Mountlake Terrace High School graduate of 1979

Mountlake Terrace High School graduate of 1979

I have been one of Seattle's favorite musical sons for decades now and my high school still does not know that I exist!

Mountlake Terrace High School graduate of 1979

It was one of those ironic moments today. The juxtaposition of two pieces of mail I received from Seattle reminded me of how far I have come in music and how I struggled so much in my youth during my school days. Out of one envelope came this huge front page article from the arts section of the Seattle Times. It revealed that they had chosen my new "American Seasons" recording as one of the top ten classical albums of the year.

The second letter was from Patrick Mar, a violinist from the Mountlake Terrace High School, the very school I graduated from in the Seattle area. "Dear Mr. O'Connor," he writes, "I'm not sure if it's just a rumor or not, but the word here is that you were a graduate of Terrace High. As I am the current school music council president, part of my job is to research the history of our school music program. If it is true that you attended Terrace, would you be willing to share some of your experiences there? Were you a member of the jazz band or orchestra (if it was in existence yet)? What year did you graduate?"

I have been one of Seattle's favorite musical sons for decades now and my high school still does not know that I exist! This is material right out of the "some things never change" category. In the 1970's, by the way, I was the only kid who played violin out of the 1200 students there! That meant no orchestra. Patrick wants me to tell him how it was. I haven't elaborated on this before but maybe it is time to do so now.

I am Mark O'Connor, violinist, composer, fiddler and Mountlake Terrace High School graduate of 1979. I will attempt to recount some of what I experienced during my time at high school in a musically desolate 1970's northern Seattle, Washington. The first thing I will tell you was that the music teacher was Mr. Kristofferson. I don't remember his first name, but I doubt he remembers my name either. At least he forgot my name when he introduced me for my performance debut in the school gym. His introduction before my peers, the  faculty, as well as my family, went something like this: Did you bring your earplugs? We could have made a killing at the door selling earplugs! Anyway, these guys come in to my music room everyday and I am not sure what they do in there. I even forgot their names! I just sign them in. So I just refer to them as the jazz trio. So here they are, the jazz trio.

Yes, it was humiliating. It's also my last memory of school. No wait, there is another. At the graduation ceremony, with my mother once again watching in the bleachers, we got to hear about the special achievements of many students as they came up to receive their diplomas, including one student's $25 coloring bee prize from a local grocery store. I kid you not. When my name was called, nothing was said. Just my name. Not one word of my own accomplishments. That is how high school ended for me. That night I told my mom that I was leaving the next day on a plane to find my music and to find a better way. I had to figure out how to begin my life again.

Within two months, I won the audition to join a national concert tour with the legendary violinist Stephane Grappelli, and I was trading violin solos with this musical giant and personal hero of mine on the stage of Carnegie Hall!

What achievements could the school have recognized at my graduation ceremony just a few months earlier? Well, they could have mentioned that I was the first high school student in the history of the Edmonds School District to teach classes and get full credit towards graduation. Yes, it is true. Somehow I convinced the district's public school board that  I should provide this music class since our music program was so bad. They allowed me to hand pick the students. It turned out that I found just two students who were qualified, a bass player and a drummer. With me on guitar, we were a trio. Was this the only achievement they could have mentioned? By the time I was a senior in high school, I had recorded six solo albums, won the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, Idaho, the youngest person ever to do so; the Grand Master Fiddling Championship in Nashville, Tennessee, the youngest champion ever; and the National Flatpick Guitar Championships in Winfield, Kansas, twice, and once again the youngest ever to win! There was more, but you get the picture.

The bad situation at school came to a head when I was in 10th grade. Frank Domero, who ran the music program at the Edmonds Community College, offered me a wonderful opportunity to join them just in time for their first international tour to Panama. How it was going to work was that Mr. Domero would arrange for me to enter college at age fifteen, and the classes I would take there could apply as high school credit for the remaining three years so I could graduate with my class. My grades and musical talent were enough to accomplish this, according to the college's administration. What a wonderful break! But just a second here. The Mountlake Terrace High School principal and his staff would have nothing of it. They told my mother, right there in the school's front office, that it was not going to happen. That day changed me forever. Ever since then, I have had an utter distaste for the nonsensical rules of the entrenched, and a fiery desire to plead another approach. Just look at my musical career and you can understand why it has unfolded the way it has!

A couple of months later, I had a chance to go to Chicago for a week to play a few concerts and take a couple of lessons from a music legend, mandolin player Jethro Burns of Homer and Jethro fame. Once again, my mother came in to the front office to beg and plead for me to be excused, to no avail. The high school officials told my mother that while they were happy for her that she had a talented son, they didn't really care about any activities of mine outside of school. They said that they didn't cater to talented kids at this school. They exclaimed that their primary objective was keeping kids off the street! No special exceptions, and if I did take the week-long trip, they would flunk me for the semester.

