Fun At The Fleadh
By Gwen Orel
It's been 10 days since the Mid-Atlantic Region Fleadh Cheoil in the Parsippany Hilton Hotel, sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, according to the CCE website.
All over the East Coast, players are busy practicing the tunes they will bring to Ireland in August for the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Derry for the 60th annual Fleadh, which will be the first ever held in Northern Ireland.
All over the East Coast, some players are working on new tunes they might play at next year's Mid-Atlantic Fleadh. The dates are April 24 through April 27; mark your calendars.
I know I will. I was a volunteer for the first time this year. I did not grow up in in the Irish music world, instead played classical violin, and was very curious about how these music competitions work. I had seen the 2003 movie "The Boys and Girl from County Clare," which takes place at a Fleadh. Andrea Corr, supposedly an amazing player, is a singer in real life, and didn't even bother to move her fingers and fake it (perhaps she was told they would cut away), but the snippets of other scenes fascinated. A little boy playing "The Rights of Man," making a mistake, then swearing at an onlooker. People playing in tents on a campsite. People playing in pubs. When I played in youth orchestras as a kid, I remember now and then having some fun playing in the house with others before the conductor called us back on stage and routinely scolded us by section. Could Irish music for kids really be as much fun as it looked?
I was only able to go on Sunday, the final day of the Fleadh. Saturday is the big day, when there are the solo competitions. I had thought Sunday, which is mostly duets, trios, and bands, would be quiet, but when I arrived at the Parsippany I saw children literally running with cases in hand, parents wandering around asking how to register, 10-year olds practicing in the lobby. "Quiet" just did not describe it: the noise was everywhere; the energy was buzzing. My first job was to help take admission from observers at one hall: $10 for the day. You could say I was a bouncer. Children and competitors were free.
Frazzled fathers carried shirts, saying they were going to iron them. A tin whistle sat on the table and three people picked it up and said, nope, that wasn't the one I lost, until the right person found it. A little girl with red hair flew down the hall saying, "They want us now!"
Then I helped by working the door at the Under-12 Trio competition, keeping it closed while competitors were playing, opening it when sets were done. I loved hearing what the judges had to say and what they were looking for: beginning and ending together, tempo, having fun.
Getting to Ireland?
Rose Conway Flanagan, who was one of the Fleadh Committee, was also one of the Hall of Fame honorees at the CCE Fleadh Ceilí dinner, along with fellow Pearl River teacher, accordion player Patty Furlong, and the late accordion player Jerry Lynch. Rose's brother Brian and father Jimmy also hold this honor. Rose told me there had been over 400 people competing this year. Irish music is growing, she said.
"It is getting bigger," Rose observed.
Don Meade, who judged Newly Composed Dance Tunes, Lilting and Whistling, said in an email, "For those of us who remember the New York fleadhanna of 20 or 30 years ago, when the competitions were held in classrooms at Manhattan College in the Bronx, the sheer number of competitors in this and other recent Mid-Atlantic fleadhanna is very impressive, as is the high standard of musicianship they demonstrate. Only two entrants in each age-group competition can qualify to go to Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, but in some of the most hotly contested competitions there were many more young musicians who could have ably represented the Mid-Atlantic region in Ireland."
Most of the 400 competitors were children, as there is only one "Over 18" category, but there are three categories for younger players, with "Under 12," "12 to 15," and "15 to 18." There were competitions in every instrument: fiddle, two row button accordion, concert flute, tin whistle, piano accordion, concertina, uillean pipe, harp, mouth organ, banjo, and so on. There is even a category called "miscellaneous" for those who play Irish music on non-traditional instruments.
Andy Lamy, who plays clarinet in the New Jersey Symphony, took first place in the Miscellaneous Over-18 category. That means he can compete in Ireland, as can anybody who places first and second in one of the two regional American Fleadhs. The other is the Midwest Fleadh, which covers everything from Cleveland to California. That makes the process of getting to Ireland a little more streamlined for American players than for Irish ones, who must compete in county and provincial competitions.
