Monday, March 24, 2014

Interview: John Whelan

John Whelan was raised on Irish fiddle and pipe music in Dunstable, England, the home of a large Irish community. John started playing the accordion at the age of eleven. His father, a musician, had chosen the instrument for him. He studied under teacher,  Brendan Mulchaire, a well known fiddle player, and was strongly influenced by musicians Joe Burke and Paddy O’ Brien. 

In 1971 he won his first All Ireland title playing The Cuckoo Hornpipe and The Concert Reel. Having won numerous accordion championships by the age of 14, John recorded his first album, Pride of Wexford, in honor of his father, which is still in print. 

John began performing professionally at the age of twelve. For his first gig, he played a few sets at a fundraiser, earning twelve pounds. He eventually immigrated to America, where he has enjoyed a successful courier with many best selling album releases and concert tours.

While interviewing John, I was curious to know what his most memorable performances were. Good and Bad. “I played at the Fleadh in Enniscrthy,”  John says, “It was an overseas concert and there were over one thousand people. Both my father and grandfather were there listening to me perform.” 

Family values are important to him, and may have influenced his decision to actually walk out on a gig.
“My most awkward gig experience was in New Jersey,” John explained. “My friend set up a gig at a pub in either 1983 or 1984. It was a biker bar. I walked in and set up to play and lasted about 15 minutes before walking out because the environment did not feel safe.”

John Whelan believes that to be a successful musician, you must have musical integrity, professional integrity and respect for your audiences. Also, you have to like what you are doing. Whether you have thousands of people or five people as an audience, you still play the same show and enjoy it just as much.
I asked him, “If you could bring one musician back from the dead to play one set of tunes, who would it be and why?” After taking a few seconds, thinking of an answer, John responded, “Joe Cooley.” 

Joe Cooley was a powerful influence on Irish accordion music in the 20th century. “I met him when I was 13, right before he passed away,” said John. “I never really got to play with him.”

I always enjoy playing tunes with John, whether we are at a gig, session or even a diner! Here's a video of John and I performing at the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival in 2012 and another of us performing with Paddy Keenan at Carrefour Mondial de l'accordeon in Montmagny, CA last summer.

He is a very fun person to be around and has amazing talent on the accordion.

John currently tours with the John Whelan Band plus solo performances. For more about John, his life and music, including tour dates, visit his website:

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Night with The Chieftains

Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to play with the Chieftains at a local venue. I have played with them twice before and always have tons of fun when I do! 

The Chieftains are a group of legendary Irish musicians who have been performing together for over fifty years, preserving traditional Irish music while putting their own twist on it. They have recorded many CDs on their own and also collaborated with other artists such as The Corrs, Sting, Mick Jagger, Ricky Skaggs and The Rolling Stones. In addition, they have been awarded many Grammys.

When I was eight years old, my good friend Paraic Keane (son to a former member of The Chieftains, Sean Keane) asked me if I wanted to perform with The Chieftains. I wanted to very badly, of course. The first time I performed with them we played at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. They invited me on stage to play in their finale and do so every time I play with them. The second time I was on stage with them was at The Kimmel Center in Pennsylvania. But, this most recent time I played with them, we performed at a school about twenty to thirty minutes away from my house.

Before the show, I spent almost half of the day at my brother’s wrestling tournament. He took second place, which means he qualified for the State tournament. After the match, my mom and I rushed out to the car to drive to the gig. 

Once we arrived at the venue we met up with Paraic and tried to find the band. We first asked an elderly lady working at the concession stand if she knew where the band was. She told us they were in the library, so we walked down the hallway towards the library to check. No one was there except for a stuffed, life-sized doll sitting in a chair. Eventually, we found the man who was running the gig. He was very friendly and led us through different winding hallways until we came to a cafeteria where we found one of the special guests for the concert who helped us find the band. Once we found them, we talked for a while until showtime. 

The show included, not only The Chieftains, but special guest dancers and singers. It was amazing to listen to all the wonderful music! It was so enjoyable and got our feet tapping in no time at all. My mom, Paraic, and I listened from the side of the stage, which was a little odd at times because we couldn't see all of the performers together. We moved from curtain to curtain to see who was playing. 

As Paddy Moloney announced the final set, Paraic, who also plays the fiddle, and I, walked onto the stage and took our places under our microphones. The final set consisted of one tune called Drowsy Maggie. We all play together with solos in between. Everyone played either one tune two times through or two tunes one time through. I played one tune, a hornpipe called The High Level. It is a quite difficult tune in the key of B flat. One of the parts goes really fast! 

It was a fun tune to play and the crowd clapped and cheered as I finished. We all walked off stage after the set was over, and since they were getting a standing ovation, the band members walked back onstage to perform their encore, the An Droh. An Droh is a line dance where a line of dancers snake through the crowd picking up new dancers from the audience then eventually make their way back up to dance around the stage. The Chieftains' dancer took my hand so I was second in the dance line.

After the show, we talked more and took some pictures. It was a very merry night!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Violin and Viola Mutes for Sale!

QUESTION: When does a mute shout out loud with color and sparkle?

ANSWER: When I make them to do so, of course!

As a musician, I sometimes have to use a mute, a tool that is affixed to the strings, on the bridge of various stringed instruments to quiet or "mute" the sound. I might use one on my violin for a certain orchestra piece, or just to practice so that my family can do their activities around the house in a more quiet atmosphere.

Cobalt Blue Mute 

Multicolored Mute

Eight months ago I started making glitter and glitter rhinestone mutes for the violin as well as viola. Not many people know that I make them in my free time, so I thought it would be a good topic for a post.  I make them in different colors:

  • light green
  • grass green
  • hunter green
  • cobalt blue
  • aqua blue
  • ocean blue
  • dark/sea blue
  • electric blue
  • teal
  • periwinkle
  • dark purple
  • violet
  • fuchsia 
  • baby pink
  • cherry red
  • carrot
  • copper
  • gold
  • rose gold
  • frostbite silver 
  • multicolored
  • black and gold mix*
  • gold*

* = chunk glitter
All other glitters that don't have "*" next to them, are superfine glitters.

If requested, I make them with rhinestones lined up on the top.

Cherry Red with Silver Rhinestones Mute

For rhinestones, I am working with the colors, Pink, Silver, Red, Yellow, Green, Teal and Blue. More colors are available upon request.

In addition to being a musician, I also enjoy crafting visual art. Making my Bling for String Mute Designs is a way to bring my music and crafting together. If you are interested in purchasing one of my mute designs I invite you to visit my Bling for Strings Store for more information and pricing.