My parents were poor and could not consider the possibility of private school. And my musical style was unique to say the least, and without careful nurturing, simply would just fall through the cracks inside of most academic establishments. So scholarships or admittance's in to special schools for talented kids would have been difficult to imagine for me back then. Today, there may
be a more liberal climate for allowing students who are not a part of the mainstream academic ciricula in to scholarship programs, although I am sure it would still be difficult for someone like myself today. In addition to these circumstances, my father was an alcoholic who did not know how to care for himself, let alone me, and my mother was on her sick bed in our living room slowly dying of cancer all during my high school years. She eventually succumbed when I was twenty years old. It was a miraculous fight she gave in order to stay alive that long, considering her condition.

I will tell you briefly about my childhood home life in order for you to better understand how I might not have been able to assimilate aspects of school life.  I was an extremely shy kid, although I had an inner desire to succeed. My mother said as a two, three and four year old, I was perfectly content to sit in one place and play with a stick or a rock for hours at time. She said I would study them. My mother and dad were ballroom dance teachers but fell on bad times when I was born in 1961. For years our furniture consisted of folding lawn chairs. My parents did not sleep on box springs, but rather actual boxes -- cardboard boxes on roller bearings. And they held up pretty well -- I still have family things packed away inside some of them to this day!

The house that we finally worked our way into, and where I finished my high school years, was in an old government project in northern Seattle. The entire house was less than 400 sq. feet. It was a colorful neighborhood, and a dangerous one too. There were drug dealers out our back door and, directly across the street, a mother and her oldest teenage daughter were selling themselves, conducting a home grown prostitution business right there in the house. I played with the younger two daughters. Watching the men come and go from our bedroom window was a form of light entertainment for mom, my sister and me.

The neighborhood could easily be called a slum. The older kids on one side of us would "sic" their killer dog on my pet Shetland sheep dog, Frisky, while in our yard. The image of my dog being flung around by the neck and them laughing over the fence left a last impression on me. They killed a few of our pet cats with that dog over the years, all very much on purpose. The other kids on the corner actually cut one of our cats in half with a saw. We saw it take place through the holes in the fence. It was horrifying -- we were so scared. Some neighbors had guns and flung them around in their back yards. If we were caught looking over the backyard fence at them, those guns would be swung around and pointed right at us. My dad was not around for any of this. He didn't concern himself with this stuff. But he did forbid us to call the cops, ever. Actually, in this he was right. You would not want to call cops in this neighborhood. There would be neighborly hell to pay!

Through all of this, I became very good at running. To a scared boy, there was no feeling quite like having your legs under you and flying down that street to sweet freedom. That is how I survived in the neighborhood. There was the time where my dad threatened my mom, so I stood up to him, and then he grabbed a kitchen chair and came after me. I bolted out the front door and there he was chasing me down the street carrying that chair above his head! Running was a major means of survival for me. I literally ran home from school every day for years to avoid kids wanting to beat me up. I was a target because kids knew I played music and that I was written up in the local newspapers. They must have been jealous, I suppose, but I did not understand the intensity of it back then. For a few years, I even had to run to school in the morning to avoid conflict! For the longest time, this kid would sit at the top of the hill waiting for me. My mother would watch me from the front door to make sure I made it all the way to the top of the hill, but once at the crest, I was on my own. I ran and ran hard. The final bell at the end of the school day signaled me to race through the classroom door and run like the dickens to get home. It was either that or face the older kids' switchblades. I was pretty much a chicken I suppose but I did stay and fight three or four times. I actually came out OK on those particular scuffles, and those kids treated me better for a few years afterwards, but this kind of thing went on and on. It seemed everybody was a bully. One time these two kids had a bare fist fight in the back of the school and it must have been pre-arranged because the two dads came to watch! One thing led to another and then the two dads started fist fighting. It was ridiculous and sad. I wanted out of this neighborhood and I wanted out of this school and this life.

Back at home it was a different kind of responsibility. Here I was at age fourteen running from threatening kids one minute, and then the next coming through the front door, expected to be surrogate parent and spouse. I was relied upon to do many things. Because my dad did not care about things like groceries and my mother was too sick with cancer and nervous breakdowns to drive most of the time, I had to start driving under age illegally. My instructions included driving my younger sister to her ballet lessons down in Seattle and getting the groceries at the supermarket. I never got caught.