But lest anybody believe that gives American players an unfair advantage, the American winners of the All-Ireland show us otherwise. Dylan Foley, who took first place in the Over-18 fiddle, took second last year at the All-Ireland-this year for the win? Similarly, little Haley Richardson has won five times in the Under-12 category on fiddle-which may be a record. She took second place last year, and the judges had to call her and the winner back in the room before they decided. However they get there, the American players are champions. And last year, the Under-12 Pearl River Ceilí band took first place.
Playing and practicing
They might again. Pearl River took first place in three age categories this year; under 12, 12 to 15, and 15 to 18. Pearl River, New York, is a very Irish community, Rose said. "In this community, it is not unpopular to say you do Irish music or dancing. It's not like living in the Bronx, where my friends didn't know I played!" she said.
She, along with teachers Patty Furlong and Margie Mulvihill, run the Pearl River School (not a building, but a school in the arts sense) and their students routinely compete and win. Brian Conway, Rose's brother, is also really part of that school, though he doesn't live there. He is young Haley's teacher. There were over 100 students from the Pearl River school at the Fleadh.
But winning isn't everything. While Brian Conway won the All-Ireland twice, Rose never did, and, she said, she hated competing herself. "I would break down, screw up. I remember shaking like a leaf. Even thinking about it makes my hands sweat," Rose said with a laugh. And while some kids, like Haley, clearly enjoy it, Rose said, it's good for all of them.
"I tell them that if they don't win, it doesn't mean your playing hasn't improved, because you worked so hard. The practice they put in makes them better players." One reason the Pearl River school enters so many bands, she said, is that she likes to give every student a chance to compete.
There are always surprises: Jayne Pomplas and brother Bram, both of whom usually place in solo fiddle, did not this year. But they won multiple awards in other categories: each placed first in their age groups in bodhrán, and they also placed 2nd in a duo together, among others. Those changes should be motivating for themselves, and for others who compete against them.
'I want them to like it.'
That so many of Rose's own students, including daughter Maeve, who also plays with Girsa, have gone on to win All-Ireland championships demonstrates the excellence of her own teaching. Rose Said that it's important to her to keep music fun. She teaches in groups, and jokes with the kids so much they don't know she is joking, she said. "I want them to learn, and I want them to like it. I let them chat a little."
Clearly the kids have a blast at the Fleadh. "They go back and forth in the practice rooms. All of the kids know each other. The first thing they do is go into the pool," she said. The children see friends from other schools in other states. Rose saw her 13-year-old son Kieran, who took 1st place in his age group in piano accompaniament, talking to some little girls from Boston. While most of the children have an Irish background, that's not true of them all, she said.
Tom Madden, who is also on the Committee, said that one of his favorite moments came when he was on the elevator, and saw a little girl carrying a fiddle case. "She was telling me she won 2nd in the fiddle competition (probably under 12 but a gentleman never discusses a lady's age). As she was saying that, the doors opened and Don Meade joined and said 'and she won 1st place in newly composed tunes.' Her little face lit up with a big smile. Don later said he was already working on mastering that little girl's winning tune."
The girl, Don said, was Josie Coyne from Boston. She won 2nd in fiddle 12 to 15, and 1st in "Newly Composed Dance Tunes," which has no age. Congrats to her!
Most of the 16 new tunes submitted, Don said, were from students of Annemarie Acosta, and two of her students took 2nd and 3rd place.
Iris Nevins, who programs concerts and runs the sessions at the Irish American Association of Northwest Jersey and whose CD, "String Theory," we reviewed in August, 2012, had four harp students compete, and all placed, two first and two third. "I'm just crowing a little," Iris wrote in an email. "All of them worked really hard for this!
It's hard work for students and teachers, but it pays off.
I was right. This had to be way more fun than playing three-octave scales quickly for judges and your concerto piece, only to get sorted into a section with lots of others and have challenge passages marked out for you. I sometimes had fun at concerts. I can't ever say going to a competition was fun. Where was the pool?
I can't go back and be a kid growing up in the Irish music scene, but I can do the next best thing and have fun at the Fleadh.
See you in Parsippany next year!
Results for the Fleadh appear on the website at sites.google.com/site/ccemidatlanticfleadh.
Iris also teaches Celtic harp to students of all ages, including beginners over 70. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gwen Orel runs the blog and podcast, New York Irish Arts