I had what was probably my best trip to Ireland ever this past summer. First, this excursion ended with Rachel and I celebrating 19 years of marriage with an amazing trip to County Kerry. We spent several days in Killarney seeing the city and spending time in Killarney National Park. In addition, we got to hike 47 miles of the gorgeous Dingle Way. I could not think of a better way to celebrate this important event with the world's best travel partner.
Rachel and I at Killarney Brewing Company
Second, I got to spend a full month in-country. (I can assure you that I was not ready to go home by the end of it!) It is one thing to visit here for a couple of weeks, but being there for a month allowed me to experience Ireland in a way that I have not before. And one of those ways was watching some of the locals teaching their own music...
I was fortunate enough to spend time with Colm Phelan and Áine McGeeney. This husband and wife duo are the bodhrán player and fiddler for the band Goitse, and they hosted me for a week in their home city of Portlaoise. While there, we did the usual hijinks when friends get together- eat great food, drink great wine, see new places, and take photos for our next dope album release.
Straight Outta Portlaoise
While there, I was able see both of these master musicians teach in group and individual settings. I observed Áine as she taught several grupa cheoil ensembles in a number of locales. These ensembles, ranging from 8 to 18 players of 8 years in age on up, used traditional tune types other than jigs and reels to perform multi-sectional pieces that were any where from 6 to 8 minutes in length. All music was memorized, and it was not conducted. I was mesmerized at times as I watched her successfully communicate complex concepts and skill sets in easily understood ways. (And it was clear that her teaching style worked- her students played wonderfully!)
Áine McGeeney teaching an adult grupa cheoil in Raithin An Uisce, Co. Laois.
I was also able to see Colm teach one-on-one in his home with his stable of private students. It was fascinating to see how he structured his teaching and communicated various concepts in numerous ways to his students. Again, the level of performance of his students was indicative of his effectiveness as a teacher.
After my week in Portlaoise, Colm and I headed out to Inis Oírr to teach at the Craiceann Bodhrán Summer School. (As you can see in the staff photo below, there are some serious and notable individuals there. I often found myself in moments of hero worship!)
The 2019 Craiceann Staff (F: Jim Higgins; M, L-R: Rolf Wagels, Donal Lunny, David Lewis, Micheal O hAlmhain; B, L-R: James O'Connor, Robbie Walsh, me, Colm Phelan, Siobhan O'Donnell, Eamon Murray, Cormac Byrne.)
In between the teaching commitments, we all had some really deep conversations about how we approached teaching- how to communicate complex concepts, how to structure and sequence what is taught, appropriate topics and expectations for classes in a workshop setting, and on and on and on.
A couple of things became abundantly clear through these conversations. First, all of these players are absolutely passionate about this drum and its various musical contexts. From Colm in his band setting, to Eamon with his implementation of electronics, to Cormac with his use of the drum outside of the tradition, to Robbie and his approach to teaching players of all ages, all of these players exuded an infectious enthusiasm for this instrument. One can not help but be excited and absolutely alive when around these drummers.
Second, all of these players and teachers were equally as passionate about sharing what they know about this drum with others. And here is where we talked about you... What should we share? How should we share it? What are the best ways to share these ideas? Should there be a structure to how we share? How do we accommodate for multiple learning styles and various paces? These "Bodhrán Salons" served as a way to share and debate new ideas that would ultimately benefit all players, teachers, and students. And what made these conversations particularly weighty was who was talking- all of these players are at the forefront of this drum as it is applied today.
The conversations did not end there. They continued back in the States with Matthew Bell, Kyle Forsthoff, and Cara Wildman. (By the way, Cara just placed 3rd in the 2019 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann for O18 Bodhrán!) It was in these latter conversations that we discussed how to bring some of this back to the United States.
The point is that many of the teachers and players at the forefront of this instrument are actively collaborating on how to make this musical journey better and more rewarding for you. I am extremely thankful to have been a part of some of these conversations, and I am excited to see how they will affect the teaching and performance of this wee drum over the next couple of years.
Watch this space...