The lack of support from the high school faculty was not exactly what I needed during those times. I decided to fight back in my own way against the establishment and those who held me back. I began by refusing to participate in any musical classes or programs they offered. I was to play at no performances, no spring concerts. That's right, the most famous musician ever to come out of their school district was not involved in anything musical at school. Most notable was the fact that I was so visible in the greater community, performing in Seattle area concerts often. Then, as I senior, I made them a deal and offered to hold a music course by my own design. For that I would perform at the school.

In my senior year, after winning the position of student/teacher from the Edmonds School District board, and playing two assemblies before the student body (one of my requirements for this special privilege), there was nothing about any of this in the senior year book. After making it all the way to my senior year through all of this mess,  being left out of the year book was yet another blow. It was as if my struggles to achieve something were just stripped away. I had the feeling of being erased.

I have some passionate feelings about my school years, and the troubles really didn't end with me. My younger sister by four years paid an interesting price. Mr. Kristofferson took his dislike for me out on her and treated her poorly in her choir classes. She remembers the day he asked her if she was a sibling of mine. Confirming this, he made life difficult for her in that choir room. It is a little difficult in this entire story to tell which people were the children and which ones were the adults! Truly a pathetic situation for young people with great potential, stuck in a place where dreams were being squelched every single day. As it turned out, neither my sister nor I attended college out of high school. Evidently it was difficult for many of us to find any inspiration to want to do so. I think the percentage of students attending college from Terrace High was extremely dismal. After my sister drifted around for about six years doing odd jobs in several states, she finally was able to figure out what was possible for her. She went to UCLA and graduated at the top of her class in molecular biology! She was one of three chosen to give a valedictorian speech at this prestigious school. Terrace High may have thought she was one of the many throw-aways like myself, but she was no dummy. And the rest of our class was not taken any more seriously. It was clear to me that the Terrace High supervisors' statements rang loud and true. They saw their primary job as keeping kids off the streets, and I think they did most of us a great disservice with their factory approach of pushing us through the system.

Some of the Class of '79 escaped to realize our potential eventually. Meanwhile, some of the underachievers we left behind in Terrace tried to burn down the school. Arson! At some point the whole school was leveled and then rebuilt. But this time it was better. Much better, evidently. It is both strange and beautiful that the Mountlake Terrace High School now has not only achieved a lofty status in both academics and music education in recent years. It was rated among the highest in the nation and even cited by Congress for these achievements. What a comeback! This is a success story which is hard to fathom. Music is a big story at Terrace High these days, winning state-wide awards and national recognition.

For some reason, even though my struggles at Mountlake Terrace High are so far removed from the good things that currently take place there, I feel that my fights against that establishment in the 1970's must have made a difference. Maybe all of these years later, my legacy in Mountlake Terrace is that a student who to most people is an outsider can make a contribution to a school in his or her own unique way, and have an impact. My contributions may not be acknowledged on the school wall plaques or on the Glee Club trophy shelves, but my presence there just may have laid the groundwork for a re-energized school that was willing to take chances in order to bring changes that were badly needed. For instance, I may have paved the way for students to be able to carry violin cases around the campus with out fear of actually getting beaten up!

I forgot to tell you. For being a "sissy violin player," I did eventually get worked over in the recreation room by a group of older students. After trying to run from them and eventually being cornered, I was punched in the stomach until I fell to the ground, where I had to withstand strong repeated kicks to my body. Finally I was left there alone, but could not stand up. The diagnosis later revealed that the muscles in my right leg were badly damaged. After wearing a cast for two months, the doctor said I was lucky to have use of my leg at all. I still have the large protrusion below my knee to remind me of my beating.

In another interesting twist of fate, a couple of years later when I was a senior, some of these same kids often hung around the school . By this time they were high school drop-outs with nowhere else to go and nothing to do but bum around the old school grounds. Sometimes they hung out in the doorway of the music class I taught. And many times they would come in and sit along the wall enjoying the music we were making. I never had the heart to tell them what damage they had done to me. It was obvious they had no memory of it. This served to add yet another layer of experience which I channel into my creativity and my ability to communicate an inner musical soul.

I may have finally proved to Terrace that music class is cool, whether I get any credit for it or not. My legacy, which may just linger somehow, is probably still dancing through those school hallways, and from where I sit now, I certainly hope and wish wholeheartedly that it will keep going. I would not want other kids to face this kind of adversity in order to be educated, and I could not imagine nor would I stand for either of my two boys to experience 10% of what I endured at school. This is why I have decided to tell this story now.

However, I don't want people  to take this story simply as a painful recounting of my past, but rather an inspiring story of how both the school and I separately have succeeded in overcoming great odds. When you listen to my music today and hear that nimble fingered passionate drive, just imagine that boy running to find sweet freedom every day. This is really a story about the plight of a school, a family and a child, all products of the sometimes deceptive image of tranquil and progressive suburban America. In the course of time,  we have all changed for the better … because we had to.

