of African American music in the Method as well as Hispanic, European and Native music, all central influences on all music heard today.

For the purposes of academically structuring the materials, I have established four foundational genres that provide the language of all American music played today and those styles appear in the early books along with other various American genres that can be considered offshoots in addition to some of my own pieces that could be described as "American Classical." They include the "Hoedown," "Spiritual," "Blues," and "Ragtime." This music gives us our language, the means to play most any kind of music in the world today. It is the real "mother tongue" that we are interested in for students because it makes us creatively adept, sophisticated, articulate and responsive to our surroundings. It is a launching pad for any musical endeavor or idea in the student's future.

Technique must be acquired, which is also the case in American music training. But so much more is gained in the process that has been consistently shut out for the last 50 years of early childhood violin lessons including creativity, improvisation, real ear-training, meaning the kinds that helps a musician such identifying chords, intervals, style, rhythmic patterns etc. Not the kind of academic theory about musical form and counterpoint, just to pass an academic test at school. Something that even most Julliard violin students can't apply to their music making. The reason why those conservatory students can't apply that kind of theory lesson they eventually do learn in school is because they can't compose musical scores! They didn't learn to be creative with their music. To borrow a title from one of the pieces in the Method "World Turned Upside Down," that is what we have had for much too long in strings and I want to make the correction. The American School can turn things around and fix it for our new and modern environment. 

ZOEN: Both the ZOEN and the O'Connor Method are passionate about changing the paradigm for music learning.  O'Connor Method Certified teachers will now be accessible to the world through The ZOEN, offering live lessons online via webcam.  What are your thoughts on this shared vision of a musical world where people learn to play the music they love? 

MOC: I am excited to say that we have some of the most talented, inspired and innovative teachers in early music education for violin today. The fact that they wanted to join me in this endeavor proves that they have been looking and searching for a better way to bring music to children. That gives you sense of their own process and discovery. We want the best, and we are attracting the best to the O'Connor Method. I think online lessons are amazing and I am glad that some of our teachers wish to take this new horizon on! To think that you could be inspired from a teacher and look forward to seeing them the following week through your screen at home is a tool that I want us to use.

ZOEN: Any further thoughts you'd like to share?

MOC: After all of our training sessions, I believe that the O'Connor teachers will know how to teach violin in the American System. 
Remember this; there is no middle school orchestra director nor high school orchestra director that will keep your child out of orchestra at school if you know how to read music and play have way decent. And the O'Connor Method teaches you to read music. 

But on the other hand, if you only know how to play in school orchestra and read music, but can't jam, improvise, play rhythms, fiddle some tunes, and have fun with your music, there is a whole world of possibilities with the violin the student will not get to partake in, maybe ever. We feel we have exactly the right combination for the pedagogy. Go to it! Have fun! Hold your bow naturally and comfortably! The violin should be natural for you to hold... And perhaps we will see you at one of my camps!

CHECK OUT Part I of The ZOEN's interview with Mark O'Connor and be sure to check out Mark's outstanding, information packed blog: Parting Shots from a Musician's Perspective.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

[How To] Ease Neck Pain With The Right Saxophone Strap

“I’m getting headaches when I play for a while.”

“The back of my neck hurts all the time.”

“My upper back and shoulder blades hurt.” 

This is a sampling of the complaints that some saxophonists have expressed during their playing careers. These pains are not exclusive to beginners; some professionals I gig with have said the same things to me. In fact, I didn’t realize my own headaches were coming from my neck strap until my colleagues spoke about their own situation.

Many beginning students slump in their chairs because they can’t adjust their neck strap to bring the instrument higher. They end up ducking their chin to try to reach the mouthpiece, instead of bringing the mouthpiece to them. They also slump because it is less painful on the neck, especially if their strap has no padding. 

I have always known about the importance of having a padded neck strap; one that helps to take a lot of the weight of the instrument off the neck and right thumb. I have always used them and recommend them for my students. 

