“If someone would have told 12-year-old me that I would someday play a fiddle tune for Mark O’Connor, I would not have believed it.”

Julia Villegas, a Virginia Tech junior majoring in music education, recently participated in a virtual master class with Grammy-winning music icon Mark O’Connor and his performing partner and wife, fellow Grammy winner Maggie O’Connor. Villegas and another Virginia Tech student musician performed on Zoom for the O’Connors, who provided real-time feedback and advice.

“I adore playing fiddle tunes and it was a dream playing fiddle music for Mark O’Connor,” Villegas said. Growing up in Covington, Virginia, she was a member of the Alleghany Mountain String Project and learned to play the fiddle with the O’Connor Method, a string instrument technique developed by O’Connor.

One of the most celebrated fiddle players in the world, O’Connor has released 45 feature album releases to date; won three Grammys and seven Country Music Association Awards; appeared on 450 albums; and collaborated with the likes of Johnny Cash, Wynton Marsalis, John Williams, Dolly Parton, and Yo-Yo Ma.

Villegas received individualized instruction from Mark and his wife Maggie, performing the O’Connor Method piece “Liberty” as her friends and family watched via a livestream.  

“I was extremely nervous because I learned how to play the violin from his method,” she said. “I learned a lot of neat concepts and how to really create a fun, dance feeling in my fiddle music. Most importantly, I learned that I am capable of having a lot of fun performing even when I’m nervous. When it was time for me to perform, I had to just let go of the fear and enjoy playing what I love most—fiddle music.” 

Villegas plans to be a music teacher after she graduates and would love to work for a string project collective like the one she belonged to as a young student.

“This was a surreal experience and I will cherish it the rest of my life,” Villegas said of her master class experience.

The Moss Arts Center is dedicated to giving every Virginia Tech student access to creative experiences that can transform the way they see the world and the people in it. Since its opening, the center has connected thousands of Virginia Tech students with professional artists, giving them access to arts-related experiential learning activities both inside and outside the classroom. 

Meeting the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, this fall the center created its “HomeStage” series, a curated collection of virtual performances and events that included engagement opportunities offered exclusively to Virginia Tech students. 

“HomeStage” series performers have connected virtually with students, detailing their experiences and expertise; providing guidance and feedback; reflecting on history, politics, and current events; and sharing their fears, hopes, and sources of inspiration.

From a discussion with Bowen Yang, the first Asian American featured player on “Saturday Night Live,” to virtual class visits with concert pianist Gabriela Montero live from her studio in Barcelona, Spain, Virginia Tech students from a range of disciplines have the opportunity to engage with diverse perspectives and learn more about the creative process.

Leyla McCalla: The healing power of the arts

Students experienced the power of artistic expression firsthand during a virtual session with singer and musician Leyla McCalla.  McCalla met with students from three classes—Women and Creativity; Introduction to African-American Students; and Race, Class, Gender, and Sexualities—in two virtual sessions, where she discussed her life and career experiences and sources of inspiration. It was a current event that spurred the most poignant moments, however.

The musician and the students were collectively processing the grand jury indictment in the Breonna Taylor shooting case, which was delivered the night before their session. Live from her home in New Orleans, McCalla performed “Song for a Dark Girl,” which is based on a poem of the same name written by Langston Hughes in 1927, noting how applicable the work’s themes are to current events.

“Song for a Dark Girl” by Langston Hughes

Way Down South in Dixie

(Break the heart of me)

They hung my black young lover

To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie

(Bruised body high in air)

I asked the white Lord Jesus

What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie

(Break the heart of me)

Love is a naked shadow

On a gnarled and naked tree.

McCalla and student participants shared their overwhelming frustrations and feelings of sadness and restlessness, but agreed that art allows for the exploration of feelings, finding perspective, and healing in the face of injustices.

DeLanna Studi: Storytelling in Native cultures

Cherokee actor, writer, and activist DeLanna Studi met virtually with a group of Native students and three classes—Global Feminisms, Language and Ethnicity in the U.S., and Introduction to Acting, Collaborative Techniques. Studi detailed the development of her one-woman show “And So We Walked,” which recounts her incredible 900-mile trek along the Trail of Tears as she traced the path of her ancestors. Describing her creative process, she revealed some surprising discoveries she made about her own family, punctuated with stories from her journey.

With particular student interest in the storytelling traditions of Native cultures, Studi explained how it not only helps her communicate important points to her audiences, but is used to preserve history and explore uncomfortable truths about the country.

The Moss Arts Center will continue to provide meaningful arts experiences for Virginia Tech students, embracing challenges as opportunities.

“The pandemic has imposed a multitude of restrictions on our everyday lives, but it’s also given rise to lots of creative ideas for how to deliver on mission, despite present obstacles,” said Jon Catherwood-Ginn, Moss Arts Center associate director of programming. “These virtual engagements are just one example of that. What we’ve lost in physical proximity, we’ve gained in accessibility, ease, interdisciplinary engagement, and connection around the globe. Whether online, in person, or through hybrid approaches, our programs will always strive to build community through the arts.”