Mark O'Connor 12/15/01
Edited by Cynthia Elliott


Various responses from Mark's article, High School Graduate of '79:

I am thrilled you visited your high school. Like the ol' line says..."don't
get above your rasin'"...or something like that.  I am amazed of your
continued growth as an artist/player/composer. Keep life in balance. Inspire
others as others have inspired you. I gotta get that CD of your - the tribute
to Stephan G.




I had NO IDEA!!

No one from Rounder ever visited your home.   I thoughtlessly assumed your family lived a solid upper middle class
existence.   Marty was a very impressive mom, for sure, and she was strong in all her dealings with us at Rounder.   What
an advocate.  To think you'd done all these albums for Rounder and at the same time the school authorities (not to
mention bullies in the school) were going out of their way to frustrate your ambitions.

Congratulations to both you and your mother for somehow keeping your heads above water and triumphing.   You
deserve to take some pride in keeping it all together in the midst of all this adversity.



Dear Mark,

Educators in all fields at grade school level in the 1970's, in my opinion, were generally asleep at the
switch.  I, too, graduated from high school in 1979.  Last year, the current principal of that same school
sent me a shocking letter, asking me who I was, since upon graduation, he'd heard I'd won a number
of school-funded academic scholarships to attend conservatory. He had also heard  a "rumor" that I
was an alumna, 22 year after this school allocated enormous funds for these awards, plus the extra
staff to shuttle me around the eastern seaboard for the various scholastic music competitions during
my school years.  No permanent records on faculty, students or programs existed further back than
  1. I also found it ridiculous.

Writer on music
Classical annotation


Mark, this is a truly remarkable story and what a tribute to your
extraordinary inner strength, determination and artistic calling. It
reminds me of Frank McCourt's  Angela's Ashes,  triumphing against all
odds. Thanks for sharing it with us -- I see a book here....




Thanks for sharing this letter.I trust that it is ok to pass this along to some
music educators I know.

Hope all is well and I have enjoyed receiving
your email.




Hi Mark;

Glad to hear you're getting so many interesting and interested replies to your letter.  I really enjoyed it too. ( I think I sent
a short response when you sent it out initially)  I remember when I was maybe 18, at an O'Connor Reunion--your father
was there (I remember what a smooth dancer he was), and my mom made short off hand remark about how things had
not always gone so well for him.  It was one of those strange remarks that our parents make that we as children don't
quite get, but know that there's a lot behind it.  Reading your letter really fleshed out that memory in my mind, to say the
least.  I think I'll send it on to a few people myself.

Well, take care.

Cousin Bill


thanks, Mark.  I'm using some of this in my column in the newspaper this week.  An incredible story of an incredible
human being.  You're the best.


Hi Mark,

That is a fantastic story!  It - besides being true - has so many elements that reflect on the life we live.  It should be
required reading for anyone wanting to be a teacher, principal, or other official in our public schools!

Thanks for sharing it.




This is such a remarkable story, and your ability to overcome those circumstances through both talent and drive deserves to
be shared more widely. If you don't mind I'd like to share it with a fiddling friend of mine, Paul Brown. His day job is now with my old alma mater, NPR. May I?

senior producer
Murray Street Productions

PS That is the same NPR which, in the way of such institutions, has on its walls the Headliner and Peabody Awards our
programs won (while you were fighting through Mountlake Terrace, and winning at Winfield) but none of our names with



Thank-you for sharing your story.  I had a pretty rough childhood which, compared to your horrors,
was sheer luxury.  Congratulations to you and your sister for rising above.  Clearly, your mother gave
you both an inner core that was strong and vital.  Did you ever answer the lad's letter from your old
school?  What could you say?  Rachel Barton was just here--she played your caprice no. 6 on air
(awesome), and talked about teaching at your fiddle camp.  She, like you, embodies all that is good
in musicians.  Bless you.



Dear Mark,

I had simply no idea.  If you want--but only if you want--I will compare
notes with you.  I think people with backgrounds like yours--no
others--would be my best helpers.

As always,


I'm making sure MY two sons read this.What an inspiration!
thanks  Scott


Russell, Thanks for sharing this.  What a remarkable story.


Dear Mark,

Thanks so much for sending along this story.  I had a brief flash that we could craft a radio essay out of it.  But it might be
too much to fit into too small a space!  Let me chew on that for a while.  What I'm really curious about now is how you got
started on the fiddle in the first place.