So why doesn’t the padded neck strap alleviate this problem?  The first thing to look at is posture. Are you seated or standing up straight with your shoulders back and relaxed, or are you hunched over? When your shoulders move forward, more stress is felt in the upper back and shoulder blades. More weight is felt on the back of the neck as a result. Your shoulders may be back, but are they down and relaxed?  Shoulders that are up towards your ears also put undue stress on the neck and upper back, as well as affecting breathing. 

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Proper Posture (
The next area to examine is the quality of your neck strap. Many times, when a student rents a saxophone, a stock neck strap is placed in the case. This strap is basically just a strap; there’s no padding at all. This I feel is not sufficient for beginning saxophonists.

I always recommend the Neotech brand for beginners because of the added the padding. This strap is a very good choice for beginning alto sax players. This neck strap will work great for you if you are also mindful of your posture and shoulder position. 

There are other manufacturers who are starting to make quality padded straps. (BG, Oleg, Pro Tech) You can check your local music store, search the internet, or check out the Woodwind and Brasswind site.

Alternatives to the Neck Strap
For those of us playing the larger saxophones (tenor, baritone), the quality of the strap is crucial. But here is where alternatives may need to be explored. 

Some players, especially those on the baritone sax, use a harness instead of a neck strap. The idea behind the harness is that the weight of the instrument is distributed evenly across the shoulders and back. Some popular harnesses are made by Neotech and BG. These are great products, but one consideration is that these harnesses are not made to accommodate smaller people, often beginners with narrow shoulders.

A new harness system was produced by Van Doren, the famous reed manufacturer. The Vandoren V System Harness uses aerodynamic technology and ergo-dynamic design to distribute the weight in such a way that you barely feel the saxophone on you at all. This is a big deal for Bari sax players, where the instrument can feel heavier as you play for long periods of time. It’s also great for tenor and bari sax players in marching bands. For a smaller person like me, I think this system works great. I use it on tenor sax and  even alto if I am doubling on a gig. It fits perfectly and is very comfortable. You can find this on the Woodwind and Brasswind site by clicking on the link above.

Another new type of harness, the saXholder is made by Jazzlab. It is designed to distribute the weight across the shoulders, and it fits smaller players.  I have also used this, and it is very comfortable.  My only concern about this harness is that it if you lean forward too far (i.e. when picking up something you dropped), it will fall off your shoulders. This may be a good choice for more agile students and adults only for that reason

Other Concerns
I currently have a student who was recently diagnosed as having epilepsy. Any kind of pressure on the back of the neck could be an issue for her. A good quality harness that fits well is very important in this situation. The saXholder fits smaller people really well, and can be disassembled in one move, which for this medical condition may be crucial if the student has a seizure.  

As a teacher, it is important to be in tune with your students (no pun intended!) and check to make sure that they have the proper neck strap. If you observe their posture, and notice forward protruding shoulders, the chin being ducked to reach the mouthpiece (instead of bringing the mouthpiece to the student)  or slumping in the chair, check to see if the neck strap is padded and can adjust up or down. Listen to what the student is saying; they may outright state that it hurts to play the instrument. 

As a performer, be more aware of how you physically feel before and after you play.  Feel the back of your neck and see if there are knots (very tight muscle lumps). Notice if you experiencing headaches after you perform for extended amounts of time. Notice if your shoulder blades hurt more after you perform. 

Through careful observation, we can prevent that “pain in the neck” when we play our great instrument, the saxophone!

Donna Schwartz has been teaching Band and Jazz Band in public elementary and middle schools in New York for over 13 years, and has been teaching brass and saxophone students privately for over 26 years. She has a website at, where she offers weekly blogs on teaching music and videos for solutions to common performance problems.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Musical Life: The ZOEN Talks with Mark O'Connor

His discography spans forty years of recordings beginning in childhood. Two Grammy awards, eight Grammy Nominations. Seven CMA awards.  Hundreds of fiddle, guitar and mandolin awards. Recordings for Sony, Arista, Warner Bros., Rounder and many more.  He's recorded and performed with James Taylor, Chet Atkins, Alison Krauss, Wynton Marsalis, the Dixie Dregs, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Renee Fleming, Johnny Cash, Pinchas Zukerman, hundreds of orchestras...the list goes on. 

