This was another “should have been” week.
This week we should have been in Ireland, at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, playing music, cramming ourselves into heaving pubs every day, being kept awake until all hours of the night by Country and Irish bands and boisterous revellers. We should have been subsisting on ginormous lunchtime roasts and late-night burgers on the street, with Taytos and beers in between. We should have had a week of non-stop music and craic, which would have been exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure, and at some point near the middle of the week I would have been so overwhelmed that I just wanted to go home again, but by the end of the week I would be in the swing of things and never want to leave. That’s what it was like last year, anyway.
This year, instead of waking up each morning in a hotel room with a view of the Atlantic, grabbing breakfast in a busy dining room and walking down the road to my fiddle class, I woke up in my own flat with a view of the flats across the street, grabbed breakfast in my own kitchen and then fired up Zoom to take an online fiddle class in front of my computer. It was…not quite the same. (Though the coffee is a lot better here than it was in Miltown.)
Back in March when we went into lockdown, July seemed very far away, and we thought we might still get to take advantage of the Miltown B&B booking we had made before the end of last year (as much as those views of the Atlantic from our hotel room were wonderful, they were also expensive, and the noise and general mayhem that accompanied them were not ideal, so we though a smaller guesthouse a bit farther away might be more peaceful). As the pandemic got worse and worse through April, Willie Week began to look less and less likely—until finally, at the very end of the month, the summer school was definitively canceled for 2020. No fiddle lessons, no sessions, no Irish national anthem at one in the morning, no ceol agus craic.
Even though the cancellation wasn’t really a surprise, it still hit hard. Jeremy and I hadn’t left the house for almost 7 weeks, the coronavirus numbers were getting more dire by the day (as it turns out, we were pretty much at the peak of the first wave by then), events and trips were being canceled left and right, and there didn’t seem to be anything to look forward to for the foreseeable future. It was just another thing to cross off my calendar at that point, but every crossed-off thing brought its own sadness with it, and this made me particularly sad.
All was not lost, however. In mid-May, the summer school announced that it was teaming up with the fantastic Irish Traditional Music Archive to organize some virtual events for this year’s Willie Week. Specifically, they curated a program of recorded recitals and events from past years, going back to 1986, and put them online in the run-up to what would have been Willie Week this year. And during the past week, they “live streamed” all of the official events from last year, just time-shifted by a year—so the fiddle recital we attended on the first Monday of Willie Week last year was broadcast this past Monday, the piping recitals that were held every lunchtime last year were broadcast every lunchtime this past week, and so on. It was a brilliant idea, and it gave us something to look forward to every day, a little reminder of the joy we experienced last year and we hope to experience again a year from now.
On top of that, they offered a week of online music classes—not pre-recorded lessons, but actual live tuition on everything from fiddle to harmonica, for everyone from novices to pros, taught by the same expert tutors who would have been teaching in person, and all FOR FREE (thank you, Irish Arts Council!). You had to register in advance because, for obvious reasons, they needed to keep the class numbers small, but otherwise the classes were open to all. I hesitated a bit, not sure if I was up to playing fiddle in front of strangers over the computer, but in the end I registered myself as a “novice” and waited to see what would happen.
What happened is that I got an email from the fiddler Seamus Glackin, who introduced himself as our tutor and told us all to have our fiddles “ready to go” at 10 a.m. Monday for our first class. So this past Monday, feeling just as nervous as I would have felt walking into an actual classroom, I signed into Zoom and met my virtual classmates: a woman from Ireland who already played accordion but was new to fiddle, a guy from Ireland who had just picked up the fiddle at the start of lockdown(!), a young guy in Australia(!) who played some classical violin but was new to Irish music, and a guy in California who was familiar with Irish music but new to the fiddle, and who showed up on time and worked really hard throughout class every single day even though the classes went from 2 to 3:30 a.m. California time(!!). Just like last year, I was so impressed by everyone’s determination and dedication.
We spent the week learning tunes, one new tune each day, and I realized quite quickly that I had probably undersold myself by signing up a “novice”. I mean, in the grand scheme of things I very much am, but I have some advantages, too: I regularly play in our local Irish session, and I’m more immersed in Irish traditional music than the average person simply by virtue of who I’m married to—namely, Jeremy Keith, “founder and keeper of thesession.org, probably the greatest Irish music resource in the world”. That connection to The Session is kind of hard to explain if you don’t play Irish music—but basically, if you do play Irish music, then you are very likely to have used The Session at some point, or at last have heard of it. When I eventually “outed” myself as Jeremy’s spouse in my fiddle class last year, you’d have thought I’d said I was married to a rock star. I never did out myself in class this year, but I clearly had a source of information for tune names and whatnot—Seamus said I was his “researcher”, but my research basically involved going into the other room and saying “Jeremy, what’s the name of this tune?” while playing a bit of tune at him.
Aside from knowing tune names, just having heard a particular tune before makes it a thousand times easier to learn to play it. Once it’s in your head, it takes less effort to get it into your fingers. I already knew two of the tunes we learned this week, and two others were very familiar to me from hearing them, which helped a lot. The last tune we learned (a tricky slip jig called The Fairy) was new to me, but it was catchy in its own way, so I managed to get it down by the end of class (though I think I’ve already forgotten it…). I had really struggled to remember the tunes in class last year, which is largely why I signed up for novice classes this year instead of intermediate. As it turned out, I probably should have pushed myself out of my comfort zone and into a higher-level class—but honestly, it wasn’t such a bad thing to start every morning with a friendly, fairly non-intimidating fiddle lesson (I was still intimidated, of course, but that was nothing to do with the class and everything to do with me and my general terror of performance).
It was no substitute for being in Miltown Malbay, but the fact that Willie Week was able to take place in any form this year is remarkable. It brought a tiny bit of Ireland into our home here in Brighton and made the cancellation a tiny bit more bearable. I give so much credit to the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Irish Traditional Music Archive for pulling this together, and to the tutors who shared their time teaching over a 1000(!) students virtually—and to my fellow students for showing up in front of their computers at all hours of the day and night, all over the world, to get better at doing this thing we love. The Irish traditional music community is a really special thing, and I’m so happy to be part of it again. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.