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A week in a minor key

 

One of the small things I love most about Maine is that in the 70’s billboards were outlawed. There is nothing but green and granite to contemplate when on the roads. It’s so part of the charm of this place and I wish it were in my day to day.

I write this to you from my soul-home in Maine where I can smell the ocean on the air upon wakening.  I await those in my little family who can make it up here for even a day or two in the coming weeks and miss those not joining us this year.  But while I fully sink into life back here where it feels so very familiar, I’ll admit that part of my heart is still under the enchantment of a week of music, magic and mayhem that is the Swannanoa Gathering.  You will know that in year’s past there were much shenanigans (and one year even a wedding!!) amidst the musical goings on.  This year, it seems that while we had an immense amount of belly laughter and all around craic, the music itself took front and center.

The trip down to Swannanoa this year began, blanketed by a low hum  in my heart- consisting of worries Big and small, varying in proximity to me personally.  Some closer to home, some via merely a glance at any news, at any time.  It seems that the world-at-large continues to fly a bit close to the sun, cosmically speaking, and I don’t feel like I am the only one sensing it.  Everyone I know seems to be feeling chaotic and a bit frenetic.  These summers of mine,  so gypsy-like from the outside-looking-in, are my way of assimilating the year past, and of lighting a way forward as the arc of each year moves on into the darker months ahead, to fall and winter.  They are a necessary re-set button and I am glad of it.

My week of workshops in North Carolina last week (was it really just last week?) began Monday morning with classes with the fabulous flute-player and singer, Nuala Kennedy.  You might remember her from her beautiful Behave the Bravest, for which I made the album art.

It was so wonderful to be sitting back again in music class learning a few new tunes.  I have let my Riley School doings fall aside of late as I work to build my art and workshop-offering practice and I have missed it dearly.  Nuala always teaches interesting tunes that strum the heart’s harp-strings and this year was no different.  The first three tunes we learned – a march, a strathspey and a reel were all in the key of B minor.

Now I am no musical theory geek but I know enough to know that the minorish keys tend to be a bit more moody and pensive.  For me at least, this key fit the mood of the early part of the week and we gobbled the beauty of them up in class and in our flutilla-led rehearsal time which we kept each day between classes, open to any of our classmates who could make it.  It is here we made some new friends, which is a bonus each year.

Some days in Nuala’s class we had a special guest, for whom we played a gentle version of our March.

Surely Wee Lochlann is soaking up every note. He’ll be playing circles ’round us in no time, I’m sure of it.

…or who graciously took our class photo.

Thank you Julie Adams for sending this along!

Between classes we practiced more, occasionally napped or snuck in a shower- as camp life can make for late nights and sweaty days.  And by afternoons we found ourselves in the presence of the one and only Kevin Crawford who keeps us on our toes and usually laughing a good bit too throughout the week.

Here Kevin expresses to us that he hopes at least a bit of the tips and tricks of the trade he teaches us will be something we take home and apply to the tunes we already play. Always a challenge. Challenge accepted.

Kevin hears every note.  Good or bad.  Especially if he sits right down in front of you….

And as if the flute weren’t difficult enough, he’s taken to trading instruments with his bandmate Colin Farrell and playing a jig now and again just to get a laugh from his class.  If you are not a musician, you might not realize how hard this is.  These guys make it look simple.

The week wore on and little by little, the key of things changed a bit.  We came fully under the spell of music and the people who make it and there were moments of magic to behold along the way.

One evening a few of the staff snuck away to one of my favorite corners in which to play, the Kittredge breezeway, and had a bit of a session.  Here is just a snippet….

It’s amazing when this happens.  The staff at Swannanoa give their all to this week between teaching and hosting other goings-on, but much like us, sometimes they might simply want to run off and have a tune with old friends.  Sometimes these are situations we students might join in if invited, other times, it’s nice to just sit back and listen awhile.  And so I did.

Yes, that is Grainne Hambly, John Carty and Martin Hayes. Royalty in the Irish music world, really and all around great folks indeed.

This little session was a perfect blend of tunes and song.  All of these artists listening to one another along the way.

Eamon O’Leary and Cathy Jordan take in the tunes along the way.

There was even a bit of step dancing by dance instructor Siobhan Butler to add to the magic of the evening.

Our week at Swannie always seems to fly by but this year it seemed exceptionally quick-paced.  One day it was Monday with the whole week ahead of us, then suddenly, just like that, it was Friday.  But as I look back, there were at least a few shenanigans along the way….

There was a ceili to attend on Tuesday.

And I was sure to catch up with my new flute friend Julie so we could snap a picture of our matching flutilla swag!!

