The Puget Sound has a rich and diverse history in music, with notable artists in its ranks. The Ventures brought us surf music out of Tacoma. Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix changed the guitar world with searing, blues-inspired rock. Everett-born Carol Kaye shaped the sound of pop music in the ‘60s with her electric bass.
Mountlake Terrace can claim Mark O’Connor, a multi-genre composer, educator, multi-instrumentalist and violin virtuoso who added the finest bluegrass music this side of the Mississippi to the Pacific Northwest music landscape.
On Monday, Dec. 4, the City of Mountlake Terrace honored O’Connor – accompanied by his wife Maggie – for his outstanding contributions to education, music and the arts. That night, the O’Connors were featured in a performance of An Appalachian Christmas at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.
He started to learn guitar when he was 5 years old and could play flamenco at age 8; the same year, he saw Doug Kershaw play “Diggy Liddy Lo” on The Johnny Cash Show and decided to learn how to fiddle. O’Connor would get his trademark instrument, the fiddle, when he was 11.
In high school, O’Connor caught the teaching bug when he found he wasn’t getting the education he needed from the school’s music program.
“In high school, I really didn’t participate in music. There wasn’t much of a music program to begin with in the [Mountlake Terrace] school system at that point, believe it or not,” O’Connor said.
He explained that although Mountlake Terrace High School has an award-winning music program today, it was “pretty lean” when O’Connor attended. These anemic lessons would compel him to seek classes at Edmonds Community College from the music department head, Frank DeMiero, for school credit.
“He welcomed me with open arms to take music as a 10th grader at the college and then be in his music program,” O’Connor said.
However, there was opposition from the Mountlake Terrace High School principal. When O’Connor explained that he was welcome at Edmonds College, the principal laughed.
O’Connor’s mother was losing her battle with cancer at this time but still came to the school to see if something could be done. When she returned home, she described speaking to the principal as talking to a brick wall.
“He said, ‘We don’t cater to talented kids in the school,’” O’Connor explained. “‘I’m glad your son is talented, but we’re not going to do that. The rules are rules.’”
The principal explained that if O’Connor was to graduate from Mountlake Terrace High School, he needed to take the classes there.
“I was all hot under the collar about that,” he explained. “I hated the world, you know; I was going through teenage depression, and people were holding me back. But it was then I had this idea, ‘OK, well, you’re going to make me stay here musically, can I teach a class here?’”
This time, O’Connor was laughed out of the office. He spoke to his school counselor about the situation and received the advice he would carry throughout his career.
“The counselor said, ‘Don’t give up on this. Sometimes in life, there are just constant roadblocks, and you’ll have to figure out how to navigate around them,’” O’Connor said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing my entire career.”
“The music industry is fraught with holes,”O’Connor continued. “Someone will put a hole right in the pavement right in front of you. And then you have to figure out, ‘Well, do I fall down the hole, or do I move to the side and navigate and figure out a different path to get around this?’”
He finally did get to teach at Mountlake Terrace High School and worked with teachers to develop the curriculum.
“Years ago, I was living in San Diego at the time, and I got an interview request from the Mountlake Terrace Hawkeye…from a young student,” O’Connor explained. “He introduced himself [and said] ‘There’s a rumor that you went to Mountlake Terrace High School.’”
That was when O’Connor decided to write his memoir Crossing Bridges: My Journey from Child Prodigy to Fiddler Who Dared the World, to preserve that chapter of Mountlake Terrace history.
Over the last 50 years, O’Connor has won seven Country Music Association Musician of the Year awards, 11 Grammy Award nominations, three Grammys and many #1 Billboard charted albums.
O’Connor has played his music on six continents, and his The Fiddle Concerto has been performed over 250 times – the most-performed violin concerto written in the last 60 years. He has worked with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and was at the #1 position on the Billboard Classical Music Chart for almost two years.
A long time has passed since he was a young student being laughed out of the principal’s office. Tens of thousands of students use the O’Connor Method for stringed instrument students, and he and his wife co-direct the O’Connor Method String Camps in New York City and Charlotte.
But he hasn’t forgotten his Mountlake Terrace roots. And that’s why – on behalf of the Mountlake Terrace City Council – Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright on Monday presented a proclamation to O’Connor, stating the city’s pride in his success and 50-year career.
— Story and photos by Rick Sinnett