Masterly with the fiddle and violin, Sheila Falls ‘never stops learning’

Next stop in a busy life: Teaching at Boston College
By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
The way Sheila Falls sees it, playing Irish fiddle and classical violin doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.
For a goodly part of her life, Falls — a Rhode Island native now living in North Attleborough – has happily engaged in both pursuits, reaping considerable achievements and prestige in the process: winning an All-Ireland Fiddle Championship at age 15 (the first New Englander to do so, in fact) and three North American Fiddle Championships; attending the renowned Tanglewood Music Center on a fellowship; playing with such legendary Boston-area Irish musicians as Seamus Connolly, Larry Reynolds, Joe Derrane, and Joe Joyce; and performing and touring extensively with the New World Symphony and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

“Irish music feeds my soul,” says Falls, who also has regularly appeared in the Boston area as part of the folk fiddle ensemble Childsplay. “I can’t tell you what happens when I walk into a place where people are playing jigs and reels and hornpipes, and I sit down and join them – and before I know it, hours have gone by. I’ve felt nourished by the music and the musicians.
“But there’s something about classical music, like when you’re being conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, or playing a Mahler symphony. Such a great sound, so magical – and there’s a challenge to classical that is very satisfying.
“They are two different sides that can be tricky to balance, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
This month sees a new chapter — or perhaps “movement” is a more appropriate term — in Falls’s musical life, as she formally joins the Boston College faculty, teaching part-time in the Music Department and as part of the university’s Center for Irish Programs. She’ll continue her duties as an instructor of music in performance at Wheaton College, where she also directs the college’s World Music Ensemble.
There’s plenty of comforting familiarity with the newness. Falls taught at the local Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann School of Music (which she helped start) when it was hosted at BC. And more importantly, she will be reunited with her first fiddle teacher and mentor, Seamus Connolly, who is Sullivan Artist in Residence in Irish Music and director of Irish music programs at BC.
Connolly is more than a little happy about the prospect. “Sheila is not only a great player, she’s a great teacher as well. That’s very important to what we do here at Boston College, because we’re dealing with students from literally all over the world, with varying degrees of experience in Irish music. Sheila is someone who can definitely help them along the path.”
Falls’s expertise in classical music will be another asset, Connolly adds: “Irish Programs and the Music Department have been working much closer these last few years, and Sheila — by being proficient in both Irish and classical music — will definitely encourage this trend. She will benefit both departments.”
“It’s really coming back full circle,” says Falls, who began learning fiddle from Connolly when she was eight. “I’m looking forward to working with Seamus. That’s a very valuable connection for me; I’m always thinking of those who taught and inspired me, and I’m glad to try and do the same for others.”
Coming from a family with a strong legacy of Irish music, it was hardly surprising that Falls became involved herself. She started Irish dance as a five-year-old, and within a couple of years was picking out on fiddle the tunes she was hearing out on the floor (“I’d play something and ask, ‘What’s that one?’ and my folks would say, ‘It’s the set dance you learned the other week.’”).
But Falls’s mother decided early on that her daughter would take classical violin, for which Falls is ever grateful. “She felt classical was a better way for me to get the basics, to give myself a foundation in music. I’m really thankful for that, because unless you’re someone like a Seamus Connolly and teach yourself, it’s rare to have the technique right there.”
Even as she continued her classical lessons, though, Falls — who would end up attending the New England Conservatory of Music — was progressing rapidly with fiddle, and by age 10 was playing comfortably at the local Comhaltas gatherings. She would travel to Connolly’s place in Watertown and spend three to four hours not only playing but also listening – to the many recordings Connolly had in his possession, and to Connolly himself as he talked about the music and the people who played it.
“This wasn’t just fiddle lessons, it was an education,” she says. “Seamus taught me more than the tunes: He gave me the background, the whole picture. And that’s how I teach now.”
“I can still see Sheila as a young girl, sitting with headphones on while she listened to music and played along,” recalls Connolly fondly. “She was one of those students who, after you showed her once, she had it after that – it got to the point where you say, ‘What else can I teach you?’ But she was very willing to listen to me talk about the older musicians, and interested to hear about what makes the music the music. That’s very important, because you just can’t truly appreciate Irish music without knowing how people lived it.”
Listening to old recordings also helped shape Falls’s views on teaching, and learning, music. “When you listen to those musicians, they’ve got the rhythm, and that’s the key. Rhythm is inside us: When we walk or talk, we have rhythm. How do you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or recite your ABCs? It’s rhythm – it helps us memorize. That’s what you have to get in touch with.”
As a young adult, Falls cultivated an active musical schedule, in both the classical and Irish domains. “My job at one point was to play every feis between here and New York, and beyond,” she quips. “But I would have classical gigs, too. I’d try to space things out a little, but occasionally there’d be an overlap, where I would maybe play classical one night and Irish the next morning. That could get difficult – I’d find myself fighting with my muscle memory.”
As she settled into marriage and family life, Falls found it necessary, and desirable, to bring some stability to her life: Teaching — at the Comhaltas Music School, Wheaton and, eventually, at home – was a natural solution, sometimes bringing about other kinds of musical opportunities in the process.
In one of her Comhaltas classes, “I must’ve said something about looking for a new fiddle,” recalls Falls. Then she discovered one of her students was Cambridge violinmaker Bob Childs, and the two struck up a fiddle-for-lessons bargain.
Having a Childs fiddle meant Falls was a ripe candidate for Childsplay, the all-star ensemble featuring Boston-area fiddlers and Childs clients like Laurel Martin, Hanneke Cassel, Amanda Cavanaugh, Katie McNally, Mark Simos, and Mary Lea — some of whom, like Falls, had classical backgrounds and experience. She has appeared on three of the group’s CDs, including its new release, “As the Crow Flies,” and on both Childsplay DVDs (the second is being released this month).
“I think Childsplay is a good mid-way point between classical and Celtic,” says Falls, who will perform with the ensemble during its annual slate of performances this December. “It’s pretty intense, learning all these arrangements in the week leading up to the tour and playing different genres — Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, Scandinavian, old-timey. But the relationships you form are so special, especially given that we’re united by one ‘voice’ — the voice that comes from Bob’s violins.
“That’s what I’ve loved about having music in my life: You just never stop learning. I’ve learned from playing with Seamus, from being at Tanglewood, performing with the New World Symphony and Childsplay, working at Wheaton — and I have no doubt I’ll learn from teaching at Boston College, too.”