Yesterday I looked through old recordings on my phone, because my husband asked me about recordings I’ve done of a friend of ours, a fellow mandolin player. But what I also found was a quite substantial number of recordings from county Clare, made during the first week of March 2020.
Ireland is full of music and brilliant musicians, but I think most people will agree that county Clare is THE home of traditional Irish music. It’s a region that just bubbles of musical activity. Every household seems to be full of musical instruments and brilliant people who play them, and in normal times there are loads of festivals, sessions and workshops to attend.
Before the pandemic hit, I had the privilege to attend Noel Hill’s Irish concertina school in Ballyvaughan. Oh my goodness, people, such lovely memories!
I bought my first concertina in 2005, and my first anglo (Irish style) concertina in Cork 2008. It took me a long time to start playing it, and actually it was a wrist injury that made me really start working on it. We had moved into a new house in Sweden, and after some major drainage work around the house foundation, we had to rebuild the entire garden. I didn’t realise my physical limitations and acquired a strain injury in form of tennis elbow as well as carpal tunnel syndrome AND cubital tunnel syndrome.
At that time I mainly played the mandolin and some guitar, but I was unable to play stringed instruments for a very long time. A very interesting coincidence was that at the same time I came to know a lady who was learning to play the concertina. So I took up mine and started practicing, because the concertina was the only instrument that didn’t cause me pain or risked to worsen my injury. I learned some waltzes and later some simple hornpipes.
This was in 2012, and it’s been since then that I’ve wanted to attend the Noel Hill week, but couldn’t do it because of money or work. But in August 2019 when we had moved to Ireland, an American tourist showed up at our Tuesday session with an English concertina. She’s from California and was over in holidays for a couple of weeks. We became good friends. She’s a fabulous, cool and funny person, and while she was here she bought an anglo concertina. Later that autumn she e-mailed me and told me she was going to the Noel Hill workshop, and quite soon I thought that “Why don’t I go too? Clare is just a bus trip away!”. So I decided to go.
My friend from California, Carol, (who, by the way, is a brilliant cartoonist) and I shared a cottage, large enough for two families. But we soon realised it was a perfect fit because we needed the extra space to sit in different rooms and practice.
The cottage had a leaky roof and we had to use all our towels to save the kitchen table from the rain. But we had such good times in that cottage. Our neighbour was also a concertina player, and he was there with his wife and another lady – all of them lovely people.
The Noel Hill concertina school is truly a fabulous week, but if I had known beforehand what it would be like, I would have left my camera gear at home and stuffed my backpack with woollen jumpers. The workshop took place just after a bad storm, parts of Ireland were flooded and we had 2-3 degrees most days. I didn’t bring any heavy jumpers because I thought the weather would improve. It couldn’t possibly be so cold more than a day, in Ireland? Well I was wrong, and I wasn’t truly comfortable until Carol and I had visited Doolin and bought Aran knitwear (of which I did NOT need more!). Still, the week was fabulous.
This workshop is hard work. You think you’ll travel around Clare between classes and take pretty photos? Forget it. No, this is intense music training, and you have no time for anything else – although most people take some time to go to the pub in the evenings.
But this is a good thing. You’ll learn a lot. You will learn new tunes, ornaments, general concertina technique, and history behind certain tunes. Noel has an enormous knowledge about tunes and musicians, and will happily share some of it, which I really enjoyed. You will also meet new people and have lots of fun.
Expect to have two classes per day, and between those you’ll practice to prepare for the next lesson, because then you’re expected to be able to play the previous lesson’s tune, in some form. Note that you’re not supposed to be brilliant – only play through the tune at your level and show you’ve worked on it. I learned A LOT from this, and the number one thing I learned was how much I can learn in a short time if I set my mind to it and really take the time to practice.
You may think it sounds intimidating to play a new tune for the group and teacher, just a few hours after it was introduced to you. But it isn’t intimidating at all (this probably depends on your personality, though). The purpose is, as I interpreted the situation, to show the teacher what you struggle with so that he can help. I found this very helpful and very encouraging too.
I had never really played ornaments on the concertina but after this week I played grace notes with ease, and even simple rolls mostly without problems. I also had a good number of tunes, a new good fingering pattern (if it works for Noel Hill, well then why not give it a try?), and of course lots of nice memories.
This workshop takes place the same week as a trad music festival in a nearby village, Corofin. We went there three evenings for concerts. Every concert featured several different musicians and bands. Noel Hill did one with the fiddler Liam O’Connor, and we saw several other great musicians during these days.
While we were enjoying ourselves in Ballyvaughan and Corofin, cases of Covid-19 were found in Dublin but also in Ennistymon, just a mile away from us, where a group of kids had come back after a skiing trip in Italy.
I came back home on the 8th of March, and a week after that, the Covid situation was a lot worse. St Patrick’s day celebrations were cancelled, pubs were closed and shortly after that we were in full lockdown.
During the first wave of the pandemic, I was in total chaos. It was a new situation and everything was scary. In addition, my stepfather was in hospital in Sweden and was very sick. I was in pieces, but discovered that playing music helped to keep anxiety levels down. Back then I used the guitar mainly to back my own singing, and it was very connected with pub sessions so I had no motivation whatsoever to play it. But I had all the tunes and techniques from the Noel Hill workshop, and practicing the concertina was very soothing. I played for hours every day and actually learned the tunes ok. Now, in the third wave which is the worst that we’ve had, I’m taking up the concertina again after having focused on the guitar for a while.
I felt – and still feel – extremely fortunate that the workshop could happen. The sweet memories of the workshop week and the people there have kept me going for a long time and during the spring I learned how to use music to keep my mind busy and my thoughts off the bad things. Most of all I’m very thankful to have been at the workshop, to have met Noel and had lessons from him, and I’m really looking forward to going back. Everything is still obviously very uncertain but we do hope there will be a Noel Hill workshop in 2022. Only time will tell, but hope is powerful and will keep me motivated and inspired.
Have you never heard of Noel Hill? Too bad. Watch this video immediately.
And if you know nothing about concertinas, watch this space.
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