BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
It seemed like most any typical all-ages holiday gathering, and in many ways, it was.
A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the living room, right by the entry to the dining room. Christmas decorations graced the fireplace mantel and other parts of the house, and an assortment of various treats, including Christmas cookies, was laid out on the dining room table.
Adults loitered in the kitchen, sampling a festive cup of punch, while young children darted hither and yon, upstairs and down, and, when prompted, occasionally out the door to play in the front yard; older children clustered in pairs and trios, pausing every so often to check, or send, text messages.
Then, a few of the children brought forth instrument cases, pulled out fiddles and flutes, and joined by a couple of adults likewise bearing instruments, settled into chairs set up to form a circle in the dining room. After five (maybe 10) minutes of tuning and chatting, the musicians started up a set of Irish reels.
As the tunes flowed, in the adjacent living room Irish dance teacher Jaclyn O’Riley led a trio of girls – sisters Elizabeth (10 years old) and Mary (8) Kozachek, and 7-year-old Nora Rotti -- through various sequences of steps and figures, encouraging each one to do a short solo and then joining in with them to keep the pace going.
Finally, O’Riley and the girls entered the dining room, and after some brief consultations, they danced a hornpipe to the accompaniment of the musicians. The final notes sounded, and there was a smattering of applause from onlookers as the musicians sat back in their chairs and the dancers paused to take a breather. The Christmas party had turned into a session.
This tableau, which unfolded on a Sunday afternoon two weeks before Christmas in the Melrose home of John and Lisa Coyne, has, of course, been repeated countless times over the years anywhere a community of Irish musicians and dancers has existed. And it’s the kind of experience the Coynes and their fellow adult co-organizers hope to recreate for the youngsters on a regular basis.
Lisa, who along with husband John is a much-appreciated mainstay of the area Irish music scene, teaches in the music school run by the area’s Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Hanafin-Cooley branch. Over the past year or so, she and other Comhaltas teachers and parents began holding house party sessions for the more youthful students, to enlarge the kids’ appreciation of Irish music, and make it fun in the bargain.
“We wanted the kids to see that there’s more to Irish music than the routine of practice and lessons, practice and lessons, week in and week out,” explains Lisa, who plays flute and whistle. “There is a social component to this music: You share it with other people, just for the enjoyment of being together, and sometimes you even find yourself learning things.”
To enhance the sessions, O’Riley began bringing over her younger Irish dance students. “We thought it would be great for the kids to get used to playing for dancers; you have to keep the rhythm and tempo constant, so it’s very good discipline,” says Lisa. “And they really see the connection between music and dance, which is so important. It also helps expand the community, by putting kids and families in touch with others who have similar interests.”
In an earlier age, when the world seemed a smaller place, gatherings like these seemed to happen of their own accord; the only question to be settled was in whose kitchen or parlor the neighborhood would gather. It’s different now, obviously, and phone calls and e-mails are necessary to organize such events, given that some guests have to travel considerable distances. All of which, says Lisa, make the sessions that much more valuable to the young musicians.
“They usually don’t have the kind of ‘session culture’ that adult Irish musicians do, where there is a group of friends and acquaintances you see and interact with regularly as you play the music. So it takes some planning and management, but the kids get to see what sessions are all about.”
Last month’s Christmas party session (which also was held to mark the end of the music school’s fall semester) included 17-year-old flutist Pegeen Kerr from Northbridge and a pair of fiddlers, 10-year-old Maeve O’Brien of Brighton and the Coynes’ daughter Josie, who at 12 already has the demeanor of a seasoned sessioneer. Lisa, John, and the other adult participants made a point of deferring to the girls for suggestions of tunes to play, even if a little nudging was needed (“’Sailor on the Rock?’” ventured Lisa during one discussion, naming a reel that is popular in session circles. “You all know that pretty well, right?”) As the musicians settled into playing, they displayed that interactive non-verbal language typical of sessions: making eye contact to presage the transition to the next tune; arching an eyebrow or leaning slightly toward one another in anticipation of a tricky passage; exchanging smiles or winks as they near the end.
Maeve’s mother Mary is happy to see her daughter, still relatively new to playing fiddle, enrich her involvement in Irish music, a legacy from the family of Colm O’Brien, Maeve’s Antrim-born father. “This is a great way for her to experience a different environment for the music, one that’s informal and relaxed. She loves playing the sessions.”
Michael, Pegeen’s father, has been active in traditional music himself, although he has leaned more to the Scottish and Cape Breton side. He’s similarly enthused by the regular gatherings. “We signed up Pegeen, and our son Alex [who’s learning fiddle], for the school because of Comhaltas’s reputation for being able to work with kids in different age levels,” he says. “The sessions are such a terrific idea. They get to play not only with experienced adults, but with musicians closer to their age, and it adds a lot to their understanding of the music.”
O’Riley feels sessions are important for the young dancers, too. Her classes are for non-competitive Irish dance, but because of her students’ ages and the lack of dance events for them, most of their dancing takes place within the four walls of a studio. “This gathering was a great chance to show them that Irish dance and music is a living, breathing tradition, and that it happens in houses, parties, dance halls, et cetera with family and friends. Also, I think dancing to live music played by their peers brought home the sense that this is a community, and that they are a part of it. There was a really joyful air around the whole experience, and along with steps, this is what I am trying to give to my dancers.”
The afternoon wore on, some guests departed, and new arrivals took their places, and the cast of musicians changed slightly. But as the early-winter sun edged toward the horizon, the tunes continued to resound while shadows gradually coalesced in the Coynes’ dining room, adults and children both enjoying this musical Christmas treat.