NPR Editor


Dear Mark,
What a story of determination!
I never knew things were so harsh for you as a child, you possess some real guts and
I have an even deeper respect for you and your accomplishments.
I hope you and your family are well.
Take Care


Loved the letters you recieved from Mlt student body, and others that had read your young growing up years  and all the crap you had to endure. I hope Kristoferson understands he was an ass, and royally screwed up. In retrospect, i hope he and others get a chance to to read this account , and not make these mistakes with other prospective gifted people. In other words, learn from their past,and change future directions. With adversity you have proved that one can pull inner strengh,and push forward with determination , in so doing, it makes you an incredible role model for others that have or are in similar brick wall situations.

Dick, and Bobbi.


Mark. What a sad but beautiful story. Truly, you are an inspiration. I look
forward to playing with you again. What do you think about doing a Middle
Eastern flavored album together this summer sometime? ....Peace and

Hi, Mark -
Wow, your High School recollections are amazing.  I can't help but think that those experiencesare truly the marrow that created the man you are today.  It must give you tremendous pleasure andcontentment to realize what you have achieved in your life so far- spiritually and materially - since you have clearly earned every bit of it yourself.  Once again, I'm gratified to have you in my life.
Jerry Slavet passed on to me your inspiring story about growing up as a young musician along with your permission to
reproduce it. I wanted to let you know that I've posted it on From the Top's website with a credit to your website at the
close of the story. We did need to very slightly edit it for our audience (see text below). Thank you so much for sharing
your story with us.
•Joanne   Editor/Content Manager

Hi Mark,

I read this story a couple of times, and  showed it to my husband and 13 year old daughter.

Very intense, to say in the least.  Thank you for being brave enough to share your story and your passion for music with
the world.  For whatever reason the past was, your music is an example of what positive can be created from depths
of darkness, and of how much better this world can be because of it.




Dear Mark,

I'm sure you've heard this a million times already, but thank you for
sharing this incredibly compelling story.  I attended your San Diego camp
for the first time last summer and was so impressed with your sincerity,
generousity, and approachable-ness.  It is even more meaningful to find out
where some of that comes from.

I work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and put together fundraising events
that benefit Music Matters, our children's music education programs. I've
passed your story on to our Education Director, who is directly responsible
for these programs that reach over 85,000 children, parents, and educators
throughout Los Angeles each year.  I know it will be another affirmation as
to why this work is so important.

On another note, I wanted to tell you that a few weeks ago Yo-Yo Ma
performed (with John Williams) at a small dinner for us.  I'm obviously a
big fan, so I said hello and told him I went to your camp.  He immediately
started beaming (even more than normal) and gave me a big hug! It was such
a sweet moment and a great example of the contagious spirit that I believe
is passed on through your music.

Thank you again.  I'm looking forward to seeing you next August.



Pat/Mark;  This story is the makings of a movie.



Amazing story. I, too, was labeled as a cigar box or squeak box player by
other students in junior high, but I gave in & pursued another route. I
think I understand  somewhat how difficult if was for you. However, from it all I
still have a deep appreciation of violin music - nobody can take that away
from me.
          Sincerely, Evelyn


Dear Mark:
Thank you. Thank you.  I was damn near in tears reading about your high
school years. I thought I had it bad raised in a tough, inner-city Philly
'hood. Thankfully, I had two beautiful Irish emmigrant parents who provided
me a more worldly perspective than the people I grew up with. I literally
grew up within two culture...Irish and American. But back to you. I had no
idea about your childhood. To think that you had such a will to discover is
amazing beyond believe. For you, it was music. For many, others, it's
still a dream. Mark, you must, and I insist, you must document this experience
on film or video. I know it may sound morbid to some extend - you being only 42,
but you need to simple tell this same story, word for word, on camera, for
posterity. If you would like, I would be happy to work with Ellen Pryor to document
this piece to tape. I want to see it happen...if for no other reason than to just simple show to
kids in inner city schools through the U.S. I am currently working on a
number of projects for Nashville Public Television. I want to discuss this
concept with you next time you are in town.
It is terribly inspiring and too important to just be a letter to a local
newspaper or for friends via an e-mail. Not only do you have a musical gift
to share with the world, you have a wonderful, inspiring story to tell. I'm
sure you are getting a tremendous response to your thoughts/experience as a
child. Do keep me in mind about this if you want to go beyond this e-mail
medium...and tell the story to the world. I am going to forward your e-mail
to others and make copies for my four children and my wife.
Thank you so much for writing this. You gave me a glimpse into the soul of
Mark O'Connor. Now I know more than ever, why you are the brilliant
artist/composer that you are.



