Wednesday at Riverfront Park

Mankato's brand new Riverfront Park is a beauty. Tucked in beside the river with a gorgeous stage with an even more gorgeous canopy (when people with delicate Irish skin play outdoors in the summer) and the stepped, grassy hillside for the audience. When I said yes to playing there at the end of July with my Celtic Band, I wasn't considering that three weeks on Ireland time would make me more than a little bit jet lagged, for more than a little while.

 I have no idea what we played.

 I have no idea what I said between songs 
(but it amused Marti).

 I vaguely remember the night being perfectly clear and mild, 
and the crowd being friendly and responsive.

 I absolutely remember thinking that if I had to come home from Ireland, 
THIS is what I'm glad was waiting for me.


A last wish in Ireland

On our way back to the Dublin airport from County Kerry, Mom and I stopped in Kildare to pay a quick visit to St. Bridget's Cathedral. We wandered the cathedral, gazed up at the round tower and stopped at the wishing stone in front of the church.

I can't tell you what I wished for, 
because then my wish wouldn't come true.

But I can tell you that I didn't just wish. I said thanks. For a generous arts program in my state, which allowed me to embark on this amazing journey. For an adventurous and patient mom, who was a great traveling companion and so supportive of all I was learning. For excellent musicians and teachers, whose lessons I will never forget.

And most of all, for the harp. Always, for the harp. And, of course, for the crazy Irishman who gave it to me and set me on this path. Thanks, Jack.

(Mark your calendars for March 12, 2011, when my band and I will be performing the music I learned and composed in Ireland.)


The harpist in Ireland

My friend Kevin O'Farrell, owner of Mermaid Isle with his wife, Lori, is an incredibly talented artist, designer and photographer. He and Lori took us to Granbeg Beach one afternoon of our visit and showed us where those first Gaelic sailors would have landed after their long, Nine-Wave journey. I'm so glad I brought my harp. I spent a lot of time wandering up and down that beach, counting the waves and feeling the air and listening to the ocean and playing, playing, playing.

And I'm so glad Kevin brought his camera. He captured me in those moments so expertly. When I look at these photos, I'm right back there, right away. Completely.

Thanks, Kevin. (All photos copyright Kevin O'Farrell)


Time for reflection

"Be sure to build in time for reflection." Words of advice from the Minnesota State Arts Board for planning the grant project.

 I can reflect all you want in a 400-year-old fisherman's cabin
on a private island in County Kerry, Ireland.

Especially when my bedroom looks out on this:
...the lagoon opening up to the Atlantic.
Nine Waves over the sea lies the Iberian Peninsula of Spain,
where the Gaelic people who eventually populated Ireland originated from.

Our friends Kevin and Lori own Mermaid Isle and opened up the cottage for us. The peat fire inside, the secluded beach outside, the utter quiet. Ahhhh...reflection. And none too soon. The cough that had started creeping up on me in Lahinch had turned into viral pneumonia. 

 I spent lots of time in front of that peat fire, wrapped up in Irish wool, 
sipping hot tea and running my fingers over the strings of my little harp, 
calling up the memories of the previous two weeks.

 One afternoon, the clouds cleared and I stepped outside
into the moist cool air with the harp. 

I started humming a tune fragment, then started playing it. I added some chords, played some more, and the fragment became a song. I quickly wrote it down. Little did I know Mom was capturing the whole creative process from her perch just outside the cottage door:
Pale face, dark circles, Wild Irish hair...not my best look.

But underneath the fevered appearance, there was the contentment and deep peace and happiness that can only be found on Mermaid Isle. The visit was creatively productive, physically healing and also bittersweet. Our friends Kevin and Lori are planning to sell Mermaid Isle and move back to the states to be closer to their families and grandchildren. Got 4.5 million Euros? It's yours.


A gig at The Old Ground

Hallowed ground.

A wonderful woman named Dierdre O'Brien, whom I'd met at Harp Camp, surprised me with a call when I was in Miltown Malbay. She asked if I would join her group and play a solo set during a performance at The Old Ground Hotel in Ennis.

