Irish musicians lament how crisis has diluted the personal chemistry of playing music with other musicians

Terry Weir and Emily Peterson (shown last fall) are among the many Boston-area musicians who greatly miss the local Irish session scene, another casualty of the coronavirus shutdown.  Photo by Sara Piazza

There’s definitely a kind of hush all over the world lately – certainly in the Boston area, as far as local Irish musicians are concerned. The coronavirus crisis has shuttered pubs, restaurants, and other public venues, depriving musicians of places to gather for sessions or performances. Stay-at-home and social distancing directives have likewise deterred many private get-togethers. 

While the duration of the crisis is relatively short thus far – going on two months – it has had a profound effect on Boston’s Irish musicians, an unplanned change in the routines through which they incorporate music into their lives. The musicians, of course, are all too aware of the bigger picture: the public health threat, as well as the economic and social impact of COVID-19. For those whose livelihood depends partly or mainly on music, the crisis has been a double whammy, forcing them to forego that which provides enjoyment and helps pay the bills. 

Above all else, many Irish musicians say these past several weeks have affirmed the importance of Irish music’s social component. Practicing more (though always a good idea, they note) or taking part in musical teleconferencing cannot completely compensate for the company of other musicians. Such revelations are by no means unique to local Irish musicians, obviously, but given the breadth and vibrancy of Boston’s Irish music scene, the loss of so many opportunities to be around fellow enthusiasts is particularly difficult to bear.

Martin Butler hasn’t been getting out to sessions as regularly as in past years due to his work schedule, but plays often with musician friends at pub gigs and elsewhere, or just for fun. He’s also been working in recording studios on various projects. At least he was.

“What has struck me most about the inability to do all that is how much I took it for granted,” he says, a sentiment echoed by other Irish musicians. “The old adage that you don’t appreciate something until it’s gone couldn’t be truer.” 

 “For quite some time now, I have realized how fortunate I am to be able to play music for people, and I deeply miss performing and am looking forward to once again experiencing the joy and the sense of purpose this gives me,” says Larry Young, whose income derives to a great extent from playing Irish music. “But what I didn’t realize fully until this crisis was quite how much it means to me to play music with other musicians — how much that chemistry, those interactions, both musical and interpersonal, mean to me. 

“We’re a strange breed, musicians,” he adds. “There’s a feeling of community amongst us: we who, against all common sense, feel called upon to make music in this country where being a musician is neither particularly rewarded nor respected.”

“The biggest thing for me is getting together with friends to play music,” says Robin Kynoch, a self-described “just-for-fun” musician who regularly attends sessions and plays in a couple of bands that perform occasionally. “I miss that connection – the laughs, conversation, snatches of tunes – a great deal. Although you can kind of have the conversation on teleconference platforms like Zoom, I find that it's a little more careful and constraining.  Since you can't hear others, it's like you're playing solo. Not much fun.”

Musicians also view their public gatherings, whether sessions, ceilis or performances, in a larger context. Dan Accardi, for example, regards sessions as “historically the most regular, stable and fulfilling Irish music I play – especially because we get to support a local business as we socialize and play tunes.”  

Similarly, Tara Lynch, who has long been active in the leadership of Boston’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch, says music events enrich all those present, not just those playing the music. “What I realize more and more is how it impacts others: those who come to events to listen or dance. How important it is to have that experience opportunity live and in person. A smartphone or YouTube video can be helpful, but can’t replace physical closeness.” 


On the home front

Many of the Irish musicians have been working from home – or not working at all – since the coronavirus crisis boiled over, often resulting in the promise of extra hours during the day that, theoretically, could be applied to music: rehearsing more, or listening to recordings (another important part of being a musician). The proliferation of livestream and teleconferencing technology, such as through Facebook, Skype and Zoom, offers another means to listen to, or even engage in, musical activities while at home. 

Kynoch, who plays whistle and accordion, feels she’s been productive: “I'm actually practicing a whole lot more. My ‘tunes-to-learn’ list is huge, and I'm working hard. Before the quarantine, I considered playing in public my practice time. Now I'm realizing how important practicing for practice's sake is.”

Young is pleased with the extra attention he’s giving to his guitar playing, even as he’s been able to refine his fiddle technique. “I’ve deconstructed the motions that go into bowing and am discovering places that I’ve held extra tension for years without really being fully conscious of it.” 

Rosanne Santucci has not only been practicing, but also recording herself: “I absolutely hate doing it, but it does make me more aware of what I need to work on.” She and her friends and acquaintances have been sharing “quarantunes” with one another to ensure they have an ongoing creative outlet. In addition, Santucci has set aside quality listening time: “I've bought a ton of new albums, which I've been enjoying on my daily walks.”

Laurel Martin typically performs in small venues around New England but also devotes a lot of time to teaching. She’s had an education herself of late, learning to use Zoom and Facetime (“Something I swore I would never do!”) to give lessons. 

“I love all my students and look forward to seeing them each week, even though it is only on the screen,” she says. “It's really heartening to stay connected with them, and although I am not generally a great fan of modern technology, I am so very grateful for it now.” 