Thank you very much. I found the edited version on your website. Excellent.
Again, I had no idea what your high school years were like. I admire your
tenacity in the face of so much discouragement and sadness.


I just finished reading your account of your high school days here at
Mountlake Terrace H.S. I've known most of this story for most of my life.
You refer to "Mr. Domero" who is actually my father, Frank DeMiero. I even
remember you coming over to our house to work with my dad on a few
occasions. You were somebody I really looked up to musically and physically
you were much taller even though you were only a year older! The fact
that you could ride a skateboard was pretty cool, too. I also remember an
impromptu performance you gave at our summer jazz camp that literally blew
everybody away. Unreal.
I can't tell you how much it pained my father to know how poorly you were
treated at MTHS. He was the former music teacher at MTHS and left to found
the music program at Edmonds Community College. He later moved back to the
Edmonds School District where he oversaw of all music in the district for
about 13 years. My how times have changed. Yes, MTHS and many of the other
district schools have incredible music programs. We have several other
internationally recognized programs, too.
But we're not without our flaws.
One of those flaws is that we don't do a great job of acknowledging our
alumni and retired staff. As the journalism teacher and Hawkeye newspaper
adviser for 13 years, I can assure you that on numerous occasions I have had
feature writers and entertainment reporters try to contact you so that you
could be appropriately recognized in your own alma mater. For what ever
reason, that communication hasn't been successful. Maybe now is the time.
Maybe now would be a great time to put a different picture in place as to
how you envision your old school. Maybe I can help facilitate that. I can
tell you this - it would be an honor and long overdue.
Can we perhaps at least begin a conversation about reuniting you with your
high school? I know this: I don't ever want another situation like yours to
occur, and I also don't want any student graduating from this school without
knowing that it has some incredible graduates among its alumni.
I look forward to hearing from you and I continue to enjoy all that you
contribute to the world of music.
Most sincerely,


Vincent F. DeMiero
JEA Scholastic Press Rights Commission Board Member
WJEA Board Member
Mountlake Terrace H.S.
Mountlake Terrace, WA

"Our job - as educators - is not to make up anybody's mind, but to open
minds and to make the agony of decision so intense that you can escape only
by thinking." ~ Fred Friendly, CBS



What a sad article, but at the same time it's probably all these
barriers, weights and hurt that drove you on.  Your music is loaded with
emotion - now I know from whence it came.  I hope other young people
read this article, as well, for it might help them put their own
negative experiences in perspective.  And I likewise hope that older
adults read it, especially those in positions of authority/influence
over our youth.  What an insensitive world we live in - but the
salvation is the occasional "sensitive giant" such as yourself!




Hey Mark! What a story! It is even more touching when one knows you and can see what kind of man/musician/mentor you have become, you know I am a HUGE admiror and fan!! I am so proud to be part of your work through the fiddle camp, it is something to special and dear to my heart.

Best regards,


I read your story. I liked it.
That is why you can talk to people because of your up bringing.
It is also nice to know that some people can tell their story without having to lie about it.


Hi Mark,

I was really touched to read your article about growing up - it was really inspiring and heartbreaking I have to say.
Bravo to you for sharing the hard realities of your childhood and for breaking the cycle from which so many of us do
not feel is in our power to do so.

All the best



Hi Mark,

First, what an incredible story about your childhood.
Amazing.  If more people only knew.



Hello Mark,

    Greetings from your biggest fan in the Baltimore Symphony fiddle
section! I hope life is treating you well. I enjoyed reading the article
on you in high school that you sent around in an e-mail. I had no idea
you were so overlooked in high school. All I heard was "at a very young
age, Mark was winning this fiddle competition and that fiddle
competition", that I figured you must have been at least part of the
"cool crowd" of musicians in school. Funny thing, a lot of my colleagues
have similar stories about being almost forced to use music as an escape
mechanism from a bad family or life situation when they were teenagers.
Like it was almost a common thread running through everyone's life. Weird...

All the best,

Ellen Pendleton Troyer

P.S. Your "Appalachia Waltz" and "College Hornpipe" were big hits on a
recent chamber music series here. The audience loved seeing the name
O'Connor alongside Brahms, Schumann, and Mozart!



Thank you for posting your story about your high school experience on
your web site. I had known you had a somewhat difficult time of it, but
I never realized how rough it really was! Now I think I understand why
my wife and I felt such a connection with your music from the time we
first heard it. Experiences like yours in high school become part of who
a person is, and I think those elements touched upon our own somewhat
rough backgrounds....:)

I also want to say thank you because it has helped my wife a lot to read
that. Her background was truly hard, and horrible, and sometimes she
gets the feeling like she is never going to be able to transcend what
happened to her and get on with her own path; your letter showed that
that is possible, and has been inspirational to her.

