A virtuoso drops his fiddle

A virtuoso drops his fiddle


norman lebrecht

April 09, 2014

Mark O’Connor, the American cross-genre performer, saw his fiddle fall to the ground as he was getting ready to go on stage Monday night in Sioux Falls, SD. The instrument, made for him in 2002 by Portland luthier John Cooper, suffered two dreadful cracks.

Here’s Mark’s firsthand account of the disaster:





My back was turned, as I heard it hit the ground. I swung around hoping that the violin would survive the fall as I needed to go immediately to the stage and perform my improvised violin concerto with the orchestra. The first thing I saw was the bridge down. I hoped it was simply a dislodged bridge and I could tune it up… Please, please let me just tune it up. Please, I will simply have to spend the only couple of minutes I have before I take the stage to tune it…just baby it, fuss with it. Make sure it is ready to go. As I picked the violin up off the carpeted floor in the dressing room, I cradled it as I cried out no, no… I placed it in the open case on the counter again, turning away while I sat back down in the chair, covering my eyes with my hands in disbelief of what I had caused.

The presenter was waiting for me to take the stage at that very minute. In a measured voice I informed him that I would need to borrow a violin. They paused the orchestra concert on stage already in progress, taking their intermission early while the conductor gathered up a few volunteers including the concertmaster to see about a violin I could play. After I closed my case, not letting the orchestra musicians gasp and get too stressed about seeing my violin, I tried their violins out in the dressing room for about 15 seconds each. I chose the best one quickly. It belonged to the concertmaster.

Yes, I most likely could have done anything in my career with any good instrument in the final analysis – in theory. But you get better in life by allowing people and allowing things around you to help you. You have to feel psychologically prepared. It is all about what we feel towards people, towards things, towards the instruments we play. Not how valuable the instrument is to someone else.

It is everything about human connection that causes us to be more attached to our musical instruments. The time spent with an instrument, finding every quality about the instrument and knowing how to discover those qualities at least once in a while, because you played your sound and your very soul into the body of it, into the wood. Your constant and consistent best playing made the molecules in the violin wood adjust to your sound and have it actually hum and resonate to your own musical personality, finding pure beauty at times. Maybe not every note or even every 100 notes, but once in a while it gives you exactly what you had been looking for and what you invested of yourself into it – pure magic. One of my secrets was that I never let the violin hear the worst I could play – ever.

I have to edit and pick out takes all week and mix my new album…deadline is this weekend. It is an amazing process, choosing takes. You grade yourself you know – self producing. But when you find in some of the takes, those “magic dust notes” that you only had dreamed of – you know the instrument had something to do with it. And it is pretty simple. There are about a millions notes left on the cutting room floor that only amounted to mediocre on your score card. The mediocre notes were you. The magic notes were a team effort – you and the instrument responding to you. It has been interesting to listen to the violin all day and all night long mixing the album this week immediately after I accidentally silenced it 3 days ago. Hours upon hours this week of reminding me how good it was, how good it all was.

It is not just the music though that connects you to the violin, it is everything else too that makes the instrument seem so close to you – cleaning it up and caring for it, taking it into every restaurant because nothing can happen to it, every grocery store, putting it just right in the back seat of a car or straddling it in the front seat because there is no room in back. All of the questions, thousands – “I bet you take that everywhere?” Responding yes, I don’t know what I would do without it. It is also about sleepless nights over it because the violin frustrated you because it didn’t like the new strings, or the re-hair or that you took her to dry winter weather. The countless hotel rooms where I put it in the bathroom during winter months and navigating around it in the middle of the night so I would not have to have forced air blowing on the case with it shielded inside, and maybe drying it out – just in case.

Or there are nights when you can sleep 10 hours in comfort because you did something great together – when you come off the stage and you are pacing in your dressing room because you were amp-ed up from climbing the mountain together again. When you feel those things with your violin…well it changes from an inanimate object to something you believe in, and somehow believes in you. An entity that helped you become better somehow.

The photo here is after the concert Friday night. They all said I did really well at that concert – it was a blur. Completely emotionally drained from the orchestra concerto performance, I tried to go to my highest mountain top on a violin that I didn’t know for the Improvised Violin Concerto. It seemed that a lot was on the line. The piece was hard enough before, but without all of my pedals, without the tones that I knew I could get out of it acoustically, was it possible for me to give up on my best that night? I couldn’t let that happen. After I was back in my room alone, I took the violin out of the case to look at it more completely.


  • Anonymous says:

    “Virtuoso” is generally a term reserved for those who play in tune.

    • Mikey says:

      In this particular case, “fiddle” is the correct term. O’Conner is a fiddler. He’s great at fiddle tunes, pop music, country&western, bluegrass, etc… And in that sense, I guess he’s a fiddle virtuoso.

      However, I wouldn’t suggest you purchase any recording of him playing Bach on that fiddle. It is one of the most painful experiences I have ever put my ears through.

    • G says:

      Just want to point out that it takes a brave person, like Anonymous here, to attack someone and hide behind anonymity.

  • Bcello says:

    Yikes, it’s a terrible feeling.

    I wonder why Mr O’Connor doesn’t mention how it happened ?

  • sixtus says:

    Given the recent scientific news, I wonder if top players can tell, in a double blind test, the difference between a good modern violin hitting the floor and a Strad.

  • G Limor says:

    If I was an orchestral player being asked to lend a violin to a fiddler who had just dropped and damaged his own instrument, I would most likely refuse.