Not everything has worked out. The apparent surplus of time can vanish in unforeseen tasks and other demands. Technology doesn’t always function satisfactorily. And there are times when the emotional and spiritual enormity of the coronavirus crisis simply overshadows everything else.

Torrin Ryan has never been particularly interested in livestreaming or teleconferencing, and he’s found it difficult to focus on actively listening to music: “Too many virus-related stresses and distractions,” he explains. “I've been mostly doing busywork such as getting tunes from my head onto paper for reference purposes and also making set lists for future projects. I'll hopefully have a lot of musical content ready to go once things get closer to normal.”

Emily Peterson has given livestream/teleconferencing a try – she hosted a virtual session once – but finds that, ultimately, it just doesn’t suit her needs or preferences. 

“Music and sessions are a very social activity for me, and I don't mean talking to people. My playing style is very responsive, as opposed to leading. My best playing is when I'm matching to what someone else is playing, and most importantly how they're playing it; and the most rewarding playing is when they're also responding to me. That's something that you just can't get without being in the same space.”

Accardi agrees. “There are no good online alternatives to playing a live session. There's no real opportunity for musical feedback; you lack the real-time responsiveness no matter what solution you choose.”

Musing about the music

The COVID-19 interregnum has prompted some musicians to do a bit of soul-searching, and even confront heretofore unexplored or complicated feelings, about the nature of their relationship with Irish music. 

Multi-instrumentalist and singer Terry Weir, although he has a full-time job, has been active on many fronts in the Irish music scene; being away from it all has him thinking about which parts suit him best. “Irish music has everything from the corner ‘trad’ session with a drum and whistle to The Dropkick Murphys to a crooner singing ‘Danny Boy.’ My heart is in the small traditional session setting, but I am involved in the electric gig world of balladeers that mix up instrumentals between songs. So I'm questioning where my position is in that spectrum. 

“Meanwhile, I'm realizing I'm fortunate in that I have a day job and those musicians who rely on music only are struggling. So I'm grateful that I have choices and options.”

Lindsay Straw, a vocalist who plays guitar and bouzouki, moved to Boston well over a decade ago and quickly became involved as a performer and session musician. In recent years, however, she’s started exploring other kinds of music and considers herself to be more “on the fringes” of the Irish/Celtic scene nowadays. With little to no gigs of late and for the foreseeable future, she’s been focusing on projects and activities related to this new direction.

“Over the years I’ve relied pretty heavily on traditional music to be my voice as a performer, and I’ve been struggling to get past that for a while,” says Straw, who continues to co-lead the Celtic Ensemble class at the Club Passim School of Music “As stressful as this experience is, it’s a great time to make a major shift. Irish/Celtic music will always be a huge influence, but I’d like to shed the ‘ballad singer and occasional backer’ reputation I’ve built in favor of one more based around original music and improv.”

Accardi, who co-leads the Celtic Ensemble with Straw, has been reflecting the last few months on the more interpersonal aspects of being an Irish musician, specifically about spending more time with his music friends outside the context of sessions and other music-related activities. Not being able to play music or socialize with others because of the shutdown has served to push those ruminations to the forefront of his mind.

“These circumstances haven't prompted a reappraisal of music in life,” Accardi explains, “they've just reiterated the conclusions I'd already come to, and renewed my desire to approach my personal relationships more deliberately. 

“I'd love to get out and play tunes,” he adds, “but I want to hug all the musicians first.”

Back to “normal”

Musically inclined or not, Greater Boston residents – like people most everywhere – contemplate the eventual easing of the crisis to a point where former routines of daily life can resume on some basis. For Irish musicians, it’s enjoyable to envision this return to normalcy marked by a gigantic, raucous celebratory pub session, or a low-key evening at home with a few musical friends.  

But “normalcy” may be elusive, or significantly different than what it was, they acknowledge. What will Boston’s Irish music landscape look like? Will there still be a variety of places where people go to play, or listen to, the music? Will Irish musicians be able to make a living as performers and teachers, or will they have to cut back so they can work at other jobs? Even the anticipation of once again going to a session, concert, or other gathering is tempered by the likelihood of more restrictive social etiquette: Will I be able to hug and kiss my friends, or even just shake hands with them?

For all that, musicians say they look forward to sharing tunes and songs with friends and acquaintances again – and their statements to that effect tend to have a noticeably similar quality.

• “I've been reevaluating what the social aspects of the music mean to me, and have perhaps discovered that I have been taking parts of it for granted,” says Ryan.

• “I will never take playing with my friends for granted again!” says Santucci. “I miss them terribly.”

• “Being able to go out and play music will certainly be something I will more consciously celebrate, as it is truly a blessing not to be taken for granted,” says Lynch.

• “I have been spending a lot more time thinking about all the things I took for granted: going to a bar to see your friends bar perform live; going to someone’s house to play; doing occasional gigs myself with friends,” says Butler. “If there was a revelation in there, I think it would definitely be ‘Get out there and do what you love more often because you don’t know when it’s going to come to a grinding halt.’”