There were late night sessions with loved ones from near and far, and we enjoyed music and many many laughs.

We talked of the importance of being silly together. Why must we be so serious all the time? The world is serious enough as it is. Let us laugh together more often, yes??

By day the skies might open and deliver thunderous rains on occasion, but always the clouds parted, and the sun did shine once more, as it goes in these misty mountains.

Each day we packed in as much music as we could, learning from our teachers.  It was fun to approach tunes we may have heard on recordings and to listen to the nuanced differences in how each player approaches each tune along the way.   The goal is, after all, to take this music into our hearts and make it our own somehow.

Here we were listening to Paddy Keenan play Condon’s Frolics from the album Poirt An Phíobaire. I love how delighted Kevin is when listening to one of his old favorites. He passes this delight on to us along the way. Thank you Kevin!

Many evenings saw us attending concerts where we could watch our instructors do what they do best, which is perform.  These folks are the best at what they do and it’s a true treat to hear them live.  Especially when they gather together and make music perhaps never heard before.

The flutilla force is strong here. For the record, the bodhran player shown here, Matt Olwell, is also an amazing flute player himself. Maybe next year we will add a couple more flutes to this routine….

When our days weren’t too full, and we weren’t too tired, we attended what are called ‘pot-lucks’ where some of the staff shared a topic of their choosing for an hour or so.  I attended one by Cathy Jordan called The Happy Subject of Death.  She and some of her fellow instructors sang murder ballads and other dark songs and there were many tears and a good bit of macabre laughter as well.  This all felt in keeping with the minor key of the week for me and I loved it.  I also attended a chat by Martin Hayes, sometimes referred to as the Buddha of Irish music.  We talked about why we play music.  Some folks look to perform perhaps, others might just want to play along with a recording by themselves or sit in the kitchen over a cuppa having tunes with friends.  There is no wrong way.  But the biggest goal for him, and I must say, for me, is to play with real Joy.

I read this week somewhere that on CNN, someone was quoted as saying,

“Joy is active resistance.”

I believe this to be true and I am holding on to it with all my strength and fortitude.  What else do we have?  It is this joy in the making – of music, of art, of laughter – which gives us the strength to do the hard things along the way in this crazy world.  At least this is how I feel.

As I have stated, Friday came along on the heels of Monday far too quickly for our liking, and suddenly we were rehearsing for the student showcase.  The showcase is a fun evening where we get to play a few new tunes together as a class to our fellow ‘gatherers’ and to hear the work of the other classes as well.

It was a steamy, North Carolina style evening and though we were all feeling sticky, we gathered down at the pavilion for the showcase. The photos that follow are some captures by photographer Tom Crockett who’s brother Tim was in class with us.  He hiked and took pictures out in the mountains most of the week but attended the showcase on Friday and snapped a few photos of the Flutilla. I share them here with you by permission.

In between acts, we shared stories and laughter. Ellen and I have shared so much over these long years at Swannie, we have decided we simply must get together more often. Let the wild rumpus begin, I say!!
Here is Kevin’s flute class playing a set-dance into a Jig. The air was so humid, I am surprised we could even play!
Kevin is one of three of my musical mentors in the flute department. He, and my dear friend Ellen Redman here, have changed and enriched my little life for the better. I am beyond grateful for their teaching and their friendship over the years.
This is a rare capture of myself with my flute instructor John Skelton, whom I work with back in Cincinnati when I can at the Riley School of Irish Music. He too has changed and enriched my life for the better through music and a lot of laughter.
This week Nuala Kennedy taught us a couple of interesting reels and we added some harmonies. This is another week where I learned how to use one of the keys on my flute. Nuala is a brilliant teacher.
How did I get so fortunate to have such amazing, caring teachers to work with???

(Thank you so much Tom for the gorgeous photos!  They are truly treasured.)

And now here we are.  Back in Maine once again, soaking up a bit of the seaside and lake time which we will draw upon time and again in the year ahead.  These weeks of art and music, friendship and fellowship, always set me to thinking about things in a deep way.  They remind me to practice what makes my heart sing.  To play my flute, no matter how clumsy it might feel when not backed up by my flutilla.  To push a paint brush around even when I don’t know where it’s going.

To remember to head out into nature more often, as She is the real conductor of things.

And most importantly, to trust my inner knowing along the way.  A lesson I am trying so hard to take more and more on board.

I love the little boat called Intuition.

If you are reading this and attended the Swannanoa Gathering’s Celtic Week, do leave a comment with your favorite moment(s) of the week.  I’d love to read them!

Til next time….

Sometimes, I day dream of tunes in the pavilion, to the rhythm of tree frogs singing.
If you’re even remotely curious about Irish music, this is a fantastic read