BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
For some Boston-area Irish musicians, early summer might be called Between-the-Fleadhs season. It’s the period following the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh Cheoil – the annual regional Irish music competition, which this year took place May 10-12 in Parsippany, NJ – and the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, or “the All-Irelands” as it’s often called, the summit of Irish music competitions.
Those fiddlers, accordionists, flutists, singers, and others who participated in the May fleadh are reflecting on the experience, while a subset – those who placed first or second in their particular age, instrument, and performance categories – are also making (or trying to make) plans for the All-Irelands, which will be held for the first time at a Northern Ireland location, in Derry, from Aug.12 to Aug.18.
Not all Irish musicians are big on competitions – even some of the fleadh participants are dubious about them – but for those who do put their hand in, it’s a milestone, a point of reference, to help sort out their progress, and to affirm their feelings and attitudes about the Irish music tradition.
To Lisa Coyne, executive director of Boston’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann School of Music – who along with others affiliated with the school has helped spark increased participation in the fleadh among Boston-area musicians, particularly younger ones – an event like the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh brings out the best in the music community, and not just in terms of individual talent.
“There really is a ‘it-takes-a-village’ component to the fleadh, especially when it comes to kids,” says Coyne, whose children Josie and Rory both competed (Josie had first, second, and fourth-place finishes in three categories). “So many parents and other adults give their support through teaching or just giving advice; putting together the kids in duos and trios – even buying matching shirts and ties; driving them all over the place. And of course, we’ve had people come out to fundraising events for the school.
“We’ve been trying to build a community here through the school, and above all through the music, and I think it’s really happening.”
Here’s a look at some members of that community, and their experiences in the recent fleadh.
For the first few weeks after the competition, it looked like 10-year-old Audrey’s second go-round in the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh would be another something-to-build-on exercise. Then in late May, she got word that one of the two finalists ahead of her would be unable to go to the All-Irelands, and she was invited to participate. So early last month, her parents, Ted and Nikole, began the task of figuring out travel arrangements (“We may wind up having to live out of our car for a year,” Ted quips.)
The opportunity to go to Derry may have been unexpected, but that’s okay with Audrey, a student at the Boston Comhaltas Music School who began playing classical violin at 4 years old and Irish fiddle at 7. She has worked with Comhaltas teachers Tina Lech, George Keith and, more recently, Brendan Bulger (no relation) on mastering the characteristics of fiddle – as opposed to violin.
Has the transition been difficult?
Audrey thinks for a moment. “Not really,” she says matter-of-factly, although she does acknowledge that getting the hang of rolls and triplets – two defining aspects of Irish fiddle – isn’t the easiest thing.
Continuing with classical violin, even as she learns reels, jigs, hornpipes and other Irish instrumental music, also can complicate matters, Audrey reveals. “Brendan tells me to tap my foot while I play, to help keep the rhythm,” she explains, “but my classical teacher tells me to keep my feet still.”
Still, none of these factors was enough to deter Audrey from giving the fleadh a try in 2011, or from returning this year. The difference this time around, she feels, was being less nervous, and that when she played her competition tunes (the reel “Fisherman’s Island” and the jig “Knocknagow”), she was able to “pick up the pace better.”
But Audrey takes a longer view of the fleadh, rather than focusing on the competition part. “It’s fun,” she sums up. “I liked working on the tunes, and I learned some playing techniques that really helped me a lot.”
Natalya Kay Trudeau
1st place, Under-18 Solo Fiddle
Even before she decided to enter the fleadh this year, 17-year-old Natalya knew she wouldn’t make it to Derry. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t feel confident about her chances of qualifying; she already had committed to doing other things this summer, like working a job.
In fact, since she had written off the All-Irelands, Natalya wondered if she should bother competing in the Mid-Atlantic at all. “I didn’t want to deprive somebody else who might be able to go, in case I was one of the top two,” she says. But then she learned applicants could indicate that they were unlikely to go to the All-Irelands, and she thought, “Why not?”
There was certainly a lot Natalya liked about the 2012 Mid-Atlantic, her first time at the fleadh. She took second place and went to the All-Irelands in Cavan, fulfilling her desire to return to Ireland, where she had been the previous year on a tremendously rewarding musical venture. Natalya also attended the Scoil Éigse, a series of classes and workshops held as part of the Fleadh Cheoil.
Yet there were some aspects of her first foray that hadn’t sat well with her, and which she wanted to change this time around. “Last year, I started preparing in February and kept on all the way through until the Mid-Atlantic, and by May I was sick of the tunes – and I didn’t end up liking my choices,” says Natalya, a student of Laurel Martin. “So this year, I started practicing a lot of different tunes, then waited until about a month before the fleadh to focus on my choices.” [She went with the reel “Gooseberry Bush,” the jig “Second Victory” and “McDermott’s Hornpipe.”]
So, for Natalya, the Mid-Atlantic this year became more about charting her progress than anything else. And that’s the way it turned out, albeit with an unexpected twist via the presence of fiddling legend Brian Conway. “I wasn’t particularly nervous at first, but then Brian walked in just about as I was getting set to play ‘McDermott’s’ – and he knows every note of it,” she says.
But it was all for the best, notes Natalya: “I’m always trying to get information about how I sound. So afterwards, I talked with Brian and he said my bowing needs some work, which was something I myself had picked up on.”
Thanks to the encounter with Conway at the Mid-Atlantic, Natalya says that instead of thinking of the All-Irelands and what might have been, she has something to focus on for the next year or so. “What I need to do, basically, is to take a tune and rebuild it,” she explains. “Before, I used to play a tune as it came naturally to me. But I’ve reached a point now in my development where I can decide what I want that tune to sound like, how I want the bow strokes to go, and so on.