Finally, if you are still thinking about doing the requiem for 9/11, you
also might want to look at Surrender the Sword as a basis for
inspiration. That piece, with its feelings of both hope and fear and
anxiety, seems to reflect upon those days of 9/11 and beyond for me. I
do hope you decide/decided to take the commission for that!

Bill Defilippis

P.S I admire the fact that you don't seem bitter at your old school or
that idiot of a music teacher. Me, if I had become a successful musician
I would have gotten in that moron's face and rubbed it in as much as I
could and I can admire you for not bearing a grudge, then.


Terrible and sad story but not at all surprising as I have always believed all greatness has risen from that very kind
of harsh environment.

Reading about his school days reminded me of a John Lennon interview I read many years ago but
that I've never forgotten. He was SOOOO angry and bitter about how his school treated him, so
much so that it was a little off putting at the time.  but after some thought I understood.  He said (not
a direct quote) " I knew I was special.  That I had artistic potential. Why didn't they see that in me?
Why didn't they try to cultivate it and help it grow?  Why didn't they care?"

Don't you see a little of his story in your own story?  I don't know of any true artists that have not
gone through something similiar.  It's sad that more often than not tragedy must be the precursor to
success, but then again, maybe that's just the way it is.

Grant Wheeler


I read your story and it put me to tears. Thank you for being who you are and for never giving up. God Bless
you and your family.

Josie Smith


Why do I feel silly writing to you? I really just feel compelled, as I
literally stumbled across your web-site this evening ( long story ) and
have been reading your fan mail online this evening. I see folks keep
referring to your "story" about MLT High. I didn't read the story, but
feel I can guess at it's contents. I know you probably don't remember
me, as I did not go to MLT High. I did go to MLT Junior high, and I was
in your class. I too ended up "getting out" ( as it did feel that way
back then ) and transferring toWoodway High, starting fresh, with my two
best friends at the time.

I do also have some stories about those days in MLT-and remember being
ashamed to tell people I grew up there. Even to this day I tell people I
grew up, or went to high school in Edmonds...even though I truly lived
in MLT from age 2 until 18. ( And I live in Colorado now...nobody know
the difference here).

I too have a lot of painful memories regarding my upbringing until I
transferred to Woodway. I remember being overly sensitive to everything
and hanging onto (what I used to think of as out with) the "cool girls"
•just to avoid there cruel remarks and insipid ways. The same girls who
assaulted me with malicious remarks and over four years of verbal
abuse-because I was afraid to fight back...the girl version of beatings.
I made "friends" with them, as I felt I could avoid the cruelty as an
insider. (It didn't work-they were still cruel). I still feel sick to my
stomach when I think of them. Thankfully, I had art, drama and music
teachers that made me feel appreciated (remember Ms. Lucker?). I admire
that you stuck to your guns-and of course, look at you now!
I remember the talent shows and your playing fiddle, and those same
cruel, insecure, jealous girls feeling the compunction to poke fun at
the "uncool" music.

I realize now that my insecurities, that were due to my upbringing, were
not far from any of their's. I'm not sure what it was about that area, I
just think somehow it attracted a lot of uneducated and insecure,
unhealthy people who didn't know how to treat their children. My own
alcoholic, abusive step-father certainly had no clue. I realize now that
most of those other children were most likely the products of the
similar dysfunctional upbringings, and either chose fight or flight as
escape. ( Becoming shy and hiding, or lashing out at those of us who
were shy and sensitive and hiding ).

Through a lot hard work, forgiveness, and insightful, self actualization
courses, I now realize that I was not a victim of those people, but
rather a frustration to them, as I chose to take the road less violent,
and stand by my conscience. It mirrored their cruelty and anger in a way
they did not like to see, and made them lash out at me more. At one
point I remember saying to myself,  "I'll show you-I'll become famous
one day!". Well, I did not. But, I am working as a commercial artist
(that which I love) and have a happy marriage, and have learned how to
have valuable, endearing friendships. I have learned how not to blame
myself, or hate myself, or hate them either. I don't even feel pity for
them-but maybe empathy and forgiveness of their own human frailty. To
not act as a victim of those times gives me the power to reinterpret the
past, and see it in whole new light. To re-write my story and see not
just what valuable lessons I learned, but also to see where I had a
responsibility in those circumstances-and avoid the same mistakes.

I do want to congratulate you on your success. I've seen your name
around, and caught you accepting awards on the Country Music Awards-so
I've been aware of your career. I'm  congratulating you not just in
achieving your fame. I'm mostly congratulating you in achieving making a
living at doing what you love. And, in achieving in being an inspiration
for so many.

