As told to Greg Cahill
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players and organizations are supporting and keeping in touch with their audiences or students throughout the global coronavirus pandemic quarantine.
This week, concert violinist, fiddler, composer, and educator Mark O’Connor, who is quarantined in Charlotte, North Carolina, has been spending his time in self-isolation doing everything from archiving video footage and rehearsing to taking solitary walks in the woods and writing his autobiography. He also hosts four Facebook pages on which to connect with other string players and string educators, but has had those attacked by hackers.
Tell me about your daily routine during quarantine.
I keep busy by working up new musical arrangements and pieces, recording them, creating some video content for them. I am doing some archiving of my many music projects, finding more audio and video that I am producing. Starting to write my autobiography is going to be a big undertaking in solidarity. I am practicing about two hours per day, rehearsing with my wife, Maggie, each day, too, in hopes of recording some more things. Working up a guitar album of solos now. Getting around to finishing a piano trio album. Found some old Strength in Numbers footage I took of us rehearsing for the album 30 years ago [editor’s note: Strength in Numbers was a 1980s bluegrass supergroup featuring O’Connor, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Edgar Meyer]. Will put something together of that. Taking a couple-mile hike in the woods every other day with not a soul around, but getting in nature is great for the soul. Staying indoors the rest of the time, getting groceries delivered and seeing all of my concerts get cancelled because of COVID for the foreseeable future.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
Despite me being a public figure as long as I can remember, I am a loner by nature. Being locked up in a sense is what I did to myself when I composed all of those concertos and symphonies for years on end. And then as a session player, I spent most of the time in isolation booths. The music, and luckily Maggie, my wife, are the constants in my day-to-day life during the stay-at-home culture of the coronavirus.
How are you staying connected with your audience during the quarantine?
I have gotten my four Facebook pages all working again everyday. . . it’s like a party. I post new music, old music, new photos and old photos, and [political] articles.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
When we were healthy, the majority of the population stayed connected on social media already, so everything is set up for it now—it is like social media was tailor-made for this pandemic.
How have you selected your internet programming?
So far I have been mostly doing videos at home, making sure they sound good, look good, and posting them. My wife and I are working toward doing ticketed streaming home concerts each week. It will take us a few more weeks to get up to speed on it. Just ordered some equipment this week for it. I want to make sure it sounds decent. For the videos I have made in quarantine, it has been a good response—like normal, I think. But we will see about the streaming home events. These are uncharted waters for me. I know that a lot of musicians jumped right onto the streaming-on-Facebook thing immediately after COVID started getting bad. I like Facebook, but the streaming concerts with bad sound and video leave a lot to be desired for me. I may not want to do it, if it is not working well. If I record a piece on video and send it out there a few hours later, that is also pretty good to do. I don’t get the immediate feedback, but I would rather have [more control over the] quality as well. I am also open to speaking and answering questions online and not make it as much about a quality music concert if I can’t get that dialed in right.
What have you learned about your audience as a result?
The biggest thing I am learning by spending more time online is that there are more international followers of the music there than I could ever perform for live on tour anyway. So developing your presence online is rewarding in those ways as well.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
Well, make sure you back up your content. Hackers got into my Facebook page just last week and left me with a cyber nightmare. They hijacked the page, assumed ownership and admin, booted off my wife as an admin, demoted me down to “analyst,” and I was able to open the page and see them dismantle everything there in real time. They deleted every single video I ever posted in ten or 12 years, five months of photos, and two years of posts. After I screamed bloody murder at Facebook techs all day long, they finally kicked off the hackers by about 1:30 AM EST. Facebook cannot retrieve any of the deleted content they say—it is not on their servers. Gone. So, these platforms are like the Wild West. We are having to rely on them even more now, and that is why that week was so traumatic. It is the only way we communicate to fans, and to the outside world. It was a gut punch. But it is nothing like catching this virus, so I quickly picked myself up, posted my first new video on my page, and posted a video of me playing Bach the next day. Started all over again.
I still retain my 63,000 “likes,” although they were siphoning those off, too. So I posting some of this old video content to a much more popular page than it was when I first posted them—my YouTube Channel, which has 25 million views and 41,000 subscribers, seems to be in good shape. But it is so hard to get new content viewed now on YouTube. The saturation is unbelievable out there. But my profile is supported by my huge hit video on there—“Devil Comes Back to Georgia” has over seven million views. I have definitely had projects that have stood out and gotten a lot of attention over the years. But just today, after three years of it being up online, YouTube took the main video from my family band’s album, Coming Home, off the air—completely removing it because I was using the track from our album. It is a music video, after all. I disputed it, asking them how they expect me to sell albums if I can’t market them with music videos. I think it is a good argument, so in 30 days I will know if I won. What a shame though, making it tougher for musicians even during the pandemic. I try to not get my feelings hurt by this stuff, but it makes you wonder.
How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the quarantine change your path?
I think this pandemic will have a lasting impact on how musicians will work in the future. We all hope that 100 percent of the population will go back to normal in 18 months or two years with 330 million Americans vaccinated. Or the world’s population vaccinated. But will that really happen, ever? There will always be an element of danger for years to come, the danger that we all experienced first-hand through friends and relatives dying. Four professional musicians that I have performed with died of COVID. I am sure that death toll will rise. I sense that social handshakes will be a thing of the past for most Americans.
Will fans have gotten used to not going to see live music in crowded clubs, theaters, or the mosh pits at rock concerts? I guess it all depends on how big a fan they are of the act, to step out and take a chance, take the health risk. But the bottom line is, we will lose a percentage of the audience permanently. Older audience members, who make up the majority of arts-concert attendance, will have gotten used to getting their music at home, I fear. Cultures and traditions change with years of altered behaviors, I believe. The professional musician’s chances to make it just got far more difficult, I am sad to say. The recording companies did the number on us ten years ago, leaving us only live concerts for income. And now this. So, whatever we can scrape together on digital platforms might be the sobering future we have.
Please note some of the above are affiliate links, meaning Strings will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!