“The other thing I want to do is learn a bunch of new tunes. One of the things that happens at the fleadh, whether at the Mid-Atlantic or All-Irelands, is you play lots of sessions. And there have been a few times when someone starts up a tune I can’t play, and they say ‘Wait, you don’t know this one?’ So I would like to change that!”
Sean Connor (fiddle)
& Liam Hart (flute)
1st Place, Senior Duets
It’s not as if Connor and Hart are looking to get their feet wet, fleadh-wise: Both have competed before in US fleadhs, and Hart has made it to the All-Irelands – in fact, he has a second-place finish in the Newly Composed Song in Irish category to his credit. And neither of them particularly relishes music competitions, either: “I played at the feis in Stonehill [College] some years back, and I only played three tunes for six months leading up to it, so as to be prepared,” says Connor, who’s originally from Mayo. “In the end, I got a No. 1, and I was proud – but I couldn’t stand to play those three tunes for years afterward.”
Yet here they are, their ticket to Derry punched.
Connor and Hart have a couple of reasons for having entered the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh this year, and going on to the All-Irelands. Part of the appeal, they say, is a desire to explore some new horizons for their five-year musical partnership, having hosted sessions and performed regularly in the Greater Boston area and elsewhere.
But their motivation goes beyond that, and beyond the competition aspect of the fleadh. They see the event as a celebration – an affirmation – of the Irish music tradition they revere; to participate in it, therefore, is to honor the tradition and those who have helped to carry it on.
“It’s not about competing, it’s about getting hundreds of musicians together to play music and enjoy one another, about giving people a chance to speak and sing in Irish together,” says Hart, a New Jersey native, who will also be in the Lilting and Irish Singing competition. “That’s what Comhaltas does in organizing the fleadh, and we support that idea whole-heartedly.
“The other thing,” adds Hart, “is Sean and I were struck by the people we’ve lost in recent years – people like Larry Reynolds, Felix Dolan and Mike Rafferty – who were such a big part of Irish music and influenced and helped so many. Taking part in the fleadh, for us, felt like a way to honor their memory, and their dedication to the music. They won’t be there, so we’ll be there.”
“There’s nothing like being in the crowd, walking around from one session to another,” says Connor. “You can’t describe the feeling. That’s what the music means to us.”
2nd Place, Over-18 Women’s
Cassidy already had a pretty impressive, and wide-ranging, resume before this year: She has acted and directed for the stage, taught dance, worked on PBS science programs, organized a major arts festival at Brandeis (where she is the International Business School’s assistant director for centers and initiatives), written a thesis on cultural images of women in 1920s American musical theater, and, with her husband, Eric Chasalow, curating an oral history project on electro-acoustic music. Oh, yes: She and Chasalow also are musical partners, performing original songs as well as contemporary and Celtic material.
Earning a second-place finish at her very first competition is another achievement Cassidy can savor, but it also is one she puts in perspective. Instead of representing the climax of some long odyssey, she says, her experience at the fleadh has shown her that her exploration of traditional Irish singing – which she started two years ago as a student of Bridget Fitzgerald at the Boston Comhaltas School – in many ways has only begun.
“This was a total surprise to me, because I had no absolutely no expectations going into it,” says Cassidy, who will not be going to the All-Irelands due to time and family commitments. “My goal was to put myself out there and see what I could do. I’m still trying to get a sense of the relationship between this music and the community it inhabits, and being at the fleadh showed me all kinds of directions to go.”
Although she has sung in several genres, Cassidy had been familiar with American folk music from an early age, and became more interested in Irish and Celtic music during her partnership with Chasalow. “I thought about the quality of my voice – what did it lend itself to at this point, where could I go to next?”
Originally interested in learning bodhran at the Comhaltas School, Cassidy was happy to hear Fitzgerald – a charter member of Cherish the Ladies, and a widely acclaimed performer of sean-nos (“old style”) Irish singing – had joined the teaching staff, and signed up for a class with her.
“Bridget is the real deal,” says Cassidy. “It’s such a pleasure to hear her sing, and she really helps you feel the connection to the tradition. I think no matter how much you to listen to recordings, you have to work with another person, and Bridget has been ideal for me.”
Fitzgerald, for example, talked to Cassidy about the importance of “not ‘boxing the song in’” and paying attention to certain phrases, as well as rhythms and pronunciation. “Stylistically, it’s been completely new to me – I mean, you don’t sit there and say, ‘Is that a quarter note or an eighth note?’ You need to use your ear. It’s the uncharted part of the songs I find most rewarding.”
A scholarship Cassidy received this year to support her studies with Fitzgerald required her to give a recital or other public performance, and so Fitzgerald recommended she go to the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh. The two assessed Cassidy’s repertoire and picked six songs she should prepare for the fleadh; in the end, she sang “Loch Erin’s Shore” and “Molly Brannigan.”
“It was all over very quickly,” says Cassidy. “I was more interested in the whole atmosphere than the competition. You’d sit and listen to singers whose talents were very authentic – theirs were not trained voices, but they were very committed to the material. I’d hear songs I’d never heard before, and think to myself, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful, I want to learn that.’”
The yen to add more songs was only part of what she took away from the fleadh, says Cassidy. “These are such extraordinary songs, and I want to get better at singing them. But I also want to learn about them – what the story behind them is, and why, perhaps, they’ve stayed around as long as they have. That’s how you come to understand this music, and to have it be a part of you.”