I said, why yes, I would love to, very calmly. Then I hung up and spent the next 5 minutes jumping up and down. 

Since I'd only brought my lap harp with me to Ireland, Dierdre arranged for me to borrow one of hers. Which means that I showed up at the gig harpless. It felt so strange. So light. So not sweaty and tired and in pain. So refreshing. 

 I even had time to enjoy the cobblestone patio and round tables 
outside in the garden before the show.

 And here I am, playing my "Nine Waves" and "Caipini Jig"
for the audience, surrounded by other musicians.
What a dream.



I was walking down the street in Milltown Malbay after registering for the Willie Clancy Summer School when I passed a young guy who said, “I thought this was a fortune teller’s wagon, but then there’s Herself in the back window.”

Herself was parked there all week.

Willie Week

After "Harp Camp" ended with hugs and pictures and promises to keep in touch, I headed to the Dublin airport to pick up Mom and the rental car. We drove across that gorgeous Irish countryside, she struggling to stay awake from jet lag and I trying to process everything I'd heard and learned last week.

 Our destination: the West Coast of Ireland 
and the Scoil Samraidh Willie Clancy 
— known as "Willie Week" — 
in Miltown Malbay (which is just over these cliffs to the left).
Willie Clancy was the most famous uileann piper in Ireland. His recordings are like the Bibles of Irish music. Learning those dance tunes on the harp, I would discover, would be an exercise in frustration and discovery during Willie Week.

I was thrilled to be under the tutelage of Kathleen Loughnane, Grainne Hambly and Cormac DeBarra again. I was thoroughly enjoying being around harpists every single day and talking about harp-nerd things like sharping levers...gut vs. nylon vs. carbon strings...tuning in flats vs. tuning in C...1-2-1 vs. 4-3-2 fingering on rolls (not topics I get to talk about every day at home).

But I was struggling with the dance tunes. Learning the notes was fine. Remembering them was fine. Getting them under my fingers was fine. Hearing other people play them was a delight. But...I just didn't like playing the dance tunes like I'd fallen in love with playing slow airs and songs I'd learned last week. I kept remembering the symposium on the future of the harp in Ireland that had taken place during Harp Camp. Grainne Yeats, grand dame of the Irish harp, kept stressing that dance tunes should only be played on the harp when dancers are present, and that the original purpose of the harp — to carry the melodies and accompany the songs of Ireland — shouldn't be forgotten in favor of playing fast dance tunes for show.

Lessons were in the mornings, and I had my afternoons to myself.

 I spent a lot of time sitting on the patio of our bed and breakfast, 
which had an awesome view of the Atlantic coming roaring in, 
working on composing some new music.

Mom and I drove in round-about circles on the winding lanes surrounding Lahinch, seeking out ancient ring forts, dolmens and rugged scenery. 

 I bought music books of slow airs and pored through them. 
I read from my book of ancient Irish poetry.

In other words, I did EVERYTHING but practice my dance tunes.

Finally, I had a heart-to-heart with Kathleen Loughnane. I told her what I was experiencing, played her some of my compositions, confessed my dislike for playing the dance tunes. And she told me exactly what I needed to hear, exactly what the purpose of this whole journey and grant experience came to be for me:

I could play whatever I wanted, however I wanted to play it. Because Irish music is a living tradition. As long as I was true to the tune and got to know it and hold it close and make friends with it, I could then do whatever I wanted with it. And if I didn't want to play dance tunes, I didn't have to. I had nothing to prove to anybody.

Whew. You don't know how long I've been needing to hear these words. And to hear them from "the source" — from one of the best harpers in all of Ireland — turned my whole grant trip around. I approached the remaining days of lessons with a new attitude. I listened carefully, memorizing the sounds and the chord progressions and the emotions that came out of the music. I thought about Martha playing the melody on her whistle, Marti playing the B part on her violin, Sam drumming it through, and how I would add color and base chords to it all. I thought many times how fortune I am to not only be able to have this learning experience, but to be able to have the best of both worlds musically — getting to play along with the dance tunes but leaving the actual playing of them to my band.