Take care,
Tammy Marquez Reniche


I will tell you about something ELSE that you wrote recently that
TRUELY touched me* - it was the story of your childhood and
HS years. WHAT A SURPRISE!?!?! This is NOT the image of
Mark O'Connor today! But it IS a story that is upsetting similar
to so many musicians ... and even of  myself and many of the best
kids that I have taught! I had to stop reading several times to clear
the tears from my eyes and I have sent it on to many of my musician

You went so public with this (frankly you can afford to now. In a
way it only enhanced your present image!). Would you be willing
to go a little MORE public and allow me to reorganize this story
for you (I am a littlel more detached from the scene....Or, perhaps
you would rather rewrite it yourself, or have someone do it, or
publish it just as it is?!?!? ANY of these alternatives would be
WONDErFUL!) to be published somewhere that young boys
(and girls) who have the passion to play a string instrument could
read it? I  think it would  be SUCH an inspiration to them!

Thank you for even considering this.

STRINGcerely, Jan Farrar-Royce



      Thanks for the email. Since corresponding with you last, I went out again to your website and read your "letter" regarding your experiences growing up in Mountlake Terrace and at the high school. Your story is truly incredible. I was not surprised to read of your good words about Frank DiMiero, who has been a positive presence in the musical life of the community and the high school now for many years (his influence obviously did not extend as deeply to the high school when you were there). I believe that he, as much as any one individual, is responsible for the state of music at Mountlake Terrace today, and in the school district as a whole.

      Approximately one in every five kids at the high school today are involved in music of some sort, from instrumental and vocal jazz, to orchestra, wind ensemble, and chamber choir. The school also has a strong drama department and journalism program in both the print media and broadcast media. It is as much a school for the "arts" as any in the Edmonds School District, perhaps as any in the State. I know all this is probably bittersweet knowledge for you - you were just there 20 years too early. But, you can be proud of your almer mater, even if it was not proud of you when you attended school there.

      I want to tell you a bit more about Darin Faul, Music Director at the High School and Director of Bands. Darin is 29 years old and is in his 5th year at the school, having stepped in to a program that was already well-established and award-winning when he arrived. He came in at a moment of crisis in the Jazz program, with the abrupt departure of the then Band Director. Darin has successfully built upon and increased the success of the music program as a whole, and the Jazz Ensembles in particular, inviting local and national guest artists in to play with Jazz Ensemble I, and further establishing roots within the smaller and larger jazz communities.

      Mark, I want to talk to you just a moment not about the award-winnning Jazz Ensembles I and II, nor about the Wind Ensemble's upcoming tour of Hawaii. As much as any group, Jazz Ensemble III speaks to the musical climate that Darin is trying to engender at the school, and the depth of the program he is trying to build.

      At last night's Jazz Night 4 performance, it was Jazz Ensemble III that truly inspired me. Their performance was outstanding. This group of kids who wanted to play in an ensemble, but were not able at the time to qualify by audition for the first two groups (Jazz III is not an "audition" group), has been an off and on fixture at the school for a decade or so (maybe more off than on). Darin revived the group about 3 or 4 years ago, first as an after school (extra-curricular type) activity. My understanding is that he fought for funding to include the class in the regular school day, and this year that is the case. Mark, if you follow professional baseball at all, this would be the equivalent of a B level farm team for the instrumental jazz program.  I'm sure the kids bring various motivations for joining, but for the most part it takes a love of music and a willingness to work at improving their musical skills, in hopes of maybe getting to the "big leagues" one day.

      What the kids see is a hugely successful program, and the opportunity to work hard and move into one of the next higher groups. They are offered hope and opportunity.

      Mountlake Terrace High School is in many ways still a school drawing from a population that may have more than its fair share of troubled kids from troubled families, of folks just down on their luck, of kids who need high school to be a positive and perhaps life-changing experience for them. The music program can and does offer such experiences to over one fifth of the school population today.

     Again, the overall arts program at the school is thriving today. I know you will be glad to know there will be no more young Mark O'Connors slipping through the cracks.




thought I would let you know, I don't worry about the past. I had 4 older brothers.
they had a saying. they beat me because they loved me.
I guess that's why we're different. and my dad liked my older brothers. my brother Harold said you two were good buddies. He liked to get drunk with his friends in the parking lot of Terrace High.
ever try telling your dad that he listened to a bunch of liars because it beat putting out effort to do something.
Myself, i gave up on my family.
but if I did have one wish, it would be to wake my dad up to the fact that he supported a bunch of free loaders and screwed his only son that tried.
could have been easier not having known you or you being from our neighborhood. expectations would have been lower.



updated 3 years ago