His numerous commissions for new compositions come from orchestras, festivals, organizations and even the Library of Congress.  In recent years, his passion for American music and the violin has engendered a new method of string pedagogy, The O'Connor Method, which is opening up minds and ears across the globe.  

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Mark O'Connor
It's the kind of career most musicians only dream of, built on years of hard work, determination and big dreams...and Mark O'Connor is living it every day.  Recent articles in Huff Post, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times highlight his diverse career.  Mark sat down with us to discuss his career, music, The O'Connor Method, and The ZOEN.  

ZOEN: Mark, you have a stellar career as a performer and composer across genres and have collaborated with innumerable great artists. Hard question I know, but would you share some highlights so far--some of your most memorable musical moments? 

MOC:  It is of course hard to narrow the highlights of my music career down to a few paragraphs! Along those lines, I am in fact authoring my autobiography over the next couple of years. It will cover many of these things in depth. As I grow a bit older, the career highlights begin to blur with how I view the important events and changes those events made along the 
way for me. How one experience led to another and each set of processes begins to take on much more of a meaningful role in how I see transition and development in my music and artistic accomplishments. There is no question that my curiosity inspired great amounts of growth for me as an artist.

After explaining to you that I can't really do justice to this question in a short space, here is a list of events that resonate to me at this point. 

  • Getting to learn how to play from Benny Thomasson and Stephane Grappelli are immeasurable to me.
  • Becoming the top session player in the country, traveling the world playing music from the 1970s on, my albums New Nashville Cats, Heroes, Appalachia Waltz, Appalachian Journey
  • Composing my orchestral works (nine concertos and now a couple of symphonies)
  • My unaccompanied solo violin tours featuring my caprices
  • My forty summer string camps I have directed, becoming a musical mentor to so many young talents
  • And most recently taking ten years to author the O'Connor Method for violin/strings/orchestra.

ZOEN: You recently premiered "The Improvised Violin Concerto" in Boston to great acclaim.  What role has improvisation played in your musicianship and career and how did this concerto come to be? 

MOC:  "The Improvised Violin Concerto" was commissioned a couple of years ago by the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras and their director Federico Cortese. The idea and concept of the piece was entirely mine. They allowed me choose what to compose for the commission, but it was absolutely inspiring knowing that 115 of the most talented young people in Boston were set to perform it with me in Boston Symphony Hall for the film! 

I had been contemplating to what extent improvisational playing could appear in an orchestral setting such as a violin concerto. I had been improvising my cadenzas in my previous concertos right from the very beginning, but to actually make improvisation a part of the ensemble sections of a composition featuring symphony orchestra was a whole different question. I had been thinking about it for quite a bit of time before actually starting to compose it. You could say that I composed the entire "idea" of the composition previous to writing any notes down, more thoroughly than any other piece I have ever worked on. I knew what it was going to be like long before there were any notes written for the orchestra for instance.

The process included forming an arc and the movements of that arc needed to be robust enough to tell a story but no overly confined to a specific style of music as to limit improvisational ideas. But I still needed a structure to make it a real composition and to provide some kind of storyboard for which extended improvisation up to 40 minutes could attach itself to. After searching out structural possibilities for the music, I decided on the "essential elements" with the addition of a mysterious 5th element "Faith" to be the finale. The orchestration needed to be more substantial in this concerto than others concertos of mine, because it had to compensate for any moment that the improvised solo violin could drop out. 

After all, to have a truly improvised violin lead, the violin should be able to disappear all together for periods of time and at any random time. So the orchestration had to withstand any section of the piece without the solo part, on its own. Or to lesser degrees, the orchestration needed to withstand most any direction that the solo violinist could produce in that moment, such as slow/fast playing, soft/loud playing, or in the case of this concerto, acoustic/electric playing with just a mere flip of a switch.

