Shannon Heaton's Passion: 'To Get to Put My Sass On'

Are you one someone who sings at the drop of a downbeat?  Aside from the social aspects of sharing a tune, would you like to explore the skills involved in traditional Irish singing?  Then the Irish Song Circle Workshop at Springstep in Medford may be for you.

Jointly taught by Shannon Heaton and Liz Simmons, the Song Circle is a six-week course touching on the techniques and emotional connections involved in the art of Irish singing.

Specializing in the Irish wooden flute, Heaton is a renowned musician, singer, and composer who also performs regularly with her husband, musician Matt Heaton. Their next local date is at Club Passim on Sept. 23.

I had the chance to chat recently with Shannon, who also co-founded Boston's Celtic Music Fest. An edited portion of our conversation follows.

BIR:  Fill me in a little about the upcoming workshop.  What will people experience?

SH: It's really about introducing people to traditional Irish songs, working out a few additional techniques and, above all, empowering people - giving them license to come to this music and make it their own . . . (Liz and I are) going to team teach a few classes . . . and then we're going to each teach some separately, with the hopes that by having two different approaches, two different people expanding this education, we might be able to empower singers.

BIR:  I understand you had a very interesting childhood traveling the world with your parents.

SH: We lived all over the place.  My folks were, I guess you'd call it now, ethno-journalists. So we were in Nigeria and all around American Indian reservations while they were working on a book on American Indian journalism.  (Let My People Know by James E. & Sharon Murphy.)

BIR: How did you develop your love of Irish music?

SH: My mom started me out on the piano when I was three.  But the first instrument that I really connected with was the tin whistle when we were, strangely enough, living in Nigeria.  We had a neighbor who played recorder and tin whistle, and my Grandpa played tin whistle, and so I just kind of took to it.  Then when we came back to the states, my folks had a bunch of people living with us here, one of whom, John Tunney, is the son of the great Irish singer, Paddy Tunney.   John had a bunch of friends in the Irish music world who'd come and visit us.  And he'd take us to concerts.  I happened to have Irish in my family, but it was really being exposed to the tin whistle in Nigeria, and being exposed to the Irish singers and players who happened to come through our house. . . . The music is great, but what I loved most about it at the beginning was the social aspect.

BIR: You also studied in Chicago.

SH: When I was 16, I was in Thailand for a year, and (then) I ended up in Chicago at Northwestern University.  They have a great music program and I was able to do a sort of ad hoc ethnomusicology program because Chicago has such a great Irish music scene.  There were Irish music sessions on the north side of Chicago, and Thai traditional music sessions on the south side of Chicago.  And I was able to stitch together my own ethno-degree specializing in Irish traditional music and Thai traditional music.

BIR: When did you met Matt?

SH: He was a senior, I was a sophomore, and I met him because I needed a guitar player for a (wedding) gig.

BIR: How did the two of you wind up here in Boston?

SH: In 1998, Matt and I said, 'Let's get out of  Chicago.'  It's a big city, and we were doing a lot of teaching, and playing all around . . . We just really wanted to get away.  We actually went to Boulder, Colorado, for two and a half years.  We had a great time mountain biking around.

And then we said to each other, 'Okay, it's time to be back in a city.  Time to be back in a huge Irish music center.'  It was either Chicago, or maybe we'd try Boston, because Boston is also a very vibrant Irish music town.  And boy, it's been a great fit for us. 

BIR: What prompted you to get into teaching?

SH: Kind of the shtick with Irish music is that you pass it on from one person to the next . . . It starts informally. Someone says, 'Hey, can you show me that tune,' and then somebody else says 'Hey, can you show me that tune,' and then pretty soon, 'Hey, my daughter might want to take lessons,' and then you're doing teaching camps and workshops.  Especially with traditional Irish music, it sort of naturally happens, kind of informally, until you really get your teaching chops together. Then it's a more formal thing.

BIR: The show you and Matt are doing at Club Passim on Sept. 23 is called Back to School.  What's that all about?

SH: Lots of a traditional Irish music, songs and instrumentals. But we're also going to have quizzes, simple writing exercises, getting people in the flow of 'back to school.'  It's definitely tongue in cheek.  We're going to have music games.  I'm going to share some of my composition exercises from the second grade. (Laughs) It's all in good fun . . . There's still this weird promise when Fall comes around. You want to sharpen your pencils and get organized and get your [act] together … We're going to give people a tangible outlet for celebrating that 'back to school,' 'crisp new resolve' feeling.

BIR: So how do teaching and performing compare.

SH: When I teach, I'm interested in carefully presenting traditional Irish music and giving people tools for that . . . I completely love traditional music and spend a lot of time carefully crafting arrangements with my husband.  But man, the performance is where it's all about being silly and really having fun.  Not that we don't have fun at the workshops, but performing is my real outlet to get to put my sass on.

Springstep's six-week Irish Song Circle Workshop begins Sept. 8 and October 27; all levels of experience are welcome. See

Matt & Shannon Heaton perform Sept. 23 at Club Passim in Cambridge; 617-492-7679.