It’s a brilliant summer Sunday afternoon, and inside The Cottage Bar in Weymouth a singular moment of anticipation is taking place. Around a large rectangular table in a corner of the restaurant, there are 15 fiddles tucked under youthful chins; 15 bows, almost but not quite touching the strings of the fiddles, are held by youthful hands, poised and ready.
Standing nearby, also with a fiddle under her chin and a bow in her hand, is Cliodhna Field, a native of County Meath who moved to the Boston area more than a decade ago. She looks at the assembled musicians, ranging from elementary to high school age, who have their eyes trained on her. She gives a little smile, then counts off, and all the bows strike the strings to play a Kerry polka.
The kids’ session is off and running.
For the past several months, the gregarious, energetic Field – a fiddle teacher who also is a faculty member at the CCÉ (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann) Boston Music School – has been taking her students on a practicum of sorts: She has organized music sessions for them at venues such as the Irish Cultural Centre of Greater Boston in Canton and Bunratty’s Tavern in Reading as well as The Cottage Bar, where they play in front of customers and complete strangers as well as family members and friends.
A session is not a concert, of course, but intended as an informal gathering that is as much about socializing as it is music. It’s an opportunity to try in public what you’ve been practicing in private, to get inspired to add to your stock of tunes, and to hang around with people who share your musical interests. At the same time, there is a certain motivation to do as well as you can, Field notes, which makes this a useful experience for budding musicians.
“I believe playing in front of a big and/or different crowd every time stimulates the kids to want to keep improving and learning more repertoire,” she says. “They get great satisfaction out of the applause and cheers from the crowd, especially when it’s coming from people they don’t know. It also brings a performance aspect to the playing, too – it’ll shake off any nerves or fears at a young age.”
Field, along with her charges and their parents, also see the sessions as a means to build camaraderie and community.
“I think we all appreciate having a group of people we like to hang around with and feel connected to, whether they’re from work, school, our neighborhood, and so on,” she says. “That’s part of what the kids enjoy: They all have some kind of Irish ancestry in their families – a parent, a grandparent – and you’ll hear them asking one another, ‘So, where in Ireland is your grandma from? How far is that from such-and-such place?’ So, this is a real connection for them.”
(Not to imply that Irish ancestry is any kind of prerequisite to taking Irish music lessons, of course.)
“These events have been invaluable for the kids to experience a real session and to gain confidence in their playing,” says Katy Barry, whose seven-year-old daughter Nell has been playing for about two years. “They feed off of each other and it motivates them to get better. Plus, we parents have fun, too: It is really something to see this group of little musicians playing together.”
Meanwhile, the fiddle students are going through a series of tunes and sets, including a pair of popular session jigs – “The Connaughtman’s Rambles/Geese in the Bog” – and a waltz, each time eliciting whoops and cheers from the Cottage Bar patrons and staff. (Whereas most sessions are spur-of-the-moment as to deciding which tunes to play, Field uses a list so as to keep things moving along, although at times she solicits suggestions from the kids.) One onlooker, herself a music teacher, remarks on the good quality of intonation among the young fiddlers, and how well they play in unison.
An event like this involves quite a few moving parts: Certainly the children themselves, who have to put in the work in the first place, and their parents, who have to shuttle them to fiddle lessons- from as far away as Lowell and New Hampshire as well as Greater Boston- as well as to the session, the pub owners who give space and time for the kids’ sessions, usually preceding a regularly scheduled adult session, which some of the young musicians participate in, too.
Then there’s Field. She arrives early to arrange the seating in the session area, greet the students and their families as they arrive, and make sure that all the fiddles are tuned and the children are sitting where they’ll be comfortable and best able to play. As she plays along with the kids, she keeps her eyes open to see if anyone needs help; at one point, she leans over one student to help her with the bowing for a few seconds.
Of course, her most important work is getting them to this scenario in the first place, through the regular lessons as well as pieces of advice and other ways to help the students along: drawing an outline of their feet on a piece of cardboard to help them remember the proper stance, for instance, and taking photos of them to use as a reference for posture and positioning of arms.
“Cliodhna is always pushing me to be better – and to want to be better,” says 11-year-old Olwen Davis, who’s been studying with her for two years. Having started out as a classical violinist, she’s had to get used to playing by ear and memory rather than following sheet music, and she finds the sessions challenging but also enjoyable. “Playing at a session gives us a chance to use our skills in real life but in a way that’s different than at a recital. It’s a lot of fun.”
Says Eileen Weir-Kelly, whose four children, ranging in age from seven to 13, are studying with Field: “She teaches them the techniques, but just as importantly, she teaches them that playing music is something you can enjoy – instead of just being a ‘chore’ that you do. Our kids really respond to her: They’ll be practicing at home, working on a particular phrase and when they get it you’ll hear ‘I can’t wait to tell Cliodhna!’
Field, even as she coaxes the musicians to do their best, tries to keep the atmosphere fun and casual, just like at any adult session – maybe tell a joke or a little anecdote, or ask somebody what’s new. At one point, indicating the various portraits and photos adorning the walls around them, she tells the kids that her picture is in there somewhere: “Can you find me?”
The children turn their heads this way and that, scrutinizing the images. One girl points with her bow to a caricature of a young blonde woman holding several steins of beer a la the iconic St. Pauli Girl logo.
“Oh, thanks!” laughs Field, treating it as a compliment. “But no.”
Finally, a few of her students call her attention to a photo: Sure enough, it’s Field – somewhat younger then – giving the camera an exuberant thumbs-up. There are chuckles and “Oh, wow!” reactions from the group; elsewhere around the table, a couple of private discussion are taking place.
“I just want them to enjoy being together, to see this as something fun to do,” she says.
There are a few more rounds of tunes, and then Field announces it’s time to take a break: “Leave your fiddles on the table!” she says.
The students obey, and after they leave, the table is chock full of fiddles and bows, creating an eye-catching array of various hues of brown. The kids stretch their legs, check in with parents, get a drink of water, and let off a little youthful energy.
Gradually, a few – then a few more – drift back to the table, pick up their respective fiddles and bows, and sit down. There’s a buzz of conversation, but some of the youngsters are going over a snatch of this tune or that, and a couple of them begin playing a hornpipe together.
Finally, the group is back at full strength, Field calls them to attention; once again, bows are poised on fiddles.
“One! Two! Three!” she calls out, and once again the fiddles sound together.
In another few weeks, the kids and their families will be gearing up for another school year and, what with fiddle lessons and other activities, the pace of life will quicken, as it most always does when the days grow shorter and become cooler. But for now, it’s an easy-going, warm summer afternoon in a friendly place, and they’re filling the room with music.
Cliodhna Field and her students will appear at the Weymouth Irish Heritage Day on Sept. 24.