Because of my pedal board and violin bridge pickup, I have the ability to keep all the electronics off, playing completely acoustic and natural in the hall. But at my whim, I can turn on the electric pedal while I am playing and my acoustic violin becomes an electric instrument with potentially huge volume through the speaker system if desired. I can spar with the brass section at fortissimo that way. In that process, it is truly an improvised violin concerto - I can play when and how I want to at any time of the piece! There has never been another improvised violin concerto before, for 300 years of concerto composition, so this really emerges as a wholly new idea. And the best thing of all is that the musicians of the orchestra love it as well as the audience. The conductors like it to because they can conduct it as a symphony rather than following the solo around for 40 minutes! I follow the conductor in this concerto!

COMING SOON! Part II of The ZOEN's interview with Mark O'Connor. Until then, be sure to check out Mark's outstanding, information packed blog: Parting Shots from a Musician's Perspective.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The World Is Shrinking (And We're Thrilled About It)

Google just made the world a bit smaller.  Yesterday they launched Helpouts -"Real Help from Real People in Real Time."  Helpouts integrates Google products (Hangout, Calendar, Wallet, G+, eventually Glass etc.) in a marketplace for live coaching, learning, support and other expertise-sharing over webcam. It's a broad bold move that may position Google to be to the service industry what Amazon is to e-commerce.

We're excited about the Helpouts launch and how it will expose live webcam interaction for learning, self-improvement and advice to hundreds of millions of people who are still unaware of this growing trend.

A year and a half ago, The ZOEN launched our browser-based platform for live one-to-one music lessons via webcam.  We're proud of our pioneering efforts and especially of the wonderful community of teachers and students who make The ZOEN a part of their musical life.

We’d like to take this opportunity to share some interesting tidbits about The ZOEN and how we've helped introduce a growing future phenomenon.

International Interest  

While the majority of ZOEN students currently come from North America, an exciting discovery for us has been the number of international students seeking out our teachers.  We've delivered lessons to active U.S. military deployed in Afghanistan, to students from Shanghai to London, from Paris to Chennai.  The map below shows a few of the places outside the U.S. where ZOEN students have come from, some of these cities with as many as 30 students signed up: 

The Diverse ZOEN Musical Community

Students in The ZOEN range in age from 6 to 81.  They come from a variety of musical backgrounds and have one thing in common: they love The ZOEN because they’ve found a teacher who’s a great fit by having access to teachers across the nation, not just the choices in their community. The average distance between ZOEN teacher and student is about 700 miles.

We love the diversity of the ZOEN teaching community. Our wonderful teachers offer lessons on instruments ranging from popular standards like piano, guitar, voice, violin, flute to niche instruments like ocarina, taiko drum, erhu, flamenco guitar, shakuhachi, and many more.

We have Emmy and Grammy award winning composers and artists, an NBC “Most Talented Kid”, keyboardists from Madonna’s and Jim James’ bands, the trombonist from Blood Sweat and Tears and a superstar revolutionary cellist. Want a violin or viola teacher who specializes in the O'Connor Method or the Suzuki method?  We've got them.
The ZOEN also has teachers for
special-needs children .  Our voice instructors have coached John Legend, had top 10 Billboard charting hits, toured in the bands of Sheryl Crow and Eddie Money and have students regularly succeeding on American Idol, X-Factor, America’s Got Talent and The Voice.  The ZOEN teaching community hosts some of the most experienced online teaching veterans and coaches in the world!  

We’re honored by the dedication and hard work of our great teachers and students and excited about the future.  Google Helpouts is further validation that what we’ve pioneered in the last year and a half is a trend that will continue to grow. It’s all about live human interaction, sharing ideas, and learning unlimited by geographical boundaries. The world is indeed growing smaller by the minute.