The finale of Willie Week was the three-hour concert of traditional music.

 I bought Mom a ticket for her birthday.

We had a great time, tapping our toes and laughing and clapping along with the music and getting breathless watching the set dancers. Then we set out for a pub in Lahinch and lifted a couple of Bulmer's Irish Ciders in "Slainte" to Willie Week.


The Rose of An Grianan

An Grianan is the name of the beautiful, Georgian mansion where Harp Camp was held. It means, in Gaelic, something like "the sun always shines here."

I loved sitting outside with my borrowed harp between lessons, 
playing in the little grassy courtyard. 

 The yellow roses surrounding the courtyard were gloriously fragrant 
and as bright as the sun that did, indeed, shine all week.

One afternoon, I was trying to work out the second half of a song I was composing. The gardener, Fintan, was trimming the roses and stopped to listen. He said my song was lovely and asked what it was called. I told him I didn't know yet and asked if he had any ideas. He said, he wasn't a musician or a poet, but that, "As long as you don't put Termonfechin in the title, it will be fine." And we had a good laugh together.

"How about 'The Road to An Grianan' for a title?" I asked him.

He shook his head thoughtfully. Then he turned around, clipped a rose for me, handed it to me with a flourish and said, "How about 'The ROSE of An Grianan' for a title?"

 Who's not a poet, Fintan the Gardener? 
"The Rose of An Grianan" will always be dedicated to you.

I said goodbye to Fintan and started to gather up my things for the afternoon's class. When I wrapped my scarf around my neck, I saw a flash of white. 

 A feather had landed on my shoulder. 


Studying with famous harpists

I've googled them, bought their music books, worn out their recordings, worshiped them from afar. And then, thanks to the Minnesota State Arts Board, I was able to study with them. In person. All in one week.

 Cormac DeBarra

 Billy Jackson and Grainne Hambly

Kathleen Loughnane

 Laoise Kelly

 Máire ni Cathasaigh
Robin Huw Bowen

Wow. I got to ask them all the questions I've been wanting to ask for years. I got to talk about composition and creative process with Kathleen. I sat in awe of Maire.

 I even got to try to play Robin's triple-strung Welsh harp (impossible).

I've said it before, but thanks again, Minnesota State Arts Board.


"Harp Camp"

The (quite unpronounceable) Cairde na Cruite An Chúirt Chruitireachta Harp Festival 2010 became known to all of non-native Irish speakers, as, simply, "Harp Camp."

 I had never seen so many harps in one place at one time. 


 The sound was at once overwhelming and totally magical.

It was like this all week at Harp Camp. Mornings were for our small group lessons. During which we learned music by ear. No sheet music. No music stands. No notes. (Definitely not the way I was trained by Mrs. Jones at the piano for so many years, where I was told, with her hand over mine as she was wont to do, that I had a very good ear but really must turn it off and just read the music, as Bach would have intended. Kathleen Loughnane, with whom I had a private lesson, choked on her tea when I told her this.)

 My class instructor was the amazing Cormac DeBarra.
Excellent teacher, incredible harpist, all-around delight.

He handled "The United Nations," as our class was known (we came from the US, Ireland, Russia, Holland, Denmark, Canada, Egypt and Italy) with skill and the patience of the saints.

 Afternoons were reserved for large group lessons with other instructors.
This is Paul Dooley, teaching us the oldest harp piece ever written down.
I was in heaven.

And in the evenings there were the concerts. The best Irish traditional musicians flocked to Termonfeckin (yes, that's the name of the town where Harp Camp was held...) to perform for us.

There were harps, of course.

And there were also fiddlers, drummers and pipers (Liam O'Flynn).

Music overload. 100% blissful overload. At night, in my little dorm room, I would put in my earplugs and revel in the silence and let the memory of the music put me to sleep.

And the final treat: the instructors provided us with written scores of the tunes we'd been learning all week!